Warning: This interview for the “The Principle of Restricted Choice” episode of Fargo contains storyline and character spoilers.
Last week, she helped flatten a dude with an air conditioner to the noggin. This week, she exacted revenge on a pair of dudes with her ingenuity… and feminine hygiene product. And that’s just the beginning of why we love Nikki Swango, Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s bridge-playing, parole officer-loving badass who’s stealing the whole third season of Fargo.
Yahoo TV talked to Winstead about the deliciousness of being Swango, including why she embraced playing a sexy character for the first time; why Nikki genuinely loves her sometimes hapless boyfriend, Ray; why that scene — getting revenge on Ray’s brother, Emmit — was so fun to play out; and how no one on the Fargo set can resist the allure of the name Swango.
I love this character so much. I don’t care what she does the rest of the season, Nikki Swango has to come out on top at the end of Season 3.
Oh, that’s very sweet. I love her, too. She’s been so much fun to play. I’m trying not to get totally depressed with the prospect of the season being almost over for us, in terms of shooting, because I’ve become very attached to her as a character.
What is it that you love most about playing her?
She’s just so much fun. I think [series creator Noah Hawley’s] dialogue is so much fun to say. She’s probably the sexiest character that I’ve ever played, and I’ve kind of avoided characters like that for awhile. I think there’s something about Nikki Swango that helps me really get into my sexy period. I’m really enjoying it.
Why did you avoid playing that kind of character?
Well, I think when I started so young and when I got into my early 20s, the sexy roles were starting to be really pushed on me in a way that was uncomfortable, so I sort of went in the opposite direction. I tried to find roles where I was either, you know, older or frumpier or something, to really go in that direction… just because I didn’t want that to be a focus. I think maybe I just felt like I had other things I needed to work on before I could focus on that. Now it’s just fun because I have so much confidence in myself as an actor and in all the other things I bring to the table… I feel like I can use that as just one more, you know, kind of weapon in the arsenal. I don’t feel uncomfortable with it anymore.
Especially with this character, it is one of many things she has going for her. Right down to the name. It is such a Fargo name. And it’s such a cool sound… “Swango” should be a verb, a noun, an adjective…
[Laughs.] Yeah, it sort of turned into that on set, as we’ve just started saying “Swango” all the time. You know, like, “Oh, yeah, that’s her Swango,” or “The Swang in her go”… it’s really become kind of a descriptive term.
I think we need Nikki Swango dolls, some Swango T-shirts. It’s just too good.
I’d love that. That would be amazing.
How did the role come about for you?
I’ve kind of been in touch with Noah over the past couple of years. We’ve talked about roles in other seasons, and schedules just never lined up. You know, I think we’ve always just sort of had a mutual fandom for each other. Certainly after I saw the first couple of seasons, I was dying to be a part of it. When he called and asked if I was available [for Season 3], I said, “Yes,” without hesitation. I didn’t ask what the role was, or what the story was, or anything. I totally jumped right in. It was probably the first and only time I’ve ever done that, where I’ve just said yes to something without even reading it because I just had so much trust that whatever the role was, it was going to be so layered and exciting and fun to do. I had no doubts, especially as a female character, that he would bring so much to it, because of what he had done in the past two seasons.
And was Nikki even beyond your expectations of what your character would be?
It was so not what I was expecting. It was such an exciting surprise. I thought that I would be playing a really polite housewife or something. I never expected that I’d be on Fargo playing this brash, sexy Fargo universe of a femme fatale. It’s been so much fun and beyond anything that I could have imagined. At first glance, I thought, “Really? He wants me to play this part? Am I really this girl?” Then once I got into it, I was like, “Oh, yeah. I am this girl!” I’m actually really comfortable with this, just having the time of my life.
Nikki also has an uncharacteristically great wardrobe for Fargo. You are wearing some great jackets.
Yeah, it’s pretty amazing. I mean, and it’s so easy. Every time I have a fitting with Carol [Case], that’s our costume designer, we hardly try anything on. We’re always on the same page. She just gets it and each time, it’s an amazing look that she just sort of throws together. You know? There’s just so many talented people on this series. It’s really been a joy.
Nikki really is kick-ass all around, and her affection for Ray seems completely genuine. She shows him a respect that you get the feeling no one else maybe ever has. What is the attraction to Ray?
I think they really balance each other out and give each other a lot of what the other one needs. I don’t necessarily know that it’s the healthiest relationship in the world… maybe it’s a little bit co-dependent. You know, she likes having someone that will hang on to her every word, and do what she says, and take her advice. He likes having someone who makes him feel better about himself as a man. He feels like he’s got this girl on his arm that he just worships, and that gets him what he needs. I think they really feed off one another’s energy in that way. Whether it’s healthy or right, it works for them. The love is totally real, because, you know, they just work together. They’re a team. Like Nikki says, they’re “simpatico.”
She is very patient with him, too, which no one else is. Not his brother, certainly, as we see especially in this week’s episode with the diner meeting, not Sy. But Nikki is, even after he botches the stamp plan with Maurice.
Yes. She never blames him for anything. She’s really always trying to push him forward. I think there is a little bit in her that’s, you know, that girl that’s always trying to mold their boyfriend into the man they want them to be. But she does it in such a sweet way, and a way that’s kind of all about positivity, and going toward your best self and all of those things that I think are unexpected for a girl like her, an ex-con and all that. She has such a positive world view. She really, I think, brings Ray in on that and encourages him in so many ways. It makes him feel good about himself, and it makes her feel good about herself, that she has someone she can do that for.
It seems obvious that she’s very self-made, that she has created this, as you said, very positive outlook for herself. Do we think she’s maybe read a lot of self-help books, done a lot of specific things like that to improve her possibilities for herself?
Yeah, I think so. You know, she’s one of those people who probably would have read The Secret, and really takes it to heart, and she’s all about visualizing her future. I think the fact that she’s a competitive bridge player really just speaks to who she is. She’s just a strategist in every way, but the most optimistic strategist. She really believes that in the game of life, she’s going to figure it out, and she’s going to win, and Ray’s going to be on that ride with her. She’s constantly thinking and moving and doing, which is part of what makes her so fun to play.
How much will we get into her background, her criminal past, where she comes from?
Not that much, really. I mean, you learn a little bit about, sort of, you know, what she originally went to jail for and things like that. For the most part, it’s once you’re on the ride, you’re on the ride, and there is not much looking back. She just is who she is, which is kind of great. I kind of love this, from the outside. You just sort of accept it… she’s an ex-con, she’s not from around those parts, exactly. Noah had suggested at the beginning that she’s from Chicago, so she’s a bit of a grifter, she’s not Minnesota-nice, she doesn’t quite fit in. I think most of the things about her sort of are apparent in that way. That’s why I really didn’t need to get that much information on backstory from Noah because I thought she was just so alive on the page. It was just so easy to play her, which is like, God, it’s just such a gift as an actor, when you don’t have to really sit and go, “OK, how am I going to make this feel real? I’ve got to spend hours figuring out who this person is.” I just sort of knew who she was, I think, once we started doing it, which was such a good feeling.
Do you play bridge? Or did you learn to play bridge for the show?
I certainly tried to learn how to play bridge. It’s the most complicated game I’ve ever heard of. I mean, it is so beyond my mental level. It really taught me a lot about how smart Nikki is because I don’t know how long it would take me to actually learn that game. Probably years to master it. Well, no, I’d never master it, but to even begin to really properly play it, I think it would take me years to figure it out. Ewan [McGregor] and I went to a couple of private lessons, and then we went to a bridge tournament, as well. After the private lessons, I think we both realized that we weren’t going to actually know what we were doing, so we might as well just go watch other people play and then figure out how to act like we know what we’re doing. That became our tactic in the end.
Speaking of Ewan, most of your scenes are with Ray, and it’s such a different character, physical, everything, obviously, from Emmit, so was it weird for you to then see him as this other character?
It was. I started to see Ewan and Ray as sort of interchangeable, as if they were the same person, you know? Ray obviously looks very different than Ewan does out of makeup and everything, but anytime I see Ewan as Emmit, it’s like a totally different person, a different actor. It’s like having a different actor on set. It’s not him at all to me, which speaks so much to his talent, that he can sort of step into someone else’s clothes and hairstyle and have a totally new spirit about him. It’s really an amazing thing to watch.
You had a huge ending in the season premiere with the air conditioner death of Maurice. Then in episode 2, when Nikki thinks it’s a blood feud that is blocking Ray’s chi, she kind of fights blood with, literally, blood — a used tampon. Describe acting out that office season. How did you even approach it?
It was a lot of fun. When I read it, I sort of, you know… I laughed out loud. I just thought, “Oh, my God. This woman is amazing.” I fell even more in love with her character. I was so excited to be playing her because what a badass move that is, I think. Really, just in your face. I loved it. It was such a fun scene to play. I get to do the cat burglar thing and have the lock picks out and all that, and get to play with all the emotions of her realizing what she thinks is going on and becoming so angry about it. Of course, it’s a misunderstanding, as things often are in the Fargo universe. I love that. I love when characters think one thing is happening and then completely go full-bore in the direction of making this decision that’s based on something that’s not really true. That’s one of the things I loved most about that scene.
You recently Instagrammed a large bruise on your leg. Is that Swango related?
It is Swango related, which is all I will say, because, I mean, I would hate to give anything away that’s coming up in this season. But shit gets crazy, I’ll tell you that. It gets crazy.
I love that. It gets Swango.
Yes, it gets real Swango.
Fargo airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.
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