Fargo is back — same as it never was. As always, FX’s finely crafted anthology series features an entirely new cast, this one headed by Ewan McGregor as two brothers on strikingly different career paths. Season 3 also features a new villain (David Thewlis), a new deadpan police chief (The Leftovers‘ Carrie Coons) — and a new decade: 2010. Only one thing remains the same about the Emmy-winning drama, says creator and resident mastermind Noah Hawley: “At its core, Fargo is about the things that people do for money.”
This season focuses on the rivalry between the Stussy brothers, Ray (McGregor in a fat suit) and Emmit (McGregor in Spanx), siblings who have drawn drastically different straws in life. Brown-eyed Emmit, the Parking Lot King of Minnesota, is rich. He lives in a mansion with an 8-foot-high stuffed bear in the foyer and walls decorated with framed newspaper articles heralding his many community achievements. Blue-eyed Ray, meanwhile, is paunchy, sports a bad mullet (which may or may not have been inspired by wrestler Jesse Ventura) and lives in a dark, narrow, windowless apartment. Everything that could have gone wrong for Ray has — until one day, when into his life comes Nikki Swango (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a parolee with a talent for competitive bridge who loves Ray and has a plan to help him get back a valuable stamp that Emmit may have tricked Ray into giving him years ago.
“It’s an amazing challenge,” says McGregor, during a break from shooting on the show’s Calgary, Alberta, set. “I felt like the challenge of playing two people and trying to make them believable would be hard — and it has been.” Fargo EP Warren Littlefield jokes, “We just have no ability to do something simple. We always find a crazy mountain to climb every year and so [Ewan’s double roles are] this year’s mountain.” The double gig requires lengthy stays in the makeup trailer (two hours to become Ray, an hour to become Emmit), double the shooting time (McGregor acts with a stand-in during scenes between the brothers), and mastering two different Midwestern accents. “Every region has its white collar sound and its blue collar sound,” explains McGregor’s vocal coach, Tony Alcantar.
The actor underwent a real-life physical transformation as well: For Ray’s bathtub scene in Episode 1, McGregor acquired an actual paunch by eating like a normal Minnesotan from October to January (think: french fries with just about everything). He didn’t keep count of the extra pounds but added three inches to his jean size — then slipped into Spanx to play the notably trimmer Emmit in the same episode. He’s since lost Ray’s Episode 1 weight — he now wears a fat suit — but stuck to the Spanx for Emmit. “The Spanx started out as a way to compress my fat stomach,” explains the actor, “but then I just kept [wearing] it, because it feels like Emmit now.”
McGregor’s “inherent charm” was key to making both brothers likable, says Hawley, especially as viewers are never really supposed to know which one of them is in the right. “I’m not trying to say one brother is good and the other’s bad,” says Hawley. “No one is 100 percent right, no one is 100 percent wrong — but it helps, over time, to really humanize the really successful brother, and Ewan is perfect for that. He has a kind of natural quality of someone who doesn’t give up.”
Ray’s mission to get back the possibly purloined stamp will eventually lead him to cross paths with Eden Valley’s unflappable police chief Gloria Burgle, played by Carrie Coon. The actress grew up in small-town Ohio, so she didn’t have to look far to find inspiration for her level-headed character. “My parents are the epitome of Midwest practicality, in a wonderful way,” she says. “My people are stoic. They don’t indulge in complaint or their own problems. A lot of these [emotional] limitations that Gloria has, I relate to,” adds the actress. “And her observations about her community at large and how technology is impacting that connectivity is something I can totally relate to, very personally.”
As Hawley began writing Season 3 in 2016, his plan was to “deconstruct” the (false) disclaimer that appeared at the beginning of the movie and now every episode of the series: This is a true story. “It’s a lie, of course,” Hawley says. “The movie wasn’t a true story and the show isn’t a true story. It’s all made up. Just that phrase, true story, is interesting to me,” he continues, “because obviously a story is a story and the truth is the truth — at least it used to be.” Yes, along came the 2016 election cycle, and fake news, and suddenly no one could agree on what was true anymore. “I started writing without really knowing it was going to end up being such a Zeitgeist [election] topic,” says Hawley. “Once I realized [it was], that there was nothing I could do but continue to explore events that happen in the show and the way people talk about them.”
That sort of winking relationship to the fundamentals of narrative storytelling are part of a tradition that started with Fargo filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen (who executive-produce the series). Hawley carries on that tradition by weaving in callbacks to earlier seasons, or even to other Coen Brothers films (Season 3 villain Thewlis, for example, played Knox Harrington in the 1998 cult hit The Big Lebowski). Still, Hawley wants to make fans work a little for their connecting threads. “The first year was a good example,” he explains. “The first three hours of the show were completely unconnected to the movie. It allowed the audience to settle in and say oh, OK — I thought there would be connections to the movie, but there aren’t — and this is fine. [Then in] the fourth hour, we find money from the movie. Suddenly, we gave people what they wanted.
“This year,” continues Hawley, “I want it to stand more on its own two feet. If the first two [seasons] were sort of two chapters of a story, then this is a book — but that said, I think it is rewarding to people to find [connections] along the way.” This season, he warns, “It won’t be early, but it will come.”
In the meantime, fans can enjoy plenty of Fargo‘s trademark idiosyncrasies — for example, a subplot that takes a deep dive into the world of competitive bridge. “I wanted something Nikki and Ray were trying to accomplish,” Hawley says. “I didn’t want them to just be trying to steal the stamp. I thought, we want to root for them. The more I looked at bridge, the more it seemed perfect, because it really is this strategist’s game. At the same time, it feels like the game your grandmother plays.” The actors did some research to get bridge strategy right. “People spend their life trying to perfect bridge — and we tried doing it in two one-hour lessons,” notes McGregor, who likes that Nikki and Ray have this “very interesting thing that bonds them. They love bridge — or, she loves bridge and he does his best.”
Fargo Season 3 premieres Wednesday, April 19, at 10 p.m. on FX.
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