Gail Kennedy deals with dueling Ewan McGregors in the new season of ‘Fargo’

 As we roll into the 2017 Emmy Awards season—with the Primetime Creative Arts Emmy nominations coming out July 13—we decided to take a look at one popular show that may hit the ballots, especially for its specific make-up challenges.

Fargo has always been a complicated series to work on, as the show’s make-up department head/special make-up effects designer Gail Kennedy will attest, but turning actor Ewan McGregor into two different characters—often seen in the same shot—was a unique challenge.

In the show’s third season, which just finished airing on the FX Network, McGregor plays feuding brothers Emmit and Ray Stussy. While Emmit is tanned and handsome, Ray is a bit overweight and less fussy about his appearance. As Kennedy recalls, “I had to start on the Ewan transformation quite early, because I knew there were going to be prosthetics involved, and we had to determine how extensive they were going to be and what we would have time to do. We wanted Emmit and Ray to look very different, but for the audience to not know what we did. They are brothers, so they have a familial resemblance, but they’re not identical twins.

Ewan McGregor as Emmit Stussy in “The Principle of Restricted Choice” – Year 3, Episode 2 (Aired April 26)
Ewan McGregor as Ray Stussy in “The Narrow Escape Problem” – Year 3, Episode 4 (Aired May 10)

“Ray’s look was almost scripted in that he was balding and pudgy, so I took Ewan’s image and said to [head hair stylist] Chris Glimsdale, ‘What can we do here?’ We started with shorter dark hair, but [series creator] Noah Hawley said, ‘Could we try something a little longer?’ and referenced a certain movie look, so that gave us something more specific to work with.

“The best thing that happened was when Ewan decided to shave his head. If he hadn’t, I would have had to put a prosthetic bald pate on him, which would have taken a lot more time. When Ewan agreed to shave his head, we were no longer tied to his natural hair, so we could do anything we wanted.

“Since Emmit is a successful man, I tanned him and made his face slender and more sculpted. He probably has a personal trainer, so his body and face are slimmer. For Ray, we made him chubbier in his face and neck, so he wears a prosthetic neck, a little double chin and a wider nose bridge, and I filled in the dimple in his chin. I hired Andy Clement to build Ewan’s prosthetics, so when I went down to L.A. and we were looking at Ewan, I said, ‘Andy, can you do a little chin thing for me to fill that in?’ and he said, ‘Oh yeah, no problem.’

Gail Kennedy touches up Ewan McGregor as Emmit Stussy

“I also had to think about the time factor, because I promised the producers I wouldn’t take more than 90 minutes on Ray. The entire process took a little over two hours to go through make-up, hair and wardrobe, so I had to keep my portion down. In television, you don’t have the luxury of time, especially when Ewan was sometimes playing two roles in the same scene and we had to change him over from one character to the other, all while you’ve got an entire crew sitting there.”

The scenes that Ray and Emmit were in together had their own challenges. “I didn’t get to pick who was shot first,” admits Kennedy. “Had it been my choice, it would have been Ray, but it had everything to do with what the DOP needed, so that often meant we started with Emmit and shot the second half of the day with Ray. There were also times when Ewan wasn’t in scenes with ‘himself,’ but both characters were shooting and we had to change them over. On those days, I did my best to say, ‘Come on guys, give me Ray first!’ because it was easier to remove the make-up than to put it on. We definitely triple-teamed Ewan to get him out of the prosthetics and wig and wash him, and then I proceeded with the Emmit make-up.”

Ewan McGregor as Emmit Stussy in “The House of Special Purpose” – Year 3, Episode 5 (Aired May 17)
Ewan McGregor as Ray Stussy in “The House of Special Purpose” – Year 3, Episode 5 (Aired May 17)

One scene that nearly caused a lot of consternation from a make-up point of view involved a naked Ray getting out of a bathtub in episode one. Kennedy had racked her brains trying to figure out how to glue a prosthetic potbelly to the actor, and even made a hairy back piece for him, but in the end, McGregor simply put on a bit of extra weight and made himself look even heavier by the way he stood. “He would pooch out his tummy,” says Kennedy, “but he didn’t put on that much weight, because he had to be slim to play Emmit, although tailored suits and a little spandex helped make him look even slimmer.

David Thewlis as V.M. Varga

“But I remember thinking, ‘How am I going to get that belly to adhere in soapy water?’ That’s why we decided not to go with the back piece either, because it was going to be more worry than the payoff would give us.”

In addition to McGregor’s dual role, there’s no shortage of quirky characters in the new season, from David Thewlis as the enigmatic V.M. Varga, to his offbeat henchmen. “There’s another character you see in episode seven or eight,” promises Kennedy, “and the entire episode is one giant make-up that goes on and on. The effects were built by my partner, Dave Trainor. I had Andy do Ewan’s pieces in L.A., but Dave did the rest of the prosthetics and did a great job.”


Michael Stuhlbarg as Sy Feltz, Ewan McGregor as Emmit Stussy

As with previous seasons, there are flashbacks to different periods, including a big chunk of episode three set in the 1970s. There are also sequences set in 1914, 1969 and even, believe it or not, 1678. “The seventies flashbacks were fun to do,” says Kennedy.  “Our second season was all seventies, so thankfully I still had a lot of stuff facial-hair wise. We had custom pieces made for the leads of course, but I was able to create the flavor of the period with mustaches and sideburns and a few beards.

“Interestingly enough, our show is set in 2010 before beards were as popular as that they are now, so I had to beg guys to shave or say, ‘No, you can’t have your beard!’ We put the kibosh on some looks that guys consider quite standard today, and there were a few background performers that weren’t too happy with me.”

While the third season of Fargo was as complex and challenging as the previous two, Kennedy may have nobody but herself to blame. “At the end of last season,” she remembers, “I said to Noah Hawley, ‘If there is a season three, write me a challenge,’ and he did!”