Ewan McGregor crawled out of Scotland's filthiest toilet in "Trainspotting," mastered the light saber as Obi-Wan Kenobi and tripped the light fantastic in "Moulin Rouge!" But there's nothing quite like learning how to talk Minnesotan.
"It's the hardest accent I've ever done, and I did Dutch once," said the acclaimed movie star in January, just four days into shooting the third season of "Fargo," in which he plays the "parking lot king of Minnesota" and his luckless young brother, a parole officer who spends much of his day collecting urine samples from ex-convicts. "It's difficult for anyone, but it's especially hard for a Brit. Sometimes, I feel like I'm doing a bad Irish accent."
In a phone conversation last week, McGregor admitted other challenges — looking like he's scarfed down his fair share of Pronto Pups, spending endless hours in the makeup chair, putting up with subzero temperatures in Calgary, which once again fills in for the American Midwest — all the while knowing the hard work will likely pay off.
"Fargo," which returns Wednesday, has collected 36 Emmy nominations and earned Kirsten Dunst and Billy Bob Thornton some of the best reviews of their careers. McGregor is almost certain to receive praise, too, if only because he's tackling multiple parts, a surefire way to draw attention in a TV landscape that has never hosted so many marquee names before.
"I always intended for the same actor to play both roles, and that made the network happy because it becomes an attractive lure," said creator Noah Hawley. "It offers actors something they can't get anywhere else."
Hawley didn't know McGregor would end up being his lead when he started concocting his latest tale, one that expertly intertwines murder, the 2008 recession, Gophers fanaticism and competitive bridge. But he was thrilled when the "Star Wars" veteran took the bait.
"Ewan has an inherent charm, a sparkle in his eye," said Hawley, who also found time this past year to shepherd FX's "Legion" and promote his latest novel, "Before the Fall." "He's got a natural quality of someone who doesn't give up."
That trait is essential if audiences are going to root for his two characters: Emmit Stussy, a self-made millionaire who's entrapped in a shady business deal with a mysterious capitalist (David Thewlis), and Ray Stussy, who accidentally sets in motion the killing of an innocent man in his attempt to woo a manipulative parolee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead).
Capturing sad-sack Ray was the more difficult task. McGregor, 46, was coming off the movie "T2 Trainspotting," which had him in the best physical condition of his life.
"I sat down with Noah in L.A. to talk about Ray and suggested that we use a prosthetic piece around his chin," McGregor said by phone from the Calgary set, where shooting will wrap up in May. "He took his time in responding and then said, 'Ewan, you need to put on weight.' I ordered a massive dessert and starting putting on weight from that moment on. French fries with everything."
Emmit, by contrast, is fairly fit, so "I wore Spanx and a special T-shirt that I needed help getting in and out of." McGregor said he hasn't weighed himself but did wind up ordering jeans three sizes larger than usual.
"When I go to bed every night, I'm not feeling so great, but it's been effective."
The rest of the cast may have slept a little easier, but they still had to adjust to the wintry setting, which bounces between three communities — the central Minnesota town of Eden Valley, suburban Eden Prairie and the city of St. Cloud — in the year 2010.
Carrie Coon, who plays Eden Valley's police chief, had a slight edge.
"I recognized my people in it, that kind of emotional restraint," said Coon, who grew up in small-town Ohio and attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "I always think of Frances McDormand in the original film being completely unfazed as she's questioning those young women in the bar. I love that sort of 'We're just going to keep on going' idea, which is how my people behave. Reminds me of home."
Coon's dogged, old-school character — who keeps her department's computers in their boxes, relying instead on an old-fashioned teletype machine — is very much a throwback to McDormand's Oscar-winning work as Marge in the 1996 movie. This season, however, has fewer nods to the Coen brothers' classic than the previous two, although there are a number of winks to "The Big Lebowski." (Hawley said that there will be a connection to the past before the 10 episodes are up, but that viewers will have to be patient.)
Hawley's ability to nod to the cult classic while creating wholly unique stories is what drew the high-caliber cast to the project.
"When I heard about the first season, I thought it was a lousy idea, but then I saw it and loved it," Thewlis said. "After I heard I was doing it, I went back and watched both seasons again. My wife started watching them on Netflix and didn't think they were very good, but that's because she accidentally watched them out of order."
Viewers who are mainly drawn to the show for its Minnesota connections may grumble at some of the broad swipes taken at the state. In Hawley's imagination, Eden Valley is only slightly more progressive than Mayberry.
"You know what I like about this place, Minnesota?" says Thewlis' character while talking down to Emmit and his business partner. "It's so perfectly, sublimely bland."
Hawley may have populated "Fargo" with residents who don't know how to google or still listen to Heart on their car radio, but that doesn't mean they're not crafty, charismatic and even cool. Winstead's character could leave any Sharon Stone femme fatale shivering in a snowbank, while Coon, who is married to playwright Tracy Letts, should break out as one of 2017's most likable new faces, just as Allison Tolman did in the first season of "Fargo."
"If something is going to be bland, it has to be bland in an interesting way," Hawley said.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in his decision to weave competitive bridge into the plot, and somehow make it spellbinding.
"This is probably the first time in history that bridge has looked sexy," McGregor said. "We've achieved the unachievable."
He sat in on a tournament for research, but McGregor said he didn't go so far as to become an expert in the game.
That's a lot tougher than digging into an extra slab of Bundt cake.