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Mary Elizabeth Winstead said yes to 'Fargo' without even reading a script

by Michelle Lanz | The Frame

Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Nikki Swango in the FX series Fargo. Matthias Clamer/FX

Actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead is finally having her "Fargo" moment.

In the new season of the FX series, Winstead plays Nikki Swango. She’s a competitive bridge-playing ex-con and girlfriend to Ewan McGregor’s character, probation officer Ray Stussy. She also happens to be his parolee.

For Winstead, this role was several years in the making. She’d been in talks with “Fargo” series creator Noah Hawley ever since the series began, but no role was quite right for her ... until now.

Season three has just finished shooting in Calgary, and we caught up with Winstead right after she got back into town. To start, she told John Horn why she used to avoid signing on to TV series roles.

Interview Highlights:

On why she initially shied away from TV series earlier in her career:

For me, it was really the idea of committing to something for years and years — that you could potentially not love — was very, very scary to me, and I didn't understand why [laughs]. I was sort of like, I don't understand why anybody would do that! What if you get into it and then a year later you decide you don't like it anymore?

But the past few years, as the majority of the good material that I've seen has been on television, it's become really exciting. And it's actually shifted my viewpoint to be, How lucky you would be to get to do that kind of material for years and years, should a show that you love be successful and continue on. So I don't really concern myself with the platform anymore, because it doesn't really seem to matter.

On traditional seven-season-commitment TV contracts:

That's standard for anything other than shows like "Fargo," which are obviously one-offs, but yeah, in TV you say, In success, I agree to do this for seven years. And then of course you do something like "Fargo," which is like the rare experience where I'd totally do that for seven years, but that's not what it's meant to be. [laughs] It seems like that's often how it works out, that the thing that isn't going to keep going is the thing you wish would.

On how her character Nikki Swango became a part of her:

She's not actually from Minnesota, she's from Chicago, so it's a little bit of a different accent than everybody else, but I got so used to speaking like her and moving like her. This character, maybe more so than any other character I've played, has made her way into me, because she's just so confident and comfortable in her own skin.

Body confidence, confidence in my femininity, was something that I didn't really have. And I have now and I've had it the past couple of years, but it's been something that's been growing in me, so it was a good time to play a character like her who's just like this cat of a woman. [laughs]

I don't think I could've played her as well five years ago. I think I would've been like, Oh, this isn't me, I'm too awkward, I don't know how to do this. But to play a character like that, I just embraced it so much and I feel like something in me has shifted since playing her, so it's great when something like that can happen.

How she'd describe Nikki to people who haven't seen the show:

She's a competitive bridge player, which I think says a lot about her. [laughs] I mean, ex-con, competitive bridge player speaks volumes. She's a strategic thinker in every way of her life, she's always one step of everybody around her. She's incredibly smart, but she's also incredibly loving and passionate, and she's very much in love with her partner, Emmit Stussy, played by Ewan McGregor.

She has all these dreams and hopes for their life together, and she's willing to do whatever it takes to make those dreams come true. It was this great juxtaposition, to play somebody who's sort of conniving and manipulative, but for these very pure reasons, which made her so much more interesting to me, to have these two sides to her — this loving, pure-hearted optimistic person, mixed with this con.

On writer/showrunner Noah Hawley's sales pitch for joining "Fargo":

This was kind of a unique situation for me, because I'd been talking to Noah for years now about doing "Fargo." We'd talked about the first season, we talked about the second season, and neither of them worked out, so I was ready to be a part of it by this point. [laughs]

I've never done this before, but I said yes before reading anything, before knowing anything — I didn't know what the part was, I didn't know if I was going to be playing a cop or a wife or anything. I just knew that I wanted to be on this show and I was ready to be a part of it. And it was nothing like what I expected to be playing, at all. I had no idea I was going to play a character like this.

Every other time we'd talked, it had been about a character that's quite different from Nikki, so I thought he had a certain vision of me in his head. So it was cool that he could see me as this person as well. And it's funny how things work out, because this turned out to be the right role for me in the end.

On her past as a dancer, and how it led her to acting:

When I was young I was sort of doing everything — I was dancing and singing and acting, all at once, but for a while dancing was really my passion, and it's what I thought I wanted to do. I wanted to be a ballerina and be on stage, and all of that.

It became apparent to me — I don't think it was ever said outright, like, You're too tall, you're never going to make it — that I could see the disappointment on the faces of my instructors as I was getting older. You'd get measured every year for the costumes, and I could sense that they knew I was never going to be able to be lifted easily.

And I knew that my favorite thing about ballet was performing, and the emotions I got to bring out of myself onstage, so it wasn't particularly heartbreaking when I had that realization, because I just thought, Oh, this is the same thing. This is what I love about this, so I'll just go and get rid of the ballet shoes and do this in another way. It ended up being so much easier on my body, which I appreciate for sure. [laughs] I saved my feet at the end of the day.

On her musical collaboration with Dan the Automator in the group, Got a Girl:

So I was doing this film called "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World," and Dan did a song for that movie. Typically I don't even meet the composers or people writing music, but he came to set to visit one day, and I'd been a huge fan of his since I was a teenager. So I went up to him and said, "I just want you to know that I'm a really big fan." That was it, I just shyly came up and said that and left.

Then we ran into each other again at the premiere of that movie, and he said, "Someone showed me a video of you singing. I really like your voice. We should try to make something some time." And I was just like, "Uh, what? Okay?" So then he just started singing me tracks to write to, a beat and some instrumentation, and I'd find the melody and lyrics and send those back to him.

He lives in San Francisco, so I started flying up to see him and we just started recording things. His mantra was like, "If it's good, it's good, and we'll keep going. If it's s**t, then we'll just say we're done." So it was low pressure in that way. We did a tour maybe a couple years ago, and those were our first shows in the five years that we'd been making music together, so it's all very slow going.

On her possible entry into musical theater:

There's been a couple of Broadway shows that I've gone down the road with, and then scheduling's sort of made things fall apart. But I would love to do that eventually. I think that would be the next scary thing for me to tackle. It would be really nerve-wracking, but I'd love to try it.

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