When we first meet Sy Feltz in season three of Fargo, he’s a shifty, fast-talking, bullish right-hand man to Emmit Stussy (Ewan McGregor), the parking lot king of Minnesota. A flattop-sporting, mustache-wearing, Hummer-driving accountant, Sy Feltz slowly becomes overwhelmed by the increasingly dangerous circumstances that envelop him as the season progresses, becoming an almost sympathetic character in the process. We got the chance to sit down with actor Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays Sy, while he was in Austin for the sixth annual ATX TV Fest to talk about balancing the character’s earnest and sinister nature, working with showrunner Noah Hawley, and how he had trouble shaking that Minnesota accent.
What was the route that led you to become a part of Fargo’s third season?
I got a call from Noah Hawley asking if I would be interested in participating in the season. He let me know a little bit about the character, and I think I got to read the first episode or maybe some scenes or something. I had been a fan of the show before. I had watched each of the earlier seasons when they had aired, not in a binge form.
The old fashioned way?
I guess so. The usual way, once a week. I loved the sense of humor, I knew that Joel and Ethan Coen were executive producers on the show, so they must have supported him going out there and making this thing on his own. I love the homages he had created throughout the seasons to all of their films. I loved the sense of humor of the piece, [and] was a fan of the original film. There were so many great things going into it, plus I had heard that Ewan McGregor was going to be part of the season. We had worked together once before, and that was an exciting prospect, too, because we had had a lot of fun on another film together.
With Noah Hawley having you in mind for Sy, did he have the whole look, like the mustache and the flat top and all that?
I came in with a ton of pictures, possibilities of who the guy could be. The one thing that stuck in my craw a little bit about who this guy was was this very funny little description of him in the first episode. He described him as being something, I’m not sure if I can remember it exactly, but it was something to the effect of “He’s the bulldozer who raises the ground so that condos can be built. There’s something about him that’s kind of like a hockey player who was kicked out the hockey league for beating out somebody’s eyeball, and then took up accounting afterwards.”
There were these weird kind of wonderful juxtapositions of just taking that and running with it. I came in, brought all of these pictures, all of these possibilities, grew a beard out and just let my hair grow and I didn’t know what we were going to do. I think it was a process of elimination, and really, it was his input that made us say let’s do, because I had been thinking about one of those sort of long mustaches.
Like a handlebar mustache?
Yeah, kind of like a long kind of Morgan Spurlock kind of a mustache.[Then] we kind of whittled everything away until we sort of thought, well, this kind of bushier mustache, kind of reminds me of the wonderful actor who played Bill Macy’s father-in-law in the Fargo movie, Harve Presnell. It was kind of a little ode to him there, and then with the idea of a long flattop, not too military, reminded me a little bit of John Goodman’s character in The Big Lebowski. So there was kind of precedents for how he was involved, and just ran with that.
It’s a very Midwestern look. I mean, everyone captures it, but you really blend into that aesthetic.
[It’s] Midwestern enough.
You have a tendency to lose yourself in your roles. I remember that first episode, I saw you and recognized you as Arnold Rothstein from Boardwalk Empire, but by the end of that episode I had forgotten all about that. What’s your secret to losing yourself in these characters?
It’s an opportunity to figure out who these people are, what their particular life is about, what the resonance of their life is about, where they come from, how they speak, how they communicate, all those things go into it. It’s just asking a million questions and whittling it away like sculpture. It’s like just sort of figure out what’s right, and the work on it never really stops because I’m not privy to all the information when I step into the project to begin with, so there’s an evolution over the course of the doing that is fun and challenging and surprising.
What’s it like wrangling down that Minnesota accent? Do you work with a dialogue coach?
Yeah, there is someone I work with away from the project and someone that I work with on the project. Whoever happens to be available, whoever can offer their time, and I often find the way somebody communicates through their words, what they choose to say, is big. Obviously language is character. I’ve heard it said that way often. That’s a lot of it. Just submerging yourself in that and doing it until it’s second nature to you. Actually, once you get it it’s hard to shake.
So the accent stuck around a bit after production wrapped?
It’s hard to shake it. It has a rhythm that is pleasant. Very pleasant.
This is a show that’s not always kind to its characters, and when we first meet Sy, it seems like he’s not someone who’s going to stick around very long. But as the season has progressed, he’s not only survived longer than expected, but he ends up being a sympathetic character. You’ve mentioned this is an incremental process. How much of these storylines do you know in advance?
You don’t have a lot. You kind of take it as it comes, and with each episode as much as one would anticipate getting it in, there’s excitement about the prospect of where is this going to go. There’s also this constant reconciliation of “Oh, this is where it’s going to go, this is what’s happening, and this is his road!”
I guess it’s very gradual, and you learn about it in the doing of it. You kind of do what you’re given and you don’t know what’s coming up, so you kind of just have to throw yourself into it and tell that story as well as you can.
Does that make it easier, just losing yourself in the day-to-day of it? Like in life, we always don’t know where we’ll end up at the end of the day, so were you surprised in where this character’s journey has gone?
I was surprised. I was shocked at the scene with Varga (David Thewlis) in my office. I was going to have to confront [him], but I also loved how he responded to it, and I really enjoyed playing it.
There’s also the scene where you have the breakdown in front of your wife Esther, sobbing over everything that’s going wrong in his world. It’s a very tender scene. Where do you go to conjure that up?
Well, it’s one of those things also for Vicki [Papavs], who played my wife. We hadn’t met before. We show up on that day, I meet her on the set, and we have to be a long-married couple with grown daughters and you find some of it in the pairing of who you’re with, and also where you have a kind of foreknowledge of where you might go with that. I think it’s just the culmination of what it is that he’s been going through, letting that live within you, really breathing it in and really living it and trying to be truthful with it.
We did many takes with it, some much larger than what we had ended up doing, and I really have to credit the directors throughout the whole season with helping to shape which side was most appropriate for which moment. I really found myself coming in quite loaded and quite high in many of these scenes, and then in the doing of it found there was a lot I just needed to do much, much less.
I credit them with pulling me back. I’d give it my heart and they say that’s probably the right impulse, but bring it down a little bit. That’s part of what we do. Part of the creative process, collaboration.
Does it surprise you when you’re told to dial it down? Obviously it works, but given that there’s so much entertainment out there right now — TV especially — that has to grab you and has to pull you in, so I assume there’s an inclination to be at least a bit a little over the top to help grab an audience’s attention.
I think it varies. I really do think it varies. I’ve found things to be completely underplayed. The director’s looking at it in the scope of its entirety, whereas I’m just looking at it moment to moment, so I don’t know what just happened before the scene. I’m only bringing in the possibility of what it could be, perhaps trying to give as much as I can but having the wherewithal to know that it is too far, that I can pull back. There are also instances of the opposite in which I come in quite underneath and someone asks to goose it a little bit, or make it faster, or whatever the heck.
It really varies from moment to moment, project to project. I can see what you’re pinpointing in terms of audiences needing to be grabbed for something, but I also find it very rewarding if you can draw them into something. Perhaps even more rewarding.
I‘d have to agree. Especially now, when there are so many options of what to watch, and how to watch it. For example, I know people who are avowed fans of Fargo, but are waiting until the season finale just so they can binge it all at once.
Obviously it’s the opposite when you’re creating episodic television. Do you get a chance to develop a rapport with co-stars who you share more screen-time with, vs. characters like Esther who you met the day you shot your scene together?
What we do as actors more often than not is show up into rooms full of strangers and we tell stories together. In some cases if you’re doing theater you get three or four weeks to rehearse it, so you build the relationship together, but with film and television often you’re meeting someone for the first time so you have no recourse but to jump in completely.
When you hear people talk about what it’s like to shoot a sex scene or something with someone you’ve never met before. ‘Nice to meet you. Let’s get naked.’ People go about doing that kind of work often. I guess what I’m sensing is that it’s really just a dive in the unknown. If you’ve done it long enough there’s a part of you that oddly feels comfortable doing that. It’s almost the most comfortable place you feel flailing about trying things.
Speaking of, the one act of violence that we do see Sy commit, before he realizes just how out of his depth he is, he does it with his Hummer in a parking lot.
Yeah, there was a giddiness in the doing of it I think. The scene previous to it in the diner was sort of loaded, quite loaded and quite testy, and brimming with the possibility of anything could happen possibly in that setting. Then he creeps out and does what he does in quite a gleeful manner, and I think he had told Emmit that he was going to make sure that Ray wouldn’t bother him again, that he would take care of it. That’s one that he went about doing it, I think to draw a line in the sand as far as Ray was concerned without causing him physical violence but making a statement.
A co-worker of mine, about halfway through the season, wrote that Sy Feltz must have cockroach DNA because he’d survived longer than anyone had anticipated. Now it’s as if we’re finding ourselves feeling bad for him, even though we thought he was going to be bullet fodder. But it seems like you didn’t necessarily have a sinister approach to him, even with his “hockey player who became an accountant” backstory. There’s always been an earnestness there.
Absolutely, and an innocence I believe as well. But I think the presence or the possibility of his violence was in the DNA of the character from the beginning, and I think Noah wanted it to perhaps off-balance for the audience. Is he going to be more violent perhaps in the storytelling [than] Varga? Might his presence let there be a more sinister side? We get glimpses of it perhaps, and then what they get me to do is kind of the opposite of that as well. There are hints. That’s all Noah moving the strings.
Did you have this sort of whisper of him being sinister in those early episodes?
Well, it was one of the things when Noah directed the first episode and said, “Okay, we’ve got that. Let’s try something else. Try it as black as you can make it, as dark as you can make it, as sinister as you can make it.” There were light takes. I think these were all aspects to what he wanted to do while he was in the editing room deciding which was the most appropriate for the story he wanted to tell.