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.