‘Fargo’ Postmortem: Michael Stuhlbarg on That Mug Scene and Sy’s Mustache and Humvee

Kimberly Potts
Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Michael Stuhlbarg as Sy Feltz in FX’s ‘Fargo’ (Photo: FX)

Warning: Spoilers ahead for the “The House of Special Purpose” episode of Fargo.

Well, that took a turn. Sure, there’s been plenty of violence throughout Season 3 of Fargo, but in “The House of Special Purpose,” it was turned on our favorites, from Stussy fixer Sy being forced to drink V.M. Varga’s urine (out of his own World’s Best Dad mug!) to the queen of Season 3 — Ms. Nikki Swango — being brutally beaten by Varga minions Yuri and Meemo.

Yahoo TV talked to Sy portrayer Michael Stuhlbarg about Sy’s traumatic mug scene, how tough a tough guy he really is, the joy of saying that delicious Fargo dialogue, and the inspiration behind the best mustache of the TV season.

Sy is such a fun character to watch, just waiting to hear what he’s going to say, right down to the specific word that’s going to come out of his mouth. It tickles me every time I think about his line from Episode 4, about “cremains” and “nomenclature.”
I love it. Yeah, you never know what he’s going to say.

Things have felt a little lighter so far, in terms of how they’ve played out for Sy. He’s been able to do a lot of the things he wants to do and get away with it. But in “The House of Special Purpose,” we see him really starting to feel the full force of consequences of some of these things.
Yes, he, I think, finds himself in a situation he never would have imagined himself to be in. I think he does what he can under the circumstances to try to salvage what he can of his company, of his relationship with Emmit, and his place in the world, really. He goes through a lot in this episode.

It looks like he feels bewildered. Some of these things are consequences that aren’t or shouldn’t maybe necessarily be his to deal with, some things he didn’t necessarily put into motion.
Absolutely. I think he doesn’t necessarily know what he’s going to do next under the circumstances. I think things have moved much faster than he ever realized they would.

Were you shocked? Was it jarring when you got this particular script and read how quickly things start to snowball?
Yes, I was. I was stunned by it, delightfully so. How often does that happen, as an actor? The whole season is full of surprises like that from [Fargo creator] Noah [Hawley]. I absolutely loved it.

Tell me about filming the coffee mug scene, which I made the mistake of watching while eating breakfast. Do not recommend that. What was it like filming that scene?
[Laughs] You know, it was difficult on a number of different levels. Wrenching and humiliating and painful and funny and frightening. It had elements of all the wonderful aspects of the drama that [Noah’s] presented to us. Sy goes through a lot in the scene. I found that I had to just throw myself into it entirely. I think that was a revelation for me for the whole scene, in learning to play these scenes that he had written for us — a complete sense of dedication to what the moment was about. Otherwise, if you didn’t play it wholeheartedly or at least try some of these things, throwing yourself into it, you wouldn’t get the sense of what it is or what it could be.

Sy’s going through 10 different emotions there, all in this very short period of time. Do you focus on the drama or how frightened he is, or the humor that plays out eventually?
Well, I think it’s just a moment to moment thing. You step into a situation, just like in life. You take a step toward something and then something happens. Then you feel that, and you take another step. It’s a culmination of all the things that are happening simultaneously. They pile upon you and you have a reaction to it. I tried to give myself to whatever the moment was. If I went too far, then I pulled back a little. If I pulled back too far, I’d step on the gas a little bit more. Just try to slow yourself into it, and you eventually find what the balancing point is to make the story told the way the director wants it to be seen. It’s a real collaboration on all parts. It’s hard, because it takes hours to shoot these scenes. There’s a lot of set-ups and a lot of camera movement. It’s part of the art of making cinema and television, creating moments, the building of an arc of a scene. What you saw is the result of all that.

Again, it’s intense and awful, of course, but I think you save the scene from being so devastating that you can’t watch anymore. When you’re walking out of the office, and Varga wants Sy to take the mug, you carry it out, by just two fingers. It’s such a great touch, because, given everything he’s been through, he still wants to touch this mug as little as possible. Was that improvised?
It just seemed to happen, yeah. One of those things that, under the circumstances, just seemed to happen.

The scene is also powerful because Sy and Varga have been dancing around each other a bit. Varga’s been trying to get at Emmit more directly, without Sy there. This is one of their first major confrontations. Was it fun to finally get to play that out with David Thewlis?
Absolutely. I’m such a fan of David’s. Have been for years, since I saw him in Naked so many years ago. He’s one of a kind. It’s been such a treat to just be with him for the season. It was a real confrontation. It felt like it, in the best possible ways. I think we both make the most of it, under the circumstances. I can’t say enough kind things about David. I think he’s wonderful.

Andy Yu as Meemo, Stuhlbarg, and Goran Bogdan as Yuri in FX’s Fargo. (Photo: FX)

Sy has been talking tough all season. Emmit even refers to him in this episode as his fixer. Even in preparing to deal with this blackmail situation with Nikki and Ray, he asked if the shackles were finally off. Yet when he and Nikki are confronted at the parking lot by Yuri and Meemo, and they start to get rough with her, he objects. You can tell he’s truly terrified when he sees how they attack her. We see then that Sy does have his limits, even though he’s been pretending that he doesn’t. How is that going to shape where he goes next?
I don’t think he knows. I think within the world that he exists in… he thinks of himself as a tough guy in his community. The world beyond is an awfully big place. I think he’s getting his first real dose of that. I think it hits him in a way he never expected. We don’t really go into it too much. He’s a father himself. He has a family. He’s content in his life the way things are. As much as he wants to solve problems or thinks of himself as a problem solver, I think it’s within the realm of his work mostly. Emmit sent him out to look after the parking lot and to answer questions or to look at a piece of property. He’s the one who goes out and does all the reconnaissance, so to speak. Emmit is the face and the voice and the charm, the head of the company. I think Sy’s content with that.

Put him in a situation where he says, “I’ll take care of it,” he’ll ram his car into you. I don’t know how far I think he’s willing to go… I think he wants to honor what Emmit is asking of him, but at the same time, I don’t know how much of a tough guy he really is. I think he’s more of an innocent and a softie with a tough exterior. It’s a Minnesota nice on the outside, but on the inside, I think he has his limits.

Are we going to see any of Sy’s home life or get a bit more background on him?
I’m not allowed to say. I wish I could go into it.

That sounds promising, actually. Perhaps we will.
Well, in the scene that we just saw, we see the picture of his wife. I think if you look closely, you can see a photo of his daughters on the desk. That kind of thing. I guess we just have to wait and see if we’ll get a glimpse into that or not.

Stuhlbarg and Mary McDonnell as Widow Goldfarb in FX’s ‘Fargo’ (Photo: FX)

We were talking about the dialogue earlier. Is that one of the most fun parts of the role for you? The great things that Sy gets to say?
Absolutely. Absolutely. It was written that way. I’m just trying to honor what was on the page. It’s been a great challenge and wonderful fun to speak in the rhythms of the area.

It’s not just the accent. It really does sound like its own poetry.
Absolutely. There is a great poetry to it, and a rhythm and an outlook on life, actually. It’s charming. I had a great time speaking that way. It’s really hard to shake it, to stop speaking that way.

It seems like it could be soothing to speak in that rhythm.
It is, yeah. We shot things in Calgary, as well. There’s a similar outlook to life that the Canadians share, I think, with those in Minnesota. There’s a buoyancy, and there’s a sense of fun and a kindness that you may not necessarily find in other parts of the world, or a different kind of kindness. Everybody’s just going about their business. It just seems rather pleasant. I think it certainly is a deep part of who Sy is.

It also is a great contrast to these more intense, shocking, violent moments that we’re seeing right now.

Stuhlbarg (Photo: Chris Large/FX)

I have to ask about the mustache. It’s stealing a moment or two in certain scenes. It is the mustache of the TV season.
Oh my goodness, wow. Well, thanks. It just seemed to be really appropriate for Sy. I brought in a whole bunch of pictures and a whole bunch of possibilities for who I thought this guy could be. Between Noah and I, we just narrowed it down and left it to be not epic, but not too small either. It just seemed to be the right size and right for him. We came upon it together.

Was there a specific mustache that inspired Sy’s?
It’s a little bit of Wade Gustafson from Fargo, and the hair was a little reminiscent of John Goodman’s character from The Big Lebowski. That long flattop going on. Then you’ve got a puffy coat, which is sort of a staple for Fargoland, and some big boots, because Sy’s the one out there doing all the work. You come up with someone like that. Plus the dialogue written in the dialect that it’s written in. I just followed suit.

And the Humvee, of course, which is playing its own little role in the story this season.
Absolutely. It is definitely a character in this piece, as well.

Did you get to drive it yourself?
I absolutely did. That was me.

Had you driven one before? What was that like?
No. I actually didn’t know how I necessarily feel about driving a Humvee, because when you see them in urban settings, you think, “Why would you need that here?” Out on the tundra and out in the snow, it makes more sense for people to be driving larger things, because they have to negotiate and navigate mountains covered in snow. It makes more sense to me, considering the terrain that Sy lives in. Perhaps it’s the one thing that he allows himself as, I don’t know, fun. It’s fun for him, I think, to have it be bright yellow. He works really hard at what he does. It looks like a monster, but I actually found it surprisingly a lighter drive than I would have expected it to be.

Fargo airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.

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