TV hit show Fargo has shown us a different side to Martin Freeman. The everyman? The London local tells us why he’s embracing his dark side, how he deals with fame and why he was not sure about Sherlock originally
Martin Freeman is not a particularly flamboyant individual or actor. Yet his list of roles is impressive when you consider their collective impact on the popular imagination.
Though filmgoers may know him best for slaying orcs as Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit, Martin was already famous in the UK for having played Tim, Ricky Gervais’ foil in The Office, long before he began helping solve crimes as John Watson in Sherlock, the hit BBC series co-starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes. Now he’s starring as the downtrodden Lester Nygaard in the highly anticipated TV adaptation of Fargo, the Oscar-winning Coen brothers’ classic. Martin’s mild-mannered acting persona is ideally suited to playing the unlikely middle class salesman-turned-criminal.
‘When we meet Lester, he’s a 40-year-old man who has been pushed around for most of his life,’ Martin explains. ‘He’s in a loveless marriage. He’s henpecked, to say the least. He’s not brilliant at his job. He gets a lot of life thrown at him and he doesn’t deal with it very well.’
Produced by the American F/X network and shot in the cold climate of Calgary, Alberta, the series co-stars Billy Bob Thornton as the low-life career criminal Lorne Malvo, whose chance meeting with Mygaard sets in motion a series of grim events in the unsuspecting town of Fargo, Minnesota.
It was precisely the ugly side of Lester Nygaard that appealed to Martin who has been trying to extend his range as an actor and distance himself from his perpetual ‘nice guy’ image. ‘You want to do different things and you want to challenge people’s perceptions of you,’ he nods, ‘and you want to challenge your own work and your own perception of what it is you do. So, certainly, the overt dark side of Lester was something very attractive to me. People certainly don’t associate me with being a killer!’
The early episodes of Fargo have been warmly received, even by die hard fans of the film who expressed their doubts when details of the TV show were first revealed. Even more transfixing, arguably, is Martin’s rather convincing Minnesota accent. ‘You have to be careful not to be condescending or patronizing,’ he says on nailing the voice. ‘You need to walk a fine line and I was concerned about not taking comic liberties with the manner or the accent of the character. I was careful not to patronize these people whom even most Americans are probably unfamiliar with in terms of how they speak and interact.’
He admits taking the role wasn’t a straight-forward decision, but taking the plunge was all down to his actress wife, Amanda Abbington. ‘When I got to the scenes where I knew it was me and Billy Bob, they were fantastically written scenes. I kicked it around in my head and I showed the script to my wife, and she told me, “You’ve gotta do it. It’s so good”. And so I did it.’
Fargo is yet another huge tick in what’s becoming a hugely successful CV – and in this industry, there’s no getting away from the fame that comes with it. ‘It’s not something I was ever seeking,’ Martin says, ‘and of course I understand that it’s the nature of this business that with success comes recognition. It can be pleasant to have people acknowledge your work and express their appreciation, but sometimes the attention can be difficult to bear and I admit I’m not good at that sort of thing, I like having my little world to myself, and for my friends and family.’
Martin’s ‘little world’ revolves around Potters Bar, where he lives with Amanda and their two children, Joe and Grace. ‘We live there because it’s so close to town,’ he says. ‘That is one of the main things that appeals so much. I can get into town for work or to shop, but I can escape that busyness and get home where there are fields and big sky and a bit more tranquillity. In my mind, I have the best of both worlds.’
Does he have particular London loves? ‘I love clothes and I have a few tailors that I go to in London, John Smedley and Mark Powell,’ he reveals. ‘If it was up to me, I would make everybody in London wear a three-piece suit, no matter what they were doing or what the weather was like. That would make everywhere a bit nicer, wouldn’t it? I also love the style of North London people. This may sound crazy, but you can tell a North London road from a South London road, just as you can tell east from west. And I think the people match that.’
His affinity to the capital found the perfect partner when the role of John Watson came around. ‘That was one of the best things about Sherlock,’ he enthuses, ‘the whole London aspect of it. Aside from the story, that really appealed to me. It is so exciting to do something that takes in the history of London, the artistic side of the City. We got to explore that thing that is so pivotal to the City and it made the experience even more special.’
Even if, again, he wasn’t sure about taking on the part. ‘I wouldn’t have played in it if I hadn’t felt we were doing something unique,’ he insists. ‘I thought it was very risky to try to update Sherlock Holmes, but I was willing to discuss it. The problem was that the day I met the people who were doing Sherlock, I was feeling stressed and irritable and I left the impression that I wasn’t that anxious to do it. The next time I went in I read some scenes with Benedict, which went very well, and that’s when I saw that our rhythms were naturally suited to work together.’
During the last series, we even got to see Martin’s Watson marry Mary Morstan, who happened to be his real life partner. ‘It was very enjoyable to have Amanda with me,’ he grins. ‘I’ve done a few things with Amanda, but nothing as sustained as this. Mark [Gatiss, who both executive produces and plays Mycroft] had worked with her before and so had Steven [Moffat]. During season two, Mark said to me: “You haven’t talked about who might play Mary”. That was the first time this conversation had ever come up. I said: “Well, to be honest, I think Amanda would be pretty good” and he goes: “That’s exactly what we were thinking”.
‘They knew she was able to be funny and engaging and just right. The last thing you want is to feel like you’re being John and Yoko, but Amanda can do this all day long in her sleep. Of course I love her, but I know also she’s a really good actress. I wouldn’t say she should play everything in the world, but as far as the casting, it’s pretty good. If you’re lucky enough to work with your missus or mister, and you actually want to and get on with them, it does help if you’re filming away from home. You can see them more than you would normally.’
A third series will come for Sherlock, particularly after the tantalising cliff-hanger we were left on, and then there’s the conclusion to Martin’s Hobbit adventure – and a West End run where he will be taking one of the biggest baddies in history, Richard III. He promises a different take on the much-vilified King at the Trafalgar Studios run starting this month – just another to add to the that hugely impressive role list.