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article imageBlu-ray/DVD Essentials: Martin Freeman on his journey to 'Fargo' Special

By Earl Dittman     Oct 17, 2014 in Entertainment
In the hit cable series — an original adaptation of the classic film — the star of 'The Hobbit' and 'Sherlock' portrays a Minnesotan who embraces his dark side. The actor talks about his decision to do 'Fargo,' playing Lester and filming in Calgary.
Martin Freeman can't quite put his finger on what makes the 10-episode limited series Fargo a "must-see," however, the British award-winning motion picture (The Hobbit, Love, Actually) and television actor (Sherlock, The Office) is confident both fans of the 1996 Coen Brothers movie and neophytes to the genre will enjoy it.
"I'll probably be fired for not giving you a quote now that says this is the best thing ever made, but I don't know what makes it special?" the 43-year-old star of the original adaptation of the Academy Award-winning feature film Fargo jokingly admits. "I just think if people like well-written, well-directed and, hopefully, well-acted drama, then they will like Fargo. I don't really know what it makes it unique. There aren't many things set in Minnesota. Maybe it's that? There are not many things that use a classic modern movie as a jumping off point and maybe it's that. I guess people who loved the film Fargo may love us or they may hate us. I think it'll split people one way or the other. But, I do hope and I sort of believe that if people come to it with an open mind, within 10 minutes you're no longer thinking about the 1996 film.
"In sort of my experience of how people have reacted, they're pretty engrossed in the world that we've created," adds Freeman. "So, honestly, I don't know what makes it unique, but I do know what makes it good and that starts, as all good things do, with a script and it's beautifully shot. And, if I say so myself — not including myself — but it's fantastically cast. I think the cast across the board is phenomenal. So, yeah, I don't know whether that's unique, but I do know it's good."
A ratings hit this past summer on FX, Fargo — written by Noah Hawley — featured an all-new true crime story and followed a new case and new characters, all entrenched in the trademark humor, murder and “Minnesota nice” that made the film an enduring classic. Brilliantly-conceived, the series manages to keep the tone of the film while creating completely distinctive characters in an incredibly fresh and exciting story. This comes as music to the ears of Freeman — who returns to cinemas this holiday season as Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit: The Battle Of Five Armies.
"I knew I did not want to be in a rehash of the film," he admits. "The film is perfectly happy without someone making either a good or bad cover version of it. I didn't want to be in a cover version, certainly didn't want to be doing a cover version of anyone else's performance. All I knew at the time was I really loved the first script. I guess I liked Noah's (Hawley) tone. I had a brief conversation with him and I'd have to check our e-mails, but he probably said something to put my mind at rest in an e-mail at some point, and I can't even remember what that would specifically be. But I know from the outset I would have been pretty vocal about not wanting just to be part of a Fargo tribute band. But, I think we pulled it off. I hope so. I don't think you're thinking too much about the film when you're watching ours. Hopefully, you get into these characters and these stories as opposed to the ones from the '90s."
In Fargo (now on Blu-ray & DVD), Oscar-winner Billy Bob Thornton stars as Lorne Malvo, a rootless, manipulative man who meets and forever changes the life of small town insurance salesman Lester Nygaard (BAFTA-winner Martin Freeman). Lester is good-natured and earnest, but has spent his life slowly being brow-beaten by the world around him. An emasculating wife, a successful brother and a humiliating experience with an old high school classmate finally pushes Lester over the edge. With a little inspiration from a stranger named Malvo, Lester embraces a darker side of himself.
Martin Freeman as Lester in  Fargo
Martin Freeman as Lester in 'Fargo'
FX
"I wanted to play Lester because the pilot script — which is what I based my decision to do the series on — was so well-written," Freeman recalls. "With Lester I just got the feeling that this was going to be a role where you could give rein to a lot of stuff, to play a lot of stuff. Even within that first episode the range that he goes between is really interesting, so I knew that was only going to grow and expand in the next nine episodes, and so it proved to be. In all the 10 episodes I get to play as Lester pretty much the whole gamut of human existence and human feeling, you know, he does the whole lot. That's exactly what you want to do as an actor. Noah (Hawley) treads that line very well between drama and comedy and the light and dark. I like playing that stuff."
MARTIN FREEMAN ON FARGO:
Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) and Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) in a scene from  Fargo
Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) and Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) in a scene from 'Fargo'
FX
What was it like working with Billy Bob Thornton? How would you best describe the relationship between Billy's character, Malvo, and Lester? "My initial scenes with Billy are really what attracted me to doing the role, because I thought they were just mesmeric. I really loved those — it was like doing two-handed plays. It develops kind of — without kind of saying too much — it develops a lot off-screen. There are moments of on-screen development, but throughout the series it's sporadic. Let's say that, it's sporadic. Lorne Malvo, I suppose, is a constant presence in Lester's life because of the change that Lester has undergone as a result of meeting him. So, everything that Lester does, every way that he develops as a character, for good and bad, you could say is kind of down to that initial meeting with Lorne Malvo. So, there is a development. We don't get as much screen time as I would like. I think we both really, really loved sharing actual space together and doing work together and we don't get to do as much of that as we would want, but there is more to come."
In many ways, Billy Bob kind of expands his ego a wee bit to play Lorne. Did you have to bury your personality a little bit to portray a meek character like Lester? "To a certain, yeah. To a certain extent. Yes, I'm a more confident person than Lester is and I'm not quite as upset as that. So, yeah, it's just about tapping into those insecurities that you have, we all have, and just kind of magnifying them a little bit. And, I find that stuff interesting to play. I find it fun to play if you can do it for real because, obviously, it's not shot documentary style or anything, but you want it to be real. You want it to really resonate even though it's within a heightened world. Noah's writing is extremely good and it's slightly heightened as well, rather like the Coen Brothers. So, yeah, basically to answer your question I think I did have to slightly rein my gigantic ego in for a while."
How did your core understanding of Lester change from when you first started playing him to where he ends up? "Well, you have to go a lot on trust, really, because I signed up just on the strength of the first episode. I kind of saw a rough character outline that Noah wrote, but it wasn't specific and it wasn't detailed. It was a general idea of where he wanted to go with it. He certainly knew a lot more than I did and he knew a lot more than he was telling me and he was quite careful with what he leaked out, do you know what I mean? So, I wouldn't really have any particular clues as to what was coming. So, we would all get kind of drip fed the scripts when he was ready to show them to us and when he had finished them. Like all writers, he didn't want to show anything until he was absolutely happy with it. And so I would get each of the scripts and it was all pretty much a surprise. The stuff that Lester would be doing — I mean, unless Noah had kind of hinted at something, which was rare — it was all a surprise. So, I would read Episode Four and go, 'Oh my God, that happens.' And, then I'd read Episode Five and think, 'Wow, I didn't see that coming.' So, it was all a surprise. So, in that sense, you have to just be ready to go with it and not make too many decisions, not pre-prepare, not prepare too much and just be open and just be ready to move in whichever direction this character is going to go in because you, as the actor, don't dictate it, that's for sure. It was all at Noah's command as a writer. And I kind of liked that. I liked that surprise. Because it's when you're not in charge and when you don't really know what's going to happen that you're pushed. You allow yourself to be really, really pushed and challenged and stretched, which is all those things actors want to have. So, yeah, your understanding kind of evolves the more you read because, obviously, by the end of Episode 10, Lester was capable of things that you never would have suspected in Episode One. So, you have to just be on the ball and be ready to move at a moment's notice."
Did you do any specific research about Minnesota or Minnesotans in preparation to play Lester? "Not specifically, no. Ideally, what I would have wanted to do was spend some time there pre-filming because what I wanted to do was not, definitely not do a caricature and definitely not do something that was just comic or a way of going, 'Oh, aren't these people funny' kind of thing. In an ideal world I would have spent a couple of weeks hanging out in bars or just speaking to people. The ideal world doesn't exist, and I wasn't able to do that. But I worked very hard on the accent because, as I said, I didn't want it to be like a comedy sketch. I wasn't playing an accent. I was playing a character who happened to speak like that and to be from that place. So, not specific research. I listened to a lot of Minnesotans, let's put it that way. I listened to a lot of actual Minnesotans in an audio sense, I mean a visual sense. That's why I didn't really go back and watch the initial film with Fargo — love it as I do — because I wanted to, for my research of accent-wise, I wanted it to be actual Minnesotans and not actors playing Minnesotans. Any more than I would expect an actor who wants to play a Minnesotan should study me. They shouldn't study me, they should study a Minnesotan. That was the kind of extent of my homework on that. So, rather than thinking what is it that makes Minnesotans different or specific or whatever, I think Lester is pretty universal. There are Lesters everywhere in every race and walk of life and country. There are people who are sort of downtrodden and people who are under-confident and all that, so that was more a case of tapping into that in myself, really."
Billy Bob Thornton as Lorne Malvo in  Fargo
Billy Bob Thornton as Lorne Malvo in 'Fargo'
FX
Billy Bob said he made himself seem larger than life to portray Malvo. From the very beginning of the series, you make Lester seem very small. He kind of physically shrunk. Can you talk a little about that, making the character appear that way on screen? "I'd love to. It would make me sound impressive if I could talk about it. It's not, particularly, a conscious thing. I know the way I want him to feel and I know the way I feel when I'm playing him. Like a couple of people said that to me, it's like, 'How do you physically shrink?' And I wasn't aware of doing that. You always give someone a walk, you always develop a walk and a gait and then just a way that you carry yourself. So, I was aware of that. You know, his shoulders were slightly rounded, and he doesn't move his arms and swagger around much when he walks. He's very, very contained and he doesn't kind of, unconsciously, he sort of doesn't want to be noticed by the world. But, beyond that, I just knew the way that I felt. I knew the way I felt when I sort of embodied him and when I was speaking those lines and reacting to people. You know, I'm a big believer in my job just being reacting, do you know what I mean? And the way that the world treats Lester, it gives you a big clue of how to play him. So, I wasn't kind of compartmentalizing and now I'm going to this and now I'm going to do that. It felt like just a holistic thing of as soon as you are Lester, you just kind of react in that way. It takes you over, really, rather than you making impositions on it. So, yes, I wish I could speak better about that, but I can't."
What was it like shooting Fargo in Calgary? I hear it was a little cold. "Yes, it was. It's a little bit cold for quite a long time. Very beautiful and I love the cold until it started to get warm and then get cold again and then that was annoying. As soon as you think spring is coming and then there is a blizzard, that's the only time it vaguely annoyed me. All the time it was winter and it was allowed to be winter I thought, yeah, this is cool, this is a Calgary winter. It's white and beautiful and nice and cold. But as soon as it lures you into thinking 'Oh, great, I'll put a lighter jacket on now,' and then you find yourself as Scott of the Antarctic, then that was when it got old."
Untitled
FX
What was the biggest culture shock of filming in Calgary versus the UK? "One of the surprising things was the pace. I wasn't used to working that fast. It's very, very fast. When I found out how long it takes to make an episode of Breaking Bad I couldn't believe it. I really couldn't believe it because I thought, 'It only takes that long?' For something of such quality it must take longer than that. And we were working at a very fast pace as well. I wasn't used to that, so you have to kind of adjust to that, which was a really good discipline thing for me because you're aware that if you've got something to bring, you'd better bring it now because don't bring it in two hours because we won't be doing that scene in two hours maybe. So, that was great for me. I loved the breakneck kind of speed of that, but it's a challenge to work at that speed and work well at that speed. And as far as Calgary versus the UK, it's the coldest I've ever been in my life, and it's the whitest I've ever seen. In my part of Britain, you might have snow for maybe a week or just under a week in a year in which then it turns to slush and black ice very quickly. There never was no snow on the ground in Calgary from late October to April. So, yeah, I've never known that. So, the culture shock was being prepared to be cold all the time that you were out. So, even on a mild day for Calgary in London would be considered a properly cold day. Anything in the minuses, in England we'd be going, 'Oh, that's a chilly one today,' whereas I still saw local cowgirl hipsters in espadrilles and no socks, minus 10 sort of thing. So, that was the main culture shock with that."
You've done a lot of film work and you've done a lot of television. As an actor, do you have a preference? Is there a big difference — creatively? What are your feelings about it? "I don't really see a big difference ostensibly between film and TV, given that my job is basically the same. My job is to work with the camera and focus your performance for a camera. Now, whether that's on a film or TV I think, especially these days, is kind of immaterial. Because, as the best television gets more and more what we would call filmic and a lot of the best writing I think has been pretty much acknowledged for 10 years has been on television, I think there's much less of a differentiation now than there was maybe 20, 30 years ago. And so I don't have a preference. I mean, it sounds trite to say, but my only preference is good work. I mean I always want to do good work. I strive to do scripts that I believe in and scripts that I think are either funny or moving or tragic or all of them. So, no, for me there's not really much of a difference. It's about, I mean there's a difference in tone of different things, but I don't see between television; I treat Sherlock and Fargo exactly as I would..."
The Hobbit? "Yeah, absolutely. But also, if I'm doing a radio play I treat that the same as The Hobbit, just because there isn't a pecking order in my mind, do you know what I mean? If you want to be doing the job then you want to be doing it and you've got to give the best you can. And within that, then it's just a question of budgets and sometimes there's posher food on some things than others, posher trailers, but the actual work in front of the camera, no. I don't really see much of a difference and I don't really have a preference. It's just I want to be saying good words and playing good actions."
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FX
You're no stranger to shorter TV series formats, like Sherlock. What did you enjoy most about having this be a limited series of 10 episodes? "I think my general outlook on life is that things should be finite and things are finite. You know, we all die. Everything ends. And so for me the idea of things going on and on and on, I don't always find very attractive. But, you know, if it's a show that I love and it keeps going on and it retains its quality then I'm delighted to be a viewer of it. But, I've never done things that have gone on and on. Again, like you say, Sherlock is a finite job. We spend a limited time of the year doing that. It's not even every year. The Office was 14 episodes — totally by design — because precisely of what I'm talking about, the attitude of retaining quality and leaving people wanting more rather than leaving people wanting less. This 10 episodes was kind of a clincher for me. When my agent sent it to me it was with the understanding that she said, you know, you don't go out for American TV because you don't want to sign on for something for six or seven years, but this is 10 episodes. See what you think. That was a big attraction. And then I read it, of course, and thought, 'Well, man, this is going to take up four or five months of my life rather than seven years and I'm in.' I like moving on, I like going on to the next thing. I like having something else to look forward to as well. And I do have a low boiling pressure. I just want to do other things. I want to do other stuff. I think that's basically why it is, and I want to leave something behind that people go, 'Oh, that was great,' as opposed to, 'Oh, why did they carry on with this? It was good for the first three seasons and then it all went wrong.' I'm well aware that some things don't go wrong after three seasons. Some of my favorite things are fantastic for a long time. But, yeah, for me personally, I like the hit and run approach. I love doing this for a bit and then doing something else for a bit and then doing something else for a bit. That's the way I'm hardwired I think."
What I really like about Lester is how complex he is. I feel like he's one of those characters that we, as viewers, have kind of been gravitating towards, lately — if you look at Walter White in Breaking Bad or Don Draper in Mad Men. What do you think that says about us as an audience that over the past five or six years that we've been kind of starting to gravitate towards these rough around the edge kind of characters? "Maybe it means that we are, well, it might mean we're getting smarter. We're demanding more of our characters and of our dramas. It might mean that we are less sure of ourselves, I suppose. So we want to see that reflected in the people we follow on TV. For me, I mean I don't know where it started, but this modern trend I think you can put a lot of that down to Tony Soprano, the sort of very, very flawed hero — the anti-hero —confounding your expectations of what you think that character is going to be, capable of doing terrible things while also being very attractive and funny and likable. But, again, those things go back to Greek theater. That in itself is not a new thing. But you're absolutely right, it's becoming more common on American television. And, there is some extremely good American television where that happens more these days. Maybe it just means we're getting a bit more sophisticated and demanding a bit more than kind of black and white characters, which I'm all for I must say."
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FX
What gets you excited about acting and what is it that you look for that keeps on challenging yourself? "Sometimes it's hard to say. It's like being in love or loving people. If you really sort of say, but what do I love about that person? Sometimes you've actually got to sit down and think, hang on, do I love them or is this habit or whatever, you know? So, you've got to kind of think for a minute about whether you do still love something. And, I do that with acting. I do kind of think, sometimes it's really hard and sometimes there's no doubt, you have mornings where you think, 'Wow, this is boring...I'm cold and wet again and it's quite miserable.' You do definitely have those days, however good your job is. And, believe me, I've got a good job.
"You do have moments where you do question it. But, essentially, I do love it. Nothing else gives me the feeling that I get when I'm working on something good, working on something that makes me happy and, most importantly, with other actors who make me happy. For me, it's when I'm working with other people that it brings out the best in me and that's what really engages me. The life itself, the job side of it, I'm attracted to because of the turnover. Because, well, again, if you are lucky, and I'm very lucky, if you're lucky enough to work on a lot of different things you go from job to job and meeting a whole lot of new people. You work with different author's voices, many of whom are very clever people and very interesting people.
"So, you get to kind of invest in a like a different universe every three or six months. And, that's a lovely job. It's a lovely way to earn your living. So, it's that really. Also what else am I going to do? There isn't a job where people pay you to go shopping for shoes. There isn't a job where people pay you just to sit around playing records, so until there are those things acting will do just fine for me."
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Fox
Fargo Bonus (Blu-ray) Features: Audio Commentary on "The Crocodile's Dilemma" featuring executive producer Noah Hawley and Billy Bob Thornton; Audio Commentary on "Eating the Blame" featuring Noah Hawley and Billy Bob Thornton; Audio Commentary on "The Heap" featuring Noah Hawley and Allison Tolman; "This is a True Story"; "Greetings From Bemidji"; "Shades of Green" and Deleted Scenes.
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