CALGARY – I've been on two Martin Freeman sets in the past year, so I'm prepared for his process.
I can't tell you the details of what Freeman's Lester Nygaard is actually doing in the scene being filmed on this beautiful March day in the hills just outside of Downtown Calgary. “Fargo” is simultaneously shooting the seventh and eighth episodes of its 10-episode season and things are getting a wee bit climactic on the FX limited series.
It's not spoiling much to say that Lester Nygaard is under pressure in this particular moment. Lester is under pressure for most of “Fargo,” which draws inspiration, but very little plot, from the Coen Brothers' Oscar-winning film. From the beginning, Lester is a slightly-less-than-normal guy whose life is turned upside-down by a chance meeting with Billy Bob Thornton's appropriately malevolent Lorne Malvo. As befits what is now the “Fargo” franchise, this meeting leads to violence, murder, deceit, intrigue and frequent dark hilarity.
In the initial take of the scene, though, Freeman seems to be under no real pressure. It's a straight-forward and solid reading of a potentially emotional scene and, if you didn't know better, you'd think it was just fine. After a brief conversation with “Fargo” series creator Noah Hawley, Freeman settles in and although his scene partner delivers a performance that's nearly identical to the first take, Freeman's reading is now completely different. It's not just that the emotion has been dialed up, though. Emphasis has been put on a different assortment of words and without changing a breath of the dialogue, Freeman has shifted the heft of the scene. The camera and lighting set-ups change and, again, Freeman's co-star remains consistent — And really good, don't get me wrong — but Freeman again steps up the emotion and punches a different assortment of words, highlighting a different potential meaning.
As I learned on the set of a different Freeman production last summer — I'm not sure if I can say what it was, but it certainly wasn't “Sherlock” — this is what the “Office” veteran does. He starts off with the basics, but builds with each take and tries to give directors as many choices as possible, tries to give himself as many choices as possible. After watching many actors on many sets, I can assure you that this isn't the case with everybody. Freeman is notable both for how responsive he is to direction, but also for the variations he imposes on himself.
While “Fargo” is a deep ensemble, with Freeman and Thornton joined by veterans like Keith Carradine, Bob Odenkirk and Adam Goldberg, as well as newcomer Allison Tolman, this is a long day for Freeman and, as I don't want to over-explain, this scene is intense and growing moreso with each take.
As a result, though many of the “Fargo” stars are able to spare long stretches of time with a small pack of reporters visiting the set, Freeman's window is more limited. Between scenes, in the time technically set aside for lunch, he's able to carve out 30 minutes and there are five reporters. With a publicist closely monitoring a stopwatch, we each get five minutes with Freeman, who doesn't stay in character at all times, but does retain his slightly sing-song-y Minnesota accent.
It's like speed-dating I tell him as I sit down, wasting five of my seconds.
“Only without the bell,” he agrees, taking another five seconds.
Pleasantries dispatched, in this brief Q&A, Freeman discusses the initial draw of “Fargo,” which premieres on April 15, both in terms of script and its limited nature. He talks about finding empathy and sympathy for a character who is something of a sad-sack. And he describes the on-set dynamic with the intriguingly eclectic cast.
Check out the speed-dating Martin Freeman interview below and stay tuned over the next week for “Fargo” interviews with Thornton, Tolman, Carradine, Hawley and a slew of others…
HitFix: So you hear “'Fargo' as a TV series.” Did you immediately have preconceptions? And how quickly did you get past that?
Martin Freeman: I got past them quite quickly. Similarly, it's like when I was told, “Oh, you're gonna be sent a modern version of 'Sherlock Holmes'” and I said, “Really? Do we need one of those?” and then after a couple pages, you just forget all of that. It's just, “Is the writing good or not?” That's what I felt about this. It's just immediately good writing and it's immediately compelling. I'm an actor, I want to play good parts and it's a good part. There are a couple of fantastic scenes with Lorne Malvo, Billy Bob's character, that really keep me in the story and the potential for where this character might go and what his story might be. I felt like I had very little choice [he laughs], given that it was also finite. It wasn't going on for six years. It was 10 episodes, several months. That was pretty cool for me.
HitFix: Would you have listened if it *hadn't* been just 10-episodes and done?
Martin Freeman: Like if it was maybe six years?
Martin Freeman: No. No. I would not. No.
HitFix: When we meet him, Lester's a sad-sack and then he goes through a change. Do you immediately feel sympathy for the guy, or do you start becoming really interested in the character when you see what he does after that?
Martin Freeman: Yeah, I guess like all of us, we have a sorta limited well of sympathy for someone who is just pathetic or someone who is just a loser, to use lazy terms, I guess. But he's like a loser. But I guess without the thing that changes him by the end of the first episode, without that you're kinda, “Well… What's gonna happen?” It's very apparent by the end of the first episode that this is not all that meets the eye. So I thought, “Well geez, if that happens at the end of the first episode, what the hell is Episode 10 gonna be?” So that was the thing that gave me confidence that I would be fully engaged and fully interested in what I was doing. And I have been! Every script I've read has just been better and better and better. It's been fantastic.
HitFix: Is that a conversation you have with Noah Hawley up-front? Because I watched the pilot and I was like, “Wow. That's a lot of stuff that happens in that first episode. How do you go from there?”
Martin Freeman: Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, it's not a conversation I had with Noah. I would dearly love to take credit for where this character goes, but I can't. It's all from him.
HitFix: But how about getting reassures from him on what the vision is across the 10 episodes?
Martin Freeman: You know what? He said very little to me. He really did say very little to me. Obviously there was a lot of speculation like how we would all, individually, end this series? Would we be alive? Dead? How would we meet our end? And all of that. And I didn't know until very, very recently. I wasn't sure. I thought he would probably not see it out, but I didn't know how or anything like that.
HitFix: Do you have sympathy with him on that level? Or as the show progresses, does he change too much? Is he too far gone? Do you want him to survive?
Martin Freeman: No, I think so. I think you do. He never stops being human, you know? But in a funny way, neither does Billy Bob's character. He is always human, too. That's the beauty of good writing and good casting. Even someone as truly dark as Lorne Malvo is still very attractive and you want to spend time with him, because he's a fun character.
HitFix: I'm fascinated by the different backgrounds that all of the actors on this show have. What does it do for the energy on-set to have your process and Billy Bob's process and Bob Odenkirk's process? Etc.
Martin Freeman: I guess it's, again, like everything, you just try and find an accommodation of everybody so that you can do your job, but also so can other people. What I've been pleased by is that that's been pretty easy. All the people I've worked with on this so far — and I doubt that's gonna change in the next few weeks — have been very professional, very old-fashioned — Learn your lines, don't bump into the furniture, have respect for others. But no one's come in and stayed in character for the entire time and been weird or anything like that, you know? Or been an asshole. There's been no silly performances off-camera, they're very, very straight-forward people.
HitFix: Where did you find that common ground with Billy Bob?
Martin Freeman: Straight-away. Immediately. Talking about music, talking about Spinal Tap, whatever it was. He was easy. He was just easy, so probably the second time we met, we were running lines and we were doing the scene and he's as compelling for me as Martin as Lorne Malvo is for Lester. He's a really good, interesting actor to work with and to watch. You watch him when you're working with him. So I'm happy to report that it was easy. I'm always interested with other actors in what their process is and are they still interested in acting, as opposed to being a star. And he is! He's every inch an actor.
“Fargo” premieres on Tuesday, April 15 on FX. Stay tuned for more interviews.