The macabre world of Joel and Ethan Coen’s Fargo is coming to FX with a new take on quaint small town murder. The show’s 10-episode first season has assembled a stellar cast, including the great Martin Freeman (The Hobbit, Sherlock) as he brings the repressed mild-mannered Lester Nygaard to life.
In a recent conference call with journalists, Martin Freeman gave us the lowdown on working with Billy Bob Thornton, comparisons to the original film and exploring his dark side.
What attracted you to the part of Lester Nygaard?
Well, just the fact that it’s well written. The script itself is well written, the whole thing, the whole first episode, which is what I based my decision on. It was a lovely episode. And with Lester I just got the feeling that this was going to be a role where you could be given rein to a lot of stuff, to play a lot of stuff.
And even within that first episode the range that he goes between is really interesting and 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.
And that’s exactly what you want to do as an actor. And Noah [Hawley] treads that line very well between drama and comedy and the light and dark. And I like playing that stuff. So, yeah, it was all of that really.
Can you tell us how you see your character’s relationship with Billy Bob Thornton’s character in the show and how it develops over the 10-episodes?
Well, yeah, again it was those initial scenes with Billy that really, really attracted me to doing the role because I thought they were just mesmeric. It was like little plays doing it, little 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.
But 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.
How did your understanding of Lester change over the course of filming the series? When we meet him he’s one thing, but events in the pilot makes him become another thing.
Well, you have to go a lot on trust, really, because, again, 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. 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 4 and go, oh my God, that happens. And then I’d read episode 5 and think, wow, I didn’t see that coming.
So, it was all a surprise, and in that sense you have to just be ready to go with it and not make too many decisions, 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 1. 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.
So, 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, put it that way. 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.
So, that was the kind of extent of my homework on that. 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 underconfident and all that, so that was more a case of tapping into that in myself really.
What was it like for you to get to explore this dark side of Lester after having played so many timid straight man roles?
That was great. That was a big attraction of doing it, that was one of the major attractions of playing this role. I like, as much as I can, to play everything, and by that I just mean I think within one line of dialogue you can play three different things, within one non-speaking reaction shot you can play three different things.
And I’ve always liked to sort of do that, not to just play the one thing. I like to try and reflect the complexities of how we are in real life, which is we’re always thinking at least two things at the same time. So, certainly the overt dark side of Lester was something very attractive to me. People certainly don’t associate me with being a sort of murderous killer.
And, of course, you want to do different things and you want to challenge people’s perceptions of you, and you want to challenge your own work and your own perceptions of what it is you do. Sometimes you believe your own reviews and you go, oh, maybe I am an everyman. And I think, actually, no, that’s bullshit. I know I’m not. So, it’s nice to give yourself and the audience a reminder of just a different flavor. I loved doing that with Lester.
What was it like working with Billy Bob Thornton? Also did you have a chance to actually work with Colin Hanks in the episodes that you did?
Well, I didn’t work with Colin, unfortunately. I really like him as a man, I’m very fond of him. And I’ve gotten to know him a little bit and he’s a straight up lovely bloke. Yeah, I just really like him. And I did immediately. I think he’s ever so good in the program as well. I like his work a lot.
I did work with Billy, not as much as I would have wanted because the first thing I shot with him was the scene in the emergency room. And it was just a pleasure, it was just a pleasure from the get-go. From the moment, we had a line run and then rehearsed it. You see for the scene there’s not a lot of blocking, there’s not a lot of choreography to do, but just sitting there doing it with a fantastic actor and who I’ve long admired was an absolute joy.
And he’s a real, real pleasure as a man as well. I like spending the limited amount of time I’ve spent with him. And I think I’m right in saying both of us kind of wanted to do more of it together because it just instantly clicked. It was very, very easy. We had a good chemistry together I think. It certainly felt that way anyway.
So, yeah, I’m a big fan of his. I’m a bigger fan of his than I was before, having met him. I think he’s great.
You’ve done a lot of film and you’ve done a lot of television. As an actor, do you have a preference?
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. I treat Sherlock and Fargo exactly as I would The Hobbit. 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.
What did you enjoy most about having this be a limited series of 10 episodes?
Well, 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.
So, 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, hopefully, 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 were the biggest differences working on American television for the first time? What was the biggest culture shock of coming to Calgary versus the U.K.?
Well, 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, 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 U.K., 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.
Do you think it was important that you had a background with comedic roles so you could bring that to Lester in those moments that are dark but awkwardly funny?
Some of it, yeah. Yes, probably. It certainly doesn’t hurt and even when I’m not doing sort of comedic roles I guess comedy will somehow find its way in there, just because that’s part of who I am and I think it’s part of who we are. I don’t think there is; of all my favorite things in the world, that involve acting anyway, there is both of those things.
The Sopranos sometimes really makes me laugh and that’s not a comedy. And sometimes I’m almost crying at the pathos of Laurel and Hardy, which is not a drama. So, I believe in both of those things being there and I don’t think it’s a big deal by both things being there. So, when Lester has moments of comedy as there are in the show, yes, I think, you know, without blowing my own trumpet, I think I can do it. And I think I’m not bad at it, so, yeah, all of that I think it doesn’t hurt. I think it all helps stir the pot somehow, yeah.
What was it for you that set the series apart from the film and made you confident in working on it?
I guess at the outset I don’t know, there’s a big trust thing. I think you just have to take a leap of faith as so many things are in life and so many jobs are a leap of faith because you’re not seeing the finished result. You can’t come in at the end and go, I knew The Godfather was going to X, Y and Z. On the way to making The Godfather, of course, it could have been many other things. It’s all a big leap of faith.
I knew I did not want to be in a rehash of the film. The film is perfectly happy without someone making either a good or bad cover version of it, you know. 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.
And I guess I liked Noah’s 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, you know.
Fargo premieres on April 15 at 10pm, exclusively on FX.