Martin Freeman Talks About His Accent, Working with Billy Bob, and Running the Emotional Gamut on FX’s ‘Fargo’

By April 15, 2014
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The new “Fargo” event series premieres tonight on FX and if you missed it, yesterday we posted our conversation with Billy Bob Thornton about his role on the series. Today, we continue our coverage of the new limited series as we were also lucky enough to speak with Martin Freeman about his role of Lester Nygaard. He touches on the emotional gamut Lester runs throughout the series, developing the Minnesota accent, the appeal of anti-heroes on TV, and more!

Check it out!

On what attracted him to the role 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 give 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. Noah [Hawley, the writer] treads that line very well between drama and comedy and the light and dark. I like playing that stuff. So, yeah, it was all of that really.

On the relationship between Nygaard and Malvo and how it develops over time:

It was those initial scenes with Billy that really, really attracted me to doing the role because I thought they were just mesmeric. I really loved those little, 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.

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.

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On his knowledge of his character and the process in which he received scripts: 

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? 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. I would get each of the scripts and it was all pretty much a surprise. 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.’

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.

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On any research he may have done on the Minnesota region in preparation for the role: 

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. 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.

So, 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.

On distinguishing his character from William H. Macy’s in the original film: 

I didn’t go back and watch Fargo because I didn’t really want that in my head, either way. I didn’t want it my head to copy or to consciously differ from. Because as soon as you try and differ yourself from someone, you’re becoming too conscious of that performance anyway. He’s a brilliant actor and the world doesn’t need another actor doing a Bill Macy impression and I don’t need to be doing that and he doesn’t need it and all of that. I purely treated it as my performance of a different character, albeit with some comparison. There are some parallels, but I was too busy concentrating on what I was doing with Lester really.

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On making Lester appear small and weak in the first few episodes compared to Malvo:

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. A couple of people said that to me, ‘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. 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 sort of doesn’t want to be noticed by the world.

I’m a big believer in my job to just being reactionary, 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. 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.

On his experience working with Billy Bob Thornton:

The first thing I shot with him was the scene in the emergency room and it was just a pleasure from the get-go. You see for the scene there’s not a lot of blocking and there’s not a lot of choreography to do. I was just sitting there doing it with a fantastic actor who I’ve long admired and he was an absolute joy. He’s a real, real pleasure as a man as well. I liked spending the limited amount of time I’ve spent with him. I think I’m right in saying both of us kind of wanted to do more of it together because it just instantly clicked. So, 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.

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On the creative difference working in film as opposed to television:

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 and focus your performance for the 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, I think there’s much less of a differentiation now than there was maybe 20, 30 years ago. So, I don’t have a preference.

It sounds trite to say, but my only preference is 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. There’s a difference in tone of different things, but I treat “Sherlock” and “Fargo” exactly as I would The Hobbit. 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. It’s just I want to be saying good words and playing good actions.

On the appeal of working on a limited event series such as this: 

I think my general outlook on life is that things should be finite and things are finite. 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. “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 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. Then I read it 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. And I do have a low boiling pressure. I just want to do other things. That’s the way I’m hardwired I think.

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On the trend of his recent projects being adaptations and what attracts him to these types of roles:

I have done a lot of adaptations of the sort of stuff that is already literature, you know, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which is a series of beloved books on television and radio and with “Sherlock” and The Hobbit and now this. It’s not a plan, I can assure you. It’s just purely, and I hope it doesn’t get boring to hear it because I kind of almost bore myself saying it, it’s just the writing. If something is well written, I’m interested. And if something is not to my taste, then I’m not. I love doing completely new stuff. I love doing completely new theater, for instance, he said as he’s about to play Richard III.

On the appeal of anti-hero characters like Lester on TV and what that says about us as an audience:

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. I think you can put a lot of that down to Tony Soprano, the sort of very, very flawed hero, 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. 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.

On the overall experience working on “Fargo”

I had a lot of fun. I loved this job, I loved all of it I have to say. It was tough and it was hard work, like anything is hard work if you want to be good at something, if you want to do it well it’s all hard work. But very, very enjoyable as a result of working hard. My job is to play things. My job isn’t to fight things or war things, it’s to play things, which is a pretty cool job. And Lester was a lovely person to play, I mean, not always lovely, but a lovely challenge to play and the cast, crew and city of Calgary, it was just a real pleasure. I don’t relish the thought of going away from home for months. I never relish that, so in order for me to say I really, really loved this job, that’s quite something because it kept me away from home for a long time. But I wouldn’t have been without it. I thoroughly enjoyed doing it. I had a lot of fun, laughed a lot with some very, very funny people and got to do one of the best scripts I’ve done. So yeah, I’m happy.

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Tonight is the night, folks! I have already seen the first episode and if it’s any indication, the next 9 are going to be fantastic. The FX event series “Fargo” premieres at 10pm. You all should watch it. Trust me.

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Aside from throwing words onto your screen here, he has written for the likes of FEARnet, Examiner, Dread Central and MTV Movies Blog. And yes, he was Percy on VR Troopers.