When we were young, we were always told never to talk to strangers. As adults, perhaps we should sometimes head those words. In the new FX Network TV series Fargo (based on the 1996 feature film of the same name), a much-harried insurance agent, Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman), ends up in a hospital emergency room after a surprise reunion with an old school bully. While waiting to be seen, he strikes up a conversation with Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton), a drifter who recently arrived in the small town of Bemidji, Minnesota. The two men discuss Lester’s unfortunate situation, and Malvo decides on his own to settle the score for him. His actions spark off an emotional response in Lester and leads him down a dark path that he probably would not have taken had he never spoken with Malvo.
Best known to moviegoers as Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit film franchise, including the upcoming The Hobbit: There and Back Again, and on the small screen as Dr. John Watson in the updated Sherlock TV series, actor Martin Freeman recently spent part of an afternoon chatting on the phone with me as well as other journalists about his work on Fargo. The following is an edited version of our Q&A. Enjoy!
What originally attracted you to this part?
Martin Freeman: Well, just the fact that it’s well-written. The first episode, which is what I based my decision on, was such a lovely episode, and with Lester, I just got the feeling that it was going to be a role where I could play a lot of different things.
Even in that first episode, the range of stuff that my character experiences is really interesting and I knew that he was only going to grow and expand over the next nine episodes, which proved to be the case. In all 10 episodes I get to play as Lester pretty much the entire gamut of human existence and human feelings. He does the whole lot, and that’s exactly what you want to do as an actor. (Series creator/executive producer) Noah Hawley treads that line very well between drama and comedy as well as the light and dark, and I like playing all of that.
Martin, could tell us a little bit about your character’s relationship with Billy Bob Thornton’s character in the show and how it develops over the 10 episodes?
MF: Again, it was those initial scenes with Billy that really attracted me to doing this series because I thought they were just mesmeric. It was like doing little two-handed plays, and, without kind of saying too much, their relationship develops a lot off-screen. There are moments of onscreen development, but throughout the series it’s sporadic.
Lorne Malvo is, I suppose, a constant presence in Lester’s life because of the change that my character undergoes as a result of meeting him. So everything that Lester does and every way that he develops as a character, both good and bad, you could say is kind of down to that initial meeting with Lorne Malvo So there is development, and I think Billy and I both really loved sharing actual space together as well as working together. We don’t get to do as much of that as we would want, but there is more to come.
One of the interesting things that Billy Bob was saying about your characters in the show is that he kind of had to expand his ego a bit to play “Lorne,” and you kind of had to, I guess, bury your personality a bit to play “Lester.” Can you talk about that?
MF: To a certain extent, yes. I’m a more confident person than Lester and not quite as “upset” as that. It’s just about tapping into those insecurities that we all have, and kind of magnifying them a bit. I find that stuff fun and interesting to play, especially if you can make it real. Obviously it’s not shot documentary-style or anything like that, but you want it to be believable and 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 (who wrote the script for the 1996 Fargo movie).
So basically to answer your question, yes, I think I did have to slightly rein my gigantic ego in for a while (he jokes).
I was wondering how your understanding of Lester changed over the course of filming the show, because when we meet him he’s one type of person, but then a series of events happens in the first episode that turns him into someone quite different. So how did your core understanding of Lester change from when you first started playing him to where he ends up?
MF: 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 or detailed. It was just a general idea of where he wanted to go with it. Noah certainly knew a lot more than I did and 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 didn’t really have any particular clues as to what was coming. We’d all kind of get drip fed the scripts when Noah had finished them and was ready to show them to us. Like all writers, he didn’t want to show anything until he was absolutely happy with it. As far as the stuff that Lester would be doing, unless Noah kind of hinted at something, which was rare, it was all a surprise to me. So I would read, say, the script for episode four and think, “Oh, my God, that happens.” Then I’d read the next script 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 prepare too much ahead of time, but rather just be open and set to move in whichever direction this character is going to go in, because you, as the actor, don’t dictate things, that’s for sure. It was all at Noah’s "command" as a writer, and I kind of liked that surprise. It’s when you’re not in charge and you don’t really know what’s going to happen that you’re pushed as an actor. You allow yourself to be really, really pushed, challenged and stretched, which are all those things actors want to have. So your understanding kind of evolves the more you read because, obviously, by the end of episode 10, Lester was far more 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?
MF: No, not specifically. Ideally, I would have loved to have spent some time there prior to the start of filming, because what I definitely didn’t wanted to do was a caricature or something that was just comical or in any way saying, oh, aren’t these people funny.
In a perfect world I would have spent a couple of weeks hanging out in bars or just speaking to people. However, the perfect 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 that happened to speak like that and to be from that place.
So I listened to a lot of Minnesotans, let’s put it that way. I didn’t, however, go back and watch the Fargo movie, love it as I do, because accent-wise for my research, I wanted it to be actual Minnesotans and not actors playing Minnesotans, just as I wouldn’t expect an actor who wants to play a Minnesotan to study me. They shouldn’t study me, but rather study a Minnesotan.
That was kind of extent of my homework for this. So rather than thinking about what is it that makes Minnesotans different, specific, or whatever, I think Lester is pretty universal. There are Lesters everywhere in every race, walk of life and country. There are people who are sort of downtrodden, lack confidence and all that, so it was more a case of tapping into those qualities within me, really.
Even though this is a different cast of characters in the TV series as opposed to the film, I do hear a lot of people kind of comparing your character to William H. Macy’s in the film. Did that kind of put some pressure on you because he’s such an amazing actor, but also to distinguish your character from his?
MF: Yes, and, again, the reason I didn’t go back and watch the Fargo movie was because I didn’t really want that in my head, either way. I didn’t want it my head to copy or consciously differ from, because as soon as you try and differ yourself from someone, you’re becoming too conscious of that performance, anyway.
So no, I didn’t feel pressure in that way. You’re quite right, he’s a brilliant actor and the world doesn’t need another actor doing a Bill Macy impression. I don’t need to be doing that and he doesn’t need me doing that. So I treated it simply as my performance of a different character, albeit with some comparison. There are certain parallels, but I was too busy focusing on what I was doing with my character. At the risk of protesting too much, it was literally playing my part and how am I going to make it different from Macy’s performance.
I noticed in the first couple episodes that you make Lester seem very small. He seemed to kind of physically shrink. Can you talk a little about that, making the character appear that way onscreen?
MF: I’d love to, and it would make me sound impressive if I could talk about it, but it’s not a particularly conscious thing. I know the way I wanted him to feel and the way I felt when playing him. A couple of people asked me, “How do you physically shrink?” but I wasn’t aware of doing that.
You always develop a walk and a gait with your character and from there it’s just the way that you carry yourself. So that’s something I was aware of. Lester’s shoulders were slightly rounded and he doesn’t move his arms and swagger around much when he walks. He’s very, very contained and, unconsciously, he sort of doesn’t want to be noticed by the world.
Beyond that, I just knew the way I felt when I sort of embodied him and when I was speaking those lines and reacting to people. I’m a big believer in that it’s my job to just react, do you know what I mean, and the way that the world treats Lester gives you a big clue of how to play him. So I wasn’t kind of compartmentalizing and thinking, “OK, now I’m going to this and now I’m going to do that.” It felt like just a holistic thing in that 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. I wish I could speak better about that, but I can’t. I just hope that all made sense, though.
Was there anything that you added to the Lester character that wasn’t originally scripted for you? You look like a little bit thinner in the frame, but other than that was there anything about this role that you added?
MF: I suppose so because I think there always is, but I don’t even know what is specific and what I could answer to that. My job I feel is to take a good script and somehow make it better, which is every department’s job. It’s the camera department, the design department, etc., to make this script, which is hopefully already very good, even better.
An actor’s job is to put flesh on the bones of a character because even though it’s fantastically written, you don’t just see the script up there on the screen. That would be quite boring. You have to flesh it out, and things like the physicality and placement of the voice can only be done by an actor. I hope I brought a lot to Lester, but as far as specifics, I don’t really know. However, everything that you see on screen, some of that’s Noah and some of it’s me.
Do you think Lester would have remained timid if he hadn’t met Billy Bob Thornton’s character, or do you think that the descent into the dark side was kind of an inevitable shift for you character?
MF: I don’t know. If it had shifted it just would have taken a lot longer. I think meeting Malvo was a hell of a catalyst for Lester, but he still might have ended up picking people off with a gun from the rooftops eventually in 20 years. The fact, though, that he hammered his wife to death within days of meeting Lorne Malvo, no, I don’t think that would have happened. That would have been repressed, which is what has made him the way he is for his life thus far, the Lester that we first meet, who is almost incapable of showing his true feelings or venting his frustration or anger. So it’s a good question, but I don’t really know. I think it would have taken a lot longer without Malvo, so, yes, you have to blame him for all the stuff that goes on with Lester.
Of your latest roles in the past few years including Fargo, Sherlock and even to a minor extent in The Hobbit, you had to create a lot of fresh and new stuff out of material that’s already existed. Is that something that sort of attracts you to those types of roles?
MF: I have to say no, it’s not. Yes, I have done a lot of adaptations of stuff that is already literature, you know, like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which is a series of beloved books on television and radio and with Sherlock, The Hobbit and now Fargo, but it’s not a plan I can assure you. I never kind of wake up and think, “What’s the next adaptation I can be part of?” It’s just purely, and I hope it doesn’t get boring to hear it because I kind of almost bore myself saying it, but it’s just the writing. If something is well-written, I’m interested, and if something isn’t to my taste, then I’m not.
It’s just an accident, really, the fact that I seem to have been cast in a few of those things that you’re talking about, but, again, that’s not a plan or particular attraction on my part. It could be based on everything or nothing. I love doing completely new stuff. I love doing completely new theater, for instance, he said as he’s about to play Richard III.I’ve spent a long time doing brand new plays and that’s something I dearly love. So it’s just really what floats my boat at the time and it always comes down to the script, and my initial interest is always in that.
Is there anything that you’ve learned about yourself as an actor having played Lester, a kind of character you’ve never really played before, and a darker character?
MF: I don’t know yet. I think a lot of the time you play parts and there are things that you learn, but you don’t quite know what they are until perhaps years later. They will sort of filter back into your work years down the road. I remember people at drama school saying that this is not necessarily going to make sense to you now, but in five years the pin might drop or whatever.
At the moment, I’m not quite sure what I’ll take away from this role because I only finished (shooting) a week ago. All I know is that I really enjoyed it. I loved the job and I have hopes that people will like it, but I don’t know. It all kind of feeds in in a pretty under the radar way because things aren’t planned in that way or specific in that, well, I’ll do this and then I’ll learn that.
I’ve been living with this character for about five months, so I’ll decompress now for a bit and then I’ll probably get some perspective on it in a year and go, oh, I thought I was good in that bit, and I wasn’t very good in that bit and I like that bit, but I didn’t like that. So I’m sure that it will me inform me in some way and in ways I don’t quite know yet, if you know what I mean.
Fargo airs Tuesdays @ 10:00 p.m. EST/PST on the FX Network. As noted above, photo copyright of FX, so please no unauthorized copying or duplicating of any kind. Thanks!