In the taxonomy of Hollywood, Martin Freeman is the kind of actor typically categorized under the genus Everyman. He isn’t the dashing action-hero type, nor is he the first guy a Hollywood studio exec would think to put in a big, splashy rom-com (notwithstanding some naked meet-cute moments in 2003’s Love Actually). He’s the guy who gets picked to play characters such as the wry, sweet cubicle drone Tim Canterbury on the original version of The Office, the steadfast best pal John Watson on the smash BBC series Sherlock, and the good-hearted Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson’s blockbuster Hobbit trilogy. In some ways, Freeman’s latest role, Lester Nygaard on FX’s new crime drama Fargo, is a departure for the 44-year-old British actor — there’s the thick Midwestern accent, for one thing, which he’s honed partly by watching YouTube videos of real Minnesotans. Still, the whole point of the character, a meek insurance salesman who breaks bad and gets entangled in an escalating series of grisly crimes, is that he’s the type of self-effacing regular Joe you’d normally look right past. As Freeman puts it drily, ”I don’t get cast as the guy who steps off a yacht in a white linen suit with a martini. It would not really be my function to be the smooth guy — unless something s—ty happens to the smooth guy.”
This isn’t a bad thing, of course. Many of Hollywood’s greatest legends, from Jimmy Stewart to Jack Lemmon to Tom Hanks, have been celebrated for their accessible, guy-next-door quality. But Freeman — who in person comes across as fiercely intelligent, sharply funny, and tightly wound — doesn’t see it that way. Drinking a latte while on break from shooting Fargo (a loose adaptation of the much-loved 1996 Coen brothers movie) in Calgary, the actor bristles at the label of Everyman. To him it smacks of a kind of dismissal and almost an insult, and when the subject comes up, he becomes as agitated as a prim hobbit encountering a band of unruly dwarves. ”It sounds like a backhanded compliment, because I think, What, you don’t think I’m exciting? You don’t think I’m dangerous?” he says. ”Any pigeonhole is something to be rebelled against. When people say, ‘You’re a normal Everyman,’ I go, ‘Well, you f—ing find five of me in the street then!’ There aren’t many of me walking around, you know!”
Even the idea that people think he shares some qualities with the nice, approachable characters he’s played so often in movies and on TV rubs Freeman the wrong way. ”I’d rather that than people taking a swing at me,” he says. ”But can it ever be tedious? Yes. I’ve always slightly envied other actors I know who have different reputations. I think, God, you don’t get people coming up to you, going, ‘Hey!’ — because they’re scared of you.”
Clearly, there’s more to Freeman than you might have thought, which explains why he was drawn to the role of Fargo’s Lester, whose own timid, polite exterior hides rage and anguish within. (Freeman plays a version of the character portrayed in the movie by William H. Macy.) ”How do I say this without it sounding like I think I’m James Dean?” he wonders aloud. ”I’ve always been attracted to darkness.” Billy Bob Thornton, who costars on Fargo as the murderous drifter Lorne Malvo — and is no stranger to darkness himself — notes, ”Martin is an interesting guy. He’s much more intense than people might think. He’s got a lot of water under the bridge.”
It’s approaching midnight in Calgary, on a sleepy side street standing in for Bemidji, Minn., and the cast and crew of Fargo are preparing to stage a climactic moment of violence for late in the series’ 10-episode run. (No spoilers here, but the call sheet lists such things as ”pistol w/silencer,” ”knife,” ”broken glass,” and ”pooled blood,” so you get the idea.) At the moment, though, Freeman is just sitting quietly in a car, trying to keep warm. He glances over at replicas of the famous roadside statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox that stand in the real town of Bemidji. ”Who is Paul Bunyan?” he asks. ”Is he, like, a real guy? Is he well-known?” To Freeman, who has never actually been to Fargo or Bemidji, middle America might as well be Middle-earth.
A crew member approaches the actor and tells him the evening’s snack options. Freeman — who is already on edge about people who’ve been walking in his eye line during takes, breaking his concentration — finds none of them to his liking. ”I don’t want jalapeño, and I don’t eat chicken or beef,” he says curtly. ”Can that just be something that people know about me after five months?”
Spend a little time around Freeman and you can pick up an electric undercurrent of anger humming inside him. He is perfectly aware that it’s there. ”There’s quite a deep well of it,” he says. ”It alarms me sometimes.” Asked what kinds of things make him angry, he answers, ”F—ing name it. Some of it is a sort of lighthearted anger that I know will pass, but some of it is pretty deep-seated and a fundamental part of me that I think people often don’t understand.” He does enjoy periods of happiness, he says, as when he’s with his longtime partner, actress Amanda Abbington (who plays Watson’s wife, Mary, on Sherlock), and their children, Joe and Grace; when the acting is going well; or when he’s indulging in his passion for collecting classic soul albums. ”But it will probably never last that long without me puncturing it,” he admits. ”It’s a pain in the ass in some ways, and in other ways it’s a blessing. For all of my faults as a person that it brings out, it’s helped put food on the table.”
The actor was wired from an early age with a generally cynical worldview coupled with an impulse to show off. His parents separated when he was a young child and he moved in with his father, a naval officer, who then died of a heart attack when Freeman was 10. After his early dreams of becoming a professional squash player faded, he discovered acting at age 15 and found it was a way to channel all the roiling emotion inside him. ”If I didn’t have this outlet, this valve, God alone knows what I’d be,” he says.
Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley says Freeman’s air of simmering discontentment is exactly why he wanted the actor for the role of Lester. ”There’s a pent-up energy to Martin that’s always there,” Hawley says. ”That made me feel he’s the perfect choice for this — because Lester is a spring that’s wound tight and can snap.” Freeman’s dyspeptic nature is inextricably fused with his deadpan comic talents, adds Sherlock co-creator Mark Gatiss: ”He’s got such funny bones and he’s a very angry man as well, which provides a great deal of laughs. The thing we always have to do with Martin is take lines out [of the script] because he says, ‘Well, I can just do that with a look.’ And he’s always right.”
As a deeply private person, Freeman hasn’t had an easy time adjusting to fame. While the mania surrounding Sherlock has elevated his costar Benedict Cumberbatch to massive stardom and sex-symbol status, Freeman has sought to keep a low profile, even as he’s faced the added insanity of rabid Tolkien fans. ”The trajectory of [Cumberbatch’s rise] is very extreme,” Freeman says. ”It’s deserved in his case, because he’s really good. But to that extent? No thanks. I like to be a moving target. I’ve got enough madness in my life without it being there all the time.” For now, though, the madness isn’t going away: Freeman’s starring on the season’s best-reviewed new series (4.5 million viewers checked out the premiere); he’ll be back in theaters this December with the final installment of the Hobbit trilogy; and at some point down the road — most likely around 2016 — Sherlock will come back for a fourth season. All along the way, there will be red carpets for Freeman to walk, cameras flashing in his face, reporters asking irritating questions about his Everyman quality, and countless insufficiently scared people coming up to him and going, ”Hey!”
Still, Freeman loves to act, and that makes everything that comes with it tolerable. Anyway, what choice does he have? ”If you could get paid to go buy records and just sit and listen to them, that would make me happy, but that’s not a job,” he says. ”For all my malcontent ways, what else would I be happy doing? Do you know what I mean?” He pauses, his mind still spinning, and the question hangs in the air, unanswered.