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Martin Freeman is not a loser. He only plays one on TV.
Freeman, best known for slaying Orcs as Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit and solving crimes as John Watson on Sherlock, goes from reluctant hero to reluctant villain in Fargo, FX’s upcoming adaptation of the Coen brothers classic. He stars as Lester Nygaard, a small-town salesman on the cusp of some big-time problems.
“When we meet Lester, he’s a 40-year-old man who has been pushed around for most of his life,” Freeman told Spinoff Online on the Calgary set of Fargo. “He’s in a loveless marriage. He’s henpecked, to say the least. He’s not brilliant at his job. He’s one of those people who life happens to. He gets a lot of life thrown at him, and he doesn’t deal with it very well.”
Early in the pilot episode, Lester suffers a broken nose while attempting to evade an old high-school bully. When he visits the emergency room for treatment, Lester encounters a remedy he never counted on: chaotic wisdom from low-life Lorne Malvo, played by Billy Bob Thornton.
“He’s magnetic and everything that Lester is not,” Freeman said. “They talk, and he kind of switches a little lever in Lester’s mind. He seems to say, ‘You can look at your life in a different way, if you want.’ That little bug just stays with Lester. It’s not immediate, and it’s not overnight, but it needles its way into him.”
Nygaard’s first encounter with Malvo represents the central idea of Fargo, according to writer Noah Hawley: What happens when civilization meets the wilderness? The answer is shocking and violent, not just for the viewer, but also for Lester. Not long after the emergency room, Lester makes a spontaneous, brutal decision that’s sure to haunt him for the rest of the series.
“Malvo is definitely a strong presence when Lester makes that choice,” Freeman said. “It’s all Lester, and it’s totally his responsibility in a court of law, but that bug was definitely put there in the emergency room.”
Lester makes questionable choices throughout Fargo, and that’s exactly what keeps Freeman along for the ride. Asked why he wanted to participate in Fargo, the actor said, “It wasn’t the movie, because I liked the movie, and I didn’t need to be in a second-class version of the movie. It was purely the writing. It was only that.”
Before signing on, Freeman knew that Thornton was already cast as Malvo. “When I got to the scenes where I knew it was me and Billy Bob, they were fantastically written scenes,” he said. “I kicked it around in my head, and I showed the script to my wife, and she told me, ‘You gotta fucking do it. You gotta do it. It’s so good.’ And I knew I had to.”
When he committed to the series, Freeman knew nothing else about Lester’s journey, beyond what was revealed in the pilot. “The rest of it was on trust,” he said, “and I was right to trust, because the rest of it has been fantastic. All 10 episodes are amazing. It’s one of the best-written projects I’ve ever done.”
“Noah gets that slightly ‘Coen-esque’ feeling in his writing,” he continued. “Which is partly why the Coens gave their blessing, because I think they thought he’s a kindred spirit in that way. He’s very good at dark, and very good at ‘funny dark.’ He’s very good at surprising you. He has characters do things where you’re always saying, ‘Wow, I did not see that one coming.’ It’s always nice to be surprised as a reader, knowing that you’re going to act it out — and as the viewer, seeing things that actually make you gasp.”
Beyond the writing, Freeman is surrounded by a vast array of talented actors, from veterans like Oliver Platt to newcomers like Allison Tollman. And then, of course, there’s Thornton as Malvo, the key figure of chaos, and the show’s heart of darkness.
“I wish we had more stuff together,” Freeman said. “We actually have a disappointing amount together. But the couple of scenes we did in the first episode were two of my favorite days of work. I just loved working with him. He’s a great guy. He’s amusing and easy. Some people are difficult and some people are easy — he’s an easy, easy guy.”
Little else about Fargo is easy. Freeman maintained Lester’s Minnesotan accent throughout the interview in an effort to stay in character before filming an emotional scene opposite Breaking Bad veteran (and future Better Call Saul star) Bob Odenkirk. Fargo marks Freeman’s first time working on an American television series, and he described it as the fastest-paced experience of his career.
“This is the quickest fucking thing I’ve ever done; I’ve never worked this quickly before,” Freeman laughed. “You have to bring what you can bring, right now. Bring it now. Don’t bring it an hour from now. If you have something to do, do it now — or do it before now — because in an hour, we won’t be doing it anymore.”
Fargo premieres April 15 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX.
Stay tuned to Spinoff Online for more interviews from the set of Fargo.