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Interview: Martin Freeman Buries His Ego in the Snow in Fargo

Life isn’t great for Martin Freeman’s character Lester Nygaard. Without spoiling it, the put-upon hero of the FX series Fargo finds himself mired in murder and money, thanks to the manipulative drifter Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton), and it’s only set to get worse in this adaptation of the Coen Brothers’ classic film. Freeman joined a conference call to talk about his role in the series, avoiding a William H. Macy impersonation, and his gigantic ego.

So what brought the actor the series? It was the script. “The whole first episode is what I based my decision on,” Freeman says. “For pretty much the entire ten episodes, I get to play the full depth of human experience.” Freeman says that’s an actor’s dream, something he couldn’t turn down. He describes showrunner/writer Noah Hawley’s scripts as full of surprises – and as an actor, it was worthwhile to not overprepare, to allow the character to be surprised from scene to scene: “Your understanding really evolves as you read. So by the end of episode ten, Lester is doing things that he wouldn’t do in episode one.”

Freeman says that he also appreciated that Fargo was finite. “I like the hit and run approach,” he laughed, saying that he prefers to move from one project to another as opposed to being locked into one role and wearing out his welcome.

The actor says that he even avoided going back to watch Fargo the film – not only to avoid coming into the show with any preconceptions, but as well to keep from trying to replicate William H. Macy’s performance. “I treat it as I’m doing a completely different character – there are some parallels, but they’re different.”

“I definitely had to reign my gigantic ego in,” Freeman jokes about playing Lester. In our chat with Billy Bob Thornton, the actor talked about how he had to play up his own ego in order to play Malvo, while Martin had to bury his personality to play Lester. “I’m a more confident person than Lester is,” Freeman says. “It’s kind of about tapping into those insecurities that we all have. And I find that kind of fascinating.”

Discussing the changes that are wrought in Lester and his life throughout the series, Freeman chalks it all up to a chance hospital meeting between the character and Thorton’s Malvo early in the first episode. “It develops a lot off-screen,” Freeman says of the duo’s strange relationship.

Freeman says that it’s possible that if Lester have never met Malvo, it might have been another 20 years before he snapped and started picking off people from a rooftop. That first meeting in the emergency room seemed to open something up in Lester, though, and by the end of the first episode, his character’s hands are bloody. “Lorne Malvo is a constant presence in Lester’s life… Every way that he develops – good and bad – you could say is down to that first meeting with Lorne Malvo.”

“I did work with Billy – not as much as I would have wanted. The first scene we shot was in the emergency room,” Freeman says, describing the experience of working with Thornton as a “joy.” “It just instantly clicked. We just had an easy chemistry together.”

Fargo premieres Tuesday, April 15th at 10/9c on FX.

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