To say that Martin Freeman is on a roll is to suggest that he once endured a career dry spell. But what else do you call it when an actor stacks his resume with key roles in a murderer’s row of cultural touchstones and commercial juggernauts like Sherlock, The Hobbit, Fargo and, most notably, Black Panther? In fact, ever since the 46-year-old British actor broke out as the lovable mope Tim Canterbury in the BBC’s groundbreaking cult workplace comedy The Office, Freeman has shown a preternatural knack for showing up in anything and everything that inspires rabid fandom.
Zombie movies have almost become as common as, say, coming-of-age movies or road-trip movies. Was it important to you that Cargo approached the genre in a different way?
It was important that we didn’t approach it as a genre film at all. As far as I was concerned, I wasn’t making a zombie film, and I was pretty up-front with the directors about that from the first time I spoke to them, way before we made the film.
At its core, it’s a film about the relationship between a father and his daughter.
It’s entirely about that. The zombies could have been anything. They were the obstacle that was endangering my daughter’s life. But it could’ve been floods, it could’ve been weather—it could’ve been anything. I happen to love our take on the zombies because, like everyone, I love a zombie film if it’s well made. I like a romantic comedy if it’s well done. So I was never approaching it as a zombie film. I was playing a man who had to react to clear and present danger while trying to get his daughter to safety. It was a family struggle with some zombies in it.
These have to be three-dimensional characters. They can’t be ciphers for white liberals to cry over.
I quite like it, but there were times at 1 o’clock in the morning where I thought, "Why are we doing this again? Surely, there’s an adage about this somewhere that I can’t seem to remember." But when it’s effective and when it works, there’s a reason it works. We were all children once. We are genetically predisposed to look after children and to care for them and to love them if they’re ours. It can be manipulative, and it can be exploitative, but there’s something very touching about children needing help, and in this case, children giving help. He relied on her, and she relied on him. I like that it was a symbiotic relationship.
What would your priorities be if you were faced with your character’s situation—if you had 48 hours to live?
You just try and somehow make sure your family is as OK as humanly possible. That’s all that matters in the end, isn’t it? Once you have kids, everything is secondary to that. Life gets hard, and things are rough and annoying, but all you do is you go, "Hang on—are my kids OK?" Not to say that I never get angry about other stuff, and I go around in a world of zen, forgiveness and peace just because I’m a father—that‘s the polar opposite of what I am—but generally, you just want your kids to be alright. That’s what motivates a lot of goodness in the world and a lot of the selfishness in the world and everything. Oh, I would also look for some really good shoes.
The film also explores Australia’s history of colonization, as well as growing fears over climate change and fracking. Did you find that appealing?
It resonated with me, but it wasn’t why I did it. I like layered things. It’s nice to have different strands to a film. If different things are thoughtful in a story, then I’m all for that, as long as it’s not overloaded with issues because that can get a bit suffocating. I think that stuff was touched on enough, without being preachy. It’s just here—it’s part of the fabric of the story because it’s part of the fabric of that country. The indigenous thing was interesting to me because it’s done in a way that I wasn’t familiar with. But it all came down to the story and the characters. These have to be three-dimensional characters. They can’t be ciphers for white liberals to cry over.
I just think [an Office reunion] is so unlikely. I know revivals are now part of the firmament or terrain. Growing up, I thought revivals meant you’d given up.
I don’t really fall on either side of that debate. I have Netflix. I don’t want to sound like an ad for Netflix, but of course I use it. It’s been a fantastic way of seeing film and television for me, and for every single person I know. All the people who are down on that way of seeing content, I bet they’ve all got Netflix. And I’m sure every single person who works at Netflix loves cinema. But that doesn’t mean there’s only one way to watch content, bearing in mind that after the war, people thought television was the death knell of cinema—it wasn’t. These things are cyclical, and things that are of worth, find a way. If it was ever suggested that cinema was being replaced by any platform, I’d say, "Of course not!" For me, one doesn’t negate the other. I’m perfectly happy with Cargo being on Netflix because it will potentially reach a massive audience. The amount of good things that I’ve seen on Netflix that I did not see on a big screen—loads of things.
And yet, whenever I’m faced with a decision of what to watch on Netflix, I’ll just re-watch The Office. Do you ever revisit your work on that show?
Yes, I do. I’ll watch it. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of. I love the fact that it had an immediate impact, certainly in my country, when it came on. People in the business knew it—I was very aware of that. Mass audiences didn’t know it, but people who did my job knew it and loved it. They loved it in a similar way that people loved This is Spinal Tap. And then we started meeting the guys from Spinal Tap, and they were talking about how much they loved The Office. It was highly intellectual. It’s still one of the happiest memories of my life.
It was also groundbreaking, in terms of the way it told a single contained story with a distinct beginning, middle and end.
Absolutely, and that’s something I always admired about [co-creators] Ricky [Gervais] and Stephen [Merchant]. They knocked it on the head. There would’ve been more money to earn by putting it in syndication—it could’ve gone on for years. They didn’t do the normal thing, although they did do the normal thing for Britain. Fawlty Towers was 12 episodes, and it’s the best thing that I’ve ever seen. It’s like things that are finite have real value.
Does that mean you wouldn’t consider a reunion if you were approached by Ricky, especially given all the success that other revivals are having?
I just think it’s so unlikely. I know revivals are now part of the firmament or terrain. Growing up, I thought revivals meant you’d given up, that you’ve stopped searching. Now, it doesn’t mean that I’m not pleased to see people back. I am pleased to see people back, but for me, it all comes down to the Beatles. They made records for seven years, and then they fucked off, and that’s why they’re the Beatles. If they were still making records in 1989, who still cares? But seven years of the greatest art of the 20th century—yeah, fine. I’ll take it.
The season you did of Fargo also operated under those guidelines. It was the perfect 10-episode story.
And that’s what appealed to me about it. I read the first episode of that and thought, "Oh, Christ, I’m going to have to do this." The reason I don’t normally go to American TV, even though I absolutely love it, is because you have to sign up for seven years, and I don’t want to do that for anything. When Fargo came along, it was finite—10 episodes and absolutely perfect. It felt tailor-made for me. It was brilliantly written, the character was endlessly interesting, and there was a lot for me to do. And I got to play with Billy Bob Thornton. Who wouldn’t want to do that?
Finally, I obviously have to ask you about Black Panther. Do you have an appreciation for what that film meant for so many people?
I do, actually. I’m very proud of it. We knew while we were making it that it was going to have an audience without question. Beyond that, we knew it was going to mean more to a lot of people than any other film of that kind. I was also confident because of the work I saw us, and particularly [director] Ryan [Coogler], doing. So apart from all of that, I knew it was going to be a really good film. It has to be that. It can't just be an important film or a worthy film or an earnest film. It has to be entertaining. It has to do all the things that a Marvel film does because it’s still in that canon. For obvious reasons, it’s unlike any other one we’ve seen. I’m very proud of the fact that people have hungered for it, and we delivered a great film. Especially Ryan Coogler, who absolutely worked his ass off. I can’t wait to see what he does for the sequel.