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If you've gone to the movies or turned on your TV in the past year or so, chances are you've seen Martin Freeman. Not only is he starring as adventure-seeking hobbit Bilbo Baggins in the big-screen "Hobbit" trilogy, he's also Benedict Cumberbatch's sidekick Watson on PBS's "Sherlock." (Plus, TV fans remember his breakout role as Tim, the John Krasinski equivalent on the original U.K. version of "The Office.")
But even if you recognize Freeman's face, you won't recognize his voice this time around. The very British Freeman adopts an "oh yah, you betcha" Minnesota accent to play browbeaten insurance salesman Lester Nygaard in "Fargo" (debuting April 15), FX's ten-episode reimagining of the classic Coen brothers film. (It tells a new story with new characters, but if it helps, think of Lester as a slight twist on William H. Macy's tragic loser Jerry Lundegaard.)
Watch the first seven minutes of FX's "Fargo" right here:
Pummeled by life, Lester finds himself drawn into the nefarious web of hitman Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton). And hearing Freeman speak as Lester is a bit startling at first. In fact, the chipper Marge Gunderson lilt is so different from Freeman's native tongue, he prefers to stay in the Minnesota accent all day on set, even when not on camera… as we learned when we sat down to talk with him on "Fargo's" Calgary set.
Read on to find out why Freeman chose not to watch the original "Fargo" again after accepting the role, why Lester is "not one of life's winners," and how listening to native Minnesotans on YouTube helped him nail the accent.
You're a very busy man these days.
Yeah, thank God.
So this must've been a really great script to get you to commit to another project.
It was. It was just exactly that. I kind of signed on just on the basis on the first episode. Within that first episode, a couple of scenes that my character and Billy Bob [Thornton's] character have together made me think, "God, I've got to do this," you know? It was a very, very attractive proposition.
Were you familiar with the film?
Yeah, I was, but I haven't familiarized myself with it since, because I don't really want that in my head. I don't want to be playing the movie. But this is not the movie, so… I like the movie, of course. I love the Coen brothers, but I gotta say, I don't think any of us are really feeling, you know, "Am I being McDormand enough? Am I being Macy enough?" It's really not that kind of thing at all. Once you know that's the jumping-off point, you jump off and you don't look back.
Yeah, the series is a completely different story.
Totally different, yeah, I really think so. You know, [creator] Noah [Hawley], as a writer, definitely has something that really keys into the Coens' kind of sensibility. But beyond that, I don't think any of us are interested in recreating something that was fantastic, that we can only fall short of. [Laughs.] It has to be its own thing. It has to stand on its own.
I've read all ten [episodes] now. All ten of them are outstanding, I think. Really exciting, page-turning, surprising plot developments. Not many things are really that exciting. I've been watching "House of Cards," and there are things in there that make you go, "My God!" and just squeal with excitement. And it's kind of similar to this story; there are things that you go, "Really? We're f--king doing that?" [Laughs.]
So what's Lester's state of mind when we meet him? He's hen-pecked by his wife…
To say the least.
He's outclassed by his brother, he's bullied… he's really at the end of his rope, right?
Yeah, he's someone who, for his 40 years on Earth, has really just been up against it. I guess it's gotten worse; probably at 18, he had a bit more verve. But I think certainly since he's been married, the world has conspired, and he's allowed it to conspire, to tell him that he's not one of life's winners. His wife is not afraid to remind him of that.
So I think that's of course how he sees himself. But he's essentially a decent person. He's a nice guy. Not very exciting. Good manners. He's probably one of those old-fashioned people who thinks that manners should be important — not pushing and shoving. But in the meantime, he's been pushed and shoved a lot. Until he reaches the point where he can't take it anymore… with disastrous consequences.
But at the same time, there must be something that attracts him to Thornton's character. He could've just told this guy to go away, right?
That, I guess, is where good casting comes in, because there's something attractive about Billy Bob. There's something magnetic about him, you know? And Lester's never met anybody like that before. Certainly not in the context of where they are and what Lester's doing. Lester's just had his nose busted open, and this guy, totally unsolicited, comes over and tells him how his life could be changed. [Laughs.]
It's scary to Lester, and it's kind of an imposition, but he can't get it out of his mind. So yeah, I think you need an attractive actor to play that part. And Billy Bob is a great, magnetic personality. He is anyway, but he's certainly able to play that.
I have to ask about the accent. You're doing it right now! Do you feel like you need to keep it going, even off-camera?
When I'm at work, yeah. To get details and to get nuances, it's too hard to just go from London to Minnesota, you know, on "Action!" It would be a much more broad wash of sounds, as opposed to trying to get the details and stay in there. So yeah, from the minute I get in the car to the moment I wrap… and sometimes I just forget and carry on. While I'm being wrapped out of makeup, I'm still talking, and "Oh, I don't have to talk like this anymore!" [Laughs.] But it just becomes absolutely second nature, yeah.
Do you have any tips or tricks that you keep in mind to nail the accent?
No, it's muscle memory by now. At first I was doing exercises that I was given, and also just watching, not watching "Fargo," but actual Minnesotans talk on YouTube, you know? Things like that. Just listening to audio things that help… once you've got certain vowel sounds, you know you're not just in Standard American, whatever that is. [Laughs.] There are things that jog you into thinking, "Oh, I'm from this part of the world."
"Fargo" premieres Tuesday, April 15 at 10 p.m. on FX.