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Interview: 'Sherlock''s Martin Freeman goes from Brit to Minnesotan in 'Fargo'

Martin Freeman as Lester in FX's "Fargo."
FX/Charles Large

A 10-episode limited series, "Fargo" is FX's jewel of an adaptation of the Academy Award®-winning eponymous film that tells the story of Lester (Martin Freeman), a good-natured insurance salesman, who has spent his life slowly being brow-beaten by his family and the world around him until an encounter with a former high school bully pushes him too far. Lester's encounter with Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) helps drive him to the dark side, and forever changes the life of the small-town insurance salesman.

"Fargo," premiering Tuesday, April 15 on FX, also stars Colin Hanks as Duluth Police Deputy Gus Grimly, a single dad who must choose between his own personal safety and his duty as a policeman when he comes face-to-face with a killer; and Allison Tolman as Molly Solverson, an ambitious Bemidji deputy. spoke to Freeman about taking on the role of Lester, which had previously been played by William H. Macy; what it was like working with Thornton; how the Brit got his Minnesota on; and more.

What attracted you to this part?

Well, just the fact that it's well written. The script itself is well written, the whole first episode, which is what I based my decision on. It was a lovely episode. And with Lester I just got the feeling that this was going to be a role where you could give rein to a lot of stuff.

Even within that first episode, the range that he goes between is really interesting, and so I knew that was only going to grow and expand in the next nine episodes, and so it proved to be. In all the 10 episodes I get to play as Lester. pretty much the whole gamut of human existence and human feeling … he does the whole lot.

Can you tell us a little bit about how you sort of see your character's relationship with Billy Bob Thornton's character?

It was those initial scenes with Billy that really, really attracted me to doing the role because I thought they were just mesmeric. It was like little plays doing it, little two-handed plays. Without kind of saying too much, it develops a lot off-screen. There are moments of on-screen development, but throughout the series it's sporadic.

But Lorne Malvo, I suppose, is a constant presence in Lester's life because of the change that Lester has undergone as a result of meeting him. So, everything that Lester does, every way that he develops as a character, for good and bad, you could say is down to that initial meeting with Lorne Malvo.

How has your understanding of Lester changed over the course of filming the series, because when we meet him he's one thing, but then a series of events happens that makes him become another thing?

Well, you have to go a lot on trust, really, because, again, I signed up just on the strength of the first episode. I saw a rough character outline, but it wasn't specific and it wasn't detailed. It was a general idea. So, I wouldn't really have any particular clues as to what was coming. So, we would all get drip fed the scripts when [the writer] was ready to show them to us. Like all writers, he didn't want to show anything until he was absolutely happy with it.

The stuff that Lester would be doing, it was all a surprise. So, I would read Episode 4 and go, "Oh my, God, that happens?" And then I'd read Episode 5 and think, "Wow, I didn't see that coming."

So, it was all a surprise and, in that sense, you have to just be ready to go with it and not make too many decisions, not prepare too much, and just be open and ready to move in whichever direction this character is going to go, because you, as the actor, don't dictate it. And I I liked that surprise.

Did you do any specific research about Minnesotans in preparation to play Lester?

Not specifically, no. Ideally, what I would have wanted to do was spend some time there pre-filming because what I wanted to do was definitely not do a caricature and definitely not do something that was just comic or a way of going, "Oh, aren't these people funny kind of thing."

So in an ideal world, I would have spent a couple of weeks hanging out in bars or just speaking to people. The ideal world doesn't exist and I wasn't able to do that. But I worked very hard on the accent because, as I said, I didn't want it to be like a comedy sketch. I wasn't playing an accent. I was playing a character who happened to speak like that and to be from that place.

That's why I didn't really go back and watch the initial film "Fargo," love it as I do, because for my research, I wanted it to be actual Minnesotans and not actors playing Minnesotans.

Even though this is a different cast of characters as opposed to the film, people will compare your character to William H. Macy's in the film. Did that kind of put some pressure on you because he's such an amazing actor?

The reason I didn't go back and watch "Fargo" was because I didn't really want that in my head. I didn't want it my head to copy or to consciously differ from. Because as soon as you try and differ yourself from someone, you're becoming too conscious of that performance anyway.

So, no, I didn't feel pressure in that way. You're quite right, he's a brilliant actor and the world doesn't need another actor doing a Bill Macy impression. So, I purely treated it as my performance of a different character, albeit with some comparison. There are some parallels, but I was too busy concentrating on what I was doing with Lester really

What was it like for you to get to explore Lester's dark side as the series goes on?

That was great. That was one of the major attractions of playing this role. I like, as much as I can, to play everything and by that I just mean, I think, within one line of dialogue you can play three different things, within one non-speaking reaction shot you can play three different things.

And I've always liked to sort of do that, not to just play the one thing. I like to try and reflect the complexities of how we are in real life, which is we're always thinking at least two things at the same time. So, certainly the overt dark side of Lester was something very attractive to me.

Could you speak to working with Billy Bob?

I did work with Billy, not as much as I would have wanted, because the first thing I shot with him was the scene in the emergency room. And it was just a pleasure; it was just a pleasure from the get-go. From the moment, we had a line run and then rehearsed it. There's not a lot of blocking, there's not a lot of choreography to do, but just sitting there doing it with a fantastic actor, who I've long admired, was an absolute joy.

Can you talk about some of your favorite scenes or moments from the series.

Yes, I will, trying not to give too much away. One of my favorite bits of playing this role, is becoming different aspects of Lester. I liked that very much. I like playing different aspects of people that surprise the audience and surprise you when you're playing. And this role afforded that greatly.

"Fargo" debuts Tuesday, April 15 at 10:00 p.m. ET/PT on FX.

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