Martin Freeman has starred in one of the most influential TV comedies of the millennium (the BBC’s original The Office) as well as headlined a billion-dollar film franchise (Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy)—and yet he remains, at least here in the States, something just shy of a household name.
That’s likely changing given his key role in Black Panther, Marvel’s $1.3 billion-grossing juggernaut, although the acclaimed 46-year-old English actor (an Emmy winner for his work on Sherlock) continues to be committed to straddling the line between blockbuster extravaganzas and smaller, more character-driven ventures. It’s the latter that best describes his latest, Cargo, which finds him playing a husband and father forced to traverse the Outback, with his infant daughter on his back, in a world overrun by zombies.
A unique take on a familiar genre, the film—premiering at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, and debuting exclusively on Netflix on May 18—once again proves that Freeman elevates virtually everything in which he participates. We spoke with him about working opposite babies, what most interests him about zombie cinema, his experience being part of the Black Panther phenomenon, and whether he’d ever consider reuniting for another season of The Office.
With Cargo, was the attraction that, after The Hobbit, you really wanted to do another film that involved trekking on foot across vast geographic distances?
That was my only hope in life. To keep trekking. Australia or New Zealand—it has to be one of those two countries.
You can just set up shop in that region.
[Laughs] And I might!
There’s a constant stream of zombie movies these days. What was it that differentiated Cargo from that pack?
To be honest, what I think helped is that I didn’t see it as a zombie film. What I innately focused on was the father-daughter thing. I said, straight up to them on the phone, “I don’t think the world necessarily needs another zombie film, and I don’t think it necessarily needs it with me in it. But I do really like the other stuff that’s going on as well.” I love a zombie, I love The Walking Dead, and when zombies are well done, it’s great. But also, The Walking Dead is really about human stories, you know? All the really good stuff is about us. It’s slightly less about just the minutia of zombies, and more to do with how we’re dealing with it, and how we’re falling apart or not as a species.
That did it for me. I didn’t approach it as a zombie film, because reading the screenplay, it didn’t read as a zombie film. It read like, something catastrophic is happening and a man has to get his daughter to safety, and there are some zombies in the background. The zombies were the obstacle, but the obstacle could have been any number of things.
Was it tough working with an infant?
It’s actually really easy, because we had two sets of twins, and they were both delightful kids. The pair that we ended up using most for close-up work, they were very responsive. Whatever was going on between me and one of the girls in that moment was what wound up in the film. I like kids, I like babies, and I like messing around and being silly. And generally, babies respond to that. They give what they get, and so do grown-ups [Laughs]. So before you know it, you can be in a scene that’s meant to be a bit scarier or sadder, or happy, tender moments, and there are ways of achieving that.
Obviously, you can’t direct a baby [Laughs]. You can gently nudge them, I suppose, just by setting the example of whatever your character is going through—they’ll respond to that. I hasten to add, not putting them through trauma or making them literally terrified. If you’re there, and if your character is crying, and they happen to be there looking at you, they’re going to respond in a different way than if your character is tickling them or giving them a kiss. I love working with them, actually, because it’s so responsive. It’s not just acting to a wall; it’s quite playful.
There’s a clear undercurrent about racism in Cargo. Was that also part of what appealed to you about the film, and was that a theme you discussed while making it?
It was discussed a little bit, because it’s the kind of thing people talk about. Every country has its own brand of racism, and the Australian brand is talked about by both black and white Australians. So it was present. But as you said, it wasn’t overt, and that’s not the reason I did the movie. I like that it had a presence. It’s not like I wouldn’t have done it if that hadn’t been in it, because as I said, the main thing for me was the father-daughter thing. But as a piece of “mood music” in the film, I was glad it was there, because I think it was sensibly handled, and not patronizingly or preachily handled.
Your character Andy fires a gun at one point, and looks mighty uncomfortable doing so. Are using firearms an unpleasant experience for you as well?
I have either the good fortune or the misfortune—you be the judge—of coming from a country that is not flooded with rifles. We don’t really grow up shooting guns. I would venture that even a red-blooded American in Andy’s situation might look at you sidewise if you said, “OK, fire rifles at those things that were living three minutes ago, and for all intents and purposes, are still people.” You’re not going to go, “Yeah, fine, I’ll do that!” That’s what marks Andy out as a human, as opposed to Vic [Anthony Hayes], who’s not a very nice man who shoots things really easily.
Andy’s not familiar with a gun, that’s for sure. And he’s not familiar with that form of rifle, because he didn’t grow up on an Australian farm. So yeah, both me and Andy are not very okay with guns. I’ve shot guns in films and TV, but those are the only times I hope to shoot one.
Cargo is a small-scale film, while Black Panther and The Hobbit are obviously not. Is transitioning between such projects easy?
I just like doing both. I quite like doing films of all sizes – because I like stories of all types – and just whatever appeals to me at the time. If I’m lucky enough for people to want me to do a comedy, and then an apocalyptic film, and then a superhero film—I’m a lucky man, that I’m allowed to do all this lovely stuff. I’m obviously aware of the size of the films, because you notice it; you notice the budget in craft services [Laughs]. But I don’t really think about it when I’m reading scripts, and I spend a lot of my life reading scripts.
Again, thank god, I’m a very lucky man. But when I’m reading, it’s: Do I think it’s intelligently written, does it feel like it’s been written by a committee, does it feel like it’s been written for the writer themselves, or is it trying to be written for a demographic, or a commercial way—which is fair enough, but it’s not my cup of tea, really. It’s those things that make me sign on to something, and those things of course come in all shapes and sizes. That’s the reason I end up in big and small films: because I’m a very fortunate person who’s asked to do them.
Two months after its debut, what’s the experience been like to watch Black Panther become a global phenomenon?
It was great, and very gratifying. I’m very pleased for everyone involved. It was a lot of hard work, but enjoyable work. And it’s been very important to some audiences who have hungered to see themselves in certain situations, hungered to see themselves in different ways. To play my small part in that, I’m very proud of it. And I’m very proud of it because it’s a very good film. If it was just an important film, or just a political—with a small or big “p”—film, that would be one thing. But no, it’s a good film! I really like it. It’s thrilling and it’s funny and it’s moving and thought-provoking. I’m very proud of it.
Do you have any future Marvel plans? You can tell me if you’re the actual hero of Avengers: Infinity War.
[Laughs] As far as I know, I do have more Marvel plans. I suppose I can’t really be too specific, because I don’t actually know what they are. But yes, the plan always certainly was that I do have some more Marvel work to do. Unless they change their mind, that’s the idea.
You made headlines recently with comments about fans’ oppressive expectations for Sherlock. Is that dynamic the new normal?
I think so. And in a way, it’s the new normal if you’re lucky, because if you’re in something that has a lot of fans, that’s better than being in something that has no fans. My point with Sherlock was that those expectations can be heavy. There’s a certain aspect that some fans are going to run with the ball and make their own thing out of your show—which is completely fair enough, as long as we all acknowledge that that is what is happening. I think when you get into a slightly tail-wagging-the-dog scenario, that gets boring, for me. So when people insist that Sherlock is supposed to be this show, when we decide what show it is, it’s like, “No, this is actually the show we’re making, and that we’ve always made. I know you want to see this happen, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to have to happen.” I want all kinds of things, but they’re not going to happen in life. So that’s what gets, frankly, wearing.
But the show itself, I’m well aware of its importance in my life, both professionally and personally, because I love the show. I’m a fan of the show. Unfortunately, that’s the joy of being quoted out of context, and joy of newspapers needing a headline, even though the headline is not something I ever said at any point in the interview.
Speaking of fan expectations, there seems to be a constant desire to see a reunion of The Office. Is that something you have a desire to revisit?
No, I do not. I have no desire to go back to it. It would have to be so miraculously good. Ricky [Gervais] and Steve [Merchant] would have to come with a script that was miraculously good, and have a reason to do it that was miraculously good. If it was good enough to do, then I’d do it. But I can’t see that it would be, and I can’t see that either of them would want to, because I think both of them have more taste than that. I’m not a massive fan of revivals, and I’m not a massive fan of getting the old gang back together.
We were nowhere near as good as The Beatles. Now, I’m going to ask you: Would The Beatles have been as good as The Beatles if they’d reformed in 1990? The answer, to any sane person, would be, of course they wouldn’t. So if The Beatles aren’t going to be that good, neither are we.