By MICHAEL GINGOLD
After headlining the three HOBBIT epics for Peter Jackson, Martin Freeman has traveled into the darker, more personal spaces of the genre with CARGO and GHOST STORIES. He talks about both in this exclusive RUE MORGUE chat.
CARGO, directed by Yolanda Ramke and Ben Howling based on their same-titled short film, and debuting today on Netflix, casts Freeman as Andy, a man struggling to protect his baby daughter and young aboriginal girl Thoomi (Simone Landers) on a trek through the zombie-inhabited Australian Outback (see review here). In Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson’s GHOST STORIES, released last month and currently on cable VOD from IFC Midnight, Freeman’s character also deals with supernatural events surrounding his infant child, and later proves to have a larger-than-expected part in the narrative (review here). We spoke with Freeman following CARGO’s first screening at New York City’s Tribeca Film Festival; please note there are SPOILERS for GHOST STORIES toward the end…
When you watched the CARGO short, did you immediately see the possibilities for the feature?
I did, yeah. I was sent the short with the script, and it was a combination of watching the short and seeing that they knew what they were doing—I was dealing with people who knew where to put the camera—and the screenplay was interesting to me immediately.
The last time you dealt with zombies was in the comedic context of SHAUN OF THE DEAD, and in CARGO it’s a very serious one. Can you contrast those experiences?
Well, I was only on SHAUN OF THE DEAD for a day, and I did it because they were my mates and it was a fun little part. I liked the idea that there were these two gangs who were almost exactly the same, because Simon Pegg and I have so often been confused with each other in people’s minds. I thought that was a funny little touch. I guess they’re both films that slightly play with the form, because SHAUN OF THE DEAD is a comedy with zombies in it, and CARGO is a sort of…dark tragedy with zombies in it, where that element is slightly secondary, because what it truly deals with is the family.
And zombie movies are so prevalent now that you don’t have to explain what they’re all about to the audience.
Absolutely. When I first spoke to Ben and Yolanda, I believe I said to them, “I don’t know that I need to do a zombie film.” It wasn’t something that was burning in me. But I need to do films I like, and I liked the screenplay. It spoke to me about being a father and being human, and I found it exciting and at times very charming, the stuff that happens mainly between Andy and Thoomi.
Are you a parent yourself, and if so, how did that play into the way you approached Andy?
Yes, and not even in really conscious ways. It’s just an innate thing. If you’re a parent, that ultimately, in a way, feeds into everything you play; it certainly feeds into everything in your life. I imagine if I’d done this part before I was a parent, I still would have had a good stab at it, but I do think that when you are one, 23 percent more stuff is just there, because you’re not having to imagine, “How would I feel if my daughter’s life was in danger?”
How was it working with the baby on set?
It was great. We had two sets of twins over the course of the film. Very, very occasionally, it was difficult because they’re going to be babies, and if they need to sleep or shout or scream and cry, that’s what they’re going to do. But they were amazingly, fortunately well-behaved for the whole process, because you know, filming and babies don’t necessarily go together very well, since obviously, a baby’s going to do what it’s going to do, and it’s no respecter of schedules or whether we’re losing the light. We were very lucky with them, and they were lovely kids.
How about Simone Landers, who plays Thoomi?
Simone was great; it was the first time she had acted, so I took on a slight parenting role with her, and took her under my wing, just because I’d done it before and she hadn’t. In a way, the relationship that plays out on screen was slightly reflected in life as well. I was helping to guide her a bit—and I suppose her character on screen is helping me as well.
You shot on some beautiful, and also, I would imagine, challenging locations in the Outback. What was that like?
It was interesting. At times, I was thinking, “I never want to film in the Outback again,” because I was being eaten alive by mosquitoes, and there were flies and all that. But I’m very glad I did it, because I’d never been to the Outback before; I had certainly not filmed there. I was seeing emus and other wildlife, which was fantastic; you could be in the middle of a shot and there’d be a herd of bloody kangaroos leaping across, and that was great for me as an Englishman. It was unlike any other filming experience I’ve had.
How was it working with two directors? How did they divide the work?
I’ve worked with double directors several times now, and I quite like it. It’s nice for them to share the load. Film is obviously very collaborative anyway, but you’re seeing that collaboration all the time: It’s two people in charge and giving you direction rather than one. What tends to happen when I work with two directors is that one will take over one area and the other will take over another, or they might even deal with different actors, depending on the relationship they have with them. This felt pretty even-handed; I might have had a few more dealings with Yolanda, because I believe she’s done more acting than Ben.
What’s interesting is that you see the strengths or weaknesses of that working relationship quite well, because it’s public. Whatever conversations they’re having behind closed doors, they’re also having them on set in front of 70 people. But I never saw a cross word between Ben and Yolanda, ever.
Was it a similar situation with Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson on GHOST STORIES?
It was, because they’ve been friends since 1981, so they’re very close. And again, because Andy is an actor, there were certain notes that would come more logically from him. But they were both very trusting—the people they cast, they trusted to do their job. Andy and Jeremy are delightful men, very smart, clever, funny. They love horror and they love magic, so all the illusions that happen in the film are live illusions. They’re good at that, and they know their horror lineage.
Had you seen their original GHOST STORIES stage production before doing the film?
No, I think it was on right about the time I was going all over the place with THE HOBBIT, and I missed it.
How did you respond to the script when you first read it, particularly when you found out how much more your character is involved than it first appears?
I absolutely loved the script. Andy sent it to me, and he said, “It’s got a bit of SLEUTH in it for you.” SLEUTH is a film I used to watch when I was a kid, like daily, watching Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier go at it, so he had me at SLEUTH.
SPOILERS for GHOST STORIES follow…
Was it fun working under the prosthetics for some of your GHOST STORIES scenes?
Yeah, I really enjoyed that, because people didn’t know it was me! I’d be on set, being called by a different name, speaking in a different accent, and people didn’t recognize me. As it went on, there were words going around: “Where’s Martin?” I loved it. And honestly, audiences have not known; when they watch the movie not knowing anything about it, it’s fooled almost everybody. And that was a big ask, and something I was saying to Andy and Jeremy all the time: “Are we going to get away with it?” The prosthetics were amazing, so between them and what I was doing, the fact that we get away with it, I’m delighted about. We’ve relied on people’s good natures not to give it away, and so far it’s worked. People who saw the play didn’t reveal any secrets as well, and part of that is a testament to what nice men Andy and Jeremy are.
You play three characters, in a sense, in GHOST STORIES. Did you film each of them in separate portions, or did you have to alternate and keep track of all three during the whole shoot?
I believe there were times we were mixing them up. I was only on the movie for two weeks, so it wasn’t long. Once it gets into the third act with me, all bets are off, and we’re in this other realm. By the time that reveal happens, you realize we’re not in a logical world anymore—which is obviously explained by the end of it. It was fun to have that freedom, to be given free rein with interesting characters and good words, and be as heightened and theatrical as I liked.
You’ve done these two films, which are oriented toward practical effects, and you’ve also been in the world of Peter Jackson, where so much is digitally created. What are the differences and specific challenges of each one?
Well, you know, Peter tried to do as much practical as he could. I don’t think Peter himself is a huge greenscreen nut; it’s just that there are no real dragons, so you have to create them. The challenge of acting to greenscreen is not doing it badly, because you don’t always have a fantastic context for it; you’re just imagining everything. The practical stuff is better for the acting, ’cause it’s there, though sometimes it’s less physically comfortable. If I’d been in a greenscreen Outback, I wouldn’t have been eaten alive by mosquitoes! But at the same time, all of that feeds into the reality of your reaction.