Freeman's "Fargo": The quiet eloquence of "Minnesota nice"

During a busy blur of new cable shows, "Fargo" is the one that seized my attention. The series (which starts at 10 p.m. Tuesday, April 15) is good in every way -- beautifully written, filmed and -- with Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton playing opposites -- acted. And as someone who has spent a lot of time in Minnesota, I can attest to the fact that it captures that region's quiet and quirky charm. Here's the story I sent to papers:


British actors quickly become masters of big words, long
sentences, grand speeches.

Starring in the new “Fargo” series, however, Martin Freeman
goes the opposite way. “You have the so-called ‘Minnesota nice,’” he said.

These are Northern folks who don’t spend much time
lecturing. They were created in the 1996 movie by Minneapolis natives (Joel and
Ethan Coen) who know the turf.

“It’s a much more stoic culture,” said Noah Hawley, who
produces the TV version. “People don’t like to talk about their feelings.” It’s
a culture another Minnesotan (Garrison Keillor) captures on radio, Hawley said,
complete with “a lot of sentences started and abandoned.”

It’s a quiet and trusting world, creating fierce contrasts when
grisly murders appear. It’s also light years from the New York City where Hawley
grew up or the Texas where Allison Tolman (who plays a cop) grew up. “Southern
women (are often) lying about how great everything is,” she said.

And it’s a jump for Freeman, who has conquered British
classics – Hobbit, Holmes and Hitchhiker.

He stars in the “Hobbit” movies, starred in the 2005
“Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and is Watson in PBS’ “Sherlock” series. In
each case, he says, he had a big respect, but not a superfan background. “If you’re
too close to something, too invested, it can be difficult to play.”

And he entered into “Fargo” with a respect for the movie. “You’re
in a world between humor and drama, which is a beautiful set-up.”

Like many Englishmen, he grew up around clever comedy. “I
remember loving ‘Monty Python’ when I was 5, holding my sides laughing, because
it was so silly.’”

The next year, he moved (with his mother and four siblings) from
the military town of Aldershot to a London suburb. There, his life had little
in common with that of Lester Nygaard, the bullied “Fargo” guy.

“I was always a small kid,” Freeman said, but “with the
tough guys, I was always the mascot …. I could make them laugh.” He managed to
co-exist with nerds and jocks. “I liked the kids who could talk about (actor)
Peter Sellers, but also liked the ones who gave the nuns a hard time.”

He joined a theater group at 15, went to acting school at 17,
got OK roles in theater, movies and TV, then drew attention at 30, in the British
version of “The Office.” A decade later, his hot streak began.

“You get too busy,” Freeman said. “But as an actor, if you’re
not doing something you start to worry.”

There hasn’t been much time with long-time partner Amanda Abbington
(who plays Miss Mardle on PBS’ “Mr. Selfridge” series) and their two children. The
best time came when “Sherlock” cast her as Watson’s wife. “I think I got it
because Martin and I have quite good chemistry,” she joked.

Mostly, Freeman has been gone. He raced from New Zealand
(doing “Hobbit”) to Calgary, a Canadian province facing one of its toughest winters.
“I’ve never seen that much white,” he said.

It was a fiercely cold place to film “Fargo”; it was also a
reminder of why Northerners can be so stoic.

“Fargo,” 10 p.m. Tuesdays, FX; debuts April 15,
rerunning at 11:37 p.m.

Opener then has latenight reruns on Wednesday
night (12:21 a.m.), Thursday night (1:02 a.m.) and Saturday night (1 a.m.)