Sunday, January 18, 2015

Martin Freeman interview: The actor on hobbits, Cumbermania and his Nazi-hounding role in The Eichmann Show

Sunday 18 January 2015

These are strange, head-spinning days for doughty Martin Freeman.

We've met in a private room off the deserted restaurant of a boutique Bristol hotel to discuss the Holocaust. In The Eichmann Show, the 43-year-old Brit plays Milton Fruchtman, the American TV producer who persuaded the Israeli authorities to let cameras film the 1961 trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann, the high-ranking Nazi who was instrumental in implementing the so-called Final Solution that killed six million European Jews. Night after night the trial was a global media event, and beamed the horrors of the Holocaust into living rooms in 37 countries. True to context, and rightly, this new BBC drama does not stint on the use of newsreel footage from the concentration camps.

So Freeman and I sip tea from decorous china in a decorous hotel and find ourselves discussing the pulse-stopping pragmatism of the Nazis' industrial-scale death bureaucracy. I've seen the finished 90-minute drama; he hasn't. I relay to him the most chilling fact that I learnt from The Eichmann Show's broadcast of original court testimonies from survivors: that the Nazis spread the ashes of murdered Jews on the ground of the camps, so people wouldn't slip.

"Yeah, that rings a bell," he winces. "I went to see a camp when I was very young, called Sachsenhausen, which is not far outside Berlin, and I think there was a similar thing there that just completely rocked me. It was something to do with a running track… Just the banal inhumanity. All that stuff," he says briskly, rapping his knuckles on the table, "that's the really frightening stuff. When it's so easy to do, and so efficient."

A history and politics buff, as well as an assiduous watcher of quality drama, especially that featuring his peers and near-peers, Freeman cites a 2001 HBO/BBC film about the Wannsee Conference, the 1942 board meeting at which the Nazis planned the extermination of the Jews. "It's what Conspiracy does extremely well," he says of the drama that starred Kenneth Branagh as Reinhard Heydrich and Stanley Tucci as Eichmann, "because they're all quite attractive people; well, they're not all att-," he says without breath, backtracking hastily, cutting himself short. It's something Freeman does often, as his quick mind races against his quick tongue.

"But Branagh's character is an attractive, intelligent, smart person," he continues of the actor's Emmy-winning portrayal of senior SS officer Heydrich. "And if it wasn't for the context of what he was saying, you'd go, 'Yeah, I want to get behind this guy, he's pretty cool, he wants to get shit done,'" Freeman recounts briskly, clapping his hands. "And it's no one looking evil and it's no one looking dastardly. It's just, ah, admin. It's really, really frightening."

Certainly, while watching The Eichmann Show, Hannah Arendt's phrase about the "banality of evil" – coined by the writer while documenting the trial for The New Yorker to describe Eichmann's bland, implacable demeanour in the dock – feels as chillingly appropriate as ever.

Freeman is friendly, for sure, but also sharp, opinionated, and not afraid to bristle at lazy reductionism of his acting talents. It makes for an actor who's an engaging conversationalist and who is shot through with a shaft of steel – which also belies an oddly (and for him, aggravating) cuddly image. No, he's not an "everyman" actor; yes, he can do considerably more than Tim from The Office. A fact to which his current roster of roles forcefully attests.

Right now, he is armpit-deep in Dr Watson. Today is the end of day number three on the filming of the next instalment of Sherlock, the hit BBC drama attended – engulfed – by an unprecedented fan mania. Which, it transpires, actually bedevils the making of the show. (The leaking, already, of images of the suit worn by Dr Watson in this Christmas 2015 special – three-piece, brown, tweedy – is the least of the cast's worries.)


No comments: