Martin Freeman on Cargo, Hollywood's apocalypse fetish, and the white savior problem

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May 26, 2018, 8:49 AM EDT (Updated)

Martin Freeman’s had an interesting year.

First came Black Panther, a superhero film that redefined the genre and set a new course for the Marvel universe. Then a departure with Ghost Stories, a horror anthology that premiered at the BFI London Film Festival before heading across the pond to SXSW in Austin, Texas. Now Freeman’s braving uncharted waters again with a role in Netflix’s Cargo, a post-apocalyptic zombie flick set in the Australian Outback that’s hoping to elevate the standard walker fare we’ve already seen on TV and on the big screen.

Freeman plays a husband and father in the film, searching for a safe place to hide from a world-ending outbreak while befriending an indigenous girl separated from her own family. He’s a rugged, bearded, baby-carrying leading man — the kind Twitter and Tumblr will probably go nuts over — but there’s more going on underneath the service of the story, one that deals in shades of colonialism, climate change, and parental responsibility.

SYFY WIRE chatted with Freeman about his love of horror, his Sherlock-earned sex-symbol status, and why cinema seems to be fascinated with the end of times right now.

This year has been pretty good for you so far, with Black Panther being such a success. Did you expect the film to do as well as it did?

I think we knew we'd have an audience. We knew there were a lot of people who were very hungry for it. I think that it's big to this extent was a fantastic surprise. People have responded to it in even greater ways than we had hoped.

You’re transitioning to a different genre with Cargo and Ghost Stories, which premiered at SXSW. Have you always been a fan of horror?

Yeah. I’m a fan. When I was 7, I watched Psycho. I don't even know that's actually a horror film. It's pretty horrifying.

For a 7-year-old especially.


We might be getting burnt out on zombie films, but this story elevates the genre a bit by focusing on the relationship between a father and his daughter. What interested you about the script?

It was the father-daughter thing really that interested me the most. I like a zombie as much as the next man, but I prefer, well, human stories, I suppose. I think even if I wasn't a dad that bit would've spoken to me.

You’re playing a more rugged character than we’ve seen from you before. Are you ready for the fangirling from Twitter? You might be in danger of becoming a "daddy," as they say.

I think I already am, yeah. [Laughs] With Sherlock, I’m used to whatever they throw at me.

What was it like shooting this film in the Outback? Australia’s not a forgiving place.

No, it's not. We were in a very inhospitable environment. It was either very hot and dry or flash floods or flies or mosquitoes. I don't want it to sound like I didn't love it, but physically, it was quite demanding like that. It's only the fact that I loved the story so much, plus working with [directors] Yolanda Ramke and Ben Howling. That made it fantastic. To be honest, [when] I pick a project, I just always go on script, if it interests me. It's only when I get there that I go, "Oh, f***, this is six months of [nonsense]."

This movie required you to walk around Australia with a toddler on your back in the middle of a zombie apocalypse, but it also had you confront one of your biggest fears: choking. I heard you won’t even eat avocados because of that.

I should’ve kept my mouth shut about that. No, there’s an episode of 30 Rock where Tina Fey’s character starts choking alone in her apartment. She’s just on her own. That terrified me. I think that resonates [with] everybody who lives on their own. There’s no good way to [die], but yeah, that’s up there.

Zombie plagues aside, this story also touches on Australia’s murky history with colonialism, something we have experience with here in the States as well. What does that layer add to the genre-film?

I don’t like things that are lecturing. I think there’s a lot of self-satisfied politics going on at the moment. There's a lot of people doing and saying the right things, and I’m not sure how genuine that is, to be absolutely honest. For me, it wasn't a film about colonialism, it wasn't a film about that. What I liked was that it had an indigenous aspect to it that didn't feel patronizing.

Me and this little girl needed each other. It wasn't me riding to the rescue. She was helping me out, I was helping her out, and I liked that. There were little bits in there that you go, "Oh, I didn't know that about that culture." That, to me, is interesting. Part of the reason I like this job is because you learn things, you learn interesting stuff about a world that is not your own.

Martin Freeman, Black Panther

Credit: Marvel Studios

I’m glad you brought up the white savior trope, because that’s so frustrating to see in sci-fi these days, but it doesn’t pop up here.

There is nothing in the world worse than white liberals telling you how much they care about you. That's very much part of the problem. White liberals crying about shit is just very tedious. I didn't take that from this movie. [The directors] wanted to be respectful, but they're making a film. Films, by their nature, are sometimes irreverent and, by their nature, sometimes brutal. All that stuff doesn't get put on hold just because we're being sensitive.

People can be a lot more robust than we think they are. We put this thing onto them, that they must be "protected." Human beings are pretty f***ing robust.

Why do you think we have such a fascination with the apocalypse and the "end of times" right now?

Things come and go in and out of, not so much fashion, but in out of people's heads. Human beings, for a period, are obsessed with one thing, then it goes out for 50 years, then it comes back again. At the moment, we are living in perilous times, there's no question about it. My only point about that is, when haven't we been?

There is no time in the history of Earth that has not been perilous, and plenty have been way more perilous than this one. I think we are concerned with an impending apocalypse for good reason, for [an] understandable reason — but to that, I would just say, "Try the 1930s, have a go at that." I'll give you Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini in the same decade.

This is not the worst time to be alive, it's not the most frightening time there has ever been. Jesus Christ, I lived the Cold War. I think we get too justified in apocalyptic fervor. We've been through this shit before, I think we can have some perspective on it as well.

Do you see more genre film like Cargo in your future?

If I'm lucky enough to be allowed to do what I've been doing, which is a mixture of styles of film, genres of film, types of character. I like doing Black Panther one minute and Fargo the next. I love seeing the full scope of filmmaking.

If I'm allowed to keep working, I'll continue to keep mixing and matching and doing what pleases my taste. Some of those things are big, some small, some are in the middle. It's a very lucky position to be in.

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