7 Questions with… Martin Freeman: 'I always feel that without vulnerability, you're useless'

From Tim in The Office to Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit, Martin Freeman has always showcased his acting versatility. Now he's tackling crime as a first responder in a new BBC police drama.

By James Descombes Published: 18 January 2022 - 12.01am
� 2021 Dancing Ledge Productions Martin Freeman as Chris Carson in The Responder

Introducing a different type of January blues on the BBC is The Responder, a fast and furious police drama with a difference – it’s set in Liverpool and takes you right to the front line of the action.

It stars Martin Freeman in a role unlike anything you’ve seen him in before, complete with Scouse accent and much more to deal with than just the city’s criminals.

Here, Martin gives us the lowdown on the BBC’s gritty new police drama.

1. What’s The Responder about?

The story takes place across five nights; one night per episode. There’s a lot packed into each episode and there's a lot packed into each night for dramatic effect as well. In fact, a lot goes on across a 12-hour night shift and Chris being the solitary figure he is, he doesn’t want to work with a partner but that’s where he finds himself, against both his and Rachel (played by Adelayo Adedayo)’s wills.

2. How did you find playing Chris with a Scouse accent?

I haven't played a character with a Scouse accent before and I was incredibly mindful of that when I was reading the script. It read pure Liverpudlian to me and I knew Tony was from Liverpool. He always said to me that the character didn’t have to be from Liverpool – that not all coppers in Merseyside are from Merseyside but I really felt Chris had to be from the city.

I also knew that if I couldn't do it properly then I wouldn't do the accent. I would just have done my own version of my own voice. I was really pleased when I heard that some of the Scouse actors asked if I was from Merseyside – it was like I’d passed some sort of test.

I worked really hard at it because there was no way I was prepared to go on telly doing a terrible Scouse accent in Liverpool with a load of 25 Liverpudlian actors. There's just no way. I'd get taken to the cleaners and rightly so. Coming from where I come from, you have to earn your stripes no matter where you are and you just can't be doing a bad Liverpool accent.

THE RESPONDER - MARTIN FREEMAN (CHRIS) � 2021 Dancing Ledge Productions

3. What sort of world does Chris find himself being drawn into?

Chris knows his own city and is familiar with his beat so he has gotten to know lots of the characters he relies on for local information. His contacts Casey (Emily Fairn) and Marco (Josh Finan) are just trying to make their way through any means they can. They’re not violent or horrible people. They’ve just got caught up in either their addictions or thieving or whatever their vice is.

Chris is quite a softie really and wants them to be OK and get by. He wants to take people like Casey - a street kid with a heroin addiction - under his wing and if he can help her, he will. Having said that, he can also be cruel too. People like Chris are called into situations that are not going to play out well and that tension has to build up somehow.

There are a lot of mental health issues, homelessness, addiction, violence and a lot of humour as well. That gallows sense of humour is prevalent across all the emergency services where responders are dealing with life and death situations. He deals with a lot of people who are forgotten, neglected or ignored and that has to have an effect on him.

4. What insight do we get to Chris in the therapy sessions?

I always feel that without vulnerability, you're useless. You're useless as an actor, and drama without vulnerable characters is very boring because it's just a lot of cardboard cut-outs of people being heroic. There are versions of coppers being heroic and it’s talked about the job does take a massive toll on people. Chris is just one of them and the one whose story we follow. He isn’t connecting with his wife even though we see him trying so his counselling sessions are his only means of letting go.

We get the sense that he really wants the therapy to work but a), it's finite and he will only get a certain number of sessions and b) the therapist herself is completely overwhelmed by her workload and despite everyone trying to do their best, it’s never enough.

Chris is a hard person and he can handle himself as well as dole out the punishment when necessary. But he's really not in a good way at all. We have tiny little glimpses of enjoyment in his life and we know the things that he values – his wife and child above himself, but he just doesn't know how to make that work. 

THE RESPONDER - MARTIN FREEMAN (CHRIS) � 2021 Dancing Ledge Productions

5. Does that sense of ‘wonder’ come back to you when you read a script like this?

I'm lucky in that I do still get to play great parts and I get to choose when to work and when not to work. So yes, I do have that sense of enthusiasm when I read a great script like The Responder.

I haven't read anything like it before and I love being excited by scripts because every time you get a script you do want it to be The Godfather. You do want it to be amazing and you live in eternal hope. Then very occasionally when your ability aligns with other people’s skills and when someone has such faith in you, it's lovely.

I have a reasonably healthy ego but there were several times in the run up to filming that I asked Tony, Chris and Lawrence if they were sure they had the right man for the job and couldn’t they get someone better than me. Then Tony said that he’d had me in mind when he wrote it and kept seeing me in scenes when he was writing it so that really relaxed me.

6. Actors often say they have to find something likeable in a character in order to play them – do you agree with that?

With most protagonists you have to want to follow their story and stay with them for the whole film or series so in some way you have to like them or find something about them that is at least interesting to play. I think Chris is likeable and I have to root for him as the protagonist and follow him into battle for the next five episodes so I’m very pleased to have been the person they chose to play him.

7. What is unique about this show?

I think it’s a drama that doesn't offer answers but asks a lot of questions. There is nothing neat about it – it’s chaotic and unsettling and there’s an underlying authenticity to it. We all wanted to make something different that was exciting and unformulaic. 

 

The Responder arrives at 9pm on BBC One and iPlayer on 24 January.

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