Tribeca 2018: Martin Freeman on zombie survival tale “Cargo” | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
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Tribeca 2018: Martin Freeman on zombie survival tale “Cargo”

New film is a tender take on the undead apocalypse

Apr 24, 2018 Web Exclusive
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Andy is a father doing all he can to protect his family in a world overrun by the living dead. Tragedy strikes, robbing Andy of his wife and leaving him as the sole caretaker of their infant daughter; worse still, he himself has become the victim of one of the creatures’ incurable bites. The desperate father has less than two days to scour the outback for another living person capable of providing for his baby before he succumbs to the infection, and transforms into a flesh-eating monster.

We’ve seen worlds like Cargo’s before, but nothing like the tale it tells. From first-time feature filmmakers Yolanda Ramke and Ben Howling, this is a zombie film where the monsters serve as a backdrop for a heart wrenching, father-daughter love story. While Cargo packs in tense and frightening scenes, it’s the film’s tenderness that makes it stand out from the ever-growing horde of undead entertainment that's overtaken our popular culture in recent years. 

Cargo’s lead, Martin Freeman – of Sherlock, The Hobbit, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe – is a particularly superb bit of casting. His Andy isn’t the sort of hero who charges into a pack of zombies, machete held high. He’s an everyman, ill-equipped to survive the apocalypse but willing to do anything to ensure his daughter’s safety.

We spoke with the actor as Cargo played at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival ahead of its May 18th release on Netflix.

Austin Trunick [Under the Radar]: Not long before watching Cargo, I carried my two-year-old on my back on a hike through of Carlsbad Caverns, so I could sympathize with your character – to a limited degree, at least. My back ached for days afterward. Would you consider this one a particularly physical role?

Martin Freeman: It was quite physical, yeah. Lugging a baby around gets quite heavy after a while. And it was hot, and dusty, and mosquito-y, and I was surrounded by flies. It was enjoyably physical, let’s say that. [Laughs] Depending on the film and the role, you’re often doing a lot of sitting around. It can be quite a sedentary life. This was different, and I really enjoyed that. Things keep moving, and it keeps you interested, and you’re constantly going forward. Like this character – he’s going forward to get his daughter out of danger. You can’t do that sitting in a chair.

This feature sprung out of a really great short film. Was that short part of the role’s pitch to you?

Freeman: The short came at the same time as the screenplay. I liked both. I thought, with the short, the image of the zombie carrying a baby was such a great image. It was a good starting point, and it got me thinking, “Now, how the hell did they get there? How did this situation come about? What had to happen in order for this to happen?” So, yeah, I was intrigued from the off.

You’re a parent. Did that play into your desire to take on this character and help tell this story?

Freeman: I’m sure it does. Subconsciously, but I’m sure it does. I think being a parent informs everything I do, in small or big ways. So, I’m sure it did. But then, if I’d been sent this script before I’d become a dad, I’d still have wanted to do it. People talk a lot about how much more empathy being a parent gives you – I don’t know if that’s true. Well, clearly, there are plenty of people who are parents who are complete monsters. [Laughs] And there are many people who aren’t parents who are lovely people. I think, in my case, there is something about being a parent that makes it easier for me to key into what a parental relationship is, definitely.

The truth is, the moment you become a parent, you start looking at your own parents and start thinking, “Oh, what was going on there, then?” Both the good and bad – it makes you appreciate the all of it more. You immediately start thinking about your own childhood, and then there you are in charge of someone, or some people. So, yeah, I’m sure it did, in some way.

Now, listen to me. I talk too much. You know what? Ask me your questions and I’ll give you monosyllabic, rock ‘n’ roll answers and we’ll all be happier.

No, this is great! Now, your character, Andy, is an atypical hero. He’s not particularly well-equipped to face the zombie apocalypse. Like Watson, early on, and Bilbo Baggins – these are characters who are forced into heroism, either through necessity or simply proximity. Are you interested in heroes who don’t necessarily seek out adventure, so much as stumble into it?

Freeman: Ostensibly, no – I don’t go looking for those scripts, but somehow they find me. [Laughs] The truth of it is, somebody who fits the very definition of heroism doesn’t think they’re a hero. You ask anyone serving in the military, none of those people think they’re heroes; if they’re crawling across a minefield to save three of their comrades, they never think what they’re doing is heroic. It was their job, or it was just what they felt they had to do in that moment.

Bearing in mind what you said, about these [characters] being unlikely heroes, yes, I agree, if we’re talking about Hollywood films. [Laughs] Hollywood films represent about 0.004% of what is actually true. By the way – I fucking love Hollywood films. I grew up on them, like everyone else in the West did. But real-life heroes are not that. Anyone who survived The Blitz was not that. Anyone who worked in the days after 9/11 was not that. These are ordinary people – normal people – not your chiseled-jawed heroes. That’s the reality of it, and that’s what I respond to when I read scripts. I guess that’s partly what the audiences respond to.

Audiences respond, too, to chiseled-jawed macho men, and that’s fair enough. The world needs chiseled-jawed macho men – I don’t want to deprive them of work. But that’s not real. And I’m not saying – I mean, no film is real, it’s all artifice. But the reason I think people are interested in seeing people like me play heroes, is because those are the people who are going to see the films. The world is made up of all sorts of people, most of whom are not archetypal, matinee idol heroes.

Both Cargo and your other recent film, Ghost Stories, have many practical special effects. In this one, you’re working face-to-face with some very grotesque stuff. How does that contrast with the blockbuster films you’ve done, where you’ve had to act and react with things that weren’t necessarily there? Do the practical effects make it easier to react to these horrors?

Freeman: Yes, it does. It makes it easier to, hopefully, do some good acting, because you’re not having to think up entire universes, on the spot, in your head. If you’ve got some clear and present danger coming towards you for real, it’s a lot easier to react to that in a realistic way than if you’re imagining a monster coming towards you. So, yeah, I like the practical effects a bit more.

You have these two horror movies out almost at once. Outside of the ones that you do, would you consider yourself a fan of the genre?

Freeman: Not a big fan of the genre, no, but I like films – and some of them are horror films. It’s weird. I’m 46, right? I don’t think that question would have been asked 15, 20 years ago. We are really, really into genre right now. We’re talking about genre more than we’ve ever talked about genre, whereas we used to talk about stories and films. We are sort of obsessed with genre, actually, and I think that we’re in danger of putting the cart before the horse, talking about what sort of genre something might be, rather than what story we’re telling. And let’s face it: in stories, some bits are funny, some bits are scary, and some bits are bad, you know? [Laughs] In my favorite films, that’s always the case.

And so of course I like horror films, but these days, what I think that says to me when I’m asked that, it seems like I’m going to have to answer a quiz about how much I like horror films. The stakes have been upped to those levels where people wonder, “Do you really like horror films, or are you just a fellow traveler? Because if you’re not a real horror fan…” [Laughs] It’s like I’m going to have to answer a quiz of twenty questions about horror films – and I know you’re not going to give me that, but the feeling that I get is that it’s not enough to just like horror films. You’ve got to be into the genre now, and I don’t think about genre, ever. The only time I ever think about genre is in interviews. When I’m reading a script, I don’t think about it. When I’m saying yes or no, I don’t think about it. When I’m making a film, I don’t think about it. And then in interviews, it’s interesting because it’s present in ways I don’t think it always was. Do you know what I mean?

Yes. It can be very all-or-nothing these days.

Kind of, yeah. It can be. And I’m not that. I like stories, and that sounds very right-on, but it’s true. I mean, The Sopranos makes me laugh, and sometimes The Simpsons makes me cry. The Sopranos isn’t a comedy and The Simpsons isn’t a tragedy, but when something is three-dimensional, you can have all of that in one go, when it’s being done well.

Can you tell me how it was to work with [co-directors] Yolanda Ramke and Ben Howling? From every indication of Cargo being their first feature, it seems they have very promising careers ahead of them.

Freeman: Yeah, I hope so. I loved working with them, and as people I really, really liked them. They’re very ambitious, I think, in an understated way. They were generous collaborators, and they had a real vision. I think the story itself shows that – it’s a very original story. I think they’re going to be okay. [Laughs] I’d work with them again! I had a great time.

Cargo premieres on Netflix on May 18th.


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