BLACK PANTHER’s Martin Freeman Talks Race, America, And Marvel

Bilbo speaks.

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On the last day of the long Black Panther LA press junket, Martin Freeman is ready to get out of Beverly Hills, but I’m late. Guilt sets in that I’m forcing the witty British actor best known for The Hobbit and the original UK version of The Office to remain sequestered in the stifling, air conditioned purgatory he’s been asked to occupy for much of the week. Thankfully, he’s a patient, thoughtful man eager to chat about the monumental Marvel film that he’s a part of. His role in the film, CIA agent Everett K. Ross, is one of the few major parts to be played by a white actor. The journalists that preceded our interview all found that fact to be remarkable, which in Hollywood it is, but as you will see below, Freeman feels there’s more to this film than perceived novelty.

First question is, how sick are you of the question of what’s it like to be in a movie with black people?

Amazing. I’ve never met any black people before and they’re strange, exotic creatures.

I know, right?

They’re unknowable, exotic creatures. Some of them are nice! Some of them, I presume are good people, to quote your president.

I guess the real question is, why is this such a novelty in Hollywood? It shouldn’t be.

It shouldn’t be. It won’t be. Some day, it won’t be. If we think about how things have changed since we were children and since our parents were children, things do generally go in a direction where we’d go, “Oh, that looks like progress.” It won’t be a novelty forever. At the moment, and again, I can only imagine if you are Spike [Lee] or a Van Peebles, you go “Oy, I make black films.” Clearly, there have been black films before, but not on this scale, this commercial scale. That’s what’s different about it and that’s what’s exciting from a sort of socio-political point of view. It won’t be like that forever. It just won’t. I think, even if this film had come out a few years ago, but post-2016, there was definitely sort of a sea change in diversity that happened. You can get very earnest about everything and just super right on about it.

It’s not like this is the first time. It’s just the first time in a Marvel context and a superhero context, which is great. But the conversations I was having with Ryan [Coogler], and I was really glad to have these conversations was, “Yes, outside of the relevance, with a big r, and the heaviness that’s almost nothing to do with the art of filmmaking. It’s political, with a big and small p. You’ve got to make a good film.” We made the first black tentpole movie and it’s shit. Who cares, right? You have to make a good one.

Was there a lot of that conversation on the set? Did you have to have that in the back of your mind? Was there pressure?

Not overly, but I had that conversation with Ryan one-to-one. Most of the questions at the junket have not been about the film, about the content of the film. So, that’s interesting. Fortunately, I think the film is very good, but it’s more about what that looks like [points at a Black Panther poster] and what that represents. It’s more about that.

That’s the hard part about writing about these things. People want to know if this is going to make me feel represented or seen, but ultimately, it’s a movie.

Yeah, and it’s a big ask, I think, for a piece of art to have that sort of “march on Washington” responsibility, you know what I mean? But at the same time, popular culture does have a massive part to play in our lives. Thank God, because I love it. It does impact things and other things impact popular culture. It’s a sort of symbiotic relationship. At the same time, if a film doesn’t work, if it doesn’t entertain you and doesn’t thrill you, then it has failed. Sometimes when the tenor of questions is, “So this must have been unlike any film you’ve done.” It’s not.

Let’s talk about the movie a bit, because one of the things that everyone can connect to in a movie like this is the theme. The theme is, when you break it down, are we going to change the world through more non-violent means or are we going to use force to change the world because we see a problem? That’s the interesting thing about the two leads, Killmonger and Black Panther, are sort of like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X in a way. Did you ever feel, reading the script, or seeing the film after it was over, that you were ever swayed one way or the other?

The film is called Black Panther. If it was called Killmonger, then it would be slightly slanted.

Of course, the villain is the villain.

The villain is a very understandable villain, which I think villains should be. It’s fun to play a sort of mustache-twirling villain in a cape and a top hat, but that is a more theatrical version. Killmonger’s version of villainy is an empathetic argument. You get why he feels it. He’s just taken a wrong turn, in that I don’t think you should be blowing up everybody in the world. That’s just not very healthy. Yes, I would rather T’Challa’s way, but again, this is the thing about drama. Everyone should have a good point of view. If you’re playing the most detestable person in the world, you have to have a point of view, otherwise the audience isn’t learning anything about themselves. You’re just saying, “Oh, he’s a baddy.” Fine, that’s not told me anything about my own prejudices or my own bad behavior or my own darkness. You’ve got to be able to go, “Oh, I get why he wants to do that horrible thing. I get why he’d want to do that.” I don’t want Killmonger to rule Wakanda, because you see he’s a complete fucking dictator and a terrible leader, but at the root of it, he’s said a couple good things. It wasn’t just flights of fancy and supernatural in its massively futuristic African country, which is great comic book stuff, but not actually true. It’s talking about the [Rodney King] riots and ’92.

I do want to ask you about your own character and your own place in this movie. What was it that drew you to Ross in the first place, back with Captain America: Civil War? What was there in the character that you could play around with? It’s not the lead, it’s not the villain. It’s something a little bit different that has shades of grey and the audience is not sure what your motive is.

My conversation was with Kevin Feige in the fall of 2014. He was outlining that I might appear a few times in films and would end up having a relationship with T’Challa that was not just a grudging respect, but he’d like him. At that stage, the conversation is pretty nebulous. You don’t know. It’s not set in stone. But Marvel makes good films. I trusted that. The fact that [Black Panther] is a historic film is not unattractive, to be part of something that I would support and say that’s a good thing. Whether I’m playing a baddie or a goodie or as you say, a gray person. I’m always quite happy in those more slightly nuanced things, where you don’t quite know, because I don’t believe it. I don’t believe in black and white. I don’t believe it, because it’s not true. It serves good dramatic or comedic purposes sometimes, to have a very bad person and a saint, but it’s not true. About fucking anybody, it’s not true. It’s not true about the CIA. If you’re on the left, it’s very easy to say, “Oh, it’s all bad and America’s place in the world has all been bad since 1945.” Some of it has, some of it hasn’t. Some things have actually been for a greater good, whether you have to do horrible shit to get there or not.

I think Ross is an interesting person because he wants to do his job, and he’s really good at this job. He’s only out of his depth when he’s in a futuristic African country that he thought was a desert. Generally speaking, he wants the security of his country, which everyone wants. That’s a noble, valid thing to want. But in Wakanda, he’s “the Man,” he’s the colonizer, through no fault of his own. Just by dint of who he is, he’s an outsider in every possible way. He’s on the wrong side until he kind of shows that he can help out, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to turn up in a dashiki or something.

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