Martin Freeman
Credit: Chris Large/FX

(This story features Martin Freeman talking about Tuesday’s episode of Fargo. Spoilers below!)

Aw, jeez — we didn’t see that coming.

Yes, Martin Freeman’s mild-mannered Lester Nygaard was in the middle of one very bad day when we met him in Fargo‘s premiere. And encountering a dangerous drifter like Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) — while you’re in the hospital, thanks to your old high-school bully — would be enough to put anyone on edge. But even when Lester’s wife seethed, “You’re not a man, Lester. You’re not even half a man,” we didn’t think he’d kill her.

Freeman unleashed Lester’s frustration in a thrilling display of desperation and pent-up rage — then offered a glimpse at the insurance salesman’s potentially devious side when Lester concocted a plan to actually get away with murder.

We talked to Freeman about the scene and Lester’s motivations, as well as how a taste for sin changes this unlikely criminal.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Lester and his wife are fighting. You see him grab the hammer. And yet, when he kills her, it’s a huge shock.

Martin Freeman: It’s great the way it just comes out of nowhere. I really like that. There’s no finishing his sentence, there’s no big buildup, there’s no huffing and puffing before. It felt like a kind of nerdy…it’s like Lenny Bruce described the way that Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald as a kind of nerdy, Jewish, “meh.” [Freeman gestures weakly from his side, using his finger as a gun.] It wasn’t heroic; it was “meh.” And I kind of felt that as Lester. It’s not heroic; it’s not Russell Crowe doing it. It’s, “I think I do that. Do I? I think it goes like that.” I like that aspect of it. It should all take the audience by surprise.

Despite the violence of the scene, there’s humor in it. As Lester’s pummeling his wife, he keeps repeating, “aw, jeez.”

You’re not playing it for humor, but the ridiculousness in that situation speaks for itself. And that’s what brings the humor. You don’t have to bring any humor. I mean, you have to know where the humor is, and my comedy radar is fairly active, but I don’t try and, well, whack it over the head. That sort of situation does that for you.

It’s a moment that really informs who this character is, and what he might become.

Absolutely. That’s part of the interest — people incapable of saying what they really mean. And you know, I come from a country [Britain] where that’s also a stereotype of us as well. And like all stereotypes, there is a kernel of truth in it. So yeah, I’m kind of interested in what people say and what they mean. It’s interesting to play because that’s immediate conflict. That’s drama. If everyone’s just saying what they feel and doing whatever they want, there’s no drama in the world. And there’s also no truth to it, ’cause that’s just not the truth.

Is Lester really a terrible salesman and husband?

I think he’s a pretty decent person. I don’t think he would go out of his way, short of what happens in episode 1, to hurt anybody. He’d probably go out of his way to help people, actually. But he’s a bad salesman, yeah. Clearly his sales technique is bad. He’s not good at his job. And he’s probably not a great husband, but part of that is because he’s allowed himself to be bullied. When people bully us, we are complicit in it in some way. We do allow it to happen to some extent. And Lester has allowed it to happen.

Does he see himself as a victim?

My feeling about him is that he never would have let that thought in his head. I’m talking about [the] Lester of the first 45 minutes. I know a lot of people, maybe even most people, who aren’t that self-analytical and aren’t that vulnerable to allow themselves to think about themselves in ways that aren’t complimentary. Or they just blink: “No, I’m not even going to go there.” I think Lester would be like that. I don’t think he’s someone who ruminates a lot in his head. He wouldn’t give himself the time, ’cause there’s always a little bee buzzing around saying, “I’ve got to do this” or “I’ve got to do that” or “sit up straight” or “say please and thank you and please the wife, sell some insurance.” I don’t think he’s got a massive inner life in a sort of philosophical way. He’s probably got a voice in his head saying, “Do better, do better, do better,” but I don’t know that he would have the foresight to know that he’s a bit of a victim.

Was this one particularly bad day for Lester, or just par for the course — and meeting Malvo is what made him snap?

I think that’s the catalyst, yeah. I mean, whether or not he would have got there in 20 years, I’m not sure. But certainly he wouldn’t have gotten to that point as quickly as he does without meeting Lorne Malvo.

Is Lester a good liar? Does he become a better one?

Yeah, he gets good at it. I think at first he’s kind of like Walter White — all of his actions are out of necessity. It’s like a wounded animal, a hunted animal, and then actually he starts to get good at it and enjoy it. You see that in the run of the 10 episodes, that the impetus changes from just survival, like, “I’m just doing the absolute bare minimum of what I need to do to survive,” to he starts slightly going out of his way [to perpetuate his lies]. And he gets good at it, and he starts to become more of a game player — and that’s f—ing great to play. It’s fascinating to watch and to play, ’cause you’re reading the scripts and you’re going, “I can’t wait, I can’t wait to do that.” Yeah, he does get good at it.

Fargo airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET on FX.

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An anthology series Inspired by the 1996 Coen Brothers film of the same name.
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