CS Interview: Martin Freeman Talks Ode To Joy And The Tragically Amusing
“I just thought that was interesting,” begins Martin Freeman, “The horror, but also the potential comedy, in not allowing yourself to be happy.”
Speaking via phone to ComingSoon, Freeman speaks enthusiastically about his latest feature film, Ode to Joy, a romantic comedy, which is currently available to stream on IFC. Freeman plays Charlie, a librarian who’s rigidly mild-mannered, a self-inflicted character trait owed to him suffering from cataplexy. The very real disease means those who suffer from it have extreme responses to particular emotions, which in Charlie’s case happens to be happiness.
“There’s no way that’s not also funny,” Freeman says when addressing his character’s affliction. “When we first see him become so overwhelmed at his sister’s wedding, getting his brother to talk dreadful things in his ear, that’s his kind of council. That’s a funny tension, I suppose, and it intrigued me.”
While Charlie’s life plan of walling himself off from anything that’s remotely uplifting, including dogs, babies, dog babies, and anyone else’s general happiness, that all changes when he meets Francesca, played by Morena Baccarin. An outspoken free spirit, Francesca is the opposite of Charlie, thus setting them on a ‘will they/won’t they’ collision course, as per the rules of the genre.
“People seem to forget that when they’re done well, a romantic comedy is a great thing,” Martin proclaims. “It’s a great thing.”
“You just sort of take the best of them and they affirm something in us. Maybe they teach us some about it all as well. And there was enough in this that had those little truths beyond someone who just suffers from that condition. There were just things that you recognize about the process of falling in love.”
It’s these universal truths that make Charlie and Francesca’s love story accessible beyond Charlie’s medical aversion to joy. It’s a necessary facet of storytelling for Freeman, who believes that audiences should see themselves in any film’s characters — at least somewhat.
“You’re not literally going to see every facet of your own being,” Freeman says, “But there’s still the thing that you recognize is true. That’s part of my decision-making process; whether I do a job or not or whether I like something or not as a viewer. Do I recognize some truth in that?”
That kind of truth involves looking beyond Charlie’s cataplexy, a rare condition that director Jason Winer and writer Max Werner first learned about more than seven years ago after it was featured on an episode of This American Life. While Freeman concedes there are “loads of things I don’t know,” he admits that being lied to by a movie like this can be a distinct turnoff.
“If you know you’re being lied to, even for the comic effect, I don’t like it,” Freeman begins. “You know what? Especially for the comic effect, because I think if there’s something really there with a comedy, then you shouldn’t have to lie. It can be truthful. Of course, it’s heightened. And of course, it’s got a performed element to it. It’s not a documentary. I just think if something’s really funny, you shouldn’t need to force it that much. And there are, god help them, people who suffer from this. So, we don’t need to hammer that one home, you know? It’s enough that it exists. And that it’s both tragic — and, unfortunately, amusing.”
While Freeman was able to find the humor in his character’s situation, both directly and indirectly tied to his cataplexy, he said that sharing a similar state-of-mind with his co-stars, particularly Baccarin, was what pulled the actors together to get Ode to Joy off the ground.
“I like people being ready,” Freeman begins, adding the clarification that, “I don’t mean knowing all the answers or knowing every syllable of the script. You know, talking is great. Talking about your character, fine. It’s not going to get the film made. You have to just dive in. You have to go for it. And I’m someone who thinks acting is a doing thing, not a thinking thing or a talking thing. It’s a physical, athletic act. You have to do it. And what I liked about the others and certainly Morena was that we both just got one with it. And we made each other laugh, I found her very easy company. I liked that she was very self-deprecating and fun. you know, and we sort of reflected that in their relationship. They make each other a lot. And a lot of that is me and Morena making each other laugh.”
The film’s low-budget, plus the fact that the actors didn’t even have trailers on set, which allowed for not only some real-life camaraderie but a spirit of efficiency that seemed to be shared across the cast and crew.
“If you look back at When Harry Met Sally or Tootsie, those films were tight as a drum,” says Freeman. “Of course, people would put their twist on it, of course, it doesn’t mean there’s no room for any input, but what it does mean is we’re not gonna fuck around for three hours trying to find a funny, disgusting sexual line because someone’s already done it. And I loved Max’s script. It was touching and funny, which is why I want from a romantic comedy.”
That’s not to say that Freeman and company didn’t experiment between takes. And considering his roles have ranged from lighthearted and pleasant (The Hobbit, The Office) to sinister and unnerving (Fargo, At World’s End), he’s proven time and again he can effortlessly switch between the two. With Charlie, Freeman gets to do a little bit of both, as he admits he’s certainly not an outright intimidating guy, but after 40 years of living with this affliction, “he’s gonna have his defenses up.”
“I think I’m a believer in putting everything in there and seeing what works,” explains Freeman. “It’s for the director and editor to duke it out, you know. But I like going from sweetness to sourness, because you don’t quite know [what works], and I definitely believe in ‘you don’t know it until you try it.'”
In finding that balance, Freeman was able to see through to who Charlie really is, which he describes as “a guy doing his best — and that’s fucking hard.”
“None of us want to be really sad, but we do want to be really happy and you want to fall in love or at least fall in lust, and he’s not even really allowing himself to do that. That’s a very funny and frustrating predicament. I mean… frustration is pretty funny.”
As far as Freeman’s other notorious roles, he did talk a bit about returning to play Everett Ross somewhere in the increasingly vast MCU — possibly Black Panther 2. “Well, I think I’ve said before, so I don’t think I’m going to get shot, but as far as I know, I still have a gig there. I think I’ve got another one in me.”