Interview with Martin Freeman on The Responder
Martin Freeman plays Chris Carson
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What is a responder?
Responders are the coppers who literally respond to emergency calls coming in. In Chris’ case he works nights, and during the course of a night shift he could be called to all sorts of situations - whether it's a report of an old woman who's died or someone has set fire to something or a burglary. It could literally be anything and everything.
What was your reaction when you read Tony Schumacher’s scripts?
When Laurence Bowen first sent me the scripts he was very excited and after reading the first few pages, and I felt this was really something else. It wasn’t a drama that was written by committee, it was unfiltered Tony Schumacher, and I really liked that he put whatever he wanted on the page. Tony has been writing for a long time but the fact that this is his first television drama means he is far from having gotten into a comfortable groove or formulaic. He just put on the page whatever the hell he thought needed to be there and that is really exciting.
What stood out to you about the character of Chris Carson?
The reason I wanted to play Chris is that he is a great mixture of vulnerability and strength. I think there is something about a man of few words that is attractive. There's a reason why people like characters that don't have to over-explain themselves and I think Chris is one of them.
He's very intelligent, he's emotionally smart, but he's a copper. He finds it hard to be open at home and with his counsellor, and in his job it’s probably wise not to be open, so he picks his moments when he can let off steam and talk to people. But those are few and far between and the amount of plates he is spinning is frightening. So much so that if he drops even one of those plates he could wind up dead.
What is 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’s wills.
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 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.
What is the character facing when we meet him?
Chris has got himself mixed up in activity that he shouldn't be involved in, and he's been partnered with a new trainee police officer who doesn’t like him and who suspects him of being bent. He’s got very little time for some trainee who judges him on what he's been doing these past 20 years so there's a lot going on. Plus, his marriage is falling apart. He wants to be a good dad and I like his dynamic with the family, he’s such a loving person but he just can’t seem to make it work. I've not played many cool characters before - not that Chris is cool, but I don’t often play characters without problems. I never seem to play the guy getting off the yacht with a mojito in his hand. It would be nice to wear linen and sunglasses, but no I always seem to put myself in situations where I’m trying to stay alive.
I shouldn’t love him but I do. Who amongst us hasn’t messed up at some point? Perhaps not to the same extent that Chris has, but who amongst us wouldn’t do some of the things he does if faced with the same circumstances? His family situation is precarious and his marriage is hanging by a thread. I think both he and his wife, Kate, are trying to make it work in that way that sometimes you can see each other through a fog but you’ve grown too far apart to see each through the crisis. He speaks to a counsellor at work, who is herself overworked and not functioning at full tilt because she's seeing loads of people. As a result, Chris is being underserved and isn’t firing on all cylinders at home as either a dad or as a husband. He knows it and feels wretched about it but can't really break that cycle.
What sort of relationship does Chris have with his police partner Rachel?
Neither of them wants to be each other's partner because Chris knows that Rachel doesn't respect him. She gets a bad vibe off him and he believes it's likely to do with the fact that he has a bit of a sketchy past on the job and she knows it. There's a barely disguised antipathy between them for much of the series. However, as the series progresses Rachel begins to find out more and more about Chris and discovers he may not be as bad as he’s been made out to be. We see a mentee/mentor relationship begin to develop between them and they begin to thaw each other out.
Even if you see a tiny glimmer of light, it’s still very hard for them because they’re really not at ease with each other at all. They’re coppers and they are not going to be best mates. They’re both very defensive and neither want to open up to the other for their own reasons which is fair enough.
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 got to know lots of the characters he relies on for local information. His contacts Casey and Marco 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 addict under his wing, and if he can help her, he will. Having said that he can 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.
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 but 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.
Describe Chris’ relationship with Carl?
Chris and Carl have known each other since their school days and grew up in the same area and had the same life. As often happens in life with school pals is that they go their separate ways and their lives take them in different directions. Chris could easily have gone the same way as Carl but he just didn’t. Something took him down a straight path in life. Carl is the local mid-range drug dealer who’s doing alright for himself. As Carl himself says, he’s not Pablo Escobar and there are more powerful people than him up the drug chain but he has become a massive pain for Chris, which we see from the very first episode when Chris won’t take his calls when he’s on duty. It’s all angels with dirty faces - one brother becomes a gangster and another becomes a priest. They still love each other but they find themselves on either side of this chasm.
Chris and Casey have a unique relationship. What was it like to work with newcomer Emily Fairn, who plays Casey?
I saw Emily’s audition tape and her strength was that we didn't know what she was going to do next - that was genuinely exciting. She came out with actions and reactions that were completely unexpected and I really wanted to play with that. Emily brought a real lightness and freshness to the part of Casey that could have been played in the usual depressing, heavy and earnest way, which isn’t necessarily the wrong way to play it, but Emily’s instincts were different.
She plays Casey as very much alive, funny, irreverent and surprising and that’s her skill as an actor, to be surprising. I hardly ever give advice, but I did say to her to hang on to that wonder and that instinct to surprise, because it’s the right instinct to have, and not everyone has it.
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.
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.
What was it like to work with lead director Tim Mielants?
Tim Mielants is a poet with an artist’s soul, and he really puts his heart into every shot. In some ways he is like a big kid with a beard and I mean that in the nicest possible way. He has a great enthusiasm for making work that we all have when we're children. He is a very smart ‘big kid’ and he doesn't mind being vulnerable which I really like. He has no ego and is a lovely human being. I thoroughly enjoyed working with him and I think we had a lot of respect for each other. We also had a lot of laughter too, which is vital when shooting something that is so serious.
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 starts on Monday, January 24 on BBC One. It will also be available on iPlayer.
Source BBC One
January 20, 2022 6:32am ET by BBC One