The Sherlock and Hobbit star didn't want to play the comics version of the longtime Black Panther ally.
When we first met Everett Ross, as played by Martin Freeman in Captain America: Civil War, he was a no-nonsense CIA agent and Deputy Task Force Commander of the Joint Counterterrorism Center, working with the Avengers to capture Bucky Barnes. His calm, slightly sarcastic and efficient demeanor has carried over to Black Panther, where he becomes a key ally to T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and is one of the few outsiders to get a glimpse inside the incredible world of Wakanda.
That’s a far cry from the comics version of the character, who was introduced in September 1998 in Ka-Zar #17 by writer Christopher Priest and illustrator Kenny Martinez as a nervous, rather unmemorable little man who worked alongside the Black Panther and succeeded at his job almost in spite of himself.
In the movies, he’s not exactly James Bond, but he’s an experienced intelligence officer whose eyes are opened to a much larger world when he finds himself among the Wakandans.
Martin Freeman, of course, needs almost no introduction thanks to the very memorable roles he’s played over the years, including Bilbo Baggins in the Hobbit trilogy, Lester Nygaard on the Fargo TV series, and Dr. John Watson on Sherlock, opposite his fellow Marvel Cinematic Universe cast member Benedict Cumberbatch. We did ask for an update on Sherlock — the fifth season of which is yet to be confirmed — but focused primarily on Ross and Black Panther when we spoke with the amiable Freeman recently.
Den of Geek: I really liked where they took Ross in this movie. When you first got the role back in Civil War, did they give you kind of an inkling of his future?
Martin Freeman: They did. They did. They introduced me in Civil War and said there would be a couple of other films, one of which was Black Panther. So that was always on the cards. And I knew I’d have more to do in Black Panther than I had to do in Civil War. That was very much just the kind of introduction to who Ross was.
Did you go back and look at his history in the comics?
A little bit. I mean, I saw enough to get an idea of how he was. He was funny and he was very straight sort of a by the book funny guy. Sometimes easily made nervous, you know, sort of sweaty and just an anxious person sometimes.
I, to be honest, wasn’t massively keen to play that. I certainly wasn’t massively keen to play that in the context of Black Panther. Just because I think the trope of a nervous white guy, cool black guy, we’ve seen it a million times before breakfast. So yeah, I wasn’t mostly keen. Fortunately, Ryan (Coogler, director) and Nate Moore (producer) weren’t massively keen either on that. So we talked a lot about what he might be. It’s not like I shaped Ross into what he ended up being. I think, you know, that was he was going to be. But I definitely threw my 10 cents in as far as who he might be.
What was Ryan’s take on the character?
We talked a lot around the subject. We talked a lot of politics and we talked American and British politics, a bit of history, and I suppose that probably informed it in some way. Because if the point of directors and writers meeting actors is to get a flavor of who they are and get jumping off points for where you might take the character, that might have informed this as well. But with absolutely all the respect in the world for the source material, and what totally worked for that world, I don’t think it would have really worked for this film to be honest.
A lot of actors I’ve spoken to say they don’t look at the source material, or the director actively discourages them from doing so.
Well this isn’t a comic. I’ve played several characters now in my life who have literary beginnings and while it’s interesting to know the literary beginnings, you’re not doing the book. You know, a book and a film are a really different thing. And they’re supposed to be different things. I never want to be slavish to any book. If we’re doing the movie or the TV, it’s a different art form. You’re not making the book. If there are things in the book that help, great. Apart from that, there are 150 people or more working on this version of it now. So let’s concentrate on that.
Ross reminds me a little bit of Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson from the earlier movies, in that he sees the world in a certain way and then finds himself thrust into this entirely different reality.
Yeah. It’s interesting, because I guess part of the big conversation about his film is that finally a different audience are seeing themselves on screen. So in some sense you could say, well, “I’m not that audience.” But regardless of race, my feeling is that Ross is still, he’s like Americans. He’s like America and the West. Whatever color you are, he’s still kind of your eyes and ears in Wakanda because no one’s been to Wakanda. He’s taking you into this other world. If you’re in a cinema in the Western world, you are sort of having the same reaction that Ross is having because we don’t know Wakanda and all our minds would be blown by that. So when you see his mind being blown, then yeah, he’s a sort of surrogate, I guess.
What did Ryan bring to the table and how did you like working with him?
I really liked it. I think everybody did. I liked him immediately as a person. He’s very low key. And I like low key people. I don’t know, I mean it’s fine if you want to be high key, but I like low key. Because it suggests to me that you’re getting on with it. This suggests to me that you’re not being distracted by hyperbole or extraneous stuff. You just want to get on with it. And he’s a massive comic book fan. He loves this shit and he wants to make it as good as he can. I liked his two previous films very much. He’s a good film maker, you know, outside of all the other stuff that’s really important that we’re talking about in political and social terms.
He set out to make a good movie, first and foremost.
What I keep saying is, if it’s not a good film then who gives a shit? He didn’t go to film school just to be an important black man. Do you know what I mean? He went to film school to make really good films. He really likes films. And so do I. And I want to be in good films, I want to be good in good films. There’s no point in me being in a really historic film if I’m shit in it, you know? I want to do my part.
I’ve had conversations with Ryan about that. That yes, it’s historic because of the size, you know, clearly there have been many, many, many quote unquote black films before but not on this scale, not on this potential commercial scale. So yes, it’s historic. And I think for a lot of people, a lot of kids, all the stuff that can sound like a cliché, can sound trite, is true. You know, all that stuff is true. That it’s important. But, we’ve got to make a good film, a great film, that’s the first thing. If it’s mediocre or whatever, or the shots aren’t right, or the story is weak or bad…
That doesn’t help anybody.
Doesn’t help anybody. And I’m a massive believer in the art form. It’s really important that we make good art. It’s massively important we make good art, I think, and that stories keep being told. You know, it’s one of the best things mankind has ever done, is tell stories.
I have to wrap up but any news on Sherlock?
No, no news actually. We’re definitely in a pause at the moment. But I know to Americans it feels like it’s all a pause.
But no, I genuinely don’t know. I mean, I think after season 4, we all wanted to take a bit of time just away from the madness. People really want more Sherlock. I think that’s great. I really love that. But speaking for myself, I’d quite like to take a break from that for a while. Just that sort of…clamor. Which is lovely, cause people like your show, but it can feel quite pressured actually. Know what I mean? You’ve got obviously to surprise them, but if you surprise them too much they’ll hate you for it. It’s a tricky one. It’s a hard one, because there is so much expectation on that show, more than anything I’ve ever done. I’m happy to give it a rest for a while certainly.
Black Panther is out in theaters now.