Martin Freeman Didn’t See Any Good TV Shows For Parents. So He Made One

In 'Breeders' Freeman says: "Parents speak to their children in a three-dimensional honest way."

by Donna Freydkin
Martin Freeman, who has starred in Breeders, Sherlock, and Black Panther

Martin Freeman, in the FX comedy Breeders, expresses his family values thusly: “I would die for those kids. But often I also want to kill them.” And the thing is, he means it and he articulates it. And he knows that you, dear parents, have felt the exact same way. In season two, premiering on Monday, Paul is dealing with the trials of young adolescence: His son is a loner who just made his first friend, an iconoclast who likes poetry and coffee tastings. And his daughter wants to “divorce” her best friend. And there’s Paul’s need to prove his bar-hopping virility and cling to the last vestiges of youth, a fixation bordering on the pathetic.

Freeman is the guy from that thing: He was the original Jim (in his case, Tim) in the OG British version of The Office. He perfectly nailed the hapless Arthur Dent in 2005’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. His Dr. Watson brought a much-needed dose of humanity and empathy to Benedict Cumberbatch’s prickly, stilted yet brilliant Sherlock Holmes in BBC’s Sherlock. And yeah, that’s him as Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit trilogy; in a statement released in 2010, director Peter Jackson called Freeman “intelligent, funny, surprising and brave — exactly like Bilbo.” We could go on because his performances are legion, but you get the picture. The guy is as gifted as his characters are relatable. He’s got some serious depth and range, as showcased most recently in 2018’s Black Panther.

But Breeders is, without question, the most personal role for Freeman, a dad of two. When he conceptualized the show, he did so precisely because he hadn’t seen even a marginally authentic depiction of parenthood on television. In shooting it, he learned that “I’m more of a prick than I thought I was. The main thing I realized as a parent of young children — I’d gone through my adult life thinking I’m a nice person. I’m a good guy. And then finding out that some of me is that, but some of me is very spoiled and impatient,” he says.

He talks to Fatherly about returning to Wakanda, raising kids, and why his show featured a dead gerbil.

Thank you for creating a show that does the seemingly impossible: It takes a hard and unflinching and unforced look at parenting, without being cloying or hokey or fake about it.

When I first told people about the idea — friends of mine who were also parents to fairly young children, they said, ‘You have to make it. You have to make that because we’re all the things you’re saying.’ First and foremost, I wanted it to be a funny show, but also to have within the confines of a funny show, to have as much truth as the other side of family life that isn’t normally advertised. I’ve not seen a comedy show where the parents speak to their children in such a three-dimensional honest way on television before.

When Sprout the gerbil dies, there’s no-nonsense about him going to the gerbil farm in the sky. The thing is dead.

Yeah. And when Michael McKean tries to replace it, he dies too.

When people meet you, do they assume that you’re the character?

It came out in lockdown. So very few people meet me now. Since The Office, I’ve done things that people sort of relate to. If ever I’m playing myself, that’s Paul, you know what I mean? That is unabashedly the closest thing to me that I’m going to play, and happily. It came from me as part of a desire to have an honest reflection and an honest conversation about the other side of parenting, because the love — I think the love takes care of itself. Of course, you love your children beyond life and death. Of course, you do. We’re not always so great at being honest about the other stuff, you know?

Absolutely. We live in a culture that’s all about the fetishization of parenthood. Every moment is unicorns, rainbows, and magical enrichment.

Absolutely. And not only do I think that’s patently untrue. No one actually wants that, and unless you want to raise a little Mussolini then at some point that little kid is going to have to hear no, and hear it quite a lot in order to be a functional member of society.

Not to get all misanthropic, but I love that your show also tackles the other unspoken thing about parenting: Most of the time, it’s fucking boring.

I’ve got better as a parent, to be honest, which is good. Because I’ve hopefully gotten better as a human as I get older. But yeah, some of it is boring.

We’re having babies later than our parents and our grandparents did. There are all those years extra of doing exactly what you want. You live your life for you and your partner, whatever, however, you choose to use it. It’s selfish and not selfish in a bad way, just selfish in a natural way. I’m doing what I want to do.

And then along comes this person who again, is the brightest thing in your life and you wouldn’t dream of doing without them, but they’re now going to tell you in no uncertain terms, you’re not going to do what you want to do anymore. I think it’s okay as a mum or dad to feel that, yeah, this is hard. Even though intellectually, you know, that’s going to be the fact viscerally, you don’t know what being a parent is until it’s hit you. That’s a constant conversation I’ve had with myself since the first day we bought our son home from the hospital. It’s learning, just constant learning.

You’ve been in these epic franchises that have inspired, shall we say, zealous fans. Has it been refreshing to not be accosted anymore, given that we’re all at home, or out in masks?

It’s been a nice break to some degree. When the first few episodes of Breeders came out last year, I was walking around my neighborhood with my kids and, and this was in early pandemic times, when people were still coming a bit closer to each other. I got quite a lot of lovely feedback from people with families.

But generally, you don’t feel that famous because thank God people have got other stuff to worry about. Clearly, there are other priorities. It has felt different. Well, it clearly felt different for everybody, but in that particular regard, it felt different. It’s just felt quieter. You can’t go to pubs and you can’t go to restaurants in the same way. When we’re not in lockdown, all that public life stuff does happen, but it just happens way less. I go for my daily walk around my neighborhood and I could be a plumber. Everyone’s just getting on with it.

Are your kids fans of the show?

They laugh at it and they look at me knowingly and go, yep. Your children being proud of you is — that’s the best review you can have. I mean, it genuinely is. And they liked the show and they understand the show and they recognize it. Let’s just say they recognize it a lot. Paul is a really good parent because he’s very loving. I think he’s a loving father, a loving husband. And he also loses his shit and I think those things go tandem with being alive, you know?

He tells his kids to shut up. I have told my kid to shut up.

I don’t understand why you wouldn’t. Of course, you have. Our grandparents would never have pretended they never spoke to their children like that. At some point in Western civilization, we’ve decided that it will be a great idea not only to actually lie about how we present ourselves with our kids but also as if that would be desirable. Your kid sometimes needs to be told to shut up occasionally and maybe that’s not the best choice of words.

I can’t let you go without asking about the next Black Panther movie. Can you tell me anything about it?

I can, I can say that I’m going to be in the next Black Panther but I don’t know in what capacity. I’m speaking to Ryan Coogler in the next few days to find out. I knew I was always going to be in two Black Panthers. I knew I was always going to do it, but I’m not exactly sure. I don’t know with the passing of Chad, what that’s gonna look like. I have no idea.

What a tragedy — his death. Whats’ your recollection of working with him?

His work ethic and his work rate was just phenomenal because not only was he was leading a massive film. And his pre- and post-day job was basically being a professional athlete, training as much as a professional athlete would. I loved doing the scenes with him. I loved working with him. He was quick to laugh, he enjoyed laughter. He enjoyed the process of collaboration. He wore that mantle well, of what he was helping bring to the world. I was very fond of him. He was a lovely man. And apart from anything else, his family lost a lovely man. He was one of the good ones.

Breeders Season 2 drops new episodes on FX on Mondays. New episodes also stream on Hulu the following day, plus all of season 1 is there!