Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis find themselves in a very strange position. They are the only white British stars in a movie hailed as a triumph of black American culture.
Marvel’s Black Panther – directed by Ryan Coogler and with Chadwick Boseman playing T’Challa AKA Black Panther – has been described by one American critic as “a love letter about blackness”.
“Making the film, it’s not lost on you,” Freeman says of being in an ethnic minority on set. “You think, ‘Right, this is what black actors feel like all the time.’ And Andy wasn’t there often, so I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m the white guy. And I’m the English white guy.’”
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For Serkis, there was one particular moment of filming when the cultural significance of what they were doing hit home. “Ryan Coogler said to me and Martin, ‘Guys, I have to tell you this, but this is the first scene I’ve directed with two white actors in it.’ That’s an incredible perspective to suddenly find yourself in.”
Serkis plays arms dealer and physicist Ulysses Klaue, Freeman CIA agent Everett K Ross, first seen in Captain America: Civil War, who helps T’Challa, the rightful king of the African nation of Wakanda, hold on to his inheritance. Much quasi-religious spirituality, wild action and outrageous science fiction follows.
Can Freeman explain why fantasy films are so popular right now? “Go back to mythology and there were always heroes,” he says. “People want someone who saves the day, whether it’s Thor or John Wayne or Black Panther. It’s a shame but we feel powerless and hopeless, and when you feel like that, these films represent a kind of hope.”
Serkis agrees fantasy films are more than mass entertainment: they can change the world. “I absolutely think that. These films have power. They speak to a mass audience, which they entertain, but they also confront big world issues. The movies I’ve been involved with, War for the Planet of the Apes, even Star Wars: the Last Jedi, they’re political with a small ‘p’, dealing with the notion of ‘the other’ and isolationism and equality, all those issues. So, I’m proud to be part of movies that actually mean something. They are our modern-day mythologies.”
Serkis, aged 53, grew up in London. He is now the world’s pre-eminent motion-capture actor and has been making fantasy films since the Lord of the Rings trilogy began in 2001, when he played Gollum. Freeman is a more recent convert to the genre, joining his friend and Sherlock co-star Benedict Cumberbatch (Marvel’s Doctor Strange) in the franchise in 2016.
Freeman’s Ross is an understated, if tense, observer of events who sits down more often than not. “I like sitting down and talking,” Freeman says. “That’s my favourite thing in films.” He does much of this with Serkis. “Andy and I love working together. We have a lot of respect for each other.” That respect, says Serkis, goes back to working on The Hobbit when they had “a very intense experience in New Zealand together”.
Both men are remarkably successful. Serkis’s mastery of motion-capture acting was most recently seen in the $1.3 billion grossing The Last Jedi where he played Supreme Leader Snoke. Freeman has a rumoured fortune in excess of $15 million, yet can come across as quite glum in interviews. Is he happy? “That’s a big question that needs a four-day answer,” Freeman says. “But I’m doing all right, I’m as happy as I’m going to get. I think.” Does happiness matter to him? “I want to make things I’m proud of,” he says. Happiness beats everything. However much you’re working, you’ve got to be happy, however glam all the Hollywood thing feels.”
Still, the money must help. “I’m doing all right,” he says. “I’ve been better off than anyone in the history of my family for a while. I can buy shoes.”
Freeman, now 46, lives in London – “As always,” he says – but he certainly knows what is going on in Hollywood, and applauds the changes that have followed the Harvey Weinstein sex revelations. “People have been falling like dominoes,” he says. “It’s still landing at the moment and I don’t know quite how it’s going to work out, but only a lunatic would say, ‘Yeah, I think people should be able to sexually assault others, that should carry on.’ It was necessary to shine a light on that.”
Like the Weinstein scandals, Serkis says that Black Panther (in cinemas from Tuesday 13 February) is part of a bigger process of change taking place in Hollywood. “Shifting tectonic plates is a good way of putting it,” he says. “We all love the cinema so much, or watching TV, because we have a personal, visceral, emotional response. I do think that film is taking responsibility for helping change society for the better. The search for equality is absolutely part of that and it’s redefining the stories that are told. The needle has had to swing in a particular direction to counteract what’s been going on globally, politically. Acting is not a vain, selfish activity. It is all about creating movement, creating change and shaping different perspectives for the audience.”
Freeman’s left-leaning politics are well-known. Until 2016 he was in a 16-year relationship with Amanda Abbington – his Sherlock co-star and mother of his children Joe and Grace – who famously tweeted “F*** the Tories” after Freeman appeared in a Labour Party broadcast. How does he feel about joining the multimillionaire Hollywood elite?
“It doesn’t bother me at all,” he says. “I would much rather be in the pub with a fun Tory than a glib Leftie. I’m long past the belief that the Left have a monopoly on intelligence, caring or passion.” How does the Hollywood elite react to him? “Well, I love Robert Downey Jr,” Freeman says. “But when we met we had a lovely chat and we touched on politics. I said I was a Leftie and he looked at me, like, ‘Are you really?’ I thought, ‘That’s interesting.’”
Serkis says Hollywood has pre-conceived ideas of an “archetypal Britishness”. Freeman agrees and doesn’t like some of the assumptions that are made about British actors. “Americans think we’re all posh,” he says. “A lot of the Brits who make it in America are, but not all. Daniel Craig’s not. Idris Elba’s not. It’s easier for them to picture us all as a Hugh Grant character.”
Is it wrong to have so many posh people at the top of the profession? “It certainly makes me concerned because I think we will all lose from it,” Freeman says. “There’s no group of people that has a monopoly on talent or passion or conviction. Some posh people are fantastic and some are awful, same as everybody else. But we know that the people at drama school now are those with money, and that’s a change. We’re in danger of going backwards, because who the hell can afford to go to Central [London’s Royal Central School of Speech & Drama] if you don’t get a grant? How could I have ever done that? I couldn’t, I just couldn’t.”
Has he told Benedict Cumberbatch this? “British actors over there all kind of root for each other,” he says. “Ben’s doing fantastically and I am thoroughly pleased.” Still, there’s time for a showdown between Everett K Ross and Doctor Strange? “Now that,” he says, “is for a bigger Marvel brain than mine.”
Black Panther is released in UK cinemas on Tuesday 13th February 2018