From director Jason Winer and screenwriter Max Werner, the indie dramedy Ode to Joy follows Brooklyn librarian Charlie (Martin Freeman), a man with a neurological disorder called cataplexy, which causes him to lose control and faint whenever he’s overcome by a strong emotion, particularly joy. Living with such a condition has led Charlie to maintain a carefully managed world, which he finds turned upside when he meets the spontaneous Francesca (Morena Baccarin), who he starts to have feelings for and therefore tries to suppress those feelings, so that he can spend time with her without his disorder taking over.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Martin Freeman talked about this unique romantic comedy and why he found himself drawn to it, finding the tone, the logistics of shooting the scenes where Charlie passes out, and the story’s unusual love triangle. He also talked about whether he’ll be returning to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the future, if there could be more episodes of Sherlock, and why he wanted to explore parenthood for the FX comedy series Breeders, airing on 2020.
Collider: This is definitely not your typical romantic comedy, and its most definitely an odd character. What was your reaction, when you read the script? What was it that appealed to you about playing this guy?
MARTIN FREEMAN: Firstly, it was well written, and it made me laugh, and it had some truths in it. I don’t suffer from that condition, obviously. Very few people do. But it had some truths in it, about being alive and being in love. Beyond that, the idea of having a condition where you cannot allow yourself to feel strong emotions is clearly tragic and awful, but also very interesting, from an actor’s point of view. It certainly does have comedic legs. I knew some of Jason Winer’s work, and I liked the screen play. I was attached to it for a fair while, actually, before we did it. It was a good couple of years. When I first read it, I hoped that I would play him, and I was very happy to. There was just enough in there. It had lots of good stuff, both comedically and that was quite touching, which are all the things I like, really. If it were a romantic comedy, there should be some romance and there should be some comedy. That’s what I was after.
This film is part comedy, but the other part of that seems to be more heart-wrenching than dramatic because it’s so sad, when you think about somebody who can’t ever really be happy.
FREEMAN: Yes, it’s terrible.
How tricky was it to find the right balance of the tone? Were there a lot of conversations about that, with the director?
FREEMAN: I guess there would have been, when I first met Jason Winer over Skype, many years ago. I’m sure we would’ve talked about that because obviously it’s not mocking. You can’t mock your leading character. You’ve gotta be batting for him. But at the same time, sorry, it’s kind of funny when someone gets happy and passes out. It just is. By the time we got onto the set, we didn’t have a lot of conversations about that. It was a trust thing, on my part, with Jason, and on his part, with me. When you play any character, you want to have empathy and be open, and play the things which are necessary for whatever you’re doing. For this particular [project], some of it had to be comedy funny, and some of it had to be heart-wrenching. I don’t recall us having big conversations about how we would achieve that, other than obeying the script that we liked. It was in Max Werner’s script. It was self-evident, in that sometimes you would be laughing at this terrible disease and sometimes you would witness this guy just trying to find love, along with this gal. They’re both falling in love, with different things in the way. You don’t want to be cloying, and you don’t watch too much pity from the audience, or self-pity. He needs to be his own person, and a functioning adult.
That’s what I was aware of. There were even times where I thought, “Am I too old to play this?” The older you get, after awhile, does an audience go, “Listen, man, you should’ve sorted this shit out by now.” Will you have as much sympathy, as someone who’s 27? But I think people have these tribulations, at any age. It’s even more attractive that he would’ve spent 25 years avoiding love and sex, and all of the normal romantic things that most of us take for granted. He knows how to live. He totally knows how to survive, and how to make himself just sad enough, not to knock himself out on the sidewalk, which again, sorry, its just inherently funny. He walks around with the status of just being quite sad. The first thing you see him do is pass out at his sister’s wedding because he’s so happy for her. He’s happy for people being in love. It’s not like he doesn’t believe in love for other people. He just can’t have it for himself because it’s dangerous.
When it came to the scenes where you had to pass out, how did you work out the way to do that? Did you try different things to see what worked best?
FREEMAN: From what I remember, we didn’t massively work it out, other than the camera choreography of it. The first time you see him pass out, there was a rig on my chest. There was a camera rig on my chest, so that you get very close to him. And also, when he nearly passes out and falls over the bridge while having a go at his brother, there was a camera rig on my chest that got very close in and had that woozy effect. But other than that, it was just, “And faint, Martin! Action!”
There’s something tragic also about this guy setting up this woman that he’s attracted to with his own brother because he wants to be around her without getting too happy, and as a result, he creates this very unique love triangle. What did you enjoy about that dynamic, especially when it’s also a very different way to explore family?
FREEMAN: It was just weird, the thing of passing the woman you may be falling in love with onto your brother, who you also love, but who you’re also going to be jealous of, if it gets too close for comfort and they’re getting on too well. Siblings aren’t exactly famous for not having rivalry. I suppose that’s the figurative pin in his shoe. He puts a little pin in his shoe to stop himself from being happy, and what could make him more unhappy than seeing potentially the woman of his dreams with his very lovely, but slightly dumber brother. He knows she’s wasted on him. It’s not even like he feels smug and superior about that because he won’t allow himself to. He is genuinely trying to keep her at arms length until he can’t anymore. That’s another one of the things that appealed to me about this project. It’s just not something you see. You don’t see it coming. Whenever you cast something well, what actors should do is bring in something that you didn’t see, and Jake Lacy had. Jake can genuinely tap into a real puppy dog thing, without any malice whatsoever, and no guile, and just a pure, open goodness. That character is a simpleton. He’s simple. He likes simple shit, and not really questioning stuff. He can’t quite believe it, when he starts going out with her, that he wants to go and see cultural things that he’s totally out of his bets in. So then, these two brothers have to confer over these problems, when one of them doesn’t know how lucky he is, and the other one is absolutely in contortions of love and self-loathing. Funny stuff comes out of terrible stuff. There’s not much comedy ever made by everyone being okay. Someone’s gotta not be okay for it to be funny.
I also love the appearances you’ve made in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (in Black Panther and Captain America: Civil War). Do you know whether you’ll be back for any movies, at all, in the future?
FREEMAN: As far as I know, I will be. As far as I know, I will be in another Black Panther. That’s my understanding. As to when that will happen, I don’t know.
Have there been discussions about more Sherlock? Is that something that you’re hoping to do?
FREEMAN: They’re few and far between, the discussions about Sherlock, just because Mark [Gatiss] and Steven [Moffat], the writers, and Benedict [Cumberbatch] and I, are all lucky enough to be not only working on stuff that we like and are interested in, but we know what Sherlock is. You don’t look that gift horse in the mouth ‘cause that sort of stuff doesn’t happen very often, in someone’s life. It’s a huge, huge, worldwide hit, and way beyond anything we could’ve imagined. But the way the story went, in the last series, felt like, if not a full stop, then certainly a semi-colon or an ellipses. It felt like a pause. It didn’t feel like something where we could just pop up the next year and go, “Hey, folks, we’re back.” It felt a bit more momentous than that. Not final, necessarily, but the truth is that I don’t know because me and Ben don’t write it. I’m a huge believer in stopping doing something when you want to. If you’ve said what you want to say, get off the stage, and really have the guts to leave it. I don’t know if it’s more they want to say. If it’s something really special, and if it’s something really meaty and interesting, then I think we’d all be open to that. Sherlock always sounds a bit like an event, anyway. We did three episodes [each season]. Albeit they were long episodes. They were 90-minute episodes, but they were quite few and far between, by television standards. Normally, you’re looking at 10 or eight episodes. We did relatively few, even though there was a lot of material. It always felt like an event, so if we do more, it has to be worthy of that. We couldn’t come back with something that was quite good. It would have to feel really, really special. It was that kind of show.