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With two new series, Martin Freeman reveals hidden layers

Martin Freeman in "Breeders" on FX.
A different “breed”: Martin Freeman is one of the go-to nice guys on screens big and small, but two current TV projects show other sides of him. Here he’s pictured in a scene from the FX dark comedy “Breeders.”
(Miya Mizuno / FX)

The Everyman Card has been nice to have in his back pocket; it afforded him entrée to a solid career. But British actor Martin Freeman has others to play, as two very different television projects show.

“I didn’t go to drama school just to be likable and funny,” he says over a Zoom chat from his London home. “I like having that facility; it’s very useful. But like most actors, I’m greedy. I want to do as much as I can do.”

The 48-year-old Freeman made his name as the nice young man in the original British “The Office” (think the John Krasinski role), the accidental cosmic tourist in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and the sensitive porn stand-in in “Love Actually.” Since then, his hits have included the Benedict Cumberbatch-starring “Sherlock” (as Watson), the trilogy of “The Hobbit” (as the hobbit, Bilbo Baggins), the FX series “Fargo” (as Lester Nygaard) and “Captain America: Civil War” and “Black Panther” in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (he says “Panther” director Ryan Coogler has confirmed he’ll be in the sequel).

And this season, he’s got two television shows available in America: The warts-and-all parenting comedy, “Breeders,” which hit FX in March, and the true-crime miniseries, “A Confession,” available through the BritBox streaming service. He’s not exactly sweet or heroic in either.

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“There are lots of comedies about parenting and family, obviously,” he says of “Breeders,” which he cocreated. “But there weren’t any that I had seen that showed what happens when you lose your temper with your kids, when you actually do that. When you do it for real, you don’t go, ‘I’ve told you a thousand times to stop that …’; at least not in my house, or in anybody’s house, when you scratch away and get to the truth.”

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First Look at the British comedy series, “Breeders,” starring Martin Freeman.

“I was interested in how far we could go down that line and for it to still be funny and for the characters to still be people you root for. They’re not abusive; they’re not horrible people. They love their kids and are ostensibly a pretty happy, functional family. But within that, we’re showing the underside .... I haven’t seen this tone in this context on television before.”

The show’s first scene has Freeman’s Paul losing it in front of his kids and not in PG fashion. Freeman says that moment came to him in a dream.

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“It’s pretty much verbatim. I woke up and thought, ‘This is part of a very, very dark comedy.’ The ridiculousness of people trying to talk themselves down from shouting at their kids, to be calm and chilled out … and you can’t fight it. By the time you open the door, you’re screaming obscenities at children.”

He says unapologetically depicting such moments “was part of our conversations from the start. ‘You have to show this, or there’s really no point in doing it otherwise.’ ”

In its bones, “Breeders” is a comedy, but there’s serious drama in its marrow as well. Freeman cites some of those very dark turns as his favorite moments on the show, though to discuss them here would be telling. In the same vein, “A Confession” is not your father’s true-crime miniseries — especially if your father is American.

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Trailer for the British true-crime miniseries “A Confession,” starring Martin Freeman.

“That had occurred to me, the difference between the U.S. and the U.K. — it’s a very English telling of the story. There aren’t any big car chases or explosions; no one gets shot. The best American TV is the best in the world, but you guys like a car chase,” he says, smiling.

The series’ first act, if you will, is a nail-biting hunt after Freeman’s Detective Superintendent Steve Fulcher learns of a young woman’s kidnapping. From there, it becomes an examination of the aftermath. The balance of the drama turns on a failure to observe the equivalent of a suspect’s Miranda rights, with severe consequences.

“Steve is a very good copper who believes in” suspects’ rights and reining in police, says Freeman, who got to know the real Fulcher in his research. “But he says, ‘If someone can tell me what I should have done instead of the action I took, please tell me.’ He didn’t kick the ... out of someone in the back of the squad car or put words into a suspect’s mouth. It was literally not crossing a T and dotting an I of procedure.

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Freeman’s Fulcher is all business; he almost never loses his cool. The actor shows remarkable restraint, particularly when he must deliver terrible news to family members or when he gets devastating information from a suspect.

“The director and the writer both said, don’t do that version — slap him around, the actor gets to look good. It’s not true, not in this story, anyway. It’s more mundane than that. It’s the mundanity of it that’s more affecting.

“That said, there are some breakdowns — when I tell [costar] Imelda Staunton her daughter’s died … you didn’t have to do anything but just be there in that scene. She’s making this animal noise. You have to be a stone to not be affected. It makes your job easier. You have to do less.”

The Times TV team recommends the five TV shows we’re watching this week — and that you should be watching too.

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