Life & Culture

Interview: more coffee-shop espionage than derring-do as Martin Freeman does Mossad

Actor Martin Freeman speaks to James Mottram about his latest role as an Israeli spy


Martin Freeman has never been an actor to jump into a role for the sake of it. “If I don’t like the story, if I’m not engaged in the story, then I won’t do it, even if the character is interesting,” he says.

It goes some way to explaining why he fell for his latest film The Operative, a tough-as-nails espionage thriller from Israeli writer-director Yuval Adler that receives its British premiere in this month’s UK Jewish Film Festival.

“I liked the pace of the script,” Mr Freeman says. “One of the things I said to Yuval early on was that the screenplay wasn’t begging to be liked, actually. It wasn’t full of bombs and car chases. It seems — not having ever been an agent or a handler — probably about as close to the reality of that life as anything I’ve read.”

Mr Adler’s film is based on the novel The English Teacher, written by Yiftach Reicher Atir and inspired by his experiences as a military intelligence officer in Mossad (revelations that, according to Mr Adler, were partly “censored in Israel”). It follows the life of an undercover operative, Rachel (Diane Kruger), recruited by Mossad to work undercover in Tehran.

Mr Freeman plays Thomas, her handler who is British-born, Jewish, and stationed in Berlin. It’s a far cry from his most famous roles — Tim from The Office, Arthur Dent in the film version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy.

But, as he puts it, “I’m very, very fortunate that I get to work on projects that I like, whether that’s something funny or serious or a bit action-y.”

Still, if Mr Freeman ever fantasised about playing an all-action agent, then that was swiftly shot down by Mr Adler. He remembers one of their first conversations about one particular scene.

“It’s written that Thomas chases after Diane’s character and heads off a couple of Mossad agents and I was thinking, ‘Is that going to be like Jason Bourne? Is that going to be like a fight?’ And he was like, ‘No, that’d be like me or you [doing it]!’ It’s meant to look not great, meant to look not professional — because Thomas is not a fighter.”

Now 48, Mr Freeman was probably secretly glad that he didn’t have to turn into an action hero, in the way Liam Neeson did for Taken. “A lot of my scenes were sitting down, and I’m very good at that! I specialise in that. And drinking coffee and eating pastries!”

But while he might be joking, it’s arguably a more realistic representation of his character’s profession. “His whole deal is sitting down in coffee shops, briefing people and prepping them.”

Ultimately, The Operative is not a film destined to lift the lid on the inner workings of Israel’s national intelligence agency, says Mr Adler. “It’s not a film about Mossad, really. It’s a film about these people, about relationships, about espionage…it’s a character study.

“It’s a personal drama.”

The Operative is showing in the UK Jewish Film Festival on 14 November.

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