Interview: Martin Freeman on Jesus, redemption and religion

Actor Martin Freeman – star of Nativity! which opens in cinemas shortly – talks to Steve Goddard about the Christmas story ...

SG: With secular culture so prevalent, why is the school nativity play still so embedded in our culture?

MF: There's a reason why it's called the greatest story ever told. It's a really genuinely good story. Whether you believe in the ramifications of it or not, I think it's a beautiful story with a really beautiful start – the idea that the most humble is the most exalted. That's not a bad idea for me.

Is organised religion the bad end of that original story?

You know, sometimes I think when people have a go at organised religion, it's not necessarily people who have been reading Chomsky and come to this great idea by a lot of research. I've been looking into this and I think a lot of it is laziness. I think organised religion, organised anything, requires commitment and requires an engagement with something and a lot of time we don't want to commit.

Of course, if you talk about the Spanish Inquisition, that's probably the bad end of organised religion. But organised means there's more than 10 people involved, you know what I mean? There were more than 10 people involved because it was an idea people liked. I don't see how you get round it. Do you want disorganised religion? I think everything's got to be personal, anyway. Everything has to be your own personal relationship with something.

Much of the film revolves round the conflict between your character Mr Maddens – a frustrated, under-achieving, cynical primary school teacher and Mr Poppy, his child-like classroom assistant, played by Marc Wootton. Mr Poppy inspires and excites the children while your character calls them 'useless'. Perhaps an underlying theme in the film echoes what Jesus said: 'Unless you become as a little child – like Mr Poppy – you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven' - we become too burdened with life to enjoy it ...

Yes, I guess there's a reason, I suppose, in film language as well. Who do we like? We like innocence and wide-eyed people. We join Maddens at the start of the film where he doesn't think anything is possible. He thinks he's useless. He thinks the kids are useless, so they're not up to the job. Mr Poppy, comes in like a bomb, planted in the classroom. He thinks everything is possible. He is definitely the extra child in the room.

There is another interesting parallel with the biblical narrative. Your character, reluctantly, takes these 'useless' kids and turns them into crack troops. Jesus and the disciples?

I hadn't seen it like that, but the reason for me that any of that stuff, the religiosity, has validity is that there some quite good ideas and some quite good things to give to people – like the idea of redemption; the idea that we can turn something around. We don't even see those things in religious terms. They are human things, they are part of our language and our culture.

If we are watching films who do we get behind? The underdog. What the flip was Jesus if he wasn't an underdog, born in a bleedin' manger, you know what I mean? I've always loved the story because of that. Because whether you believe or not, that is a more succinct lesson about how we should be looking at the world than anything else. The trouble is we stop looking at the world like that when we take it out of that context. We don't then look at a homeless person and think 'what can I do for you?' We think he must deserve it in some way. It's hard to take out those parallels from something specific and put them into the wider world.

Myra Angelo said a great thing. She said that when people say "I'm a Christian" I say "What, already? How have you managed that?" It's the hardest thing in the world to be. How did you manage that? Tell me the secret because if you really apply that to the world, that's a tough gig, man. That's a really tough gig.

  • Nativity! opens in cinemas nationwide on 27 November
  • Specially recorded interviews are among a range of free resources for schools and churches in connection with the new film. Set in Coventry, the story centres round two primary schools (one Catholic state, one private) vying to stage the best nativity play in town. Nativity! gently explores themes of redemption, reconciliation and the deeper meaning of the season.

    "If you are planning to take family, friends or even a school group to a pantomime this Christmas you should consider seeing Nativity! instead," said Nick Pollard of the Damaris Trust. "Instead of putting up with cheap sexual innuendos, you can laugh and cry at one of the most engaging and heartwarming films of the year with some excellent themes to discuss and explore."

    Damaris are making available clips from the film with ideas for school assemblies and church services. Visit http://www.damaris.org/nativity

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