Classic Interview: Martin Freeman

Martin Freeman in Sherlock

Actors who appear in hit sitcoms often have difficulties shaking off the role that makes their name. Beyond The Joke recently wrote about the way that Father Dougal still casts a shadow over Ardal O'Hanlon's work. But Martin Freeman has had no such issues. I doubt if that many people still think of him primarily as Tim from The Office these days. Even though that was a major role in a landmark series Freeman has recently shaken Tim off with starring parts in The Hobbit movies and BBC1's Sherlock.

It has just been confirmed that Sherlock is due to return on New Year's Day 2014 and, of course, there is another Hobbit film in the pipeline so I thought it would be a good time to dust off this interview I did with Freeman in October 2005 for the London Evening Standard when he was appearing in a play at the Soho Theatre, Blue Eyes and Heels. The Hobbit was a few years off and he was still best known as Tim, but it didn't seem to bother him and he talked fondly of his big break. Freeman is an interesting character, both friendly and quite severe, with some strong opinions which he is not afraid to air. He is also one of the sharpest, best dressed men in showbiz, who puts as much effort into his appearance as he puts into his performances.

 

Martin Freeman isn't naming names, but he's fed up with comedians who think they are actors."It's hard enough for actors anyway. There's a rollercoaster of dreadful casting that no one has the guts to stop. There's nothing more painful than seeing comics who can't act - it makes me want to set fire to people's f****** houses."

If Freeman isn't naming names, we know the kind of casting he might be referring to: probably the stand-up comedians currently clogging up the stages in the West End. 

Harsh words, nevertheless, from the comic actor best known as frustrated romantic Tim who finally waddled off into the Slough sunset with receptionist Dawn at the end of the final episode of The Office in 2003. Especially since he is about to return to the London stage.

But then, when Freeman starts his three-and-a-half-week run of Blue Eyes and Heels at Soho Theatre next week, he will be returning to what he considers his real job.

Hardly idle since the demise of The Office, he has since notched up another two TV sitcoms, Hardware and The Robinsons, and two films, Love, Actually and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

With that CV, he could have had his pick of roles, but he opted for a low-key off-West End production of a new play. It is a sharp, succinct comedy about media politics in which he plays a producer grappling with the revival of ITV wrestling.

"Career-wise," Freeman admits, "this is not what I should be doing, but I really like the play and there aren't many things that I really like. I wanted to avoid anything that was too commercial. It's not that I want to be poor, it's just that I don't want money to be the main thing."

The project reunites Freeman with writer Toby Whithouse, whose last play, Jump, Mr Malinoff, Jump, he also starred in, at the same theatre in 2000. That was pre-Office days; Freeman is nothing if not loyal.

His latest role, as a wise-cracking, high-flying TV executive, might be something of a departure, but you could say that Freeman has developed a niche in everyman characters: long-suffering Tim; the unlikely suburban hero, Arthur Dent, in Hitchhiker's Guide; the genial shop assistant in Hardware. But you say it to him at your peril.

"When people call me an everyman they think it's a compliment," he rants. "I want to rip their f****** eyeballs out. I don't want to be the cosiest man in Britain; it's not the way I feel about the world or the job I do."

Frequent expletives aside, initial appearances certainly suggest a cosiness to this affable 34-year-old. When we meet, at his agent's Soho office, he brings his pet miniature wirehaired dachshund, Archie, for company and when the pooch leaves a puddle by the door, Freeman solicitously mops it up in a caring, cosy way.

Yet he has told me before that his reputation among friends for intolerance earned him the nickname Uncle Joe, after Stalin. I wonder what they think of his part in Marks & Spencer's new celebrity ad campaign, which features him prominently?

"I've always worn M&S. Doesn't everyone?" he demands. "And it wasn't a charity gig - it was being shot by David Bailey and that doesn't come along every day."

You have to admire Freeman for branching out. The Office, though, continues to cast a long shadow over his career. He still sees Ricky Gervais regularly and one can't help wondering if they've ever discussed the possibility of bringing Tim back to life, if not in The Office, maybe in a domestic spin-off with Dawn?

"I'd happily work with Ricky again but it's not on the cards. He'd have to write something for me and I'd have to worry about it being the old team - 'remember us, folks?'. It's like all the old bands getting back together, why not acknowledge that something good happened and then have the guts to move on?"

As his latest play points up, Freeman is big on exercising this kind of restraint. He could easily have chosen, for example, to use the cult success of Hitchhiker's Guide as a springboard into Hollywood.

"I could have made more of it by going over there but I don't even have an American agent," he says. He talks fondly of films such as Serpico and Chinatown, but contemporary Tinseltown fills him with barely concealed disgust.

"I'm not interested in living that life. I've never wanted to go to lovely LA. I was a well-respected actor before The Office and there's lots of other work I've been proud of that is less well known. I consider myself primarily a stage actor and if people were only giving me work now because of Tim I'd feel a bit of a fraud. It's funny because until I became the nicest man in Britain I tended to be cast as villains, drug dealers, rent boys and bare-knuckle fighters."

Even in The Office, he reveals, he nearly avoided the romantic storyline that melted viewers' hearts. "I originally read for the part of Gareth [that went to MacKenzie Crook]. It was only as I was leaving that Ricky asked me to read for Tim."

He spotted the genius of Gervais in the original script and is clearly a passionate comedy fan. He has just filmed an interview for a BBC2 tribute to The Goodies, the post-Python comedy he loved as a child.

"I was seven at the time. I trust everything I liked when I was seven - Jerry Lewis, Laurel and Hardy, Tom and Jerry - there's a lot to be said for that kind of honest judgment before you start worrying about what you should and shouldn't like. Does it make you laugh? That's the only criterion worth bothering about."

If one wanted to play amateur psychologist, one could say that Freeman's abiding love for Seventies culture - whether it is The Goodies, the early films of Al Pacino, or the music of The Jam - ties in with the fact that his earliest years may have been his most idyllic, before his parents divorced. Unusually Freeman went to live with his father.

It didn't seem strange at the time but I suppose it is," he accepts. "It was just the way things were. It was quite a civilised separation and when my mum was back on her feet financially, I moved back with her."

As a teenager, he joined Teddington Youth Theatre where he found his vocation and quickly landed a place at the Central School Of Speech And Drama. After stints in The Bill and Casualty - "the modern equivalent of rep" - he worked steadily until the breakthrough with Tim.

These days he has his own family to think about. His long-term partner, actor Amanda Abbington, is expecting their first baby in December. And then there's Archie, who needs his regular walks around Crouch End. Being spotted in the street is "the absolute downside" of fame, but it's worth the hassle for Archie's sake. Maybe Martin Freeman isn't quite the Mr Angry he'd like to think he is.

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