Culture

Now you see him: Martin Freeman

Martin Freeman has been in some huge movies. But despite the successes and his undeniable talent, he's still not one of the first names in Hollywood. Thing is, he's okay with that. Really, actually, genuinely okay

Words by
Robin Swithinbank
Photography by
Matt Holyoak
Styling by
Gareth Scourfield

It’s not the kind of thing you’d expect to hear a movie star say, at least, not one who has starred in some of the highest-grossing films of all time. ‘I’m not part of the Hollywood A-list,’ says Martin Freeman, shrugging his shoulders. ‘I’m genuinely not. No. Nowhere near.’

That might sound unduly modest, but the thing is, despite appearing as the titular figure in Peter Jackson’s $3bn Hobbit super-franchise; despite being part of Marvel’s universe (twice, most recently in Black Panther); despite appearing alongside the likes of Billy Bob Thornton (as Lester Nygaard in the Coen-brothers-inspired TV hit Fargo) and Benedict Cumberbatch (as Dr John Watson in Sherlock); and despite being an Emmy and BAFTA-award winning actor (both for Sherlock), he’s not.

‘For a lot of people, the Hobbit was played by Bilbo Baggins,’ he says, that familiar look of knowing resignation writ large across his face. Surely playing the heroic halfling has transformed his career and spun him into the red-carpet superstar galaxy? ‘I don’t know how many people after that thought: “Get me that guy.” I genuinely don’t know. It didn’t feel like it made a massive difference to me. Honest to God.’ Perhaps that will explain where he keeps those awards. ‘On my roof,’ he quips. ‘So people can see them.’

It’s tempting to cast Freeman as unhappy. There’s certainly a tension in him. In person, he’s courteous and engaged – he says words like ‘genuinely’ and ‘literally’ often and fervently – but there’s a sharpness to his opinions, and there’s plenty that riles him. That said, he seems at one with his lot. Mostly. ‘I will allow myself to be proud of that,’ he says of his awards, clearly trying not to big himself up. ‘I do alright. I do OK.’

Martin Freeman might have done some blockbusters in his time, but his first love is independent film. His latest vehicle is Ghost Stories, a proper spooky, throw-your-popcorn-in-the-air fright fest. It’s also an anthology – the fashionable format of our time – featuring the mercurial talents of Paul Whitehouse, Alex Lawther and Andy Nyman. Freeman appears in the third and final act as a wealthy city trader with a ghost problem no prominent psychiatrist has been able to explain. It’s a bleak piece, but it’s funny, too, particularly when Freeman’s natural comic talents are front and centre.

‘People are being hit badly. I’d happily vote for someone who’s going to tax me more’

It is also, for reasons that can’t be explained without spoiling the film, another reminder that the 46-year-old is one of our most versatile actors (‘To be a good comic actor means you’re a good actor, right?’). We spend 10 minutes discussing the film, which Nyman co-wrote and co-directed with Jeremy ‘League of Gentlemen’ Dyson, before it dawns on us that we can’t really talk about it. Not on paper, anyway. One salient detail gets the full treatment, before Freeman jumps in: ‘Don’t give that away, for f**k’s sake!’ he implores. ‘This is my first interview for the film and I’ve already f**ked it up…’

Freeman is not known for his candour. He doesn’t do a lot of interviews and he’s no self publicist (he’s not on social media), only letting it slip that he and Sherlock co-star Amanda Abbington had split after two kids and 16 years together in an interview with the FT a year after the event. Is he with anyone now? ‘Well,’ he says, folding his arms. ‘I would never tell you if I was.’

Conversation about his background and family is therefore a bit stilted. He was born in Aldershot and grew up the youngest of five siblings in Teddington (‘yes, those are the facts.’). His parents split not long after he was born, but he recalls a happy home. ‘We kissed a lot and hugged a lot,’ he says. ‘I mean, it wasn’t The Brady Bunch – we also f**king screamed and shouted a lot.’

They were creative, too, a ‘showy-offy family, no wallflowers’. He’s the only career actor, a path he was encouraged to follow, particularly by his mother, who never got the chance. ‘I was only met with support,’ he says. ‘I didn’t have to leave home, I wasn’t booted out. I know people who faced active hostility from their parents, because it’s so unsafe and it’s in the lap of the gods whether you’ll be able to feed yourself or not.’

These days, Freeman is certainly able to feed himself. Over the past 20 years, his talents have served him well. His big break came in The Office, the mockumentary cringeathon that also made household names of Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant and Mackenzie Crook. ‘I’m very proud of it,’ he says of the show that in 2004 became the first British sitcom to win a Golden Globe for Best Television Series – Comedy or Musical. ‘I still think it’s a phenomenal show. And I still think the central performance [Gervais’s] is one of the best things I’ve ever seen, let alone acted with. I could not have wanted a better break.’

The apocryphal stories surrounding the show are legion, but the one about him originally auditioning to play Gareth, Crook’s character and the butt of all the jokes, rather than Tim, is true. Gervais and his co-creator Merchant spotted something in Freeman audiences have come to know him by. ‘The Office is basically a room full of Laurels and one Hardy, which is Tim,’ Gervais once told The Sun. ‘Tim’s character is pretty common in comedy – that person who thinks they’re better than everyone else, but it doesn’t seem to get them anywhere.’

For a time, it seemed Freeman might suffer the same fate. He became known as the guy that did ‘that face’. He once appeared on Never Mind the Buzzcocks and was invited by host Simon Amstell to do a ‘sigh-off’ with Gavin & Stacey’s routinely put-upon Mathew Horne. Did he worry he’d never lose that tag? ‘Yeah, I was nervous about that,’ he admits. ‘The thing is, I can do that face. But that face, it’s Oliver Hardy’s face. Not my face. He did it 70 years before I did. That’s just me channelling Oliver Hardy.’ Gervais was right, then.

During the mid-2000s, he picked up roles in Love Actually and Hot Fuzz, and played the lead in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Then came Sherlock, The Hobbit, Fargo, the awards and a lot more public attention. ‘I was out last night, having a drink with a friend, walking around town. There are people following you around with camera phones in your face – it’s not pleasant.’

The public is never far from Freeman’s mind. He’s openly political, not exactly in a ‘Ladies and gentleman, the next President of the United States of America’ kind of way (we’ve established he’s not Hollywood – he doesn’t even own a home in the US), but he did front a party political broadcast for the Labour Party in 2015 and endorsed Jeremy Corbyn’s successful leadership bid later that year. A question about fairness opens the floodgates. ‘I do genuinely think this Government is f**king up. I really do,’ he says. ‘And that’s not to say that a Labour Government would be doing much better. But I think people are being hit genuinely really badly, who shouldn’t be. That’s why I’d happily vote for someone who’s going to tax me more.’

Pardon? ‘I think I should be taxed more. I’ve got more money than a lot of people. In my lifetime, there have always been homeless people. Now there’s even more. Food banks, and people being made homeless by not being able to afford their houses, and not enough social housing being made or built, and austerity on and on and on… I don’t know what we expect to happen, but if you’re doing that and cutting the police, what the f**k do you think is going to happen?’

‘We’re getting more polarised. The inability to see the other side is a problem. Social media has helped do away with nuance’

He’s only too conscious of the conflict in being a very wealthy movie star who thinks more should be done to support the disenfranchised. ‘I get it,’ he says. ‘I get why people say: “Who is this prick?” I get it. Most people aren’t as lucky as me. That’s just the truth. So I can see easily why it comes across as pontificating, why it comes across as being champagne socialist. Which is what we’re all called, as soon as you’re not on the dole. If you’re vaguely famous and say anything left wing, it’s a very easy stick to hit you with.’

That’s the natural framework of popular discourse, though, surely? A binary response is easiest. ‘But we’re getting more polarised,’ he retorts. ‘Definitely. The inability to see the other side is a problem. Unless someone is actually driving down your street in a Panzer, then I think you have to keep dialogue. Social media has helped do away with nuance. If me and you have a disagreement here, we can still have a cup of tea. But we do it on social media – then you’re a Nazi.

‘We can’t go on like that. I will easily say I think Trump is a vile pig, but I don’t think every single person who votes Republican is a vile pig. That would be crazy. And I certainly don’t think that about everyone who votes Conservative. It’s not my team. It’s not my party. But do I know Conservatives? Do I like ’em? ’Course I do. Can I not stand some Labour people? Yeah, I can’t stand some of them. So, my hope would be, genuinely, that we start to put our phones down for a minute, and actually not get involved in these f**king wars, which are so safe to have, and so self-righteous… It costs you nothing to be an armchair activist.’

In Ghost Stories the themes of guilt, good and bad and choice run through the piece, holding it together. In one particularly chilling scene, Freeman’s character utters the deliciously portentous line, ‘I didn’t believe in evil until that night…’ He was brought up a Catholic, but isn’t ‘card-carrying’ now. Does he think the film is a modern parable, a wake-up call to burst our secular bubble?

‘Maybe,’ he says reluctantly. ‘I’m one of the only people who I know in my world who isn’t an atheist. I like the questions. That’s where the interesting stuff happens. I’m equally uneasy with hardcore unquestioning atheists as I am with born-again Christians with their hands in the air and their eyes closed. In the same way that yes, I’m of the Left, but there are people and things about the Left that make me very uncomfortable. The sort of unquestioning, demonising of anyone who doesn’t agree with you, kind of thing. I see that in atheists – if you don’t agree with me, you’re intrinsically a moron. And that isn’t helpful. The older I get, the more I realise you need dialogue.’

This, it seems, is the real Freeman. Vocal, ardent, yet nuanced. But he’s not claiming the soapbox. ‘Let’s face it, I wasn’t a very good omen in 2015,’ he says of his virtual doorstepping days. ‘I don’t want my voice to be a political voice. I’m not some political genius. There’s one thing I’m good at, and it’s acting. I have absolute faith in my ability to do that.’

Like it or not, he has a voice. Thank goodness, it’s not the hashtaggable, awards-season friendly voice of many of his fellow actors. He’s more balanced than that. More open to argument. That’s what we saw – and loved – in Tim. In Lester. In Bilbo. In Freeman, we see life’s ambiguousness, its ludicrousness, its ordinariness.

Freeman has to go. He’s got ‘kiddy things’ to do. He’s an active father when he’s not working, and frankly, I’m holding him up. In a flash, he’s gone.

Ghost Stories is in cinemas on 6 April