In UCD to accept an honorary L&H fellowship, Martin Freeman chats with Steven Balbirnie about hobbits, detectives and finding time for the things that you love
Martin Freeman has been proving himself to be an acting powerhouse of late, not only with starring roles in The Hobbit trilogy and the BBC’s modern interpretation of Sherlock Holmes, but also by finding the time to act in The World’s End, as well as the forthcoming films Svengali and Saving Santa. The only thing more impressive than his acting CV is that for such a busy man, he is possibly the most polite and amiable person you could hope to meet.
He is swift to dismiss the assertion that this current abundance of releases is due to some kind of superhuman acting feat, pointing out that “sometimes, as you probably know, you can be filming these things at various times and it just kind of depends on when they all elide and come out.
“It’s just that if they come out at a similar kind of time it’s like you’ve all done it in ten minutes kind of thing, but actually it’s the result of work of over a year,” he explains.
Freeman is also quick to counter the suggestion that there has been a massive increase in his acting output. “It honestly doesn’t feel like an increased workload as I’ve always worked a lot. I mean when I was 23, 24 I worked a lot, but obviously not in things that were ever famous. At the moment I’m lucky enough to have Sherlock and The Hobbit going on, and to have those things sort of dually going on, that’s a big gig, that’s a great combination.”
Indeed, with The Desolation of Smaug set to be one of the top grossing films of this year, Freeman has achieved great success with his portrayal of the titular hobbit, Bilbo Baggins. Many actors would’ve found the idea of stepping into the world of Middle Earth, which has been so intricately defined by the Lord of the Rings trilogy, to be a daunting prospect, but not Freeman.
“I think from my point of view I was starting from scratch, because it was a new part for me and that version of Bilbo was a new version, albeit you know one that was started by Ian Holm, started very well by Ian Holm, but that’s Bilbo in fifty years’ time. So I felt like it was kind of a blank canvas for me.
“I didn’t feel in anyway, which was partly down to my foolhardiness and partly down to the way that they operate, I didn’t feel like I owed anyone anything. I didn’t feel like I had to sort of live up to anything. They cast me, they had absolute trust and faith in casting me and I had absolute faith in doing it.”
In light of the success the franchise has already enjoyed, it is incredible to think how close Freeman came to turning down the part of Bilbo Baggins. “I was in a position with a very heavy heart where I kind of had to because of commitments to Sherlock, because Sherlock had gone out and been a huge success for BBC and they wanted to strike while the iron was hot and do a second series.
“To be fair, Sherlock wasn’t really budging, the BBC weren’t really budging so Peter Jackson budged and rearranged the entire shooting schedule of The Hobbit so I could do both. Which is very flattering and very lucky for me. So it meant that I could film some of The Hobbit and have downtime to go and do Sherlock series two and come back to The Hobbit. It’s amazing that I got to do both.”
Such a gesture by Jackson shows how firmly committed he was to get Freeman on board for the role, and the actor has nothing but praise for the New Zealand-born director. “I like the way he tells stories and he’s just easy you know, he’s just easy. He’s not precious. He’s not difficult.
“He’s a big believer, as I am, in not making life more difficult than it needs to be. We’re all just there to tell a story, him most of all. He’s not satisfied until he gets absolutely what he sees as the right thing and so as always it’s a negotiation between you and any director you’re working with between what you think is the right thing and what they think is the right thing.
“Hopefully those things are going to come together and be the same, because the last thing you want to do as an actor is go home thinking, ‘Well I gave him what I wanted but I hated it.’ So you have to please yourself before anybody. I mean, you’re contractually obliged to please the director, but really you’re morally and artistically obliged to please yourself as well. But I enjoyed those negotiations with Peter.”
While his role as Bilbo Baggins will be dominating cinemas this December, the role which has gained him the most acclaim has been his performance as Dr. John Watson alongside Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock. The massively popular series has seen the duo of Holmes and Watson reimagined for a 21st Century audience while remaining faithful to the original vision of Arthur Conan Doyle’s seminal detective stories.
Freeman is very conscious of this remarkable balance that the show has managed to maintain. “The danger was that it would just go way away from the original source material in spirit as well as iPhones and cars and all that, but it’s been really nice actually to know that we can have our cake and eat it.
“It’s very much our thing, but as far as the spirit and the dynamic goes between those two characters, which is after all, really is the success of the show, it’s written that way, it’s made that way, that you want to know about the dynamic of these two characters and that I think is true to Conan Doyle.
“Watson is the way in in those stories because he’s the narrator in those stories, and my John is the first person you see in this programme. He introduces us to Sherlock.”
Freeman relishes his role as Watson and exhibits an insightful understanding of the character’s inner workings. “John is still, he’s stoical, he’s very watchful, he’s very very strong-willed, a strong-minded person, he’s not easily flappable.
“You know he’s an alpha male, he saves lives and can kill people; like if it wasn’t for Sherlock he’d be the most impressive man in the room, you know because he’s knocking about with someone who’s even more fucking alpha than he is. All of which is interesting to play because you’re playing someone who is very much their own man, they’re very strong.”
Freeman also has a certain sense of admiration for his fictional counterpart. “He doesn’t do a lot of vocal flourishes, he doesn’t do a lot of showing off, it’s just he’s still in a way that I envy about some men. He’s got a real strength to him.”
Freeman is evidently very proud of the show, saying, “If awards are an indicator of something, we’ve won a fuck load of awards already and I’ve never been in anything as successful in those terms as that, you know. I mean, even The Office didn’t win that many things. It’s done amazingly well, and all over the world. We’re very very proud of it. It’s a good show.”
Freeman is consistently very open about attributing the show’s success to the calibre of the writing team behind it. “Most things by their very nature, most paintings aren’t great and most scripts aren’t great, most footballers aren’t great, because we notice the great ones and the Sherlock stuff is a different class script-wise.”
With a new series of Sherlock in the pipeline for 2014, Freeman believes that the writing team have upped their game once again. “The scripts this year are fantastic. We’ve put ourselves in a hard position where we have to up our game from an already high standard, and that’s no mean feat for the writers, but you know they’ve done it, they’ve outdone themselves.”
Despite such high profile roles, Freeman clearly has his feet still on the ground and is modest about his fame. “There are still plenty of people who don’t know who I am. That hasn’t changed in that way, really. It’s not like everywhere I go I’m mobbed, you know, certainly not in non-English speaking places.”
Freeman sees this as positive, however, reflecting that, “I think your world changes as much as you want it to change. I think if you go out there and court everything, it depends on how much you embrace, how much you want it and there are some things I don’t particularly want. I want work and I want to be doing good work but I don’t necessarily need everything that goes with it.
“I want my life to stay pretty much as it is, because I’ve got the important things in my life, which is my family, my house and all that stuff. So, I don’t want that to change. I don’t want to not be able to get on the tube ever; do you know what I mean? I quite like it staying to a certain extent how it is.”
When asked about how he manages to juggle his commitments to such demanding acting roles, his answer is straightforward. “I think any actor or any self-employed person knows that if you’re lucky enough to have choice in things that you say no to, and then things that you say yes to are such a pleasure to do; that’s how you find time.”
When choosing what projects to say yes and no to, Freeman reveals that it all comes down to good writing. “You know I just like it if it’s good, if it’s something that someone’s made up yesterday and the first thing is a screenplay and I love it then I’m in.
“If it’s an adaptation of something that I like then I’m also in. It’s always just about what that screenplay is like, because you could’ve had a terrible adaptation of any of those things, I mean you could’ve had a terrible adaptation of any of those beloved books and I wouldn’t have wanted to do it.”
In keeping with his strong work ethic, Freeman isn’t resting on his laurels; he’s crossing the Atlantic for his next major project that will see him tackling his greatest challenge yet, the Minnesotan accent. “Well my next thing I’m doing is an American TV series of Fargo, the Coen brothers’ film, and that is a ten part series for American telly.
“I start the pilot of that in November and then we do the series of that up until April. It’s beautifully written and very very exciting. It’s a great part, it’s a great world. I love that world; it’s sort of a darkly comic, odd world that the Coen brothers created. I’m dead excited about that.”
No doubt Freeman’s fans will also be dead excited to see him taking on a role in yet another iconic production, but between eagerly awaiting a new season of Sherlock and the concluding instalments of The Hobbit saga, they should have enough to whet their appetite.