Martin Freeman: from Hertfordshire to Hollywood

PUBLISHED: 15:45 08 May 2018 | UPDATED: 17:22 08 May 2018

Martin Freeman (Victoria Will/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock)

Martin Freeman (Victoria Will/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock)

Victoria Will/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

He’s starred in everything from cult shows Sherlock and Fargo to Hollywood blockbusters, as well as Black Panther, the new superhero movie everyone is talking about. But for mellow Herts resident Martin Freeman, he doesn’t take fame too seriously

Unless you’ve been occupying a subterranean abode of late, you will have heard of Black Panther. The movie of the Marvel comic about a reclusive, technologically advanced African nation has smashed box office and social media records, leaving film royalty of the likes of Star Wars and The Avengers in its wake. And along with that, director Ryan Coogler has shown, without doubt, that a cast of black actors can carry a film to global success.

But for Martin Freeman – who plays slick CIA agent Everett K Ross in the film (he entered the Marvel sci-fi universe in the same role in Captain America: Civil War) – the media furore over the colour of Black Panther’s cast is, in its apparent necessity, frustrating.

Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman) and Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) in Marvel's Black Panther (Marvel Studios)Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman) and Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) in Marvel's Black Panther (Marvel Studios)

‘The thing is, it’s not just about race and changing the structure of Hollywood – certainly the story isn’t about that,’ the 46-year-old Potters Bar homeowner explains. ‘Yes, it’s a first of its kind with a cast of majority black actors, and it’s also a very empowering film for female stars, but that’s not the crux of the action. It appears to me an archaic notion to focus on, and I know it’s hugely significant, but isn’t that wrong? It shouldn’t make cause for any headline.’

He adds, ‘There are characters in the story – some are black, some are brown, some are white, and that’s life. I hope this is it – we don’t have to address this anymore when it comes to a film, and look at it instead as a piece of entertainment that leaves the audience exhilarated. Then we’ve all done our job right.’

Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in the epic The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies (Warner Brothers)Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in the epic The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies (Warner Brothers)

Such a statement, at once mild-mannered and passionate, is typical of the Hampshire-born actor. And despite his idiosyncratic eschewing of grand gesture and Hollywood posturing, Freeman is better placed than most to know just what should constitute a cinematic job well done.

Behind that soft demeanour lays a litany of on-screen successes, from hit mockumentary The Office alongside Ricky Gervais’ toe-curling David Brent, to a front and centre role as Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson’s sprawling The Hobbit trilogy. There’s been endearingly enduring festivity with the ever-popular Love Actually, and double crime drama success as Dr Watson in the acclaimed BBC take on Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories alongside Benedict Cumberbatch, and a put-upon insurance salesman in the darkly comic multi-award-winning American TV series Fargo.

Black Panther's nearly all-black cast has grabbed media attention (photo: Marvel Studios)Black Panther's nearly all-black cast has grabbed media attention (photo: Marvel Studios)

‘I’m pretty proud of everything I’ve done,’ he smiles. ‘There’s stuff that 20 people, if I’m lucky, have seen, perhaps less, and I’m as proud of those as much as the super-popular projects I’ve worked on. I don’t discriminate.

‘Yes, on these movies with huge budgets, you’re looked after very well, between accommodation, and travel, food – they want to make your environment as comfortable for you as possible, so you can do your job to the best of your ability – so there’s the difference there. But the camera is the same, and whether it’s something smaller or something huge like this, the job is always the same for me. Filmmaking is a group of people coming together and trying to tell a story in the best way.’

With Benedict Cumberbatch in season three of the BBC's Sherlock (Robert Viglasky/Hartswood Films)With Benedict Cumberbatch in season three of the BBC's Sherlock (Robert Viglasky/Hartswood Films)

These days, although Freeman recently split from partner, actress Amanda Abbington (Sherlock, Mr Selfridge), with whom he has two children and who retains their Hertfordshire home, the endearingly private actor admits returns to the county are a marvellous escape from the near-chaos of London. ‘I’ve always felt it perfect that such a short drive from the centre of one of the world’s biggest cities can very quickly present to you such tranquillity and peace. I think we take that for granted, but it’s a beautiful landscape – a beautiful escape, in fact.’

Despite a modest attitude towards fame, there’s one project in particular that gets him recognised every time with a certain audience.

Freeman in his breakthrough role Tim with Ewen Macintosh as Keith on Comic Relief day in The Office (Adrian Rogers/BBC)Freeman in his breakthrough role Tim with Ewen Macintosh as Keith on Comic Relief day in The Office (Adrian Rogers/BBC)

‘For people over 30, The Office is often what they want to talk about,’ he nods. ‘But people under that, they don’t really know about it. They either haven’t seen it or it hasn’t had the same pop culture impact on them now, as it did 16, 17 years ago. They want to talk about what I’ve done since.

‘It’s strange, but I guess I’m glad to have been around long enough to cross over generations. That makes me feel old and young at the same time, right?!’

Freeman as Lester Nygaard in Fargo (Matthias Clamer/FX)Freeman as Lester Nygaard in Fargo (Matthias Clamer/FX)

It is, however, the Slough workplace comedy that stands out for Freeman, in spite of it sitting among movies with far greater budgets and media hype.

‘I’m particularly fond of The Office, if I had to pick one, because that’s where it all took off for me,’ he reveals. ‘I wouldn’t be here talking to you without it. At the time, it was the biggest thing I’d ever done and the first time I’d had that giddy excitement. It changed my life, it was when I began getting stopped on the tube. I love it. If I catch it by chance, I’ll always sit down to watch, because it’s my kind of show. It’s everything I like.’

Firm favourite though it may be, Freeman isn’t about to start pandering to the contemporary craze for reunions that has swept the entertainment industry of late – with mixed results. After all, the The Office’s total runtime of 12 episodes seems almost tiny in this new era of binge-watching box sets and TV on demand.

‘No, I like the finite nature,’ he says. ‘I like the idea of leaving it alone, allowing the memory and the legacy to live on untarnished. You’re running the risk of making something that won’t be half as good as what we did before. I say leave people wanting more, not wanting less. No one wants to read a review, which so often happens: “they should have stopped five years ago”. I’m happy to say, “Sorry, that’s enough”.’

In the meantime, Freeman can concentrate on, among other things, the prospect of an on-screen reunion with Cumberbatch for a potential fifth series of Sherlock.

‘It might happen, yes, but we take our time – like quality control,’ he grins. And, of course, quietly adding more millions to that impressive personal box office gross.

‘I just think it’s important to never believe it,’ he says of his approach to fame. ‘Never actually take any of it seriously, or that it means anything in the grander scheme of things. When you do, that’s when the problems start.’

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