Listen to this article
Psychologists have apparently discovered that there are two types of swearing: social swearing, which builds solidarity, and annoyance swearing, which releases tension. On meeting Martin Freeman it seems as if these categories alone cannot possibly be enough.
With Freeman, there is also curious swearing, apathetic swearing, jealous swearing, joyful swearing. There are some F-words that stand alone proud, like drunks in the rain, and others that squeeze into the smallest slot, like commuters unwilling to wait for the next Tube.
“Don’t put all these swear words in,” he briefly pleads at the end of our chat. “Just say ‘bally’. ‘I was bally miffed.’” I agree not to name the US politician who he just called a f***ing moron. But haven’t people told him to swear less? “Yeah, they have. And I have tried. And I’ve found it’s just not for me.” Smiling, he contrasts it to giving up smoking. “I never liked smoking. I like swearing. I think swearing serves a purpose.”
Vocabulary is only one reason that Freeman, famous for his roles in The Office, The Hobbit and Sherlock, can be a tricky conversationalist. The 45-year-old is so mindful of his privacy that he has previously refused to say when he was born or if he is married. He arrives at our meeting with Beats headphones, and when I ask what he was listening to, he helpfully replies: “Various things.”
“I like to keep something in reserve, I just do. Which I think is totally normal and totally sane. The way I see it — if my work life is for you, why the f*** would I make my private life for you? It’s insane that anyone would give up both sides of their life for public consumption. Some people want to do it. Completely their f***ing funeral. But I — I absolutely reserve the right not to,” he explains. “I think it’s nice not knowing stuff. And sometimes I do like lying to people. Occasionally, just fibbing.”
Don’t get the wrong idea. Freeman is not your worst nightmare of an overpaid, ill-mannered actor; he’s not even a nightmare. British journalists often treat celebrities as our parents handled vegetables — pressure-cooking them to the point where no texture can possibly remain. But with Freeman, you do hit rawness. Such as when we stumble onto the topic of his Sherlock co-star, Amanda Abbington.
“I’m not with Amanda any more,” he whispers about the partner/possible wife/possible ex-wife who he met in 2001, and with whom he has two children. “It’s very, very amicable — I’ll always love Amanda.” Later, I ask if success has made him happier. “To a certain extent, yes,” he says. “Not as much as it might have done, and not as much as maybe I would have hoped it had.” It comes across as a tender admission.
Perhaps Freeman’s greatest achievement was to reinvent the role of the straight man for the age of fly-on-the-wall comedy. In the 2001-2003 series The Office, with a single appalled stare or conspiratorial glance at the camera, he brought home the true awfulness of David Brent. And then, just as other actors started to copy him, he got bored and branched out.
His rise can be charted by his answer to the perennial question: is he the everyman actor? There wasn’t a huge leap from his breakout role in The Office — Tim Canterbury, the playful, likeable one — to his cameo in Love Actually — John, the diffident porn star who apologises to his co-star for being “a bit forward”.
In 2005, when those were his only real hits, his response in an interview to the everyman question was a shrug: “Yes, OK, there’s worse things to be.” But after becoming Bilbo Baggins and Doctor John Watson, he started to resist the label. “To be honest, I don’t really know what that means,” he protested to The Sunday Times in 2013. These days his CV includes the complete $745m Hobbit trilogy and the award-winning TV drama Fargo, alongside Billy Bob Thornton. He has done three series of BBC mega-drama Sherlock, and returns for a fourth on New Year’s Day. So he is even less tolerant of the idea that his parts might be, well, a little similar.
“If you genuinely think that John Watson is the same as Tim Canterbury, that tells me everything I need to know about your critical facility,” he begins, withdrawing from the latte in front of him. “People draw dots. I’ve been a fairly reasonable person so they think, ‘Oh, he’s just like a guy I know. And so I could probably do it. And so everything he’s doing is the same.’ Mate, if you think you could do it, f***ing fill your boots. Please be my guest.
“If I make it look easy — without being a c*** about it, that’s because I’m good. If it was all that easy, every f***er would be doing it. And trust me they’re not. They’re really not. You see an awful lot of acting going on. And if you think I’m not acting, well, fine. I’ve done my job then.”
Partly it is Freeman’s appearance that makes his acting look unspectacular. “Look at his cartoon face and his hair. He looks like a Fisher-Price man. And his rubbish clothes,” mocked Gareth Keenan, his fictional co-worker in The Office. And it’s true: Freeman wouldn’t stand out if he weren’t famous. He does put a fair amount of effort into looking smart. His hero is Paul Weller, and his aesthetic is mod: today he’s wearing a silk scarf, a red leather jacket and red socks. We are sitting in a plush Soho hotel, with surprisingly bad background music. “In the day, Soho is my favourite place in the world,” says Freeman, who, following his break-up, lives in the genteel Belsize Park. And the night? “I’m too old for that shit now.”
On screen, Freeman has perfected a glorious, exasperated pause — where he purses his lips, looks to one side, and steels himself for the hell that is other people. His presence almost automatically pulls in audiences’ sympathies. In Sherlock, he makes Watson, the detective’s sidekick and best friend, into the most attractive character — while conceding there must be something dark in a veteran of Afghanistan with a continued thirst for danger. He even manages to emit affability in Fargo, where he plays a Minnesotan insurance salesman whose idea of emotionally engaging with his wife is murdering her.
“I now am mindful of ‘you think this guy’s an everyday guy, but then we find out something about him’,” he says, of his choice of roles. “I am pretty f***ing picky, and an awful lot of stuff I don’t do…I do things purely on the criteria — criterion” — he corrects himself, where other actors might not — “that I’m interested in them.
“To be honest, without sounding like Alan Partridge, ‘I bounced back’. I get those roles — those roles that are the polar opposite of those slightly passive, reactive parts…The character that I played in Captain America, that I’m about to do more of in Black Panther” — two Marvel films — “is more authoritative, guy-in-charge, government guy.”
A couple of years ago, Freeman said he still hadn’t arrived. Has he now? “Yeah, in some ways. [But] I don’t know if Tom Cruise feels he’s arrived… Because there’s always someone else doing something you should be doing.”
His role in Captain America was fleeting, but it is still the big time. Does he notice the power of big Hollywood budgets? “No, you don’t,” he says. “Where you notice it is in the catering — if there’s posh snacks, and if no one’s flinching when you say, ‘Can I get a coffee?’
“Everyone wants more time and money. The only job I’ve done where that didn’t seem to be the case was The Hobbit…Every budget other than that that I’ve ever done has been ‘F***, we’re running out of time’.”
Freeman grew up in Teddington, south-west London, the youngest of five children; his mum and dad, a former naval officer, who separated when he was young, imparted a certain creativity. “We weren’t the Von Trapps. My dad was a painter, we all painted. Mum had been — she’d wanted to be an actor, when she was younger; life took over, the 1950s took over. But you know, we all knew we were allowed. That was a big thing,” he says.
“There were books in the house. You always knew you were allowed to think, to express yourself. In fact, in the Freeman family you’d better f***ing express yourself because — ‘Don’t be boring. Don’t be a spectator. Bring something.’ Whether it was music or art, people did some stuff in my family. And thank God I found acting because I wasn’t a good enough painter or songwriter.”
Music was indeed the dream; his elder brother Tim was in the 1980s band Frazier Chorus. “Way before I wanted to be an actor, I wanted to be in The Specials,” he says. “Before acting — before this life — I had my other inner life, which I still have. So if I’m not hanging out with actors, and people who understand this world, which I really love, I’m chatting about shoes with someone in Bar Italia.”
He studied at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama. “I remember a thing that one of the teachers said: ‘If you want to escape from yourself, or if you think you’re going to be someone else, then acting is the worst job in the world. Because this tells you more about yourself than you want to know.’ Which I think is really interesting and really true. I’ve always felt that the really, really interesting stuff that we see actors do has to be them… If you’re not drawing on truth for you, then it’s f***ing pointless.”
Freeman dropped out of acting school to join the National Theatre, before surfacing on television. It fits with his general desire to move on: he says he was glad when The Office came to an end after just two series. (He watched the US remake, starring Steve Carell as the Brent figure and John Krasinski as the American version of Tim, but “lost contact with it” after the fourth of the nine series.) “I’ve got quite a low boredom threshold, including in myself. I bore myself quite easily.”
How long will he continue with Sherlock? “All I can say…is that I love things being finite…I’m always happy to stop before people have wanted you to stop, or The Beatles would still be going. I’m very, very glad that they went, ‘no, that’s enough’.”
As a teenager, Freeman played competitive squash but quit because of a lack of a “killer instinct”, he says. Does he have a killer instinct as an actor? “I don’t think you need it in acting. One of the least attractive traits I find in actors is people who think they can win at acting…That they think art is something you can win at…And you do come across it. ‘Oh, I smashed it. F***ing knocked it out the park.’ That’s for me — that’s an aspect of modern life where I feel about 100 years old… I think people used to say it ironically around here. It’s ceased to be ironic — it’s now just, ‘Yeah, I’m amazing’.”
Which brings us to Ricky Gervais, his co-star in The Office, who has now fully outgrown the UK and perhaps his own head. Freeman, who has not seen Gervais “for ages”, searches for the right amount of mischief. “I like that he uses a lot of his voice against animal cruelty, I really admire that. And the rest of his voice about self-aggrandisement, which is fine. It’s a fifty-fifty thing: he loves himself, but he also sticks up for puppies.”
Contrast that with Freeman’s view of Fargo co-star Billy Bob Thornton: “He and I would talk about music endlessly. He basically is still that southern Beatles fan, who he always, always, always was.”
How does Freeman keep himself sane? “I put the kettle on. Genuinely. Without being glib about it. I put the kettle on, put a record on, see the kids, and it’s gone… I’ve never gone home thinking, I’m still that character. Some actors want that. They think that’s what makes good acting. Especially younger actors — ‘I stayed in character all weekend.’ Did you? Good for you, man. No, I’ve never done that.”
Of Freeman’s major roles, none is overtly political. Yet the man himself most definitely is. “I grew up aware that people were pissed off.” He started acting in youth theatre, “because I thought I could bring down the Tory government” (and “also cos I’m a f***ing show-off”).
As a teenager he volunteered with the Labour party’s Young Socialists wing, then ruled by Militant, a revolutionary group whose leaders were ultimately banned from Labour. “I would occasionally be selling Militant [its in-house magazine], and be raising money for Militant, just by dint of the fact that was sort of who ran the Labour Party Young Socialists.”
Gradually he has lost confidence perhaps not in radical ideas, but in their application. Acting for political reasons is “tedious”. “I’m not very fond of overly serious, earnest people. I’m not very fond of people who don’t see shades.”
Freeman remains a Labour supporter, fronting a party election broadcast for Ed Miliband in 2015, and joining the party later that year to vote for Jeremy Corbyn. But he recognises that his commitment may be irrational. “To be absolutely honest, it is like a football team. I was very clear — I did the Labour broadcast because that’s my team. However f***ed up the team is — it’s like the BBC, that’s my team. I will go to the grave for the BBC. Even when they’re driving me nuts.”
Labour is driving many people nuts, but not quite Freeman. To my slight dismay, he seems keen for a discussion about the divisions between the party’s members and its MPs, before satisfying himself with: “I want Labour in power, so I hope now that this is going to work. To be absolutely honest, I think it’s a minor miracle whenever a Labour party gets into power, whoever it is.” With Corbyn, “I do understand that the danger is it’s T-shirt politics. But genuinely I’ve wanted things to be f***ing renationalised for ever. He talks about it, like I think a Labour leader should… But I don’t think he is the messiah.”
Is it harder or easier for Freeman to be a socialist now that he’s rich? “It’s harder because I know more. Because I also know that I don’t know anything. The reason I would never go on Question Time — I love watching Question Time, it’s one of my favourite programmes — I would get into a conversation with you about trade deficits, and you’d f***ing take me to the cleaners…I’d go on there and just want to be liked and that’s pathetic.”
I ask how rich he is. “I don’t pay attention to that.” But he must get bank statements. “I don’t look at them. Honest to God, I don’t look at them… Maybe because I think if I look, it won’t be as much as I thought it was.” He can, of course, afford pretty much everything. He spent £6,500 on an 1852 map of London — “Beautiful… As soon as you go anywhere east you’re in Essex” — but it was a one-off. Mostly it’s clothes, and the odd luxury holiday. “I don’t do it as easily as some people I know do. I was going to say I wish I had more ease with it. But then that’s me. Then I’d be someone slightly different.”
The discomfort is one thing; the anger is another. “I go on the basis that we’re all everything and it just depends which button you turn up at any given time. You can be really happy or really angry. You throw your head back in laughter, and other times you can be a miserable sod, I presume, because I think f***ing everyone can be.”
Well, yes, but that is, by my count, his 40th F-word of the conversation — my dial doesn’t go that far. “My capacity for immediate anger is surprising sometimes,” he concedes. “Even surprises me. F***ing hell, like, ‘Where did that come from?’” I push him for an example. “People don’t say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. Drives me f***ing nuts.” He has no social media accounts, because, “My career would be over within five minutes. If I was on Twitter, I would be f***ed, f***ed. Five minutes.” Success “has not changed what’s in there,” he says, gesturing at his chest inside his red leather coat.
Did he think fame would sort him out? “No. But I thought age might. I thought, ‘F***ing hell, by 45, surely I won’t be thinking this shit in my head’… I’m not so wound up as I was at 23 about wrong and right, and about my motivations. Now I just acknowledge that my own motivations for everything are pretty f***ing muddy.”
Freeman’s two children are old enough to think of becoming actors. Is he wary of that? “Absolutely… Yeah, they’re talented. Especially our daughter is more front foot into the idea. For me, it’s about balancing encouragement with non-delusion. And also trying to inculcate those things of work — not just hard work, although hard work is a big part of it, but also taste and why do you want this? Because if you think you want this because of this f***ing huge trailer that you’re in now, because you’re having lunch with me, that’s not a good reason, because this probably won’t happen, just by law of averages. I can’t make this happen, I wouldn’t want to f***ing make this happen.”
I’m not sure quite what type of swearing this is, but it seems almost caressing, parental. Whatever strange fire burns inside Martin Freeman, it does at least throw off some warmth.
Henry Mance is an FT political correspondent. “Sherlock” series four begins on January 1 on BBC One
Portrait by Norbert Schoerner
Photographs: Rex; Jon Furniss/WireImage; Alamy
Get alerts on FT Magazine when a new story is published