Martin Freeman has come a long way since making his film debut in 1998’s I Just Want to Kiss You. At 34, the British actor rose to fame with the hit series The Office, and is now starring in the big screen adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. But Freeman is not one to take success for granted. As we sit in a New York hotel room, Freeman is busily coping with the massive press junket scene that precedes the release of a major Hollywood film.
Sitting back after his first round of group interviews, finally able to, literally, put his feet up, Freeman admits to getting tired of “answering the same questions over and over again. With some exceptions, and with the best will in the world, you do get tired. Obviously you just have to pinch yourself.” Interrupted by room service, Freeman says he deals with all his press-related duties while being creative, “you have to make it interesting for yourself, hopefully make it interesting for the press, but also to a certain extent, that’s only part of the job.”
Freeman, a classically trained theatre actor, recalls that while his parents were consistently artistic, they were not the sole influence behind his decision to become an actor. “I think I was influenced by the fact there was the environment at home that, we’re creating things and expressing yourself artistically wasn’t to be frowned upon, so in that, I was always aware that it was OK to write or read,” Freeman explains. “You didn’t have to pretend to be stupid or pretend that you weren’t interested in things that you were interested in, so there was always the environment where it was open for that to happen. I guess probably seeing films at a very early age, because we all watched tele, was a strong influence.”
Freeman recalls being something of a show off at school, and I think I was probably seen to be quite funny at school. People would say, ‘you should have your own show’. But probably every actor in the world was probably in that position, in that they were probably one of the biggest show-offs at school in a way. I think a lot of actors require a mixture of the two, very shy and a show off and I think people find it hard to believe, how can he be shy, but it’s not that simple.”
Freeman has been a successful working actor for about a decade, easily crossing various mediums, from stage to the big and small screens. While many actors recall the tough times, for this actor, the first few years didn’t feel hard. “I wasn’t raking it in but I was raking work in. I always did work that I was happy with, not work that made me famous or work that made me rich, but work that made me very happy and it was always valid work, so the first five years didn’t feel hard at all.”
In 2001 Freeman hit pay dirt, when he auditioned for a new BBC comedy series, The Office. The show, created by and starring Ricky Gervais was an instant hit, and from then on, Freeman knew that his career as an actor was secure. “Once The Office hit and the attention wasn’t going away, I knew this was something that was going to last, and seemed, that it wasn’t just going to bubble up and then go. That interest stayed, and scripts kept coming in.” Yet, as successful as Freeman is becoming, he remains uncertain as to whether this is merely a temporary phase. “As it is, I still don’t know that I’ll be able to do it, because it’s so fickle,” Freeman concedes. “This time next year I might not be working, because that’s the nature of the business. You never feel completely safe I suppose, because you know there’s enough people who’ve gone before you who must have thought, ‘hey man, I’m the new Brando’ and in five years time they’re nowhere. This is a business that really gives you a slap in the face and a cold glass of water thrown over you.” So one wonders why put yourself through that. “You are always wanting the next job for a million reasons: (a) because you love acting, (b) because you’ve got to pay the rent.”
Freeman has always been open about his loathing of fame and celebrity. Clearly down to earth and honestly matter-of-fact, Freeman says he tries to ignore the fame that is being generously poured on him. “I try to ignore it to be honest, because I don’t want to get caught up in someone else’s perception of me because that’s not the truth. Fame and success is such a subjective thing. It’s not like saying, that’s the Statue of Liberty, that’s a fact; me being famous, successful or rich are not a fact. It’s all subjective because some people say to me, but of course Martin you’re very famous, while I think, well, I’m not, and I’m not being modest. Ask a cab driver, ask your cousin, ask your Mother. I’m not that famous because they would all know who Tom Cruise is, they don’t know who I am, but that’s cool because that’s not the plan anyway.”
Freeman has managed to juggle various facets of his acting, yet it is comedy that has established him. He says that The Office, in many ways, remains typical of his blend of dry humour. “It was certainly pretty close. I mean, my taste in humour does go from slapping you around the face in Tom and Jerry, to The Office, Larry Sanders, or to Harold Lloyd, from the silly to the clever. I love physical shtick, and all sorts of things that are done well.” Freeman has remained close to series co-creator Gervais, who says, like himself, a move to Los Angeles is unlikely. “Neither Ricky or I are particularly LA animals.” Nor was Freeman asked to appear in the US remake of The Office, a show he has few opinions about. “It doesn’t affect me, other than wishing everyone well, and I’m glad they’ve done it well as opposed to the opposite. But it makes no difference to me, anymore whether I’m any good makes any difference to Simon Jones and Hitchhikers. It’s like he’s done his and nothing can touch his. If I do badly, it doesn’t detract from him whereas if I’m good it doesn’t detract from him.”
Two decades in the making, the big screen adaptation of Hitchhikers, casts Freeman as the pivotal Everyman, Arthur Dent, in this lush, sci-fi satire that borrows from Monty Python and beyond. In this film, Freeman’s Earthman Arthur Dent is having a very bad day. His house is about to be bulldozed, he discovers that his best friend is an alien and to top things off, Planet Earth is about to be demolished to make way for a hyperspace bypass. Arthur’s only chance for survival: hitch a ride on a passing spacecraft. For the novice space traveller, the most astonishing adventure in the universe begins when the world ends. Arthur sets out on a journey in which he finds that nothing is as it seems: he learns that a towel is just the most useful thing in the universe, finds the meaning of life, and discovers that everything he needs to know can be found in one book: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
While so many British actors were attached to the film over its two decade gestation, it was Freeman who won the coveted role, a role he says, he didn’t fight to hard to ultimately acquire. “I didn’t feel there was a lot of fighting to do for me because that’s not really my personal style. I don’t necessarily hound directors or ring them up and say look I’m the man for this. I literally went in to meet and then I got it, so it was like an audition that you just get.” Freeman says that he wasn’t faced with a challenge of putting his own spin on the character, “because I didn’t revisit the program, I basically ignored it and I can only do what I can do, so I went in and approached it the only way I know how. So in that sense, it wasn’t difficult once I thought, I can do this. Simon definitely cast a long shadow because that’s what I grew up with but I can’t do what he can do and I wouldn’t want to.” As for feeling any pressure bringing this classic to cinematic life, Freeman prefers not to worry about such matters. “I genuinely don’t worry about it. Obviously I’d be mortified if everybody hated it and hated me. It’s not that I don’t have feelings or I’m not susceptible to that sort of stuff, but I’m not bothered by it at all. I think people are either going to like you or they’re not, but I really, really hope passionately that they like it because I’m proud of it.”
Not one to rest on any laurels, Freeman has completed two small British films, and returns to British TV in a new series, The Robinsons. The actor says he has no qualms about returning to television or any other medium for that matter. “I was definitely happy to do it. It didn’t feel like a return to tele to me because I’d always done lots of TV and I just follow whatever script is good at the time. An awful lot of film scripts are dreadful while a lot of tele scripts are really good. So I just want to be involved in things that I like. I’m as proud of the Robinsons as anything else I’ve done. I mean I love it. But again, whether anyone else loves it, I hope they do.” But don’t hold your breath for a return to the series that started it all: The Office, and nobody has offered him a fortune to do it. “And I think no-one, would do it anyway.” There is well and truly life outside of Office politics!