When Martin Freeman landed a role in what could have turned out to be just a little cult comedy show, he can never have imagined it would lead to the glittering acting career that followed.
But 18 years on from landing the role of Tim in The Office, the 47-year-old has leapt seamlessly to the big screen to star in everything from Love, Actually to, oh, just the minor part of Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit trilogy.
And on the small screen, he’s come one heck of a way, appearing in everything from Sherlock to Fargo – and now he is set to star in a new ITV drama A Confession.
Martin, who has two kids Joe, 13, and Grace, 10, with ex-partner and fellow actor Amanda Abbington, talked to BAFTA at his Life In Pictures event to look back on his career, and discusses corpsing on set, acting opposite a tennis ball and being a moody bastard…
Are your kids impressed their dad is a famous actor?
My kids don’t give a sh*t.
Do you know what they like?
The American version of The Office.
After I played Tim, I was in Love, Actually because Richard Curtis loved The Office, and I could honestly say at that point ‘I’m in a number one film in America and Britain’.
Great, I could retire on that, that’s something to tell your kids.
But they don’t give a sh*t, they’re texting.
You actually auditioned for the part of Gareth and almost didn’t get cast in The Office…
I could very nearly have not been in it.
It’s a showbiz story – and I don’t know if it’s become a showbiz story because I’m an actor and therefore am a tw*t and built it up to being this, but I’m pretty sure this is really what happened – I did my reading of Gareth, and I was on my way out the door and Stephen Merchant said, ‘Can we get Martin in to read Tim? I think that might be a good thing.’
So I sat back down and read Tim and thank God I did because I wouldn’t have got cast as Gareth over Mackenzie Crook because he was so perfect for it.
We all loved Tim…
I loved him, I really loved him.
I was able to put a lot of me in him as someone who is an observer of stuff and finds things ridiculous and awkward and embarrassing a lot of the time.
Do you still hang out with Ricky Gervais?
I’ve not seen him for a long time, but he’s an amazing person.
He is one of the best natural actors I’ve worked with.
And if he’s not making you laugh at any given moment, life is a waste of time.
Like, it’s not actually worth living unless you are convulsing in pain at something he’s just said.
Brilliant, but on the other hand really infuriating – you think, ‘Mate, this is your show, stop making everyone laugh!
Deliberately corpsing me isn’t going to get the day finished because I can’t carry on if you’re making me laugh’.
It’s a pathological thing for him, I think.
Like all good actors, you started out on The Bill, didn’t you?
It ended up being good training.
I didn’t know what anyone was talking about.
People would say, ‘Favour the wall,’ what?!
Favour the wall?
Oh, you mean walk near the wall, right?
And, ‘If you could just banana over there’.
What the f**k are you talking about?!
You mean walk in a curve?
Also, the common thing with young actors is you put them in front of the camera and they’re going to do all of their acting in one go.
I was fairly bad on The Bill but the next time I was in front of the camera I knew to just do slightly less.
We bet you never thought then you’d go on to all these amazing parts, like The Hobbit and Sherlock. You weren’t sure Sherlock was going to be much of a hit, though, were you?
We made an hour-long pilot and then we were told it was going to be 90 minutes and I thought, ‘Well that’s a bad idea, it doesn’t need to be 90 minutes, that’s rubbish. Bloody BBC.’
And I’m really glad that was the decision because it made it like a film – I think that was why people were able to get behind it so much.
How was working with Benedict Cumberbatch?
Ben is very, very good at his job – he’s brilliantly cast in that role, and something happened, some little game of table tennis where we were just knocking it back and forth.
When I got into a room with him, it worked, something worked.
Neither me nor Ben can take credit for that, it’s good fortune.
What was it like being in The Hobbit?
I think everyone on the set of The Hobbit films thought, ‘How is this going to work?
We’re filming in a sort of nothing space and it's going to become this Elvin kingdom.’
It is very impressive.
You’re doing your bit, but you’re a little cog in a massive wheel.
I walked on to the set for the first time and it was like walking into NASA, it wasn’t like a normal film set, it was very techno.
But we were also shooting a lot of the time in a car park.
In the first film there’s a scene where all the dwarves and Gandalf come to Bilbo’s house, so there are about 50,000 people in my house and because we’re all small but Gandalf is taller, Ian Mckellen had to be on a separate set and they filmed us both simultaneously.
So two cameras doing exactly the same movements at exactly the same time but filming different sets.
Me and the dwarves had each other to look at and a fake Gandalf, like a green tennis ball Gandalf, and Ian just had a load of green tennis balls to look at.
You find yourself in situations where you think ‘this is not what the careers officer at school had in mind’.
You spent two and a half years in New Zealand on The Hobbit. It must have been hard being away from your family?
That was a big decision for me.
All around me people were going ‘Well of course it’s a yes, of course it is.’
And I can see why they were saying that but I had two young children so it was a difficult yes.
Amanda, who I was with at the time, is a brilliant actor, and it wasn’t the 1950s, I couldn’t just say ‘right you’re coming with me.’
She had her own life.
What would you say to someone who wants to be an actor?
You better be doing it because you love it, because if you don’t love it, it’s a terrible job.
It’s hard to make a living at, it’s hard to even make a bad living at.
Having fun is important, not taking yourself too seriously is important, as is having a thick skin.
If you want to be good at something it’s really hard.
Football’s easy unless you want to be good.
After all these big roles, do you still get star struck when you meet your heroes?
Star struck is rare.
I’m not easily struck, but I did say ‘hello I’m Michael’, to Sir Michael Caine.
There aren’t many of him in my mind.
There are many fantastic actors but in terms of what occupies that piece of real estate in my brain, there’s not many people like him.
Are you the sort of actor who goes all method and takes it home with you?
I’m always aware when talking about acting that you’re not down a coal mine.
There’s hard work and then there’s hard work.
But I don’t pretend that doing it is easy.
I’m not having a tea and then ‘Oh yes love I’ll come and do the graveside scene,’ because you’ve got to get into a zone.
But as soon as you call wrap on a day it’s over.
I want to get out of that as soon as possible because I’ve got to go home and see kids and be a normal person.
There’s no virtue in bringing a character home with you and treating your wife like a tw*t.
I’m a fairly moody bastard anyway, so I don’t need that from work.
Martin’s latest role is in ITV’s A Confession, the true story of Detective Superintendent Steve Fulcher who deliberately breached police protocol to catch the killer of two young girls, a decision that cost him his career and left his reputation in tatters.
How did this role come about?
The director sent me some news footage of Steve Fulcher and said, ‘Take a look at this guy.’ I was on board pretty much straight away.
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