Interview: Martin Freeman

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With the release of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and the imminent return of the smash hit series Sherlock, Martin Freeman is set to become the biggest star on Earth – or at least, Middle Earth… By Nick Aveling. Portrait by Jay Brooks

I’ve been doing interviews for years,” says Martin Freeman, “and in all that time I’ve virtually never read one and gone, ‘yep, factually and tonally that’s exactly what happened’. Pretty much never.”

Well, this is awkward. Or at least it would be if today’s interview – conducted across an oceanic glass coffee table in a London hotel – hadn’t gone bounding off script. Ostensibly, the 42-year-old is here to promote his starring role in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the middle film in director Peter Jackson’s three-part return to Middle Earth, following last year’s billion-dollar grossing The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. And of course there’s Sherlock, the mega-hit show which returns for a third series in the UK during the festive season. 

Between the projects, for a few anyway, Freeman will be the biggest star on Earth. And ahead of the launch of both, we chat to him about not only dwarves and detectives, but, naturally, Morgan Freeman and gay porn… 

Your character, Bilbo, developed quite a bit during An Unexpected Journey. What can we expect in The Desolation of Smaug?
This is the film where Bilbo becomes totally invaluable to the group – he’s not a mascot or someone to be patronised. In fact, he saves their arses on numerous occasions, so he’s really, really needed. He finds more character, more backbone, than he knew he had.

Bilbo does a lot more fighting this time round. Was that fun?
I do enjoy fighting, actually. Fighting wargs [giant wolves kept by orcs] is good fun.

And how do you simulate that?
Usually it’s the stunt team dressed in green-screen kind of ninja outfits carrying a big head that you’ve got to stick with a sword or whatever, so that when it barges at you you’ve actually got something to react to.

The last time you spoke with Time Out was just before the release of An Unexpected Journey. Our interviewer suggested your life was bound to change. Have you yourself had to develop more backbone?
I remember having those conversations before The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy came out [in 2005] and thinking, is everything going to change? And it didn’t, really. I’m a big believer that life changes as much as you want it to. If you invite in all the madness, it will. If you don’t, if you kind of let the world quietly know that, ‘no thanks, I still want to get on the train and live my own life’, then somehow it doesn’t have to. 

So celebrities are at fault for their own lack of privacy?
That’s a cruel attitude – if someone’s unhappy, you should leave them alone, even if they wanted attention five minutes ago. But I do think – in a very real, common sense way – that if you want to be famous, you can be. It’s not a great talent; if you put yourself forward, it will happen.

Has there ever been a hilarious mix-up involving you and Morgan Freeman?
No, not a real one.

Given the amount of speculation around the last episode of Sherlock [Spoiler alert: the detective fakes his own death], are you at all worried the big reveal might be anti-climactic?
[Sherlock writer] Mark Gatiss actually said that himself. There’s something slightly mundane in knowing the truth of a thing. It’s like asking [illusionist] Derren Brown to explain one of the amazing things he does. When he tells you, you’re likely to go, ‘oh, right, erm...’ I still think it’s going to be satisfying, though. Loads of people have gone to town on how they think it happened and some have been quite close. We have some fun with that in the show.

Your Sherlock co-star Benedict Cumberbatch also does the voice for Smaug, the film’s titular dragon. Between this and Sherlock, does it almost feel as though your careers are bound by fate?
We both do Sherlock; that’s a job two actors do. And I knew they wanted him for Smaug ages ago, but I don’t think they’re being cute: ‘hey look! It’s the Sherlock people!’ He was just good casting for Smaug. It don’t think it feels like we’re bound together, but it’s definitely a good time for us.

Both The Hobbit and Sherlock breed cult-grade, Kool-Aid slurping devotion. Are there any obvious differences between each group of fans? 
In the UK, anyway, Sherlock is watched by millions and millions of people: your uncle, my cousin, that teacher, that librarian, that plumber. Normal folks. But the ones who really make themselves known are almost all women between 16 and 21. It’s a very clear demographic. As for Hobbit fans, there are clearly shitloads of them given how well the film did, but they’ve been a bit more reticent, actually. They’re very polite.

Another, less apparent difference is each group’s approach to X-rated fan art. In fact, there’s an entire online community of Sherlock fans dedicated to drawing pictures of Watson and Sherlock, you and Cumberbatch, in various states of… entanglement. Does any of that stuff bother you?
I’ve always seen it as a point of principal not to be offended if people imply you’re gay –  so no, I’ve never given a shit. If I was [offended], I’d kind of think, well what does that make me? I wouldn’t want a 15-year-old kid thinking I’m ashamed of it. I’m not. If anything, it’s kind of funny to see pictures of me and Ben doing whatever we’re doing to each other – even if they’re far from the truth. The only time I’m sort of bothered is when people get proprietary about it or think there should be a certain kind of reaction, like it needs to be in the National Gallery.

There’s also a sinister side to that level of fandom. Your longtime partner Amanda Abbington [‘Mr Selfridge’] plays Watson’s love interest, Mary Morstan, in the upcoming series of Sherlock – which of course doesn’t bode well for the perceived romance between Watson and Sherlock. Some fans were so distraught they tweeted her death threats.
It’s ridiculous. To me, they’re not fans of the show – they’re fans of a show going on their heads. Obviously I love Amanda and I want everyone to react positively to her; she plays a fantastic character and brings a hell of a lot to the third series. If people want to imagine John and Sherlock fucking they’re more than welcome to, but it will have no bearing on what we do in the show.

You’ve just signed on to Fargo, an American telly series based on the Coen brothers’ Academy Award-winning film. Tell us about that.
It’s in the same universe as the film, there’s a similar tone, but it’s not based on the film in terms of plot. My character’s great; there are similarities between him and William H Macy’s character [from the 1996 film]. Billy Bob Thornton’s in it too, and his character comes along and teaches mine to take control in ways that aren’t always saintly.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug opens Thu Dec 12

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