Martin Freeman is, hobbit-style, in the middle of his dinner. But unlike Bilbo Baggins, his friendliness is more than grudging hospitality at the interruption, although he says gravely: “I love eating. I mean, I really, really love eating.”
Who could blame Freeman for taking on some Baggins characteristics when he has spent so long putting on those hairy feet? Nearly three years in total, and now the final scenes are under way for Peter Jackson's two sequels, The Desolation of Smaug and There and Back Again. It is, he says, “an intense period; it's that definite feeling of, ' it's business time, we can't mess around now'.”
His words speak of million-dollar pressure, furrowing that brow into one of Freeman's trademark pained expressions; but the actor actually sounds as relaxed as if he was reciting his dinner menu. Bilbo Baggins's baggage isn't an item he's carrying, even if The Hobbit, and his role of John Watson in the BBC series Sherlock, has made “Tim from The Office” a global star at the age of 41.
“I get more 12-year-olds coming up to me than I used to,” he says of his path on fame's superhighway. “But, I promise, I still have a lot of conversations with people that have no idea who I am. Which is great for me as I usually just want to eat a bowl of pasta in peace.”
Life for Freeman is not so much the Emmy red carpet (he was nominated for one last year for the part of Watson) but High Wycombe railway station, where he recently spent time filming The World's End, a sci-fi comedy from Simon Pegg , Nick Frost and Hot Fuzz director Edgar Wright. Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City also featured – but that suited him, as he and his family live in Hertfordshire, near his birthplace in Aldershot.
“It was part of the sugar pill to do the movie – 'please sign up and we promise you'll never have to travel more than half an hour to work'. That and the fact Simon and Edgar begged me to do it.”
He and Simon have been “mates” for more than a decade, their stars rising in tandem. Freeman had small parts in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. In The World's End, Freeman is upgraded to a supporting role as an odious estate agent with a Bluetooth headset glued to his ear.
“Obviously they wanted me for my acting ability, ”he deadpans, “because I am playing a complete prick.” Freeman joins Pegg, Nick Frost, Eddie Marsan and Paddy Considine as friends reuniting to complete a crawl of 12 pubs they failed to finish as teenagers. During that time, they realise they're not just facing the start of middle age, but the end of humanity.
If the actors were playing themselves, it could have been the British riposte to Seth Rogen's This is the End. As Freeman notes, “for 20 years we've all been in and out of each other's lives so we all know each other, and I guess if I was looking in from the outside at that line up I'd think, 'that's pretty cool.' I'm really grateful they wanted me though, as it's not the kind of part I normally get offered.”
He's right – there's something in him that makes for the ideal straight man; a hobbit out of his depth with his colourful companions; a patient sidekick to a half-mad detective genius, a long-suffering office worker with a ridiculous boss. But his own life hasn't been so predictable – the youngest of five children, he was brought up as a Roman Catholic, yet his parents separated when he was a child, and though he lives devotedly with his partner of 13 years, Amanda Abbington, and their two children Joe and Grace, they're not married.
Perhaps his straight-man appeal comes from Freeman's extreme normality, even in the midst of an extraordinary life. He winces at the very idea of completing a World's End style pub crawl. “Maybe I'd be able to do it if I didn't have more than one drink in each one. Mojitos, gin and tonic, red wine, that kind of thing. I have never done 12 pints. Ever. No, not even when I was a student. There's no pleasure in it at all.
Rock'n'roll's not his thing. He's said before: “That live fast, die young thing? I want to live with Amanda until I'm 70.” Instead he describes his pleasures as a meal with friends, a music quiz, a game of Three-in-10 on High Wycombe station with his co-stars. “You name three Spandau Ballet or Madonna hits in 10 seconds. Hey, it's harder than it sounds.”
Clearly, middle age suits him. Like buses, his biggest roles turned up together in the last two years. He started acting at the age of 15, before drama school, and then took roles in The Bill and Casualty. And there he might have been stuck were it not for The Office in 2001. Instead he became a British household name as Tim Canterbury, following up with parts in Love Actually and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Being in Sherlock and The Hobbit has, however, put him on a different level –even if he says his fortune isn't quite the “10 million” the Daily Mail has estimated.
“Without sounding too luvvie about it, I have never been happier professionally. I'd have been quite happy being known as 'Tim from The Office' and now Bilbo Baggins and John Watson have come along. Sherlock is one of the biggest things I will do, ever – we could never have predicted that level of insanity around the series. I think that gets me more fan mail than Bilbo. Not that I think I am the biggest deal in the universe,” he adds hastily. Self-effacement clings to him like one of Tim Canterbury's nylon office suits, although he claims: “If someone had a pint with me, they'd find out pretty quickly I'm not so nice, I'm not Tim from The Office, although a lot of people still think I am. I have absolutely no problem telling someone to fuck off.”
Did he want to when his partner made headlines recently? Amanda Abbington declared bankruptcy after not paying her tax bill of more than £100,000. It prompted opinion pieces on whether Freeman should have paid it for her, although Abbington told the Radio Times: “I'm going to pay it back myself, it was my fault.”
He sighs. “I know she copped it and it hurt. It's been said before so it's a cliché, but it happens to be true: you can stand anything for yourself, but when they turn on the people you love, it's excruciating and it's invasive, no question about it. I do think we have a right to privacy. My job as an actor is for you, so why should my private life be for you too? That's not fair. Fortunately, apart from this, I am not that fascinating for the tabloids. I don't need their approval. There are about 20 people in my life that I want to love me, and none of them are the Daily Mail.”
Anonymity, he adds, can be a wonderful thing for a person, “but at the same time, I had to do The Hobbit, even if it was going to change the game for me. It was my one chance to do something that nearly everybody, at one point or another, was going to see. I've made other films that maybe I've loved more, but they haven't made a billion dollars.”
With that, he returns to the remains of his meal. No wonder Peter Jackson spotted the potential in this British actor to take his lead. With his love of creature comforts, his desire to go home to his hobbit-hole, Martin Freeman is far more Bilbo Baggins than Tim from The Office. And yet, he's doing very well on his great adventure.
'The World's End' is released in the UK on 19 July
*This article appears in tomorrow's print edition of Radar Magazine