Martin Freeman: No ordinary Bilbo Baggins

From ‘The Office’ in Slough to Middle-earth, he finds a heroism in everyday decency

The clue to Martin Freeman's appeal, which is on the verge of going truly global with his role as Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, lies partly in his name. Martin Freeman is a prosaic, everyday kind of name, far removed from the Clints, Brads, Leonardos and even Toms that imbue film projects with such glamour.

This unremarkable Everyman quality extends to his screen persona too. It is why he was so perfectly cast by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant in The Office. For even though Freeman has been at pains ever since The Office to explain that he is not really like Tim – the personification of witty, affable normality surrounded, in the Slough branch of Wernham Hogg Paper Company, by the hapless and humourless – we can't quite bring ourselves to believe him.

We probably should. For one thing, those who've met him confirm it, one interviewer describing him as "searingly intelligent, angry, direct, caustic, lefty, sweary, as stunningly far from Tim as you could get". And for another, in a feisty, somewhat confrontational appearance on Jonathan Ross's chat show a few years ago, Freeman denounced the word "Everyman" as a decidedly lazy way to describe him.

Certainly there is nothing Everyman about his fastidious and rather retro dress sense, which usually evokes a mid-1960s mod, but on Ross's show embraced a silk cravat. "Do you know what I'd like to see you in? A top hat," chirped Ross, after first asking Freeman whether he'd ever considered wearing a monocle. Freeman's riposte was swift and merciless. "Do you know what I'd like to see you in?" he replied. "A f**king box." He looked as though he half-meant it, too.

Even if we put the word "Everyman" into the same box, whether he likes it or not (and if he doesn't, then his bank manager surely does), successive casting directors have seized on his capacity to present himself as the only normal bloke in a crazy, dangerous world. He played Arthur Dent in the 2005 big-screen version of A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and as Dr Watson in the BBC's hit series Sherlock, he is an excellent foil to Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock Holmes.

Interestingly enough, the creators of Sherlock found it much harder to cast Watson than they did Holmes. Several actors auditioned for the role, but only Freeman offered the grounded quality they were looking for. According to co‑writer Steven Moffat, Freeman is "the sort of opposite of Benedict in everything except the amount of talent ... Martin finds a sort of poetry in the ordinary man".

That, at least, was a good way of putting it. Plainly, the ordinariness of his looks, his height, his voice, characterise many of the roles he plays. But he has made hay out of this ordinariness in an extraordinary way, and the latest and most dramatic manifestation of this phenomenon has him playing Bilbo in the first of director Peter Jackson's three-part prequel to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, due to be released later this month. The comparison won't please Freeman, but rather as with Tim at Wernham Hogg, he is again playing the straight man in a sea of grotesques, only this time on a vastly bigger stage.

However, unlike Tim, who sprang fully formed from the original minds of Gervais and Merchant, Bilbo is a long-established literary icon, if only to those people who treat the works of J R R Tolkien as more precious than their last will and testament. There will doubtless be some avid fans of the book whose picture of Bilbo does not chime with Jackson's, and will feel that Freeman is all wrong, but then he was pushed into similarly treacherous waters in Hitchhiker's Guide – "it's a script, it's not the Koran," he said, in that snippy conversation with Ross – and indeed in Sherlock.

Still, it was ever thus. Even those raised on Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Hollywood's interpretation of Holmes and Watson between 1939 and 1946 should note that Bruce's portrayal of Watson as something of a buffoon greatly offended Holmes purists. "If a mop bucket appeared in a scene, his foot would be inside it, and if by some sardonic twist of fate  ... he managed to stumble upon an important clue, he could be depended upon to blow his nose on it and throw it away," one critic wrote. Freeman's portrayal is actually much truer to Arthur Conan Doyle's original vision. And judging by those tantalising cinema previews, it's a fair bet that Tolkien himself would have approved of Freeman's wide-eyed turn as Bilbo.

He was born in 1971, and raised, the youngest of five children, in Aldershot, Hampshire. Freeman was only 10 when his father, a naval officer, died of a heart attack, and like many men who lost their fathers at a young age, he admits to a sense of loss that became more acute as he got older, as it registered that they had never known each other on a man-to-man basis.

But by the time his father died, Freeman's parents had separated. He was raised by his mother, Philomena, as a practising Roman Catholic, and his faith remains intact. "I'm one of the few people I know who believes in God," he has said. He has also admitted to having "a very extreme state of mind", adding: "Things are very black or very white. One minute you think you're God Almighty, the next you think you're f**king worthless. This isn't meant to make me sound interesting and rock'n'roll, but I wouldn't want to live with me a lot of the time."

The woman who does is actress Amanda Abbington, mother of his two young children, and Freeman credits her with making him a good deal less gloomy than he used to be. Nonetheless, the state of the world depresses him. He has railed against the priorities of a country that appears to care more about The X Factor than it does about homelessness, and who could honestly argue with him? It doesn't take a degree in psychoanalysis to see that acting is a form of escapism for him.

It has certainly kept him busy. He has worked more or less constantly since attending London's Central School of Speech and Drama, and likes to point out that there was plenty of life in his career before The Office. In fact, his parts before Gervais and Merchant muscled into his life tended to be quite edgy; in a TV drama called Men Only, he played one of a group of five footballers who rape a nurse on a ketamine-fuelled night out. Too many more roles like that and it's safe to say that Jackson probably wouldn't have seen him as the perfect Bilbo Baggins. On the other hand, Quentin Tarantino might have come calling. After all, Freeman is, without the slightest doubt, a very fine actor.

Not everyone realised that at the time of his big break, in 2001. It tended to be other people in The Office, with more memorable names in real life (such as Gervais himself and Mackenzie Crook, who played the ghastly Gareth), and in some ways more to play with on screen, who took the acting plaudits. But a look back at The Office now offers a reminder of just how good Freeman was.

Away from his own office, Freeman is a man with interests teetering on the obsessive. He is a huge music enthusiast, with an enormous collection of classic vinyl, all of which is filed in alphabetical order. He is also passionate about classic British cinema, and able to expound in depth about that very British comic lineage which connects Kenneth Williams with David Walliams. These interests, and of course his young family, are more than sufficient to keep him at home in Hertfordshire, at least when he is not away filming. Showbiz parties are not his thing. "Do you have fun, do you go out," Jonathan Ross asked him. "I have fun, but I don't go out," he replied.

"What do you do," asked Ross, manifestly puzzled.

"I stay in," he said, waspishly.

A Life in Brief

Born: Martin John C Freeman, Aldershot, Hampshire, 8 September 1971.

Family: Youngest of five children to Philomena and Geoffrey, a naval officer. He lives in Hertfordshire with his partner, the actress Amanda Abbington, and their two children.

Education: Salesian School, a Catholic comprehensive in Surrey, and Central School of Speech and Drama, London.

Career: After small roles in shows such as This Life and Casualty, he got his big break starring as Tim in The Office. His film credits include Shaun of the Dead, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and The Hobbit. Other prominent roles include Dr Watson in BBC1's Sherlock.

He says: "I've always got my eye on my deathbed. Will I be proud, or think I've sold out?"

They say: "Martin's brilliant at juggling the tone, that ability to have one foot in the dramatic world and one in the comedic world." Peter Jackson

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