Martin Freeman won an Emmy last week for his role in Sherlock but summons up the fire of his new stage role as Richard III to warn against seeing him solely as a sardonic Englishman
Freeman as Watson with Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock (BBC)
If they were having a race to the top, Martin Freeman would be the tortoise and Benedict Cumberbatch would be the hare. Cumberbatch, tall and unconventionally handsome, brimming with public school charm and swagger. Freeman looking like a bloke you’d meet down the pub. Cumberbatch hared to global stardom, but Freeman is running his own race; slower, less ostentatious but ever so successful.
Since their Sherlock bromance first captivated the nation in 2010, this unlikely duo have conquered Hollywood and the world. Their careers have become strangely symbiotic: Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson, Bilbo Baggins and Smaug the dragon, little and large. So it was no surprise when the pair won awards at last week’s Emmys. Cumberbatch as Sherlock pipped Freeman in Fargo for outstanding lead actor in a mini-series or a movie, but Freeman picked up outstanding supporting actor in a mini-series or a movie for his role as Watson.
Freeman was reading in bed when he received the news in a text from his agent. Did it feel like a bit of a consolation prize? “Yeah, I really hated it,” he says. “No, really, we’re all very pleased for each other. We all win because it’s all good for Sherlock. For a British show to be doing that well is a thrill. I emailed Ben in the morning to congratulate him and he rang me later on.”
Such is the on-screen chemistry between Cumberbatch and Freeman, there has been widespread suggestion that the Sherlock-Watson relationship is about more than just solving crimes and banter in Baker Street. Much of China is convinced the pair are lovers.
“It’s not just in China — plenty of places, plenty of households,” he says. “I don’t really quite know why that has caught on. It’s now taken on a political dimension to it. What started as a bit of fun — a slightly irreverent, sly, mocking thing — has now turned into, for some people, if you don’t think they’re gay, then you’re denying they’re gay and you are somehow homophobic. I mean genuinely — it’s that strong. It’s very odd, the fact that it has become a po-faced, political thing.”
Where does this relationship, at once fractious and deeply affectionate, come from? “Chemistry just happens or it doesn’t; you can’t work at it, you can’t manufacture it. Obviously it helps if people have got their chops about them and can actually do the work. But there are plenty of good actors who you could put together who don’t have that chemistry. We were lucky. It just worked.”
Freeman wasn’t in Los Angeles to collect his award because he is playing Richard III at the Trafalgar Studios in London’s West End. Cumberbatch wasn’t there either, leading Sherlock’s co-creator, Steven Moffat, to joke that he was “too big to come the Emmys”.
The suspicion with Freeman was that he doesn’t much fancy the gilded backslappery of Hollywood. “Look, if I wasn’t doing a play, I would definitely have been at the Emmys — I don’t mind all that. It’s nice for a little holiday, but it’s not my life. I think most of the people who were there, it’s not their life either. Everyone basically goes home to their family and puts the kettle on.”
Freeman has come a long way from playing the sales representative Tim Canterbury in The Office, but the critics have been quick to draw a thread through his work. Tim, John Watson, Bilbo Baggins, and Lester Nygaard in Fargo. The everyman, the ordinary guy everyone can identify with, the middle-of-the-road Englishman; sardonic, wry and slightly low on self-confidence.
Freeman isn’t convinced. In fact, he’s a bit fed up with it. He is generally polite and good-natured, but the merest mention of the word everyman rouses his ire. “People ask, ‘Is there any difference between Tim and John Watson?’ Well, I’m afraid if you can’t see that, you’re a f****** moron. People have no business writing about the art of television if they can’t see it.
“I’m not denying you can’t find a thread between the parts I’ve played, which you could probably do with every single other actor working. Whether it’s me or Daniel Day-Lewis — he’s not often going to play a bit-part waiter. I think a lot of it is Pavlovian; people see what they want to see.
“I have played some things that have a thread in them but that’s never been my plan. To be honest, I’ve played lots of other things, and they’ve not been that famous, they’ve not been huge hits.”
Freeman, here playing Bilbo Baggins, says it is wrong to suggest he plays only one kind of character (Warner Bros)
Freeman’s gig as Richard III is one of these less-famous roles. He’s garnered mixed reviews, with some critics suggesting his performance is “underpowered” and “lacks all spark and charisma”.
Is he less well suited to playing a king? “What I’m able to play in Richard III is something that I’ve had about me for as long as I’ve been acting. It’s a surprise to other people but that’s always been in there. It was all that stuff that made me want to act, it wasn’t thinking, ‘Oh, I want to be a lovelorn everyman.’”
He doesn’t have Cumberbatch’s swagger, but Freeman has plenty of confidence in himself and his acting ability. The remarkable journey of the tortoise and the hare will continue next year, when the pair are reunited for series four of Sherlock. The character of Watson has married Mary Morstan, who turned out to be a gun-toting secret agent with a murky past.
Will Sherlock leave them alone to be happily married? “Presumably not. It’s the tensions within those characters that make the show. Now that Mary is very much part of the setup, that can’t be a happy, or rather a straightforward, thing. Without the tension between John and Sherlock there is no show. So no, it won’t be un-rocky.”
Can we get a Martin Freeman piece where the journalist doesn’t just bang on about Benedict Cumberbatch all the time?
And why only negative comments about Richard III which seemed irrelevant to whatever he was asked?