Film: BFI London Film Festival Guide

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Interview with Martin Freeman

Martin Freeman, for too long was intrinsically linked with the delights of Slough (and latterly Middle-earth)...

Martin Freeman, for too long was intrinsically linked with the delights of Slough (and latterly Middle-earth). But Sherlock, which follows the adventures of London’s most famous fictitious son, has readdressed this.

Indeed, instead of the dragons of brimstone in Hobbit, or concrete jungles of The Office, Sherlock celebrates the capital’s delights; detective and sidekick darting down Baker Street, dining in Soho’s Brindisa or wandering through Chinatown.

And Freeman, who plays Dr Watson in the BBC’s celebrated series, is a Londoner himself. Born in Hampshire, the 42-year-old actor now splits his time between projects centrally and the very peak of north London suburbia, Potters Bar, residing with his partner and Sherlock co-star, Amanda Abbington, and their two children, Joe, seven, and Grace, five.

It’s fair to say Freeman is a fan of the city. Potters Bar, he has said, offers the perfect balance between serene greenery and access into the thronging energy of central London. You’ll find him on Savile Row, being measured up for three-piece suits, Beak Street buying shirts, or wandering along the Southbank on Sundays.

But Sherlock’s success isn’t simply down to its backdrop, or the crime-fighting pair’s tailored tweed. Its imagination and reinvention is key.

“With Sherlock,” he tells us, “I wouldn't have played in it if I hadn't felt that we were doing something unique. I thought it was very risky to try to update Sherlock Holmes but I was willing to discuss it. The problem was that the day I met the people who were doing Sherlock I was feeling stressed and irritable and I left the impression that I wasn't that anxious to do it.

“But then I told my agent to call them back and tell them I was interested. The next time I went in I read some scenes with Benedict, which went very well and that's when I saw that our rhythms were naturally suited to working together.

“And it’s that whole London thing, isn’t it – it’s the thrill of doing something that is pivotal to the artistic history of this great city. When you get to explore something like that, I feel it makes it even more special.”

The idea of ripping it up and starting again also played a part in Freeman’s latest role, that of Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of Fargo, along with Billy Bob Thornton.

Sherlock Holmes has been attempted many times, with varying degrees of success, but the Coen brothers’ Fargo is an ice-cold classic. Once attempted, once successful.

The question on most people’s lips is, why remake it? But the Coens themselves have given the remake of the 1996 Minnesota-set murder fest their blessing. Freeman was cautious, but it only took the pilot episode to convince him to sign up.

“I didn't know anything beyond what was revealed in the script for the pilot episode,” he says. “The rest of it was on trust and I was right to trust, because the rest of it has been fantastic."

“All 10 episodes are amazing. It's one of the best-written projects I've ever done. I wasn't interested in simply rehashing old territory. With Fargo, I feel we're covering ground that hadn't been covered in the film and stands on its own.”

“When I got to the scenes where I knew it was me and Billy Bob, they were fantastically written scenes. I kicked it around in my head, and I showed the script to my wife, and she told me, ‘You’ve got to do it. You’ve got to - it's so good’. And so I did it,” says Freeman.

For the Office actor, it represents a departure from his ‘everyman’ roles: he’s either meek or cheeky, but always relatable.  Nygaard is a different beast – probably Freeman’s darkest ever posting.

“That was a big attraction of doing it; that was one of the major attractions of playing this role. You want to do different things and you want to challenge people's perceptions of you, and you want to challenge your own work and your own perceptions of what it is you do,” he says.

“So, certainly, the overtly dark side of Lester was something that proved very attractive to me. People certainly don't associate me with being a murderous killer!”

The series has only recently aired, but is set to become one of his most famous roles today alongside The Office’s Tim, and Bilbo Baggins. He’s slowly but surely becoming a big name. It’s not something Freeman ever imagined happening, though. And the attention isn’t something he’s hugely keen on.

“It's not something I was ever seeking and of course I understand that it's the nature of this business, that with success comes recognition. It can be pleasant to have people acknowledge your work and express their appreciation but sometimes the attention can be difficult to bear, and I admit I'm not good at that sort of thing. I like having my little world to myself and for my friends and family.”

But with Martin Freeman set to play Richard III in the West End later this year, his stock only looks set to rise further. Thank god, then, for the retreat that is Potters Bar.

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