The Office made him famous, but there's a lot more to Martin Freeman than the avuncular Tim . . .
ALFRED Hitchcock once compared actors to cattle, but now they seem more like meat, portioned out as morsels for tabloids and reality shows. At best we're looking for hidden depths. At worst, we suspect that every star must have a guilty secret; all that power, money and spare time should give them opportunities for some Rococo quirks. Yet no-one can accuse Martin Freeman of being a lothario, a wildman or a raving egoist.
The greatest day-to-day hazards for British drama's most versatile Everyman is people shouting, "Oi, Tim!" as he passes, or garrulous strangers in pubs treating him like an old friend. This must be disconcerting, possibly even irritating but when he's asked, yet again, to pose for a quick picture today, he obliges without a fuss. "Actors are people who are doing a job they want to do, which isn't the case for many of the people who watch what we do," is his mantra. "We' are doing something we want and we get paid handsomely; why behave like an arsehole?"
Nor does Freeman have a dress-down disguise to hide behind when he's off-duty, such as a bit of facial hair or a hood. It's one reason he has had to give up travelling by Tube. In person, he's recognisable from 20 feet away: dark blonde, alert and with those familiar repetitive crunches in the pale, pensive space of his forehead. He also eschews casual scruffiness in favour of a modish, discreetly expensive knit top, sharply edged trousers and immaculate, highly polished shoes. Freeman is a fastidious dresser who drives his girlfriend mad by getting out the ironing board even when he is only going out to the shops.
The retro-styling goes deeper than his clothes: he doesn't drive and you won't find him on Twitter or Facebook because he doesn't like computers. He prefers his agent to send his scripts by post rather than e-mail. He has an extensive DVD library but his record collection is almost entirely vinyl and occupies many custom-built shelves in his Hertfordshire home, where he lives with long-time partner actress Amanda Abbington and their two young sons, aged three and one.
On the other hand, for an Everyman, he has some pretty trenchant views on some big topics. Inevitably, since his new film is called Nativity!, the conversation turns at one point to religion, and he affirms not only a belief in God but also impatience with a certain brand of complacent, reflexive atheism.
"When people have a go at organised religion, it's not necessarily people who have been reading Chomsky and come to this great idea by a lot of research," he says.
"A lot of it is laziness. Organised religion, organised anything, requires commitment and requires an engagement with something. A lot of the time, we don't want to commit. Of course, if you talk about the Spanish Inquisition, that's the bad end of organised religion. But organised means there's more than ten people involved, because it was an idea people liked. I don't see how you get round it."
Equal parts earnestness and ironist, on chat shows and in interviews Freeman is a man with his own mission to promote honesty and purge affectation. A recurrent theme is his appreciation of craft and competence: doing it right, getting the job done, part of a moral code that may be his bulwark against the upheavals of the actor's life. He was 27 when Tim and The Office made him a star. His parents split up when he was young and Freeman, the youngest of five children, lived with his father, Geoffrey, until he was ten, when his father died of a heart attack. He then moved back in with his mother, Philomena, and stepfather, James, who ran pubs.
Earlier this year he went a little deeper into his father's background for the genealogy series Who Do You Think You Are? beginning with his grandfather, who was known only to have died during the war, possibly at Dunkirk, maybe while making tea. "By the time it has got down to you, anything could have happened as far as the truth is concerned," he says. In the course of the show he found out that two of his great grandparents had been blind from an early age, and the grandfather had been killed by the Luftwaffe when they bombed retreating forces. A memorial in Hull has his name on it. The show was all the more moving for showing Freeman, initially politely interested but by this time rather affected, holding back the tears.
An artistic streak runs through Freeman's immediate family. His older brother, Tim, was in 1980s art-pop group Frazier Chorus; another brother, Jamie, is a musician and website designer; and his cousin, Ben Norris, is a stand-up comic. But as a child Freeman's interest seemed to lie in sport. Despite being asthmatic, prone to fainting and having recurrent hip problems, he was in the British national squash squad between nine and 14. "A contender," he agrees, "but never the best. And then I joined a theatre group and it was like coming home.
"There was very little drama and performance at my school, so I've never forgotten the people who did encourage me and I've thought whether it would be a good idea to even get in touch with them and just say thanks, because they really opened a door for me mentally and emotionally – that's really important."
After Teddington Youth Theatre and training at the Central School of Speech and Drama, he appeared in television dramas such as I Just Want To Kiss You, Men Only and sitcoms such as Black Books and World of Pub and is keen to point out that The Office did not pluck him from the dole queue.
"After I left drama school, I virtually hadn't stopped working for six years."
The problem that still dogs Freeman is that, to some people, he is still Tim-From-The-Office. "The Office is mostly what people recognise me from, and I'm only glad that it wasn't as a murderer in a soap that I became famous. But it's a bit disconcerting when you read about yourself in the newspaper and it says, 'This is what Tim did next', and people think I am going to be avuncular and jovial when they meet me because that's the way Tim was in The Office."
He has been asked this many times, but Freeman is polite and tolerant when questioned yet again about the chances of The Office returning after attracting an audience of 12 million with the two Christmas specials when they aired three years ago. "I think it would be a mistake," he says. "Unless you've got a fantastic reason for doing something, it always feels a little bit to me like a sign of failure or desperation. And no matter how much people think, 'Oh we want more,' I always think, 'You don't really.'" He might also point out that many of The Office workers are busy elsewhere now. Gervais and Merchant have just finished another film. Mackenzie Crook (Gareth) seems to be filling every movie gap for a hollow-eyed unfortunate.
And Freeman himself has had a full dance card, most notably recently with Micro Men, about the early bids for home-computer supremacy between Clive Sinclair (Alexander Armstrong) and Chris Curry (Freeman), directed by Scots filmmaker Saul Metzstein. It is ironic, given Freeman's technophobia. "I didn't think computers would take off," he agrees "But this was more about these two men and their rivalry. It's so easy and compulsory to laugh when you see Clive Sinclair being interviewed because he is a bizarre figure, but he kick-started a lot of stuff and I came away with an admiration."
There's also a more mainstream movie role in Swinging with the Finkelsteins, a rom-com with Mandy Moore, set for release next year, and at one point Freeman was linked to Doctor Who as a possible successor to David Tennant, before Matt Smith. "The points for it would have been that it would have been a laugh being Doctor Who, plus the money. But against that would have been being on jigsaw puzzles and lunch boxes."
Instead, it is his participation in Sherlock, an updated version of the Sherlock Holmes stories, that seems likely to tie up his availability for some time to come. Freeman plays a present-day, leather-jacketed Dr Watson, who returns from the war in Afghanistan war to accompany Benedict Cumberbatch's Holmes. The League Of Gentlemen's Mark Gatiss and Stephen Moffat, the Paisley writer who modernised Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde for James Nesbitt, are the writers.
Before that is Nativity!, a good-natured British comedy that stars Freeman as a burnt-out primary teacher who rashly pretends his class nativity play has attracted the attention of his ex-girlfriend, who happens to be a big-time Hollywood producer, forcing him to coax his class of seven-year-olds into Primary School Musical mode. Freeman previously worked with director Debbie Isitt on her film Confetti, a more adult story of couples competing for the most idiosyncratic wedding. Nativity! has the same basic premise that nobody is given a script beforehand. Because there isn't one. "I know very few people who have literally improvised a film from start to finish," Freeman says. "There is an outline of story but, literally, not a word of script. Hardly anyone does that. It's hard to do all that well, and be funny.
"Debbie had to keep reminding me it was a kids' film because I swear so much. It quickly became clear that I wouldn't have the patience to be a teacher in real life. I sometimes resorted to the high-pitch shouting I do as a dad at home, to control the kids who are playing members of my class in Nativity!. It didn't always work, which is why I have the utmost respect for anyone who wants to get in a room with 30-odd children and teach them. I wouldn't have the patience."
After working with her on Confetti, Peep Show's Robert Webb was caustic about the experience of working with Isitt. In the film he played a naturist, and shot scenes of full-frontal nudity in the belief that they would never be shown in the finished film. They were, and a furious Webb has vowed never to work with Isitt again. Freeman, on the other hand, was happy to return for Nativity!. "I like Debbie," he says simply. "I wouldn't have signed up for another weird, mad film unless I really enjoyed the company of the director. She's someone I can definitely handle for a couple of months; there are some people who are too mad in a bad way, but she's mad in a very good way.
"Sometimes she can be wilfully vague – 'Why haven't you said this?' 'Because you didn't tell me to do that.' She likes the uncertainty, and the fact that unexpected things happen that are maybe, hopefully, better than what she had in mind.
"But what I love about Nativity! is that it reminds you of watching your own children do stuff," he says, "and there is something undeniably emotional watching children, especially your children, do this kind of thing. There will be a lot of people in tears as soon as this starts. I was, because it's kids being kids and they're trying their best, and however that turns out I find it very moving."
That's as much home talk as you are likely to get out of Freeman, whose personal life is a gated community. He is knowing but, for all his affability, not telling. Get him on to the subject of music, however, and you should be prepared for long dissertations on the wonders of Paul McCartney, Paul Weller, the Specials or even Burt Bacharach, who he saw in concert recently. In his youth, Freeman was in several bands – not that he's a better actor than a musician, he says. "I'm happier to appreciate it rather than do it. The joy of playing a record was always important. And it still is.''
This year The Culture Show hired him to celebrate 50 years of Motown, during which he opened his fanboy soul to Martha Reeves and Smokey Robinson. Impassioned and obsessive, at one point he talked for five minutes about the changing record labels of the company, until finally catching himself in anorak mode. "Bored yet?" he inquired, cheerily. "All the women just switched off."
Freeman says he's not hectically ambitious, unlike his best friend Simon Pegg. There's no master plan to his career, no determination to alternate comedies with dramas, or to exclusively accept parts that run counter to expectations. That said, he was delighted when director Peter Greenaway asked him to play the artist Rembrandt in his film Nightwatching. "It's not the kind of thing that people usually offer," he says of playing the painter, who is naked in the film's opening scenes. "I get more lovelorn 30-something from Surrey than I get offered chances to play Dutch masters."
If Freeman doesn't like a script he won't audition for it, and he's always curious as to why someone wants him for a role. "I also want to know who else turned them down first. People can be quite reticent about telling you because they think it's going to damage your ego. But there's only ten people in the world, they always thought of someone else first. So I'm always interested in who they thought of before me."
In the case of Love Actually, Richard Curtis, a fan, wrote the role of a sex scene body double especially for Freeman, but Hugh Grant was the original choice for Arthur Dent in the movie version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Freeman doesn't have a problem with that. Nor does he struggle with offers that are too good to refuse. "Maybe if you're Tom Cruise that's more of a problem, but for most actors there are very few roles where you think, 'I have to do this.' And I'm a dad, so it does take a lot to get me out of the house."
Or out of the country. Freeman has appeared in US movies, most recently in Jake Paltrow's Good Night with Gwyneth Paltrow and Penelope Cruz, but he's not keen to follow Ricky Gervais or his Nativity! co-star Ashley Jensen, another Gervais alumnus, and relocate to America. "I would crawl over broken glass to work on something good wherever," he says. "And I've been out there to have focused meetings, but I never wanted to go over there and be waiting around by the pool, because any actor will tell you, you can do that here. And, whatever you want out of LA, your family might not want as well."
What he does like about Los Angeles is the relative lack of scrutiny. "It depends where I am in the States, but if I get recognised it's sometimes as Tim but it's often for Love Actually," he says. "Or just 'Martin Freeman' – which is progress, of a sort." r
Nativity! is on general release
• This article first appeared in the 29 November edition of Scotland on Sunday