Martin Freeman Breaks Down His Career, from ‘The Hobbit’ to ‘Black Panther’ | Vanity Fair

published on July 2, 2020

[gentle orchestral music]
– And I phoned my agent,

I said, "Did we hear anything

"about 'Sherlock' by the way?"

He said, "Well actually yes we did

"They didn't really feel
you were that into it"

I was like, "Well, why, what do you mean?"

He said, "Well, they just felt you

"hadn't really turned up"

You know, I was like [beep]

"Well, can you please let them
know I'm really interested

"I mean, the script is brilliant

"Sorry they felt that

"Let me, you know, do it again"

– I can't believe this,

you don't accept any
responsibility whatsoever

for your brother's death, do you?

– If you're so good at
asking questions, ask Martin

You'll get more out of him than me

Can I go yet?

Every actor that came out of drama school

was either on "The Bill"
or "Casualty" or both

And it was kind of like it was a,

it was extended drama school for people

It was my first time in front of a camera

and I think it probably shows

I had that slight deer
in the headlights thing,

I think, a little bit

Yeah, I was playing a small time crook

I used to go for a lot
of small time crooks

before I became lovable,
boy next door [chuckling]

You know, I used to play

and go out for weirdos and scumbags

But I've been out of drama school

for one year at that time

I filmed it in 1996

and I'd come out of drama school in 1995

And I was in the midst
of doing a lot of theater

and going up for the occasional bit of TV

– No, not on this, though

You can't do it on this

– It's actually–
– You gotta,

no, yeah, oh no yeah, do it
– All that stuff as well

– Oh, yeah, the, uh, [rolling tongue]

all that sort of stuff
– Just like take control

of the body and it's
all that now, isn't it?

– Busy?

– Yeah, just getting up the morale

– Can we have a chat?
– Yeah

– I'd met Ricky Gervais on a
sketch show called "Bruiser"

for the BBC that he wrote for

It was six of us,

containing some fantastic
British comedy talent

who have gone on to much
bigger and better things,

including Olivia Coleman

So, I did a lot of sketches
with Olivia Coleman

and even then she was very good

I was then called in to do
this audition for "The Office"

I first auditioned for Gareth Keenan,

who was then played by
Mackenzie Crook afterwards

But I read for Gareth and
then I was on the way out

And either Steve Merchant
or Ash Atalla, the producer,

said, "Actually, I think we should get

"Martin to read for Tim"

I was like, "Okay," 'cause
I'd read the whole script

I thought the script
was really, really good

So, I came back, read for Tim,

and there was a bit of a,
oh, that might work better

So, I thought, yeah, thank God,

they'd stopped me from leaving the room

I probably wouldn't have got Gareth

'cause Mackenzie's much
better casting as Gareth

You know, Ricky and Steve
let me have a couple of,

I guess a couple of episodes, before,

rough cuts of episodes

I remember showing it
to a couple of people

who I cared about and they were impressed

Obviously, it's not the first
mock documentary thing ever

Of course, it's not

But it was, I think, one of
the best executed of that kind

And certainly, in 2001,
before it had come out,

there wasn't really anything like that

on television at time at all

And again, you know, "Spinal
Tap" is still the best

But we were in their
shadow in trying to obey

the things that they had
learned and done well

I was very excited by it

– He's gonna get himself killed

– Yeah, yeah, G, it's the LAPD, man

– Yeah, and?

– [laughs] Oh, man, you
are a bad mo-fo, man

That was my first film

That was my first movie

And "Ali G" had a kind of, had
a television life in the UK

And it was very popular

It was on channel four
and everyone used to

talk about this character

It was amazing and "Who's this guy?"

"Oh, apparently, he's some guy

"who went to Cambridge, really," like

So, a little bit more
kinda of was leaking out

about who Sacha Baron Cohen was

I'd just finished shooting "The Office"

and then I was doing "Ali G"

and it was very exciting

Yeah, I felt vaguely successful,

do you know what I mean?

And I was, you know, so I played Ricky C,

Ali G's best mate

It was ludicrous, very silly [chuckles]

There was a tiny bit of improv

There were improv moments, definitely,

an improve moment in
the scene that ended up

as a scene in the film
where cut wasn't called

and me and Sacha just did

a lot of rapping and beat boxing in a car

– A to the L
[Martin beat boxing]

to the I to the G,

Ali G, that's me, that's me

A to the L to the I to the G,

that G, that's me, that's me

R to I to the C to the K to the Y,

that's Ricky C

Ricky C, to the C, to the C, Ricky C

Oh, wait a second

I's gonna be late for my class

Let's go

– To be fair, it's a good scene

Did I get co-writing credit?

Did I [beep]?

Did I [beep]?

No, I thoroughly enjoyed it

Sacha and Dan Mazer, who's
like his co-creator, I suppose,

and his sort of spirit
animal were, you know,

really funny blokes and clever guys

And I liked them a lot

Probably the worst costume
I've ever had, I think, yeah

Lurid, some would say,
very, very lurid colors

I wasn't gonna win any
best-dressed awards for that

– Could you take the top off this time?

Lighting and camera need to know

when we're actually gonna see the nipples

and when we're not

– Yes, okay, right

At least it's nice and warm in here

– Yeah, it's not always the case, is it?

I was standing in for Brad Pitt once

on "Seven Years in Tibet"

– Yes, yeah

– Bloody freezing, right?

– Sorry, guys,
– Right

– time's pretty tight

and we have to get the actors in

– Fine

– I promise, I won't look

I got attached to "Love Actually"

because on the back of "The Office"

Richard Curtis wrote me a very
nice and flattering letter

that contained a piece of chocolate in it,

like it as wrapped

It wasn't, he hadn't just dropped it

It was like a wrapped chocolate,

like presented to me saying,

"I love 'The Office'

"I love what you did in 'The Office'

"It was amazing"

It sounds like a such a [beep]

I just realized how
conceited that sounded

I'm just telling ya how much
Richard Curtis loved me

What's wrong?

I'm just passing on facts

You know, I think he's very good

at writing people flattering letters

when he's a fan of someone

And he was a big fan of that show

He's a big fan of "The Office"

so he wanted me to come along and play

And so, we did a table
read for "Love Actually"

with a lot of people who
didn't end up being in it,

just some good comedy people

Later on, down the line,
it was cast properly,

and fortunately, I was still in the cast

– And I thought the beagle
made it a dead giveaway

– Yes, well, so did I

I guess most the people who come to

these sort of parties are drunken idiots

– What?

– I said all these people
[record scratches]

are idiots

God

I went up to read for Arthur Dent

for "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"

on a houseboat in London that belonged to

the business of Mick
Goldsmith, the producer,

and Garth Jennings, the director

And I had a fantastic time

with these two talking about the film

They showed me some of the designs

I think I read a bit as Arthur

But what I was really thinking about

was the fact that my misses at the time

was waitin' for me in a car

And so, I was feeling
guilty that I should go,

because Amanda's parked
and I didn't want her

to be too bored or whatever, you know

So, I was kind of, "Okay,
yeah, it's all very well

"Yeah, you want me to be
a lead in a film, great

"But I've really got to go"

So, yeah, I think one of the things

that saves me or saved me

I'm quite good thinking
about something else

So, not thinking about,
my God, Arthur Dent,

is a really sought after

And I'm was hearing names in the ether

about, you know, who was being
considered for Arthur Dent

And some of them were Hollywood stars,

which I certainly was not

So, I wasn't thinking,
oh, this is a big thing

I was thinking,

are we gonna get home in time for dinner?

Yeah, but Sam Rockwell, Zooey Deschanel,

and Most Def, a he was

Oh, that is, it was good fun

It was really, really good fun

Everyone looked really
cool, apart from me

I had fucking great sort of house coat,

like a big green toweling,
terry toweling robe,

pajamas and old-man slippers

Most looked amazing

Zooey looked great

Sam just looked like Elvis
Presley and James Brown

And there was me

So, sometimes I got bit of an

inferiority complex about that

– I'm your best

friend?
– Man

Yeah, of course you are

Of course, you're my best friend

I knew, as soon as I started reading it,

that this was unlike anything I was seeing

on television at that time

Ben Cumberbatch was on board a show

and I kinda thought that
was a very, very smart move

'cause what I'd seen him
in, he was brilliant

I went up for it twice

I went up first time and apparently,

I subsequently learned,
I'd been a bit of an idiot

I can't remember what,

it was a bit of a schlep to the place

And I think by the time I got there,

I'm quite easily grumpy

And I think I accidentally
sort of let that show

And so, a couple of weeks
later, I was in LA actually

I said, "Did we hear anything
about 'Sherlock' by the way?"

He said, "Well, actually, yes we did

"They didn't really feel
you were that into it"

I was like, "Well, why?

"What do you mean?"

He said, "Well, they just felt
you hadn't really turned up"

You know, I was like [beep]

"Well, can you please let them
know I'm really interested

"I mean, the script is brilliant"

So, I went back again and read with Ben

And as soon as we started reading,

it was clear that we had a chemistry

and the room sort of crackled a bit

You could feel it

The material elevated

That's what you always try and do,

whatever department you're in

I've always never really tried to make

any big delineation between television

and theater and film

It was like, well, if I like the writing,

I'll do the writing,

'cause I'll go anywhere for good writing

I haven't got Tom Cruise's film career

So, it wasn't like, I'm only gonna do

massive leads in massive films

Like, well, that wasn't
what was happening anyway

I think I've always dodged
around a bit between the media

No, I don't imagine anyone west of Re

would have much interest in adventures

Nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things

[mailbox squeaking]

Make you late for dinner [chuckles]

[grumbles]

Well, good morning

I remember going with half of Britain,

I went on tape for it, right?

And when I arrived in the casting room

to go on tape, rather like this,

there was a not from Guillermo del Toro,

who at the time, was slated to direct

And the note was very nice

It said, "Look Martin, we want this

"to be you so do your stuff,

"but just so you know,

"we think this is gonna be you"

And I was like, wow, how fantastic

So, that relaxed me a lot, you know?

So, I was able to do my reading

and then sort of forget about it

We were filming "Sherlock"

We were filming the first
series of "Sherlock"

so I sort of had that on my mind

Guillermo left the project as director,

but again, he reached out and said,

"Just so you know, it's not gonna be me,

"but you are still the
person we want in the frame

"You're gonna hear lots
of different names

"Again, big Hollywood stars

"The artistic team want this to be you"

It's a massive vote of confidence

As it went on, because I had
to do series two of "Sherlock,"

I couldn't do Bilbo

I couldn't do it

The BBC weren't playing ball

No one was interested on the
"Sherlock" or the BBC side

of, okay, let's see how
this could work out

And I remember, distinctly,

I was outside the National
Theater in London

I was about to go and see play

and I said to my agent, Michael,

"I'm gonna have to let this go, aren't I?"

And he said, "I'm really sorry

"I think you are 'cause we are
contracted to do 'Sherlock'"

And then I was rehearsing a play

and I got a call from Michael saying,

"There's been a change of plan

"Peter Jackson has rearranged
the schedule of 'The Hobbit'

"around you, so that you
can start 'The Hobbit'

"then go off and do 'Sherlock"

"and then finish 'The Hobbit' again"

And that was quite a phone call

That was an amazing,
amazing thing to hear,

'cause talk about a vote of confidence

He could have had a lot of
people doing Bilbo Baggins

and the fact that he had
that much faith in me

was astonishing, really

And the fact that he can
move a schedule as titanic

as that, is gonna be a
production like that,

which does not move quickly,

was kind of amazing

And I felt like an extremely lucky person

and I'll always love Peter for that

I've always had a quite a
black and white feeling about,

no, it's over now, it's over

Once you've made the thing,

everything is suppose to end

And thank God, we recorded
it, we pressed record

But the last day I did get emotional

'cause a couple of people approached me

And as soon as their
voice started to break,

I was like, God, yeah, this has been

the last two and half years of my life,

with breaks

But that's a huge chunk of anyone's life

and the old cliche, it's we
were sort of a family, you know?

As you are when you're together
for any length of time

Geez, my wife, she's a, ah, hell

Look, I think I, she's
in the basement, yeah

And, look, I'm freakin' out here

I don't know what to do

– [Lorne] Lester, have you been a bad boy?

– No, jeez, yeah

The hammer in the,
look, can you come over?

I'm on Willow Creek Drive, number 613

Please, please?

– [Lorne] Sure, Lester,
I'll be right there

– Thank you, thank you

I was shooting series three of "Sherlock"

I was in hotel in Wales and
my agent at the time said,

"Look, we've got this American TV show"

So, I was like, "Hang
old, hold your horses

"We've agreed, I'm not gonna do it,"

you know, because at that
time, it was signing on

for seven years and all that

I'm just never, I'm never gonna do that

I'm a dad

I'm never gonna do it

So, he said, "Yes but this is,

"there's no signing on for seven years

"It's 10 episodes, it's
a TV version of 'Fargo'

"I'm sending you the pilot"

And I read the pilot

There's a scene between my character

and Billy Bob Thornton's
character in an ER,

so compelling, so beautifully written

This kind of weird, Svengali-type guy

reeling me in and disturbing me

And like, I can immediately
see how it would work

And, of course, I was in

– You let him a man beat
you in front of his children

to send them a message?

– No, that's not

Heck

Just heck

– In my experience, if you
let a man break your nose,

then next time he tries
to break your spine

– Sam, no way

I mean, I don't think

The other thing was that,

probably 'cause of the
physical thing of the accent,

the technical thing of
the Minnesotan accent,

I wanted to reward their trust
in me, actually, you know?

I got along very, very well
with Billy Bob Thornton

I would hesitate to say in any way

that I made him better

But he certainly made me better

because he's very settled,
a very calm presence on set

We got on straight away

I play a game on almost every set

If you sitting around
for more than 10 minutes,

I say, "Okay, let's name bands and singers

"beginning with the letter
that the last one ended in"

"So, if I say The Beatles, then you say

"Susan and Banshees, S

"'Kay, Sex Pistols"

That's a lot of Ss, actually

But so yeah, we just did that for ages

He's a very underwhelmed man

You know, he's not kinda
of flighty presence

And I liked that

So, how's it feel

to spend that time, all that effort

and to see it fail so spectacularly?

– Did it?

– Well, I became part
of the Marvel Universe

at the behest of Kevin Feige

saying, you know, they were interested

in me playing this part

And that was at the end of 2014

I was filming in Malta

I don't think I'm imagining this

I had a long conversation on the phone

with Kevin Feige, I think

Very gracious and generous

and he wanted me to play this part

And the idea was three films,

that was the idea

Within that, I didn't really
know any detail whatsoever

Less than a year later, I was
in both the States and Berlin

doing my fairly small bit on "Civil War,"

but introducing this part of Everett Ross

among a load of superheroes

It was kind of funny

It was funny

[deep breathing]

Maria?

– Maria dead

– Why aren't you in the hospital?

[swooshing]

[ghostly screaming]

I think it was

maybe my first out and
out horror, I guess

In the email that came with the script,

they referenced the film "Sleuth"

It was an early '70s film
starring Laurence Olivier

and Michael Caine, which
for years, as a kid,

was my favorite film

It was absolutely my favorite film

And there's a part in it where
Michael Caine's character

disguises himself as somebody
else and then reveals,

which I always loved

And the first time you see
that film, it's a delight

– Inspector Plotter

becomes Inspector Doppler

If you see what I mean

– So, there's an echo of
that in "Ghost Stories"

as well as many other things

But, they sort of had
me at "Sleuth" really

I was like, well, if
you're pulling on that,

then let's go

I was filming on that job for two weeks

and without question, without question,

it was one of the happiest
two weeks of my working life

It's very odd

Trump was elected during it, right?

It was so strange, it was so odd

It was like the very,

very surreal thing of coming on to set,

people looking at each other going,

"What's going on?

"What going on?"

And so, then we had to make a film

that was sort of slightly less bizarre

than something that had
just happened in real life

It was, yeah

– [System] System rebooting in
five, four, three, two, one

System rebooting

[engines whirring]

[lasers blasting]

[dramatic music]

[booming]

– Yes, we did it!

– [Woman] Great, now get out of there

– The first time I met Rian,

he came into the room and gave me a hug

And I thought, we'll be
all right here, you know?

I like huggers

He's a very sweet man

In many ways, I'm slightly outside,

I wasn't one of the cool
guys, obviously, like

I mean, Everett Ross is a cool character,

but he's outside of the world,

do you know what I mean?

So, he's outside of the main
core of the story, I suppose

Everyone was cool and we all got on

It's like any other film

I remember, at the time, people going,

"What was it like being
like the only?" [chuckles]

It was like making a film with like

loads of people working very long hours

trying to get a film made

It was exactly like that

But the ratios were different

Do you know what I mean?

The ratios was all reversed

But it's a funny one with Everett

because he has real status in his job

and then he's put in a world

where he has very little status

And he's completely fucking bamboozled

by what he's discovering
about this hidden country

It was good, I liked it

I liked Atlanta

Loads of dogs

I really did, I walked
around Atlanta a lot

Yeah, it's a good place

Very easy to put on
weight in Atlanta, Jesus

Southern fried portions, my God

You know, it's American
portions, generally

Like, who else is coming?

Who else do you think is arriving?

I can start back as soon as possible

– And you're actually going to?

– Well, what else am I going to do?

I'm a police officer

[chair scraping floor]

It's all I know, Yvonne

And I am [beep] good at it

– [Yvonne] Good for you, Steve

[beep] everyone else

– It's directed by a man
called Paul Andrew Williams

and written by Michael Jeff Pope,

who's one of our finest
drama writers in the UK

I play a real-life cop

There was a case some years ago now

in the southwest of England,
that was a double murder

This cop was able to expose the fact

that this man confessed to two murders

But because not every
single T has been crossed

and I had been dotted by the book,

this cop's career, has
sort of hit free fall

and now can't get a job in England

The style of it, again, is about as real

and the sort of style
of acting I really love,

was no acting

Don't [beep] bring any acting to it

because the story itself
is dramatic enough

and the events themselves
are amazing enough

without you emoting all over them

or without you telling the audience

what to think with your performance

I like exercises in
stripping away everything

I like working in that sort of area,

where the audience has to
kinda keep up, I suppose

Big acting is great, sometimes

But for the purpose of this,

the way it's shot, it's shot
in an almost docu-style

Everything was handheld

You almost miss little bits of it,

do you know what I mean?

Like, what did he say?

Oh, it's, you know?

Pulling hair is wrong, mate

I mean all violence is
wrong, but you know,

at least punching's a sport

– Is it?

– Yes, boxing

Boxing's in the Olympics

Hair pulling isn't

– It would be funny if it was

– It really would be

I had a dream one night

Well, I dreamt the first
scene of the first episode

and I said to my partner
at the time, Amanda,

I said, "I've had this dream,"

and described it to her

I said, "I think there might be some,

"there's a show in that
somewhere, I think"

And she said, "Yeah, I think there is

"You should talk to someone about that"

And she didn't mean a therapist

She meant a TV executive

I was put together with Chris
Addison as potential director

And then we got together
with Simon Blackwell

as a potential writer

And between us, we kind of worked up this,

what the show was gonna
be, tonally, stories-wise

Development meetings were
basically like parental

therapy groups where you would
admit to all the worst things

you've even done as
father and all the things

that made you least proud
of your own behavior,

with a lot of laughter

As, you know, when you're admitting things

that you don't readily admit to,

it's sort of outrageous and reassuring

that it's not just you

And I think you see a side of parenting

that everyone, I think,
needs to talk about

I really do believe that

Everyone needs to talk
about the difficulty of it

and the chaos of it as well as the joy

and the absolute love of it, you know?

That's the easy bit, man

Like, loving your kids is the easy bit

Wanting to die for your
kids and kill for your,

that's the easy bit

The hard bit is when you realize

that you are sometimes
completely incapable

of doing the job well

That's the hard bit,

'cause it doesn't make you
feel great about yourself

Sounds hilarious, doesn't it?

I've gotta see that show

[crew laughing]

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