“I am just a poncey actor,” says Martin Freeman, 44, refreshingly, for the star of the two most anticipated Christmas shows: he’s Dr John Watson in a Sherlock New Year special and the voice of Stick Man in Julia Donaldson’s follow-up to The Gruffalo. We’re at the home in Hertfordshire that he shares with Amanda Abbington [who plays his wife Mary in Sherlock] and their two children, Joe, nine and Grace, six. “I never wanted to live in the country but we’re not far from London. I love returning home, dropping shoulders, breathing.”
Since we met five years ago, he has won world-wide fame in The Hobbit trilogy as Bilbo Baggins, and three series of Sherlock, sold to 200 countries, for which he won a Bafta in 2011. He remains unassuming, self-mocking (“I slept with the right people,” he explained at the premiere of the first Hobbit film) and modest, although confident of his own worth.
Celebrity brings recognition. “It’s never nasty, and I’m polite, but it can be intrusive and you need a thicker skin than me to cope with people always taking pictures. That is not why I became an actor.”
So why did he? He was born in Aldershot, the youngest of five children, and raised in Teddington, west London. His parents split and he lived with his father, who died when Martin was ten. Young Martin was a talented squash player in the national junior squad, but quit at 14.
“I don’t have the mental strength or killer instinct. I’d be beating an opponent and worry he was upset. I became an actor because I’m a softie. I was also the class show-off and annoy- ing to teachers. At 15, I joined a youth theatre, which I thought was a political act, to bring down the Thatcher government. Five years later she went, and complained, ‘That Teddingtonian b*****d has done for me!’
“I was shy, not confident enough to join the girls and be ‘sensitive’ with them. Vain? Probably. Maybe I’m egotistical. I want to be a star, but I have pure intentions. We should tell each other stories and being part of that is a privilege.”
The three Sherlock series are set in modern times. “I feared it might be too cool or knowingly hip, but I loved it immediately when I read the script.” The 90-minute New Year special, The Abominable Bride, takes it back to Victorian roots in 1895. “I don’t know what I can say because it’s all secret, as if we’ve joined MI6, which makes for a boring conversation. If you ask me, ‘What I can tell you?’ my answer is ‘Nothing’.”
I know Watson has a more lavish moustache than in the first part of the third series. “It’s my own colouring. The previous moustache [small and clipped] didn’t suit me but Mark Gatiss [the co-writer] wanted it. He can be cruel. I’d have complained if I was meant to be sexy and dashing, but it was supposed to be slightly odd. Now I’m Victorian and dashing. I don’t know about sexy. When Ben [Cumberbatch, who plays Sherlock] and I looked at each other in costume, it felt as if we were doing the real, grown-up version. It’s a Victorian ghost story.”
He shares his co-star’s general political views, and did a Labour Party broadcast during the last election, but I wonder what he thinks of Cumberbatch’s rants against the Government after he performed Hamlet. “Some people think celebrities pontificating is great. Others say, ‘Are you serious? Shut up and get back to work.’ I used to be very political [Freeman used to sell Militant, a magazine connected to the Socialist Party, on the streets] and still am to an extent.
“Actors can be pompous and we can overestimate our importance, but it’s not a mistake to have a social conscience. I won’t overdo it, go on Newsnight or Question Time and become a ‘pundit for hire’. It’s deeply annoying to hear someone like me, who doesn’t know everything, bang on – the quickest and most justifiable way for people to hate me. But as a British citizen – sorry, subject of the Queen – it’s my right to have an opinion. The trouble is I’m gobby and my life would be over in five minutes if I went on Twitter or Facebook because there’s no nuance. They’ll say, ‘If you believe this, you must hate that.’ No. There are grey areas.”
Next year he films a fourth series of Sherlock. The end? “I don’t know, but I never want to outstay my welcome. You have to avoid the trap of boring yourself, never mind anyone else.”
That’s one reason he has never signed for an American series that demands a seven-year commitment. He’s wary of being typecast, as he was after he starred in The Office as lovelorn loser Tim. “Everyone who becomes famous has a breakthrough part. If you do it well, viewers assume you played yourself. I understand. Why should someone who comes home after 12 hours’ work care about my ‘craft’?
“I don’t trust actors who hammer home how important something is. If it is, it speaks for itself. Life’s too short to take the trappings seriously. I’m grateful for doing something I love, but I won’t abase myself by saying, ‘I’m not worthy.’ I am. That’s why I’m there, not because I won a lottery.
“I was surprised at how much they wanted me for Bilbo Baggins, but in all honesty it makes good casting. There’s computer wizardry but people like me are needed to tell a story. Nothing, I hope, will replicate what you can see in a human being’s eyes. At some point CGI will get there, but not in my lifetime.”
This year he’s made a couple of American films – Fun House with comedian Tina Fey, and Captain America: Civil War – as well as playing an American TV producer in BBC2’s acclaimed The Eichmann Show.
“I’m picky. Even when I didn’t have a pot to p*** in, living in a Bethnal Green flat, I turned down 25 grand, or whatever, to advertise a burger chain. I’m vegetarian. Now I’ve got money, you bet I’ll decline things, because I can. I like money and a big house but the quality of work outweighs that.
“We’re in a sorry state if we think earning a shedload is our mark of success. The last few years have taught me if I’m not going to be saying goodnight to my family for a while, I’ve got to want to do it.”
He and Amanda are unmarried, apparently. Wait until you worry about inheritance tax, I say. “That’s why we might have married already,” he replies, smiling. “I’m just saying – mind your own business. My job is public, why should my private life be public as well? We live in an age where you have to know everything and that’s tedious. If people make a fuss over me I think, ‘Get out more.’”
He can afford the less commercial rewards of theatre and last year starred in Richard III at Trafalgar Studios in London. “I feel happy in a rehearsal room because there’s no hiding, no artifice. That’s a weird thing to say; acting is artifice – but no one goes off to an individual trailer. I know it sounds a bit right-on but I like the communal aspect. We’re all scared and have to trust each other.
“Jamie Lloyd [the director of Richard III] came as close as anyone to making me not fearful of press night. He said, ‘We’re doing this to communicate an idea, so don’t let it be ruined by critics who may not be happy to be alive.’ Trouble is, we worry about the one person who may not like us. There’s a big streak in me that says, ‘Life is not all great. Keep vigilant.’”
Sherlock is on New Year’s Day at 9:00pm on BBC1