Why I’m (Somewhat Unhealthily) Obsessed With Martin Freeman


{Header image of Martin Freeman at The Hobbit premiere. Photo by Memed440 and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike, via Wikimedia Commons.}

So, apparently I have a thing for sidekicks.

In 2000, I discovered the wonderful world of fan fiction. Sure – I knew about it before then, had even written a piece or two myself not realizing that’s what it was – but really wasn’t aware of it as a concept until I fell headlong into the world of Quantum Leap fan fiction.

And fell madly in love with the character of holographic sidekick Al Calavicci, and the actor who played him, Dean Stockwell. (He is still one of a rare set of people I’d let get away with calling me “Angela” – thank you, Married to the Mob.)

What’s the collective noun for a group of Martins? A Swear of Martin’s, of course. Photo by Angie Fiedler Sutton.

When I watched Quantum Leap the first time around, I watched because I loved time travel concepts and Scott Bakula was pretty easy on the eyes. As someone who had a bit of brains, I related to genius Sam Beckett and his moral struggles to “put right what once went wrong.” While I liked Al, at the time, I didn’t pay much attention to the character outside of how he interacted with Sam.

Being older and (somewhat) wiser almost ten years later, I connected much more to the character of Al the second time around. He had a hard life, with experiences I could only dream of, and still managed to keep a sense of humor and a love of life that just kept fighting. I also was much deeper into the concept of time travel, and the idea that his life went through changes (possibly multiple times) intrigued me.

So, what does this have to do with Martin Freeman?

In 2010, I had heard PBS was going to start showing Sherlock. I was intrigued: showrunner (and co-creator) Steven Moffat had written some of my favorite episodes of NuWho, and I had thought his updating of the Jekyll & Hyde narrative in Jekyll was fabulous.

I had always enjoyed the various visual versions of Holmes: had watched the Jeremy Brett versions growing up, and liked the first Robert Downey, Jr. version (up until the end) for it’s steampunk-infused style. Hearing that Moffat planned on updating Holmes (as he did Jekyll) made me want to at least give it a try.

Out of the actors presented, Freeman was the only one I recognized by name at the time – and that was only as the one in what I nicknamed “the Americanized version” of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. (Sorry, Martin, but you’re no Simon Jones.)

The first episode impressed me. I loved that Moffat followed Davies’ re-introduction of Doctor Who (whether intentionally or not) by starting with the companion, and focusing on what life was like prior to the introduction of the main character. Watching John Watson in those first few scenes, obviously dealing with PTSD and depression (there’s a reason, after all, they show us the gun that early outside of being Chekhov’s gun), floored me. I also found it humorous that they acknowledged the slash subtext that the pair always had (back in 2000, I had read some Doyle-inspired slash, and the RDJ movie is rife with subtext between the two) in a sort of ‘wink wink nudge nudge’ British kind of way.

Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch in ‘Sherlock’. Photo courtesy BBC One.

I watched the three episodes with interest. I liked it well enough, but it was one of many shows I watched and walked away. I had taken a break from fandom due to personal reasons, and had (outside of the occasional reading of slash stories) no interest in doing more than just watch the show.

When series 2 came around two years later, I actually waited a bit to watch it. I hesitated at the knowledge that the third episode was “The Reichenbach Fall”. While not a huge fan of the actual stories by Doyle (I’ve read a handful), I knew enough about the stories (and had heard enough about this episode specifically) to know it ended in death – more specifically, Sherlock’s apparent suicide. As I’ve written before, I’ve experience with a friend committing suicide, and while it had been five years since, the survivor’s guilt I felt is still with me. But, in January of 2013, I finally buckled down and watched the three episodes.

As expected, I was staggered. (And not just by “Reichenbach”.) The storytelling was tight, all three episodes tied together in small ways that only came together in the end, and both Freeman and Cumberbatch acted their proverbial pants off. By this time, I had become a fan of both actors, finding other things the two had been in, and realizing that I had seen Rupert Graves (Lestrade) in some things before as well. (The BBC: 42 actors, 3 sets, 1 umbrella.) As a result, my respect for all involved as actors soared and I fell headlong into the fandom world for Sherlock.

So what does this have to do with sidekicks?

Even though the show is called Sherlock, the story (following Conan Doyle’s lead) is actually John Watson’s point of view. Freeman plays Watson with a fierceness and passion that nearly breaks my heart.

Watching Freeman’s prior work, it was intriguing how he would take ordinary roles (those ‘everyman’ roles he seems to really hate being characterized in) and make them extraordinary. Time and time again, from Sherlock to The Hobbit to even Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, he excels at playing characters that are your “average” guy next door, the only sane man as TV Tropes puts it. In fact, his character in Fargo works only because (like Joe Pantoliano’s casting in Memento) it takes those tropes and turns them completely around.

As I wrote in my film review of The Fifth Estate, it’s always the sidekick who does the most work in a story. Like with comedy, it’s a tough job that doesn’t seem so on the surface, and so is often taken for granted. The sidekick is inevitably the audience surrogate, the character who – like the audience – is asking the questions that drives the plot along. While Freeman seems frustrated by being referred to as the sidekick, I use it as a compliment: after all, I’d much rather hang out with the one who doesn’t know everything that’s going on than the one who knows what to do.

Martin at rehearsals for ‘Richard III’. Photo courtesy Trafalgar Transformed

While I can’t argue that Cumberbatch is a sex god (in a somewhat adorkable way), it is Freeman who continues to fascinate me. To paraphrase Ian McKellen’s thoughts on Aragorn vs. Legolas, I’d spend the night with Cumberbatch, but the evening with Freeman.

It helps that Freeman is so personable in interviews. He so obviously doesn’t want to deal with the celebrity side of his career, although he has to acknowledge that it has helped him get roles he probably wouldn’t be offered otherwise. As a result, interviews with Freeman are inevitably entertaining as he takes apart the inevitable absurdity that is the celebrity press circuit. (If I ever won the lottery, one of the things I would do is produce a film that would star Freeman and Jennifer Lawrence – for the sole purpose of watching the two of them do press junkets together.)

When The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug was getting ready to premiere, Freeman was scheduled to appear on Jimmy Kimmel Live. I had tickets, and before Freeman cancelled (apparently due to a personal emergency), I had devised a Twitter campaign at Jimmy Kimmel in the hopes that it would bring me to Kimmel’s attention during the taping. One of my tweets was my assessment that Freeman is the only actor I know who can be a complete and utter git and be completely adorable while doing it. Yes, he says some outrageous things – not all of them politically correct – and one of his more redeeming qualities is his R-rated vocabulary. But he’s able to get away with it. This is no doubt partly due to his British charm and sense of humor (or should I say ‘humour’?). But it’s also because he is clearly just having fun with the interview and not taking any of it seriously.

A selfie with the Richard III poster in London.

When luck intervened and had him star in Trafalgar Transformed’s production of Richard III during the two months I was going to be in London for a summer internship, I leaped at the chance to get tickets. (Opening night: and I’m on the freakin’ stage!) I also sent an e-mail to his agent when I arrived, requesting an interview. I knew it was a long shot, but also knew I would kick myself if I didn’t at least try. (I have a serious interview, going into his process as an actor, and a silly interview, the first question being “boxers or briefs?” – and would totally break journalism protocol by offering him the choice of which he’d prefer to do.)

Freeman comes across as the type of guy I’d hang around with in college (most likely doing community theatre together), affable but still stubborn enough to debate things that matter. I know he’s not perfect, and I don’t worship him unreservedly. (Dude: I watched Swinging with the Finkels AND Nativity for you – I think I can call myself a big fan at this point.) But his work in Sherlock made me sit up and notice.

I can only hope he continues making the smart decisions he has been, and look forward to seeing what else he comes up with. I could probably write another 1,000 words going into the various reasons why I am fascinated by the actor and the characters he’s played (for example: he’s the only actor I’ve seen ever enter the Uncanny Valley without the use of CGI – thanks, Wild Target).

But Martin, as someone who loves sidekicks and knows how hard it is to be ‘the only sane man’, please realize that some of us use those phrases as a complement. After all, many of us feel like we are the sidekick in real life, and need our role models just as much as those who look up to heroes as well.

(And hey, Martin – if you for some reason see this, I’d still love an interview. Feel free to contact me. I promise to make it entertaining!)

P.S. I came up with even more reasons why I’m a fan.