Martin Freeman and the fame he didn’t aim for

PASADENA, Calif. — For most of his life, British actor Martin Freeman didn’t want to draw attention to himself. Although he became famous, it wasn’t part of his plan. But with roles like Bilbo Bag-gins in the Hobbit trilogy, Dr. Watson to Benedict Cumber-batch’s Sherlock and the quietly murderous Lester Nygaard in Fargo, he simply couldn’t help himself.

“Some days I’m more clever with fame than others,” he says. “I’m a reasonably private person. My nature is very private, and, of course, you only find out how private you are when people want to know more about you. You find out what kind of man you are when you become a dad.”

He is the father of an 11-year-old daughter and a 14-year-old son, which suits him perfectly for his latest role as the harassed dad in FX’s comedy Breeders, which premiered March 2.

Freeman, 48, thinks sometimes he’s a success at parenting and sometimes a failure. “Fortunately my ex and I are very amicable, so we split (time with) them and the lines of communication are very open. We’re lucky with that,” he says. His ex is his longtime partner, actress Amanda Abbington, with whom he split four years ago.

His own childhood was happy. “I grew up in the situation where a lot of times there was not much money around — not crying Dickensian poverty, but it wasn’t lots of money. But I always knew I was loved. For me, that was everything. It’s nice not to be poor. But if you know people who’ve got your back and truly love you, it’s really important. So I think me and my ex try, and our kids definitely know they’re adored.”

The youngest of five, Freeman was only 10 when his father died. “The full weight of that didn’t hit me until several years later,” he says.

“I remember being in a theater and some credits came down and the name Geoffrey Freeman, my dad spelled it with a G. I was about 18 and was with my first girlfriend and I started welling up. And I hadn’t really felt that when my dad died. I was playing football and bouncing back. When you’re 10 you have other things to worry about besides grieving. But when it hits you later on, that’s a pretty big deal.”

His parents had divorced when he was young, and he lived part time with his dad. “I was really small. I was quite a sickly kid with hip problems and asthma. I was in and out of the hospital. I didn’t want another reason for people to feel sorry for me,” he says.

“I was already one of the few kids in my school whose parents were divorced. So no one was nasty to me, but I didn’t want to stand out. So I tried to minimize it, I suppose. It was later on when I allowed myself. I thought I’d not really grieved this when the thought of not having a parent hits you, I’m allowed to be upset by that.”

Freeman became part of a youth theater as a teenager and discovered he had a facility for acting. Other people thought so too.

“Up to that point, I’d thought it was something I just enjoyed. I liked the social aspect, and I’m a bit of a showoff, so I liked being on stage and all that. But I’d not really thought, ‘Oh, this is something that I can pursue’ until I was 17 and I thought, ‘I love it, and I’m quite good at it.’”

He says his mother supported his idea. “My mom was excited because she’d wanted to be an actor. When she was a young woman her dream would’ve been to be an actor. It wasn’t the time — her circumstance wasn’t right — so when I said I think I want to be an actor she said, ‘Go for it.’”

He did go for it, and after almost three years of drama school, he began working in theater, and at 30 landed the role of Tim in the original British version of The Office. That series proved to be a massive hit.

But a few years later, Freeman began to doubt his choices.

“I was famous, I was doing pretty well. But I sort of started to wonder if I really liked doing it. If I really enjoyed doing it. What is it about this job that I really love? Is it habit? A lot of the time in life — whether it’s opinions about things, the things you love or hate — a lot of the time you think, ‘Is this just a habit I’ve got into?’

“Looking back on it now I think, what were you worried about? You had money? But maybe I missed out on a couple of jobs and that may have knocked my confidence.

“And I think being financially cautious — my motto has been: Never go to jail, always pay your taxes, all that stuff. I think maybe it was partially a financial thing, maybe it was missing out on a couple of jobs, and I remember thinking … ‘Maybe I’m not that good, maybe I’m not as good as I’d hoped I was, and maybe this isn’t what I’m supposed to do.’ But thank God that passed and the love for it came back.”


9 p.m. Mondays