Esquire sits down with the Mod Man of Middle Earth.
Martin Freeman has gone from cult British sitcom success to the lead in what might become the biggest film trilogy in Hollywood history, as Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson’s forthcoming The Hobbit. For Esquire, he demonstrates how to wear pattern without looking like a plonker. But fashion, as Michael Holden discovers, is just one of the topics on which Freeman holds forthright opinions
There is something oddly meticulous about interviewing Martin Freeman, an uncommon pace and precision that emanates from him and which takes some time to fathom. At first sight, this might seem the demeanour of a man who knows that, as the star of a huge movie, he will be having conversations more or less like the one we are conducting for the next couple of months. Years even, given that Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit, in which Freeman plays the titular treasure-seeking humanoid, is presently expected to expand into three films, the first of which will be upon us by Christmas. Given the length of that endeavour, there would be no point straining oneself too early in the season – and Freeman is a seasoned player.
He left drama school because he had found work and has been working (by actor’s standards) more or less continually ever since. Known and beloved in this country as Tim from The Office, he has lately escaped even that long and be no means undesirable shadow via his role as Watson in the BBC’s Sherlock. “Some of the viewing figures we got with the second series of Sherlock were fucking outrageous,” he will tell me. “One week we beat EastEnders, and I’m so proud – not because we beat EastEnders – but I’m just proud that millions, I mean literally millions and millions, of people wanted to watch it then. That night, do you know what I mean?”
The above quote is, based on my 30 minutes of insight, classic Freeman in that it contains three things he does repeatedly while we talk. Firstly, there’s the passionate espousal of something he’s worked on, then the qualification that his frame of reference is neither egotistical or comparative in anything other than the literal sense. They beat EastEnders – and that’s just the way it went down. Then there’s the swearing. He says ‘fuck’ frequently and adjectivally. Yet he ends the meeting saying confidently, “At least I managed not to swear,” and then looks genuinely distressed to discover he had in fact been swearing throughout it.
Swearing, and laughing, form what feel like the most inadvertent aspects to the conversation which, at times, feels as carefully composed as his outfit – made to measure Mark Powell jacket, Smedley polo, white jeans and burgundy Bass Weejuns (without socks).
If you had to nail his demeanour, cast him almost as himself this afternoon, it might be this – off-track bookie, circa 1966, in a bit of a hurry, do you want to make a bet or not? ‘Cos I have to be somewhere. Good sense of humour, but quite capable of giving you a dig if it came down to it, were you to get out of hand. More Brighton Rock than Middle Earth for sure.
That edge is an interesting thing, especially in someone known for playing more reluctant heroes than superheroes, or even minor villains. People, by and large, assume he is very much relatable because he makes such a good job of letting his characters seem so. “Which is totally understandable,” he says. “I totally get it and I’m sure I would feel the same way about this actor who had played a few of those parts. Which is only positive. It can be frustrating, just because you think, well, I know I’m not that person and you don’t know I’m not that person.”
You’re a far less benign figure? “I am – and that’s not to say I’ve got hidden depths and really I kill people – I don’t kill people.” You keep them alive for as long as possible?
“Yeah, I torture them. I’m a decent enough person, but I’m certainly not your best mate, absolutely not. And I’m not purely benign, yeah. I mean – I know I’m not, no one fucking is, but people want to just say…you know, I can name other actors who – I won’t – but you could think of a thousand other actors who people wouldn’t feel, ‘Oh, would you say hello to my mum?’, because people would be a bit scared to do that. But with me I’ve played the parts where people think – ‘He’s just a good bloke’.”
Aside from the roles he’s best known for, Freeman is to his credit an enthusiastic participant in projects of any scale, appearing in short films, and one online series, Svengali, in which he played a kind of vengeful mod, a character he cheerfully admits is not far from his true nature. “Vengeful mod,” he nods. “That’s a big part of who I am.”
There are, I venture, few things less mod than a hobbit. He counters with a knowing look, as though Mordor’s walls might one day tremble to the sound of massed Lambrettas. “Me and my friends call it the Moddit.” He mimes dressing up for the part. “A little paisley scarf, a little bit of brocade. I’m doing what I can. A wine coloured corduroy jacket...” You’re saying if one was to watch all three movies closely, looking for certain details… “You would see bits of it,” he smiles. “I would say for those who would know what to look for there are tiny glimpses, I did what I could.”
Freeman’s eye for clothes is allied to his love of music – having spoken at length on both topics before he is clearly conscious of being seen as ‘the actor with the mod clothes and the Motown thing’. But he is great fun when he gets going on either matter.
“I have quite catholic taste in music,” he says, though this will turn out to be more Spanish Inquisition-style catholic than Father Ted. “There’s definitely cut-off points for me of things being totally unacceptable and unconscionable fucking crimes in music and fashion. I have friends who can do it, and I love them for it, I don’t dismiss them as humans, but I cannot fucking go there.”
What then would be his nightmare, what would his nemesis be dressed as and listening to? He tries to be equivocal, but you can sense the past horrors drifting through his mind. “I’ve gone on dates with people when I was younger and you see them come over the escalator and you think, ‘No, this is not going to happen’. You know: cowboy boots. No way, no fucking way.” Women in cowboy boots? “Yeah.” That sounds alright. “No, yeah, you know, they have every right – I’m not that militant anymore because I know that actually it’s not that important.”
What about 15 years ago? “Oh God, I mean cowboy boots! That would have been it. And music.”
What music? “Oh, Jesus. Most music. Most music I feel that about. But I’m numb to it now. Like, honest to God, I don’t expect people to be into what I’m into. This is the ironic thing about when people try and paint you as… ‘Martin is like an everyman’. You don’t see people like me walking up and down the street. You don’t, frankly, see this [he points to his jacket] all the time and I’m not trying to give myself the big thing but you don’t. Not everyone dresses like me. Not everyone has my record collection because that implies I’m beige and I’m not fucking beige, you know. That’s the headline isn’t it?” Quite possibly.
“See, the thing is, I don’t get offended by people’s taste in stuff anymore because I know that I still love them, you know? They are still my friends. But I don’t have many friends for a start.” Perhaps that’s why? “Yes, I know. Just: people with Crombies. No. The people I go out with and the people I will meet up with to go clothes shopping or the people I go DJing with, that’s one group of people. And then I have other people who are really, really funny and amazingly talented and urbane, and some of those people are both, but you need different things from people, you know. And the funniest people I know aren’t necessarily the ones in Sta-Prest.”
For all this careful thinking, what really comes across is the sense of a chap who was perhaps fortunate enough to be grounded and full of other passions and enthusiasm when stardom came. He is not, like some performers, a complete refraction of his own success. Far from it. There is a bloke in there, what’s more, one who’s quick to credit his less well-known comrades for making him what he is today – a bonafide movie star.
“I don’t like affectation,” he says, of acting. “I think my job is to help tell the story and anything else is just showing off, trying to win awards and I truly do think that’s silly.”
So there hangs the conundrum perhaps. By being very good at not looking like he’s acting when he’s acting, Martin Freeman has fostered an impression of himself that isn’t like himself at all. Happily though, that ‘vengeful mod’ is never too far from view. Having spent many months in New Zealand for The Hobbit, considering what he missed about London, near the top of the list, he says, “I missed my tailor. I missed Bar Italia.” I point out that this is doing nothing to diffuse the mod stereotype, which is in danger of supplanting the ‘everyman’ stereotype.
“I know,” he nods, “I may as well just wear a pork pie hat with a Union Jack on it.” Even then, you suspect, it might take months or even years of searching before he found the right one. Gollum’s eye for jewellery seems casual by comparison.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is out on December 14
Look 1 (top)
Wearing pattern can cause men to seize up in horror with flashbacks of Timmy Mallett. Instead, take your cue from Gucci with this subtle brown print on navy wool silk jacket. Feeling braver? Then add a flourish with a printed silk pocket square. Keep your shirt and trousers plain.
(Top image - Navy/brown printed silk and wool mix blazer, £1,400, by Gucci. Pale blue cotton shirt, £150, by Alfred Dunhill. White denim trousers, £20, by Uniqlo. Navy patterned cotton pocket square, £60, by Drake's)
A blue wool suit can be the perfect canvas for a splash of pattern. This silk paisley tie makes a statement against the pale shirt. A graphic print silk pocket square brings the look together.
(Navy wool jacket, £325; navy wool trousers, £125, both Plectrum by Ben Sherman. Blue cotton shirt, £150; blue and red silk pocket square, £45, both by Gieves & Hawkes. Orange paisley silk tie, £92 by Etro. Watch, Martin Freeman's own)
Wearing pattern can take balls, but try starting off with one choice piece - in this case a buttoned up Kenzo print navy shirt. Wear with a navy wool tailored jacket and dark slim trousers to keep it looking sharp and modern.
While the large windowpane check on the front of this waistcoat (part of a three-piece suit), is pretty standard, the back is finished in a playful but discreet colourful paisley silk. Tie a navy paisley silk scarf over a white shirt to reinforce the look.
(Olive wool windowpane waistcoat and trousers, both part of three-piece suit, £1,120, by Paul Smith. White cotton shirt, £385, by Miharayasuhiro. Navy paisley silk scarf; watch, both Martin Freeman’s own)
The best way to wear pattern is to choose carefully. A dark charcoal double-breasted suit helps to show off this purple gingham check shirt; with a flash of paisley silk in a pocket square, it wouldn't look out of place in the City.
(Navy checked hat, £125, by Paul Smith. Charcoal double-breasted mohair jacket, £1,615; charcoal mohair trousers, £620, both by Prada. Purple/white gingham cotton shirt, £150, by Alfred Dunhill. Black/pink paisley silk pocket square, £65, by Drake's. Pale blue cotton socks, £12, by Falke. Brown leather tasselled loafers, £195, by Loake)
The key to pulling off a bright pattern like Fair Isle is to pull out one colour and play with it. Try a suit that matches that tone, and keep the look sharp with a crisp white button-down shirt.
(Burgundy wool jacket, £460; burgundy wool trousers, £192, both by Kenzo. Red and green wool fair isle vest, £135, by Drake’s. White cotton shirt, £385, by Miharayasuhiro. Yellow paisley silk pocket square, £43, by Crane Brothers)
Still struggling with pattern? Then try wearing a subtle navy birdseye wool suit, like this one from Savile Row tailor Richard James. Team with a simple white shirt and ease yourself into the patten trend by adding a bold polka dot pocket square. Well, it's a start at least.
(Navy wool suit, £795, by Richard James. White cotton shirt, £385 by Miharayasuhiro. Black and green leather shoes, £219, by Florsheim. Turquoise spotted cotton pocket square by Charlotte Hayes, Martin Freeman’s own)
Interview by Michael Holden
Photography by Roger Rich
Fashion by Gareth Scourfield
Photographer’s Assistant: Matt Foxley I Fashion Assistant: Stephanie Crain I Hair: Joe Mills @ Joe and Co Soho I Make-up: skincare by Dani Guinsberg @ Balcony Jump using Kiehl’s Facial Fuel