A few tidbits about British actor Martin Freeman, star of the new film opening Friday, "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy": He...
NEW YORK — A few tidbits about British actor Martin Freeman, star of the new film opening Friday, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”:
He is a habitual nail-biter whose fingernails are gnawed perfectly straight across.
He and his girlfriend own a miniature longhaired dachshund named Archie.
He occasionally suffers from eczema.
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This information might have been more interesting to some readers if Freeman resembled Brad Pitt or Jude Law or any other hunky Hollywood leading man. But Freeman isn’t that kind of actor.
He first came to prominence in the British television comedy series “The Office,” playing Tim Canterbury, a rumpled and slightly doughy underachiever stuck in the soul-crushing tedium of a paper-goods office. In “Hitchhiker,” Freeman portrays another unglamorous guy: ordinary earthling Arthur Dent, who finds himself yanked into an extraordinary intergalactic adventure.
Freeman, 33, has played plenty of other roles, but Everyman characters seem to be his forte. “I’m a 30-odd-year-old white man from England, and I think everyone’s got only so much range,” he says. “And if you look like me — i.e., fairly average, if you’re a fairly normal-looking person — you’re not gonna get cast as James Bond.”
Midway through a day of “Hitchhiker” interviews, Freeman is holed up in an upper-floor hotel suite. He’s wearing jeans, a Levi’s jacket over a polo shirt, and an exhausted-looking pair of Converse sneakers that were once white.
In the first minutes of “Hitchhiker,” Arthur Dent wakes up with a massive yawn and bumps his head on the way to his kitchen, where he promptly burns his toast. He then looks out the window to see bulldozers converged around his house, which has been slated for demolition to make way for a new highway. A few minutes later, he finds himself in an alien spacecraft, and for the remainder of the film, Freeman’s wardrobe consists of a fuzzy green bathrobe, two T-shirts, striped pajama pants and bedroom slippers.
The role of Dent presented other challenges as well. Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide” series has sold millions of copies around the world since the late 1970s, and the science-fiction books have attracted a certain kind of fervent fan. Expectations would be high.
“For some people this is going to be like sacrilege if it’s perceived to have got it wrong,” says Freeman. “But I couldn’t go to work with that feeling, and I couldn’t really go and do my job if I was paying too much mind to that. I just … tried to play him in the best way I could.”
That way was not merely impersonating Simon Jones, the veteran actor who played Dent in a 1981 British television version. Instead, Freeman focused on finding a balance between the story’s comedy and tragedy. Within the first 10 minutes of the film, Earth is demolished to make way for an intergalactic expressway.
“Everything Arthur Dent … has ever known or thought he knew has been destroyed — I mean, wiped. At the same time, you’re acting in a comedy; you can only be so serious,” says Freeman. “But I think it’s got to matter. I think for the audience, it’s got to matter that this man and us have just lost our planet in the first 10 minutes of the film.”
Freeman remembers reading “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” as a teenager, but he wasn’t bowled over. “I was at an age when it either kind of hooked you in or it didn’t, and it didn’t,” he says. “That wasn’t really where I was at when I was 13.”
Where was he at?
“George Orwell, I suppose. … ‘Animal Farm,’ ‘Homage to Catalonia.’ I liked all his stuff. I read ‘Animal Farm’ when I was 11, and it remained my favorite book, really.”
Freeman grew up in the London suburb of Teddington, the youngest of five siblings. As a child he suffered asthma attacks serious enough to require hospitalization. Still, he became an avid squash player in his teens.
He also developed a passion for far-left politics, but his interests soon shifted. By 18, he was involved in youth theater, he says, “so my focus was more on acting as opposed to bringing around bloody revolution.”
He attended the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, and left early for a yearlong stint at the National Theatre. After that, he did stage and television work, and also dabbled in music, playing bongo drums in clubs and cafes.
Filming for “The Office,” a highly regarded mock documentary, began in 2001. The understated comedy, which subtly captures the misery of having to work for and with stupid and unbearable people, became a surprise hit in the U.K. and gained a cult following here in the United States. (An American adaptation airs on NBC on Tuesday nights.)
“It’s a funny thing, ‘The Office,’ because millions and millions and millions and millions of people didn’t watch it,” says Freeman. “But culturally, it is more of a phenomenon than almost anything else I can remember as far as British television is concerned.”
Part of what made the original “Office” so compelling was the undiluted unpleasantness of its characters. “I think it had a bit more guts than other shows that have gone into that format,” says Freeman. “It was more uncomfortable to watch than a lot of things on television are.”
Perhaps the most sympathetic character on the show, Tim is smart enough to perceive the hideousness of his workplace, but he lacks the gumption to find a way out. He is, in effect, a likable loser.
Part of what made Tim so appealing was his long-held and seemingly hopeless infatuation with the office receptionist, Dawn (Lucy Davis). Their romance turned Tim into an unlikely heartthrob. “People talk about Tim and Dawn like one of the great love stories of our time,” says Freeman.
The success of “The Office” has brought Freeman more scripts and more attention, but there’s also a downside to playing such a beloved, indelible character. Not long ago, a British newspaper described Freeman’s character in a historical miniseries about King Charles II as “Tim in a wig.”
Since filming the first season of “The Office,” Freeman appeared as a doofus B-boy in the movie “Ali G Indahouse” and portrayed yet another regular guy in the British ensemble comedy “Love Actually.” In the latter, he played a stand-in for porn movies and performed virtually all his scenes nude.
“It’s hard to be naked in front of 150 people. It’s not in any way pleasant,” he says. “As a man it gives you a kind of window of what quite a lot of jobs are like for quite a lot of women.”
He still lives in London with his girlfriend, Amanda Abbington, who is an actress, and Archie the dachshund. Upcoming projects include a new play at London’s Soho Theatre. He also plays a leading role in a comedy series, “The Robinsons,” that will soon air on the BBC.
“I’m attracted to parts where people have to struggle a bit or parts where people are flawed or parts where people don’t get their own way. It’s just way more interesting. Because there’s something to play against, something to overcome,” says Freeman. “I can’t imagine ever wanting to do a part where I lounge around on a yacht with a cocktail in my hand — unless something [expletive] horrible happens to me in the second scene.”