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The Hobbit’s Martin Freeman on the Show That Nearly Kept Him From Middle Earth, Sherlock

It was announced today that Martin Freeman will be your next Bilbo Baggins, in Peter Jackson's The Hobbit. The Office co-star was originally wanted for the part, but couldn't do it because of scheduling conflicts with the second season of BBC's Sherlock, a modern-day update of the Arthur Conan Doyle character. Fortunately for him, the schedules were worked out so he can do both, and as a result, on Sunday night you can watch season one of Sherlock (on PBS's Masterpiece Mystery) without any residual Tolkien bitterness. We spoke to Freeman before his Hobbit deal was secure (he has since gone into lockdown), and chatted about Sherlock versus Bilbo, missing out on Stateside fame, and why he won’t appear on the U.S. Office.

What are you recognized for more, The Office or Love Actually?
Well, at home, The Office. But, in the States, Love Actually. I sort of forget how big that film is. It’s kind of big. It was seen by gazillions of people. Probably more than saw the U.K. Office.

What were the strangest roles you were offered Stateside in the wake of The Office becoming a cult hit?
That’s a long time ago. I remember things coming in that I was very, very hesitant about. So much so that I didn’t really take anything and, of course, when that cup is offered to you and then you pass it along, it very often doesn’t come back to you. So I’m lucky that I’ve kept my hand in with a few other things. But I probably didn’t, as far as America is concerned, embrace it as much as I should have. At the same time, it’s not like I was bothering Tom Cruise’s office too much. I wasn’t up there in that league.

Is there a role you wish you’d taken?
I don’t think there was. In the eye of hindsight, I probably wished I’d made just more of an effort to embrace it a bit more and enjoy it a bit more and come over, you know, and smile at people a bit more.

Have you ever been approached to appear in the U.S. Office?
No, I haven’t. I think they’ve got more sense than that. I think that wouldn’t be a good idea. They’re doing fine. John Krasinski — he does a good enough job without me.

The Hobbit would be [and now will be!] your first time working with Peter Jackson. But you were up for a part in one of his movies before.
Yeah, of the murderer played by Stanley Tucci [in The Lovely Bones]. I’d loved for it to have worked out. But Stanley Tucci is a brilliant actor and we’re kind of different, you know, in a lot of ways. So I had no problem with that. I have no argument with Stanley Tucci getting that role at all. It was good to meet Peter, though. I’ve met him a couple of times and he’s lovely.

Which did you enjoy reading more when you were younger, The Hobbit or the Sherlock Holmes stories?
I didn’t read either! I didn’t read either when I was younger. But I was fairly more familiar with Sherlock — certainly, more familiar with Sherlock Holmes.

How do you think people in the States are going to react to Sherlock and Watson being so tech literate in the new series?
I hope it will be a similar reaction to what it’s been in the U.K., which is extremely positive and extremely favorable. Even more than we could have wished for. It’s beyond our wildest dreams, really. Sherlock, in the Victorian and Edwardian times, used every bit of possible technology known to him, so that’s what ours is doing. It’s not really a differing principle. I imagine there would be some people who are reticent about that stuff, because I think I was myself when I heard that it was gonna be modernized. I thought, Oh, hello, that could be bad TV.

And when you read the script?
It was some of the best writing I had probably ever read for television. I loved it. And, always, if you do something you’re proud of, all you can do is hope that there are some people out there who agree. I hope that Americans go with it, because the most important thing about the Sherlock Holmes stories isn’t the frock coats. It’s the essence of what he is, and the essence of what the [Holmes and Watson] relationship is. And chasing bad guys.

So your Watson is not very put-upon by Sherlock?
No, he’s the polar opposite, really. He’s very able. He’s a man of action. In these stories, he’s handy with a gun; he can save lives and take lives when necessary. This is not really a sedentary man, a put-upon man. We find him at a time in his life when he’s not very happy, but he meets Sherlock and then he gets very fulfilled.

Photo: Samir Hussein/Getty Images