Remember when Martin Freeman could do no wrong? We do and it was a fantastic time. We were charmed by his characters. He played the often befuddled foil to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes, the hapless hobbit Bilbo Baggins on his first adventure. Freeman had a great mix of charm and British wit, and it felt like he was some kind of cheeky secret that our friends across the Atlantic had been keeping from us. He was great performer that we all enjoyed immensly. But then he made a rape joke, and just like that, the honeymoon was over.
In a recent interview for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the actor makes a this joke about dating an elf as a shorter creature:
“I’ve got a ladder. It’s fine. And I’ve got drugs. I could just make them — you know. Slip them something in their goblet. Some will get offended by that now. Cause they’ll call it ‘rape’ or whatever. But, um, you know. For me, it’s a helping hand. Maybe I should stop talking.”
It’s a joke he should have recognized was a problem by the second word. The kind of comment that hurts to read, especially considering whose mouth it’s coming from. It’s that special mix of unfunny and offensive, and you’re just begging him to stop speaking… but he keeps going, digging himself deeper and deeper into his inappropriate quip until he puts down the shovel and just starts to bulldoze his reputation into the ground. With all that said, we do have to acknowledge that everyone slips up from time to time. Maybe this was just an isolated incident of a bad joke taken too far, and our sensitive American sensibilities are just being rustled by his dry British humor. Unfortunately, the actor has a long history of saying less than savory things about certain subjects. Not jokes, but serious and earnest comments that don’t paint him in the best light. He facetiously called actress Lucy Liu a dog and a very unattractive woman, he is staunchly anti-multiculturalism, and he has some very inflammatory things to say about Muslims: “We’ve reached a state now where it’s, ‘You shouldn’t notice. Why are you noticing he’s got a bomb and has a beard and is Muslim and wants to kill your family?'”
So after knowing his thoughts on these issues, can we simply go back and watch John Watson or Bilbo Baggins the same way we once did? Should we separate the performer from the performance? And even if we believe we should, how easy is that to do when those bad comments are still lying in the back of our minds, prodding our every thought of the actor? Just by the nature of the craft, the audiences build a relationship with the actor in a physical context. It would be easier to let these comments fall away and enjoy Freeman’s work separately from his opinions if he were a novelist or a director. An actor’s biggest canvas is his face, and it’s hard to forget the things that Freeman has said when his creative output requires you to look directly at him. The trouble is that John Watson has the same face as the man who made a terrible rape joke. Bilbo Baggins shares the same face as a man who stands firmly against the mixing of cultures. It’s a hard feat of mental gymnastics to get around these associations our brains freely make.
So what our editors think of the Martin Freeman situation, and can they enjoy his work the same way they did in the past?
Martin Freeman and Me (Before): I think I properly discovered Martin Freeman when he starred in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and I was a huge fan of his. I would go out of my way to see films simply because he was in them, and I would recommend a lot of his work to my friends and many of them became fans of his through my introduction. I always thought he came across as such a good, likeable guy, and that he was extremely funny, and great at taking throwaway lines and small moments and making them the funniest parts of the film. I especially loved him as Watson, because I thought the role combined his sense of humor and his every-man likability with some serious, dramatic moments, and that he was perfect for the role.
Martin Freeman and Me (Now): I’m not really a fan of his at all anymore. It’s a bit weird, having him go from being one of my favorite actors to one that I try and avoid, but I just can’t really find it in me to blindly support him. It also puts me in the uncomfortable position of deciding whether to tell someone about the comments that he’s made, or letting them find out on their own. I don’t have a vendetta against him, so I don’t really tend to advertise the bad things about him, but it’s a bit weird to then sit quietly next to someone who is praising him effusively. I still think he’s a talented actor, and I can appreciate when he gives a good performance in something, but I don’t think I will ever be able to support him in the same way that I did, and I won’t go out of my way to watch the films and shows he’s in anymore.
Martin Freeman and Me (Before): At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, I reveled in the comic talents of Martin Freeman as if he were a modern day Chaplin. His mastery of the subtle flip of his neck or furrow of his brow has cracked me up in The Hobbit movies, in The World’s End, on Sherlock, et al. He’s captivatingly uncomfortable at all times onscreen, and has yet to dole out a performance that I’ve found anything less than uproarious.
Martin Freeman and Me (Now): I struggle with this every time I endorse a Roman Polanski movie or yell at somebody for buying a Chris Brown album. It’s difficult to draw the line. When does a piece of art maintain ties to its creator, and when can we emancipate it altogether? When it comes to music and acting, I think it’s easier to let yourself judge the man or woman along with the performance. The art forms are so personal and directly involving of the performer that you’re not likely to forget who you’re watching… unless you’re talking about the masters of drama, like Joaquin Phoenix and Daniel Day-Lewis. Since finding out about Freeman’s intolerances, I haven’t engaged with anything new: no new episodes of Sherlock have reached America, and I had already seen The Desolation of Smaug. I imagine that his personal reputation will sour my experience if only a bit, although I can’t say that I would call my inability to judge his art independently entirely justified.
Martin Freeman and Me (Before): All of his characters have this easy going and bumbling charm about them, and even in interviews outside of his film or television roles, he has a brash wit to him that’s darker and more bracing than that of the characters he usually plays, but he still manages to charm in the same way. I was late to the Martin Freeman party, and first really took notice of him in Sherlock, but ever since, I’ve actively sought out his work. It’s easy to just assume that actors on television or on the big screen are as nice or welcoming as the characters they play, and I assumed Martin Freeman was someone with whom I could identify with.
Martin Freeman and Me (Now): For me, at the end of the day, the man is still damn good at his job. I can’t deny that he is a gifted actor. He has said many things in the past that have made me uncomfortable, but he hasn’t, to my knowledge, done anything evil or malicious to anyone, even though his thoughts and words leave me thinking less of him, I tend to believe that you should separate the performer from his performance. If you look deeply enough into anyone’s past, you would probably come up with some nasty things they’ve said or done, and I wouldn’t necessarily boycott every actor whose opinions or ideas I disagree with. And that’s the big sticking point with Freeman. Martin’s words are just words and not actions. I still enjoy his work and I will still seek out his future projects, even if some nagging thoughts in the back of my mind reminds Mr. Freeman and I wouldn’t agree on many subjects.