Nice, but Not Tim ; Martin Freeman Made His Name as the Hapless Romantic of the Office, but His Role as a Chancer in BBC1's the Debt Is the Change of Direction He Needs, He Tells JAMES RAMPTON

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In the past, Martin Freeman has taken jobs as a cleaner, a caterer and a kitchen porter to make ends meet. His career as a jobbing actor became a thing of the past, however, the moment he took the role of Tim, the voice of sanity in BBC2's brilliant sitcom, The Office. After two series of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's multi-Bafta-winning series about the dysfunctional workforce at a Slough paper merchant's, the actor was propelled almost overnight into being one of the hottest properties in television.

It is obvious to Freeman why The Office struck such a chord. "I think what really resonates about the show is not that we've nailed what it's like to be in an office, but that we've nailed what it's like for people having to work with each other anywhere. It shows the crushes and the frustrations and the unfulfilled ambitions that happen in all jobs. It's not Dostoevsky, but it's true."

Gervais, who plays David Brent, Tim's boss and one of comedy's greatest ever self-deluded monsters, echoes the theme of the show's universality: "If you work for Nasa or the Cosa Nostra, I bet it's all the same. `Why's his chair bigger than my chair? I've been an assassin longer than him and he gets to sit nearer the water cooler'."

Viewers particularly warmed to Freeman's character of Tim, an Everyman figure who is continually thwarted in his desire to storm out of his job and ride off into the sunset with the object of his unrequited love, Dawn (Lucy Davis).

It has turned Freeman into a perhaps unlikely heart-throb. "I'm under no illusions as to why that is," says the actor. "It's just because Tim is the most empathetic character. Brad Pitt I am not. It's just that I play a likeable bloke and don't actually look like Quasimodo."

Audiences were also drawn to Tim's all-too recognisable flaw, his inability to carry out his ambitions. "He pussies out," Freeman explains. "He doesn't do what the whole audience is willing him to do. He plays it safe - and that's what people do in real life. I really admire the show for that. At the end of the first series, he didn't go off and become an award-winning psychologist. He stayed in his job for an extra 500 quid a year, and he didn't have a fight with Lee, Dawn's boyfriend. There was nothing heroic about it. It was as downbeat and as dreary and as disappointing as life is."

Described by Richard Curtis, no less, as "the greatest programme ever", The Office has put a rocket launcher under Freeman's career. "If you are in something that's successful, it's like you've been rubber-stamped as a safe bet," he reckons. "And that's reflected in the scripts you get."

The 31-year-old isn't going to let it go to his head, though: "Just sleeping at night and knowing you're doing something good is fine by me. So often, British actors make noises in America, and then get offered rubbish parts. What's the point? Getting an extension on your swimming pool is not what I want out of life. It would be easy to get carried away thinking how big you are, but I'm sure the vast majority of people don't even know who I am - I'm not Robbie Williams. Even though people come up to me in the street and say things, they still don't know my name. To them, I'm just `that bloke'." Freeman, it seems, would be more than happy to continue to be seen as "that bloke".

For all his meekness, however, there's one subject that's guaranteed to make him erupt into passionate invective: our society's obsession with celebrity. "We're inundated with the idea of celebrity, but it's basically half a degree up from pond life," Freeman says, becoming suddenly animated. "Fame for its own sake is a subject I could bore on about for hours. We have reached a zenith in this country of people becoming famous with an absolute lack of talent.

"Fame is not about achievement anymore - it's about having been on TV for more than two hours, whether you're Fred West or someone from Big Brother. …