Martin Freeman almost missed the chance to play one of the best roles of his career as John Watson in Sherlock due to a misunderstanding.
While the BBC’s Sherlock was one of the most popular adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective stories, its John Watson almost wasn’t played by Martin Freeman. From 2010 to 2017, Freeman was the best friend, assistant, and former flatmate to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes. Despite Sherlock’s problems in seasons 3 and 4 and what was seen as a decline in quality after the first two seasons, the success of the series was mainly attributed to the two actors.
Initially, however, the Sherlock showrunners almost passed on casting Martin Freeman. Freeman revealed via Vanity Fair that he had unintentionally given the impression that he wasn’t into the role during his first audition. “Apparently, I subsequently learned, I’d been a bit of an idiot,” he admitted. “I can’t remember what, it was a bit of a schlep to the place. And I think by the time I got there, I’m quite easily grumpy. And I think I accidentally sort of let that show.” After finding out the truth from his agent, he pleaded to let the show know that he was very interested and got a second audition with Cumberbatch. However, had he not rescued the situation, things could have been very different.
Why Martin Freeman’s Reading With Benedict Cumberbatch Got Him Watson
While Sherlock had auditioned other actors for John Watson, it wasn’t until Freeman read with Cumberbatch that everyone knew that they had finally found Holmes’ perfect partner. “As soon as we started reading, it was clear that we had a chemistry,” Freeman said to Vanity Fair. “The room sort of crackled a bit. You could feel it. The material elevated.” Cumberbatch echoed Freeman’s feelings: “[W]hen Martin walked in I just felt my game go whooop! I completely did,” he said to an audience at the 2012 Cheltenham Literary Festival (via Radio Times).
Cumberbatch also talked about the value that Freeman brought to Watson. “What he has is no small talent. He can ground this extraordinary, extravagant character [of Sherlock] – he can give a realistic context to something that’s otherwise quite fantastical.” His statement shows the important sense of balance between Holmes and Watson, with the former being eccentric and more intelligent, but the latter being more grounded and human. Cumberbatch could be as dark and flamboyant as he wanted to be because Freeman’s calming and patient presence would keep the show from getting too eccentric.
Why Sherlock Needed Martin Freeman
However, Freeman was more than just Cumberbatch’s straight man as he had the acting skills to believably toe the lines of both drama and comedy. One of the best examples is in the Sherlock season 3 premiere, “The Empty Hearse.” After two years of thinking that Holmes had died after jumping off St. Bart’s Hospital to save his life as well as others, Watson discovers that Holmes is alive. While Cumberbatch is trying to joke through the awkwardness, Freeman shows a performance of controlled disbelief and relief – until his rage bursts and he grabs Sherlock by the neck and throws him on the ground for the hell he has put him through. This emotional depth, contrasted with Cumberbatch’s stilted protagonist, highlights just how important Freeman’s Watson was.