As a high school teacher, I find that students tend to understand literary concepts better if you provide them with a pop culture example. This was my strategy with post-modernism for the 11th graders, and at it was my strategy for epic archetypes with the 9th graders. Catwoman is the Dark Temptress; Dumbledore is the Mentor; anyone named Sam is the Loyal Friend; and pretty much any character played by Martin Freeman is the Everyman.
What is an Everyman?
Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, but for the most part, Martin Freeman keeps getting cast over and over again as The Everyman. The Everyman is a role that was named after the 15th century morality play by the same. The Everyman is often an unremarkable character—in its earliest uses this archetype was as nondescript as possible. He’s our Ron Weasley or Nick Caraway. It is a role for the audience to insert himself/herself. (S)he is the protagonist without necessarily being the hero, and complete and utter lack of awesomeness makes their adventure relatable and meaningful to the reader. Instead of the story being a remote lesson about a remarkable set of circumstances, the story is about all of us.
Give Me Some Examples
You’ll often find The Everyman accompanying exceptional people. Sherlock Holmes, for example, is an un-relatable super-genius. Modern interpretations of Sherlock, such as the Stephen Moffat role played by Benedict Cumberbatch, highlight that alienation. Our way in is through Watson (as played by Martin Freeman). In fact, Moffat’s Sherlock starts with Watson. We see another example in Douglas Adams’s Everyman, Arthur Dent. Freeman played this role in the 2005 film adaptation.
Time after time, Freeman plays this role: Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit, Lester Nygaard in Fargo, Tim Canterbury (The British Jim) in The Office, and even John, the underwhelming nude stand-in in Love Actually. In fact, the joke of his role in Love Actually was that he had an un-relatable job that most polite people would like to think they are above, but he was so dang professional and relatable.
As Freeman reaches middle age, the roles don’t slow down. Freeman is 45, which makes him the perfect everyman for a growing group of theater-goers. The MPAA found in a 2012 report that the 40-49 age bracket is growing at a surprising rate. Is it a coincidence that this actor is becoming more popular as he ages right alongside that group?
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Our Favorite Hedgehog
So what exactly is it that makes Martin Freeman The Everyman? There are plenty of other epic archetypes for him to fill, so why this one? Google lists him at 5’6″ tall, which makes him quite average by 18th century Irish standards, but 3-4 inches shorter than the average British or American movie goer. That below-average statistic is very refreshing, however, when you put him up alongside male action stars who are often over six feet tall. Hollywood likes tall men; Freeman’s height serves as a reminder that he isn’t just some Greek hero paid to march around on film and flash an inhumanly perfect smile. I submit that this is exactly what we love about him. He looks real.
Scroll up and take a look at that face. The internet likes to compare him to a hedgehog. Perhaps there’s something to that little insectivore. It’s cute, right? Martin Freeman does not exude Herculean strength. He does not have a Superman jaw line. He does not have Matt Smith’s bouncy hair. What he has is a friendly disposition. Even when he’s sulking about, even when he’s angry, he’s never threatening. He’s not handsome in a conventional Hollywood sense, but he’s not bad-looking either. He doesn’t have the bulging frog eyes of Steve Buscemi nor the ghoulish smile lines of Willem Dafoe. He looks harmless. He looks like a good person, and we’d all like to imagine that we are good people.
And that’s exactly why we root for him. He isn’t a stud. He isn’t extraordinary. He’s just like us. And that gives us hope.