Photo by Papa G/ Camera Press/ Redux
THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY directed by Peter Jackson, written by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Jackson and Guillermo del Toro based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien, with Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage and Andy Serkis. A Warner Bros. release. 170 minutes. Some subtitles. Opens Friday (December 14). For venues and times, see Movies.
NEW YORK CITY - Ian McKellen gets top billing in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, but have no illusions: this is Martin Freeman's movie.
As a younger version of noble halfling Bilbo Baggins, the character played by Ian Holm in Peter Jackson's first Lord Of The Rings trilogy, Freeman is the eponymous hero of Jackson's latest J.R.R. Tolkien extravaganza.
It's been years in the making, delayed by legal wrangling over rights to the book and the bankruptcy of partner studio MGM (plus the departure of director Guillermo del Toro because of these delays), but now, finally, The Hobbit has landed.
Jackson says he literally couldn't have made it without Freeman.
"Martin was the only person we ever wanted for that role," Jackson says at the Hobbit press conference. "We felt he had qualities that would be perfect for Bilbo - sort of an essential kind of fussy English, slightly repressed quality. He's a dramatic actor who has a very rare comedic skill."
The trick was getting him. Freeman was committed to a second season of the BBC's wildly successful Sherlock, so was unable to clear the 18 months required for Jackson's epic shoot.
"We'd looked at other actors, but unless we got this bit of casting right we were gonna be in enormous trouble," Jackson says. "I was having sleepless nights, tormenting myself watching the first season of Sherlock on my iPad at 4 in the morning. I was looking at Martin and thinking, ‘God, there is nobody better.'"
In the end, the solution was to re-engineer the Hobbit schedule to accommodate Freeman's obligation to Sherlock, which meant working for five months and then putting the entire production on hold for eight weeks while his leading man went home to shoot the second season.
"That alone is a great compliment," Freeman says, awaiting his own press conference in a quiet hotel room. "It was always made very clear by Peter, and before him by Guillermo del Toro, that they wanted me to do it. Which was a nice thing for me, because you can relax, you know? There's no guarantees in anything, and there certainly isn't in the film business, but to know the artistic team is fully behind you? That was lovely."
Jackson was right to wait. Freeman is pretty much the perfect choice for the part. Now 41, the actor excels at projecting a certain nervous uncertainty that tells us he doesn't want to be the centre of attention.
"He's a kid in his love for escapism," says Martin Freeman (left) about Peter Jackson.
Freeman's meek Bilbo - who'd much rather be home with his books and his pipe than battling orc hordes or trading riddles with Gollum in the catacombs of an infernal factory - is of a piece with his other cautious characters, like the lovelorn Tim Canterbury on The Office. And more importantly, the part is linked to another key role in the actor's CV, the harried Arthur Dent in the 2005 feature film adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy.
It's like he's been building up to Bilbo all along - except he insists he hasn't.
"It wasn't my plan," he laughs. "I didn't see it like that, though it's been pointed out to me subsequently. The parallel might be there just because I'm playing them."
Alternately, I venture, it might be because directors see some quality in you that makes you the ideal person for that sort of role.
"Yeah," Freeman concedes. "But I'm an actor, right? In my defence, I think I could play different stuff."
This is certainly true. Over the past decade, Freeman played a tormented Rembrandt in Peter Greenaway's Nightwatching, appeared with Jude Law in Anthony Minghella's last film, Breaking And Entering, and kept his comedy chops sharp in Debbie Isitt's improvised Confetti and Nativity! And he's currently shooting The World's End with Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, having popped up in their earlier collaborations Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz.
He's a confident, capable actor, but people keep casting him as someone who's in over his head. Even the role of John Watson in Sherlock has an element of nervous protestation - though, as Freeman points out, the character's history as a combat medic in Afghanistan means he's hardly afraid of adventure.
"He's reluctant for about five minutes," Freeman says. "But then in the first episode, when Sherlock goes, ‘Do you wanna come and see some shit with me?'then, yeah, he's fuckin' well up for it, because he misses it. John Watson is a man of action; he's killed people - and he's good at it - and he's sewn people up on the battlefield."
This is the only time I'll hear Freeman swear; it's as if he's slipped into Watson's tougher persona while thinking about him. A moment later he's back to himself, wondering if we're just talking about the way different cultures respond to tension.
"Maybe the British representation of adventure is ‘Let's go easy here,'" he jokes, "as opposed to ‘Let's kill everyone in the room and then the planet.'"
That makes me think of Hitchhiker author Douglas Adams, who once said that adventures are things you don't know you're having; it's only later, once you've survived the rapids or escaped the charging rhino, that you can stop fearing for your life and realize what a great story you have for the pub.
"Yeah, absolutely!" Freeman says. "Yeah, yeah, yeah. You can't play the adventure any more than you can play the sci-fi or the fantasy [elements]. What you have to play is the human side to it. It has to mean stuff, and all the stakes have to be really high for everyone."
Freeman wasn't really a big Tolkien fan growing up, though he came to appreciate the movies. "I knew the films and really liked them," he says. "The more I see them, the more impressed I am with them, really. They stand the test of time - even the CG, which by our standards today is pretty old. [And] the storytelling is wonderful. I think Pete's so good with Tolkien's universe because he's a fan."
It's clear that Freeman is as fond of his director as Jackson is of him.
"Pete is still essentially a kid, I think, in his love for film and his love for escapism," he says. "He likes the big choices. He makes room in his films for you to make subtle and small choices, but the world around you he likes making big."
Did he get in touch with Ian Holm, who'd played the older Bilbo for Jackson a decade ago?
"I didn't consult him directly. I've never met Ian Holm," Freeman says. "But I was mindful of what he did. I re-watched, more carefully, that scene in the first part of Lord Of The Rings - at the birthday party, and the way he is with Gandalf. There were physical clues and slight vocal tic clues that I used.
"He is obviously a fantastic actor," he continues, "and his Bilbo is brilliant, but I couldn't go through 18 months just thinking ‘How would Ian Holm have done this moment?' It has to be you doing it. It's kind of funny, cuz we're doing it slightly about-face; the older Bilbo has laid the foundations for the younger one instead of the other way around. But that's a good person to lay the foundations, because he is so good and his Bilbo is so beloved."