Rising to fame on the original U.K. incarnation of "The Office" along with bit parts in films like "Ali G Indahouse" and "Love Actually," Martin Freeman has quickly become one of Britain's favourite comedy actors. Though numerous films followed such as Edgar Wright's inspired "Shaun of the Dead," "Hot Fuzz," and the underrated "Wild Target," Freeman has really broken through over the past two years. First, there was landing the role of John Watson in the BBC's incredible "Sherlock". Now, he's playing the lead part of Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit" trilogy.
It's a daunting challenge for any actor, and the pressure was something Freeman certainly felt during his first week or two on the set shooting the scene in Gollum's cave. He says: "You find out so much in those first few days. You just come along, in a way, and be open and ready and receptive. Bring whatever you've got to bring, but don't bring too much because it's not a done deal yet. It grew as the weeks and months went on, really."
The nature of that scene, a "little chamber theatrical piece" as he describes it, consists of two characters on one set just talking. He found that a perfect first scene to play, especially considering his co-star: "I was working with Andy as Gollum, which in itself is interesting. Fascinating as a baptism of fire, but friendly fire because he's so good. That character is so beloved and he knows that character, obviously, as well as anybody knows anything."
Though he seems to play mostly everyman characters that audiences can relate to, in person Freeman is certainly no average joe. You can visibly see in his body language and mannerisms that his synapses are firing at a million miles a minute, he's extremely aware of himself and his surroundings and is never without a dryly witty response or considerate answer. There is a bit of that inherent jumpiness that comes with such a personality, but none of the typical arrogance as he's extraordinarily polite (aside from some welcome swearing) and frequently self-deprecating. You get the impression you'd be extremely hard pressed to keep up with him in a conversation, but he'd be too kind to point that out.
Asked if he looked back at Ian Holm's performance as the older Bilbo in "The Lord of the Rings" before starting work here, he says for the most part he didn't. "All I was told, which I think was flattery and probably bollocks, was 'You are the only person to play it.' So I thought, 'Well, if they think that, then I have to trust that.' There's only so much you can run with someone else's thing," he says. He did add that there were points where it was relevant for him to look very closely at Ian's performance, but wouldn't elaborate.
Certainly he's aware that there was a big online fan campaign pushing for him to get the part in the first place, and the pressure that comes along with that. He's also experienced enough to know that fan support is hardly a guarantee of scoring such a high-profile job. "I have enough faith in Peter to know. I know that he's -- 'Cause he's said to me about other things he's done, where he's taken maybe too much notice of what was happening on the internet, and actually been given a bum steer. I think he's learned from that. We can all look at the internet and go, 'He hates me! Oh, but she loves me. Oh, but he hates me…', you know. That way, madness lies. So I think yeah, it's very nice, it's gratifying that people wanted me to be in it. But they didn't get me the job."
Freeman admits he isn't daunted by the size and importance of some of these characters and franchises he's starring in. He says: "I came to this job, this profession, out of joy and out of play, and I know no one is going to die, however sh-t I am. Do you know what I mean? It's okay. I'd rather not be sh-t, obviously, I'd rather be good. Genuinely, it's crushing if people don't like me, but as with everything, I'm the ultimate judge of my work. I can only say, 'Well, I liked it', or, 'I didn't like it', and there are sometimes when I didn't like it. But no, I'm honestly not, I'm really not."
He continues: "I'm daunted by so many other things in life, work is not one of them. I'm daunted about almost everything else, it is a constant cause of f-cking concern to me. Work is just not one of them at all, yeah. I don't worry about work. That's partly 'cause I've been lucky and I've always worked. I left drama school early to work, and I've never really stopped working. It's easy for me to say, in a way, but I enjoy work, and even when it's driving me mad, I'd still rather be doing that than anything else."
Freeman also says he's warmed up to 3D a bit now, so long as it is used in the right way. "I'm not particularly committal or non-committal to 3D. I never watched 'The Godfather' and went - 'Do you know what this needs? This needs Fredo's hand coming out at you.' I think as long as it's used tastefully, and as long as it's used to enhance something, that's fine. As soon as … the medium is the message, then no. I trust Peter. He's a pretty well-versed filmmaker, and he's got pretty good taste."
Like Ian McKellen, Freeman had great difficulty at first with the technical elements of the shoot, such as the way the new RED Epic cameras malfunctioned. "It has gone from horrendous to okay," he says, "because the RED cameras and the 48 frames and the 3D and all that … they would break down quite a lot. It would seem to be like once every hour, and that was genuinely difficult and was happening in the early parts of the shooting."
He also was not a fan initially of the 'Slave-Mo-Co' system used for the Bag End scene with Gandalf and the dwarves. He says: "We used the slave shots early on, it was something that I don't think anyone's done before. I think this is a Peter innovation, and we were all a bit-- if your background is theater, the most you can ask for is that there is another human being in the room, and that you're doing that, do you know what I mean? So, the more you're asked not to do that, it feels compromised. You get better at it, and it's a necessity, it's fine. 'Cause there aren't really f-cking big wizards, you've got to pretend … I think we found it pretty difficult."
There was one upside to all these initial problems, plenty of practice: "What was good about it actually, was that it meant you rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed to billy-o, like you were doing a play actually. It was getting so precise, with Ian as Gandalf in another room looking at twelve tennis balls with our pictures on, and us looking at fourteen different bits of tape in the room for where he would be. It's a really magnificent achievement. I've seen that scene cut together, not even finished, you can't see the join. You just can't see the join."
Freeman is very complimentary about his fellow actors, saying the size of the ensemble means there hasn't been any falling's out, fist fights or strong words: "There's a lot of blokes in there. A company of men, with egos, not falling out is kind of cool. I've not known it, I've not known it for this long. I've never done a job for this long. The fact that we've all kept our heads and tried to act as a group and tried to be sensitive-- I think it would be different if there were four of us. If there were four of you, there's nowhere to hide … because there is a lot more than that, you can just go there one day, and there, it's a bit more evenly spread out. So we've really held together as a group very, very well."
Part of the reason for that is everyone has had time to figure out their place. "I think the hard thing is don't make the drama school mistake of, first two weeks: 'You're my best friend, I love you, I love you!', and then Christmas comes: 'Ah, bitch.' Because if you go in too strong, it will all go to sh-t. But we're all feeling each other out. Not literally as that would be wrong. But as a group, finding out just where we all slot in. It's amazing-- I'm not trotting out any party line here, we're all getting on fine, which is about as good as you could hope for after a year and a half. We're still going out for meals, still going out for drinks, still being round each other's houses without wanting to kill each other, which is no mean feat."
Finally he was asked if he had already asked if he would get to keep his character's sword Sting once he's finished? "No, I haven't, actually. I've got my eye on a dressing gown that Bilbo wears. But no, not Sting" says Freeman. What about his wig? "F-ck no."
Set Visit: "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"
From inception to production, a set report on the year's biggest fantasy epic.
Interview: Sir Peter Jackson
The filmmaker talks frame rates, filming techniques and development woes.
Interview: Sir Ian McKellen
Gandalf himself talks his initial frustrations and the joy of being a wizard.
Interview: Richard Armitage
The handsome 'Spooks' star on what it is like to play a dwarf leader.