Martin Freeman certainly knows how to pick projects. The British actor has been winning fans world over for his role as John Watson in the BBC’s “Sherlock,” made a fun appearance in one of the roles in Edgar Wright’s “The World’s End” this Summer, and is now a big time Hollywood player thanks to the starring role of Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” trilogy.
Back in June last year I spoke with him about the first Hobbit film “An Unexpected Journey”. A few weeks later, I was able to finish that interview by speaking with him about the second film in the series – “The Desolation of Smaug”.
Freeman admits he wasn’t a die hard fan of Tolkien’s work growing up:
“It’s hard to say I was a fan, because I haven’t got posters up or anything, you know? I don’t know what qualifies as a fan. I like them. I’ve admired them very much and thought that he did them brilliantly. Yeah, I just think, because it wasn’t really part of my growing up and The Hobbit wasn’t part of my growing up. It wasn’t really in my world, particularly.”
“The Desolation of Smaug” not only boasts a change of location regarding the film’s story, it also sees a distinct change in tone to something a bit darker and less frantic. Once they reach Lake-Town:
“”It’s a different pace, it does feel like a separate film. It feels like it’s a bit more– There’s more space in certain parts of the story. It really breathes. Certainly in Lake-town, we spend longer there than you do in the book, that’s for sure. Too long for me, I’m not in it enough. That’s subjective.”
A role like this is a big commitment for any actor to take – three films and well over a year of filming in a country on the complete opposite side of the world to Freeman’s home base in the United Kingdom:
“It felt like taking something on. Just logistically, the time and the commitment and the time away from home. This is as far away from my house as you can get. Although on the one hand, it feels like a no-brainer, like, ‘Would you like to play Bilbo Baggins?’ ‘Yes, of course.’ Of course. The side of it that is a long time away from your home and the people you love is obviously something to be taken seriously and not sniffed at. But yeah, the opportunity was too good, it was too big and too once-in-a-lifetime, obviously, to turn down … I knew it would be enjoyable and hard, and it is both of those things. And in some things, enjoyable because it’s hard and vice versa.”
It’s also a far different experience to anything Freeman has worked on before, even other major Hollywood movies:
“It’s different in that I’ve never done anything of this scale before, so everything about this is kind of different to one’s experience before. Everything’s bigger, everything’s longer, everything lasts longer. Yeah, you’re looked after well, which is nice. It’s nice for any actor to be a bit cushioned, is nice. But I didn’t really know what to expect, I just knew that it would be fucking weird and unlike anything I had done before. The job itself doesn’t change. Your job is to make people believe you are the person you’re playing, whether you’re in a short film or a radio play or The Hobbit or whatever, essentially your job is the same. But yeah, in terms of the degrees of scale.”
Because of the sheer length and demands of the project, Freeman admits one has to take their time with it:
“It’s strange, you have to pace yourself. If you come out of the blocks at a hundred miles an hour, within four weeks you’ll be burned out, because if you have that kind of youthful impatience about it or that youthful vigor, which is obviously great, but you’ll be dead in a month. Because you have to do your time. You have to, in a way, just get your head down and do the work and not expect every day to bring riches and not expect every minute to bring wild excitement, ’cause it just doesn’t.
It doesn’t on films, anyway. We all know that people who’ve never been on a film set think it’s way more glamorous than the people who work on them. We know this to be a universal truth, and this is no exception. Especially if it’s something that goes on this long.. I hope they’re successful, of course we hope they’re successful, but just that the productions are so massive that you kind of have to know your place in it, in a way, that you’re a cog in this enormous wheel. And that takes some concentration.”
The character evolves over the course of the story, but as filming of the scenes is not chronological it requires keeping track of the changes:
“We’re always on the lookout for that… we certainly keep an eye on which point of the story Bilbo is at, and Bilbo, certainly by the second film, should be a different– Not a different person, but be showing different things about him than when he was in Bag End at the start of the film.
It’s very clear who and what he is at the beginning of the first film. He’s us, really. Those of us who are lucky enough never had to have killed anyone or been in a war and who like home and home comforts, that’s who he is. He’s the audience in that way. And he never stops, because what he’s going through is completely alien to him in a way that it would be to the audience.
But by the time he’s killed a few things and people and other species and been in near-death experiences a lot, yeah, he’s very different, I think, yeah. In that way that people who come back from combat are different. They are essentially still the same person, but they have– the old cliche of “they’ve seen things.” It is a cliche because it’s true, and that never leaves him, I don’t think. But yeah, he’s not going to come back as Jean-Claude Van Damme. Do you know what I mean?
There are little bits where Bilbo proves himself all the way throughout both films to be of worth and to be, if not heroic, then certainly very brave and for there to be more to him than meets the eye. Because at first he’s even smaller than the dwarves are, he’s not got any battle experience, he’s not hardened to anything. So they are obviously wondering why the hell he’s along for the ride. And they think he is along for the ride, and it takes time for Bilbo to prove that he is not a passenger.”
His fellow “Sherlock” co-star Benedict Cumberbatch wasn’t on-set during filming of the Smaug scenes. Cumberbatch provides the voice of the character in the final film, but did some of his voice work before they Freeman got around to filming the Smaug scenes:
He had recorded his stuff before I got there for this last block. And I had Leith, our dialect coach, reading in over the Voice of God, the sort of amplified mic. “Amplified mic?” What am I, my f–king grandfather? “Amplified mic.” S–t. Over the cat’s whisker of the radio and the valves of the gramophone player. So yeah, that was all done with her voice, very, very loud, and me reacting to it.
I’m familiar with Ben’s voice and Peter had played me his read as it stands there. I mean, it might change again on Smaug. So I had Ben’s voice in my head while I’m getting the dialogue from Leith. So at least we were able to do something live, so I can actually still change my delivery because Leith is up for changing what she’s doing, so she responds to what I’m doing. It was rather good, actually.
In terms of filming the scenes with a nonexistent dragon, it’s actually a bit more complicated than you might expect:
“Lots of tennis balls… and different cue lights changing for when Smaug is going to be– Because obviously he moves a lot quicker than anyone on two legs does, any human does, so even that eye line would be too slow. Sometimes he’s able to move like that. So it’s a lot of really rudimentary theater one-oh-one. And it’s all imagination there. This is a good experience for that because it’s a real mixture of disciplines, a real mixture of literal materialist stuff that you can see, feel, and touch and stuff that you absolutely, absolutely have to pretend, the way you did when you were four. And those two things can happen in the same scene or a lot of the time in the same day as you’re filming.”
Working with Peter Jackson was initially more of a challenge than he expected, but the pair soon figured out a good working relationship:
“He’s great. He’s cool. He’s good, he’s professional, he is kind of funny. He likes lightness, I suppose. He likes a lightness of touch on set. He’s serious about the work obviously, but he’s got a twinkle in the eye, and he likes a gag, he likes a joke. I think we all just look at him thinking, “How are you not having a nervous breakdown?” Just juggling everything he has to juggle is so– I don’t know, it’s extraordinary, really.
We got the measure of each other, I think, early on. I think it took– It wasn’t immediate. In terms of stuff he was giving me and in terms of things I was giving him, I think we had to sort of come closer to each other and sort of suss each other out a little bit.
From my point of view, I enjoy days when I have lots to do with him. Because there are some days where I don’t really have a lot to do with him, when I’m on set all day. The focus is something else, or the focus could be an effect, or the focus could just be on another character. But the days when the focus is quite Bilbo-centric, I like working with him. He’s very no-nonsense. He doesn’t really go into tracts of philosophical stuff. He’s the nearest “enter, louder, faster” sort of director, which sometimes is really helpful. Because sometimes you actually just want somebody to say that. And I think he trusts that you have all that other stuff going on with you anyway.”
Sadly, Freeman says he didn’t get to work with the older Bilbo, Ian Holm, and in fact didn’t get to meet him. He has gotten to know the dwarves quite well though, and has found that dynamic interesting:
“Genuinely, we’re all a group. It’s been lovely, really. And one of the things I’m really proud of is that no one’s chinned anyone. And though everyone out of that many men together and that much testosterone and that much potential ego flying around, it’s– Yeah, one of the things I’m really happy about is that we’ve not had a major falling out, we’ve not had a major set-to. Of course, there are days when you go, “Oh, f–k’s sake, you again.” But that’s for all– People will be thinking that about me, about everybody, but it’s just because we’re together all the time.
But there’s enough of us, I think, to protect from that. If there were four of us for this long, I think that would be really, really hard. But with, how many, fourteen including McKellen, there’s a lot of us in a big group, and so you can go there one day, and if that gets too much, you can go over there. It’s nice. And we all respect each other’s privacy a lot because, yeah, we’re all grownups. I would love to be glib and sarcastic about it, but no, we do get on remarkably well. Yeah, I’m really proud of that about us, actually.”
He’s also very prepared for people calling him ‘Bilbo’ on the street in the days to come.
“I’ve had things shouted at me in the street for the last ten years, in Britain anyway, which have been defining things for those times or for that time in my life, “Oh, God, I’m always going to be this,” or, “I’m always going to be that.” God, if I have a few years of being called Bilbo, then that’s fine by me. When you’re younger, you can see that kind of thing as a prison more, you can see it more as a trap, because it’s almost like a backhanded compliment. Because you think, “Yeah, you’re calling me that but you don’t know what else I do.’…
Well, actually, the older you get the more you think actually you should be so lucky that you do a role where people identify that with you anyway, because most actors don’t get one. Do you know what I mean? So I think the fact that I’ve had a few, and this is another one, I’m really, yeah, I’m very lucky with that, yeah.”