The Hobbit's Martin Freeman On Why Iconic Characters Don't Intimidate Him

Martin Freeman is not a stranger to playing iconic characters. In 2005 he starred as the great Arthur Dent in director Garth Jennings’ adaptation of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, and recently he’s been teaming up with Benedict Cumberbatch as the legendary Dr. John Watson in the Mark Gatiss-Steven Moffat television series Sherlock. He’s been a major figure in the science-fiction genre and in mysteries, but this December he’s making his way into the history books for fantasy as well, starring as Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit.

Earlier this year I was part of a small group of journalists who had the chance to fly down to New Zealand and visit the set of the highly anticipated blockbuster, and during our time there the titular star was kind enough to take time out of his schedule and talk with us about his new character. Check out our interview below in which Freeman talks about not being affected by the pop culture impact of the character, building a major character arc over the span of a huge production, and acting with people who aren’t actually there.

The hair looks a lot more rock star in person.

I know, it's normally a little bit more producted. This is a bit more wavy than normal. If they put product in it, it will just all run in my eyes. So they've left it Daryl Hall style.

One thing I am curious about, just in terms of keeping fidelity with the original Lord of The Rings trilogy and talking about the book itself-- In the book, whenever Bilbo tries on the Ring, it doesn't really have any negative effect on him. But I'm curious if that's something that's going to change with the film. Is the Ring going to have an effect on Bilbo?

I think it definitely has an effect on him. Maybe I shouldn't say how much of it is negative of positive, but it's clear that it has a pull on him, that, I guess would be recognizable from The Lord of The Rings.But it takes a different turn, I guess. I suppose, 'cause The Hobbit anyway, is slightly lighter and it's more of a family affair, so it's not quite as dark. But it doesn't mean the stakes aren't there. It definitely still has to matter that he is in possession of this thing. And I think a lot of the time, even he doesn't realize why he wants to hold onto it so much, but there is an unspoken hold that it has on him, an unconscious hold.

Do you, going into this, look at Ian Holm’s performance and base your own performance off that at all?

I'd say not really. I knew it, and I've watched the films again, obviously, in more detail before I came to this. I looked at Ian's more when I needed to-- Again, I don't really know how much I should say, but there were points where it was relevant for me to look very closely at Ian's performance. But generally, no. Because I think we're quite a good-- I know why I'm cast, do you know what I mean? 'Cause I think we're not that dissimilar, physically, or whatever else. I think if I was, I don't know, Jeff Goldblum or someone, then I might be thinking, "Right, hang on, if he's the older me, I'd better attend more to something else maybe. Well, grow, for a start. But no, 'cause I think I was always trusted with it. 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've to trust that." And there's only so much you can run with someone else's thing. It's very helpful, in the way that it's brilliant as he is always brilliant, and it's a beautiful establisher of that character, and a very loved one, for obvious reasons. But it can also hamper you if you're thinking, like in the barrels, if there's even part of me thinking, "How would Ian have done this?", then I'm fucked. So I've got to let that go. I've always been mindful of it, 'cause I'm familiar with it. But I think the work for that connection was done in the casting of me, rather than what I'm then going to do on top of it.

Can you talk a little bit about being on set the first day, and what it meant to you, the experience of being there and working with everyone?

Well, the first week or two even, maybe, was the Gollum's cave scene for me. That was the first day on set, so I was working with Andy [Serkis] 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. So you feel safe, and you feel like it's an interesting way of-- In a way, I preferred a scene that was more like a ten-minute theater scene than if it had been this scene, or just a running scene, or exploding cars-- There isn't that in the film, though. We haven't gone that far-- Then it would have been not in itself fascinating to play every minute of. But a ten-twelve minute, maybe, in a little chamber theatrical piece is really interesting to play. So the first days on set for me were about finding out everything-- You find out so much in those first few days. You just come along, in a way, and be open and ready and receptive. And bring whatever you've got to bring, but don't bring too much because it's not a done deal yet. And it grew as the weeks and months went on, really. I was doing ADR the other day on that scene, and because it was the first thing I shot, I really was thinking-- And I don't normally think this, not because I'm too conceited about my work, but I don't normally think, "I wish I had a chance to do that again." But jobs aren't normally this long, so this is a job where you can really look back and go, "If I had a chance to do that again, I would really do something different." But I can't, and it's all right. You're looking at Gollum anyway, so it's okay.

Just bridging off that idea, the greatest character evolution in The Hobbit is Bilbo learning how to become a hero. And over the amount of time that this movie has been in production, is that a challenge to hold on to, that full arc?

Yeah, it can be. In the doing of it, it's ultimately my responsibility, but then obviously the greater responsibility, of course, is Peter's, because he has his eye on the ball-- Well, on various different balls all the time. And also, he's got a picture in his head of how it's going to be edited, and what it's going to look like. And I could be doing a scene where I think it's scene ninety-four, it might end up being scene two-hundred and thirteen. So with the best will in the world, you have to commit, but also be open. That's the hard thing. Because if you think, "I'm going to do this scene, this scene means this, it's all these characters, and it's this moment...", it might not even be there, clearly, 'cause that's the nature of film-making, or it might be somewhere else. And he's pretty open about that. There's an acknowledgement that the edit will be rather important, shall we say. So it's for me to hold onto that, of course, but I'm not in ultimate charge of it, but I can only do what the actor's job is, which is to hold onto that stuff and be diligent about when it is scene 93, where was I in scene 92. Page one, one-oh-one stuff, but over the course of sixteen years filming, it will be, that's harder to maintain than two months.

Would it be fair to say that between taking on Bilbo, and Hitchhiker's Guide, and Sherlock, you're not really daunted by these big, iconic legacy pieces? A lot of actors would be scared to take on any one of those, but you've been three, pretty big...

Yes, I guess. The honest truth is, no, I'm not. And again, that's not because I think I'm great, it's just because I think it would just you know the answer to it, it wouldn't be helpful. And that's not to say that-- 'Cause clearly we don't normally, we're not really moved by our heads, we're moved by this. So even if I was intellectually saying, "This wouldn't do me any good", I could still be really scared. But no, I'm not. And I think it's this simple thing about, I came to this job, this profession, out of joy and out of play, and I know no-one's going to die, however shit I am, do you know what I mean? It's okay. I'd rather not be shit, 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. I'm daunted by so many other things in life, work is not one of them. I'm daunted about almost everything else, is a constant cause of fucking concern to me. But work is just not one of them at all, yeah. I don't worry about work. And 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. Of course there are times when I get insecure about it. Every actor is riddled with insecurity, of course. But weirdly, I don't really find that I'd be daunted with taking on roles or anything. And I think it's partly because I wasn't steeped in Hitchhiker's, or Sherlock, or Conan Doyle, or Tolkien. I think if I was-- If you'd say, "You're joining The Beatles now", then I'd be like, "Jesus!" But it's not my Beatles.

Knowing that you were such a fan favorite for the role of Bilbo for such a long time, do you feel any sort of extra pressure? Knowing that, basically there was a fan campaign in place to get you.

There was, but 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 going on on the internet, and actually been given a bum steer. And I think he's learned from that. We can all look on the internet and go, "He hates me! Oh, but she loves me. Oh, but he hates me...", you know. And 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.

It was such a long shoot every year, and you did some of this, went to Sherlock, and then came back? Was it a challenge getting back into the character?

Kind of. But again, it's part of the reason that I think that we're all actors. Those of us who are actors, or just self-employed, or doing what you do, you don't know what you'll be doing for the next however many months or years of your life. Literally, you'll be doing this and then you'll be doing that, but all within something that you love, and in a world you love. So it's a challenge, but it's just a joy.

Talk a little bit about the advance in technology, you guys are doing it in 48 frames a second, you're shooting in 3D. Can you talk about your take on the 48 frames a second, and also on the 3D?

I have no opinion on 48 frames a second at all. I'd be completely unsuitable to talk about that. I was on record before I did The Hobbit, saying I don't care at all about 3D. And I suppose I should now say I care a lot about 3D. I've always loved 3D, I think everything should be 3D, and I think it's just a shame The Godfather wasn't in 3D. I think as long as it's-- And again, here is where one has to trust Peter's taste as a film-maker. If it's used as a gimmick, or if it's used as-- Again, that line from Jurassic Park, that Jeff-- It sounds like I'm obsessed with Jeff Goldblum, I'm not. Where his character says, "We got so carried away, we're doing something just because we could, we never thought about whether we should." And that, for me, sums up my entire opinion on life, and technology, and so called advances of things. I have no problem with it at all, having seen a few films in 3D and having seen a bit of myself in 3D-- Yeah, it's fine, but it's not the story. And that's my genuine take on it, which will-- I think I may now be fired. But no, I'm not particularly committal or non-committal to 3D, because again, I did never watch The Godfather and go, "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. But as soon as it becomes about-- If the medium is the message, then no. But I trust Peter. He's a pretty well-versed film-maker, and he's got a pretty good taste. So I hope it will just be something that is a great thing. "It's this, and it's also 3D, brilliant"; rather than, "Hmm, Christ. Yeah, but it was in 3D." I'm trusting and hoping, and there's about two-thousand people working to make sure that it's story first. And no one knows this world better than he does. And I wouldn't trust anyone else as much as him, to make this world happen, to make the world of Middle Earth happen. And that's very helpful for me, 'cause if ever I'm in choppy waters, thinking, "What do I do here?", then he's a pretty good sounding board for that.

Bridging off, can you talk about filming scenes with characters that are standing on completely different stages? How the experience has been?

It's gone from horrendous to okay, yeah. I think most of us thought-- 'Cause also in the early-- I was going to say in the early years of this shoot. "In the first couple of decades of this shoot", because of the Red cameras and the 48 frames and the 3D and all that-- They're not all Red, are they? They are Red? They would break down quite a lot. It would seem to be like once every hour, and that was genuinely difficult. Because me and Andy would be Gollum-ing away, and then it would be like, "Sorry, there's a problem with the camera", and we'd go, "Fuck!" And that was happening in the early parts of the shooting. And we used the slave shots early on. And 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-- Again, 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? And 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 fucking big wizards, you've got to pretend. And that's fair enough, we're all pretending.

But yeah, I think we found it pretty difficult. But 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. And 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. And I've seen that scene cut together, not even finished, you can't see the join. You just can't see the join. I feel like someone now is looking at the King Kong of 1933 going, "You can't tell it's plasticine!" Whereas now you go, "We can." But I can't see how this will get much better. It's like with all technological advances, you think, "Where else can we go?" It looks so seamless. And actually, it ended up being quite enjoyable. Now when we've got slave shots to do, it doesn't seem like a huge thing, 'cause we're quite well drilled in it, you know what to expect. It's not going to be instant. Everything on this job is slow, by its nature. But I don't harbor any kind of, "Oh, God..." It's like, okay, it's just a different challenge, and not an unenjoyable one now, whereas I think at first we were all quite daunted by it. I just thought, "Are these people mad? This will never work!" And then I saw a cut and thought, "Yeah, it really does work." It works amazingly well, yeah.

Can you talk about playing off all the other actors? Somebody earlier mentioned it was sort of like a theater company of fifteen-sixteen main characters. And so there's you and Gandalf and the thirteen Dwarves. Just talk about developing a chemistry and playing off each other, especially when you're not always in the same room together.

Well, firstly, I think what's remarkable about us as a group, and I would pay tribute to the group on this, is that there hasn't been any fallings out, there hasn't been any fist fights, and there hasn't even been really, really strong words. And 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. But 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 was four of us. If there was four of you, there's nowhere to hide. You just have to get on with the other three people. But because there's 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. And like anything else, like any other working relationship, it's about finding your place within it, finding when it's your turn, finding out when it's not your turn. And I'm amazed how well it's happened, I really am. It's one of the things I'm proudest of, actually. And I think it's one of the things we'll all be proudest of in ten years, is that we all maintained quite a good working relationship, and pretty friendly, really. 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 shit. But we're all feeling each other out. Not literally, that would be wrong. But as a group, finding out just where we all slot in. And 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. And 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.

Shooting that way would come in handy, though, in case you can't get along together.

Yeah, what, you mean different rooms? Yeah, that's true. And it's usually Ian [McKellan]. We all do hate Ian. So yeah, it's fortunate that it's Ian on his own, 'cause we have bullied him a bit. We've ostracized him.

As you're shooting out of order, and so much of the whole purpose of the film is Bilbo's journey, is it difficult for you to know where you are in your personal development and your relationship to the other characters?

It can be. I think in a way, no more so than it normally is, because normally one shoots out of order, but in another way, more difficult, just because of the time. Because you might be doing scene fifty-five, that's fine, but you might have done scene fifty-four last February. Of course, you can look back on the script, but it's not the same as having a visceral recollection of where you were. So yeah, it can be. Without being glib about it, it's where it comes back to your homework and your training, frankly, and just being used to it and used to that being your job. But yeah, I sometimes fail in my job, so it's not foolproof. But yeah, you're so well-versed in-- Because it's not only going to be me up there. For all of us, we just don't want to be shit. We don't want there to be any reason for us to go, "I could have worked harder on that", or "I could have attended to that detail a little bit more." Because more than twelve people will come and see this, do you know what I mean? And they all certainly have an opinion of it. So I think we all have to work very hard on that. And yeah, you're right, sometimes it is harder than on normal jobs, because, you know, you do a British independent film, it's done in six weeks. 'Cause everyone's saying we're on the home straight now, but normally, I'd be doing two films in between now and the end of this.

Some actors prefer the two-take method of Clint Eastwood, some prefer the fifty-take method of David Fincher. Where do you fall on that line, and what are you typically doing on The Hobbit?

I go Clint-Fincher. I think somewhere in between. I think two takes must be brilliant if everyone feels you've got it. He doesn't do massive takes for acting purposes. A lot of the time, the takes will be for technical reasons, which can be frustrating as well if you think you've got it, but then like in the early days when the camera didn't get it, or the sound or whatever. That can be frustrating. But he doesn't really cane it, he doesn't flog a dead horse, unless it's a wider reason, a technical reason usually. I like to do it till it's done. I don't know. Six? Six? Picking a number.

Have you asked if you can keep Sting?

No, I haven't, actually. I've got my eye on a dressing gown that Bilbo wears. But no, not Sting.

What about the wig?

Fuck no.

The feet? The ears?

The ears? No. No, I'm happy without them.

Hobbit feet?

No. When you've worn something for so long, you think, "Yeah, that's cool." I don't-- Yeah, they can have that.

Eric Eisenberg
Assistant Managing Editor

NJ native who calls LA home and lives in a Dreamatorium. A decade-plus CinemaBlend veteran who is endlessly enthusiastic about the career he’s dreamt of since seventh grade.