Interview with the Hobbit himself

ROLE OF A LIFETIME: Martin Freeman as The Hobbit.
ROLE OF A LIFETIME: Martin Freeman as The Hobbit.

When I meet British actor Martin Freeman, it's in a makeshift cafeteria next to a giant temporary sound stage Sir Peter Jackson is using in Upper Hutt that was once a car assembly plant.

Freeman has a rare day off from filming -  as he speaks Jackson is right next door shooting a scene with the 13 dwarfs whom Bilbo joins on their quest. But rather than not think about The Hobbit he's more than happy to talk to talk to reporters for an hour, well beyond the time that was expected of him.

As the hobbit in The Hobbit, Freeman is the one that will carry the story along through three films over the next three years - like Elijah Wood as Frodo in The Lord of the Rings.

The last time I saw Freeman in the flesh he was when he joined the 13 dwarfs, sans costumes, makeup and prosthetics, before filming began. Only this time there's something now of a Bilbo aura about him that wasn't there before. Freeman likes fashion and has garnered the nickname ''the mobbit'' on the set for his love of British Mod culture. So even though he's in his own clothes, they seem cut in a way not unlike Bilbo, right down to a waist coat.

''It's good, it's always nice to have a day off. But I can't complain, because on this block [of filming], I've had quite a lot of days off. It's been quite nice, actually. Unexpected, but still relatively rare. Yeah, days off are always good. However much you're enjoying the job, and I am enjoying this job, it's always nice to be out and go and have some Japanese food.''

Fellow Brit Ian Holm played Bilbo in Jackson's The Lord of the Rings and briefly reprises the role in The Hobbit. Freeman says he didn't talk to Holm prior to getting the part.

''I've never met Ian, and I would dearly love to. But that was never set up, and I wasn't really gonna push for it, just because I understood that I had his blessing, and I had to follow my own way with it, really. Well, like everything he does, he's a brilliant actor, and obviously, he established Bilbo as a character on-screen, in these films, anyway. And I love what he does, so I'm mindful of it, without being slavish to it. As I've said before, I think the main connection between myself and Ian has been in the actual casting of it, as opposed to whatever I choose to do with it. 'Cause, frankly, I think I've been cast well. I think I'm a good match for him, and yeah, I think the work is done there, really. So I'm mindful of it, but I can't think of him every time I'm going into every situation, because that would be hampering for me. I hope he likes it, but more than that, I hope I like it.''

Prior to The Hobbit Freeman was best known for roles in comedy series The Office and in Sherlock Dr Watson in the modern day update of Sherlock Holmes. Freeman's characters in those shows have an air of uncertainty about them and it's pointed out that so does Bilbo. ''I like uncertainty in roles, and I like uncertainty in art, really,'' Freeman replies. ''And in theatrical terms, I'm not a massive fan of certainty. Without sounding overly pompous about it, I don't really trust certainty in anything, actually. Especially as I get older. Except love, I'm certain of love, I guess. But beliefs, characteristics, all that, I think everything is uncertain. And so I like playing people who reflect that, 'cause I think it's honest. I don't really believe it if it's certain, you know what I mean? I just don't buy it.''

Is that what Peter Jackson saw in you?

''I think he saw a funny-looking face. Quite a small, round face, and someone who would fit the ears. Honestly, I genuinely don't know. I'm not being cute with that answer, I don't know what he saw. Hopefully, I think he thinks I'm quite good, and so could do it, I hope.''

In fact, says Freeman, he hasn't discussed with Jackson precisely why the film-maker cast him. ''I think, sometimes you gotta be careful what you wish for. Of course we all want to be told we're brilliant for various ways, however we hope we're brilliant. And then, if someone thinks we're brilliant for a reason we find unflattering, then we'd rather not hear it. 'Cause of course there's a difference, like with any actor, between the parts that I play, and... For a start, no one's seen everything I've done, apart from me. And I've played a lot of parts over 17 years. There's a difference between the parts that I play, and who I am, and who people think I am. There's quite a big discrepancy sometimes, between those things.

''There's a feeling that I'm gonna be everyone's best mate, and you know, that's not true.''

Freeman has been able to have some input into Bilbo's character. ''I have a fair amount of input. I'm very clear about who is the boss: me.

''I'm very clear that Peter's in charge, and he knows this world better than I do, or better than anyone else does, who's likely to make it in to a film.[But] God, it would have been horrendous to take on a job of this magnitude for this long, to be this far away from my family, to just be told what to do. That'd be awful. So, yeah, I always make sure I cut out enough elbow room for me to get involved, but I completely respect him.

''Everything has to please him [Jackson], but it also has to please me. I guess he's in charge of that, but I'm a close second in terms of my own judgement, and my work, and my own choices for Bilbo. But yeah, there were early moments in the filming where we had to negotiate where I thought Bilbo was and where Peter thought he was. And where Peter thought he was was kind of a surprise to me. I was like, 'Okay. That wasn't quite where I was looking at.'''

While some of The Hobbit cast had read JRR Tolkien's novel and The Lord of the Rings before becoming involved in the project, Freeman is one of a small number who came to it with fresh eyes. ''It was as a result of getting this. I hadn't grown up with The Hobbit, I hadn't grown up with Lord of The Rings, anything like that. So yeah, first time I read Tolkien was when I was cast as Bilbo.''

Coming to Wellington also meant juggling his filming commitments for Sherlock. Fortunately his filming schedule for The Hobbit was arranged in a way that he could return to Britain to resume working on the series. Freeman says this was a relief because at first he had to turn down being in The Hobbit because it conflicted with his commitments to Sherlock. This was exacerbated by the on-again, off-again history of The Hobbit production.''I felt very upset. I felt sad and really frustrated because ships like this don't call for you very often in your life. And opportunities like this don't call for you very often, and I was ready for it. I was ready, frankly, to make the sacrifice of being away from home and family for this long, which is a sacrifice. But I was ready for it and I was up for it, and I didn't want to miss that boat. So when I had to turn it down, it was awful.

''So when it came back, it was unbelievable. I was rehearsing a play and then I got a call from my agent saying it's come back, and I was pleased to say the least.''

He still remembers when he was first in his Bilbo costume, complete with prosthetics that turned him into a pointy eared, curly-haired, big hairy-footed hobbit. ''Just the oddness of it, I think,'' he says. ''But I suppose by the first time I'd seen myself in the monitor, I was used to it. I'd had so many fittings, and I'd had so many pictures taken, and so many versions of the costume, and versions of the wig. But yeah, it felt kind of odd. I look fairly different as Bilbo, but what's weird now, is it just doesn't feel strange at all. And I genuinely forget - we all forget what we look like.

''When I first saw the dwarfs, I couldn't believe it. I didn't recognise anyone when they were in full prosthetic, until they had opened their mouths. I was like, ''God, that's [Wellington actor] Jed [Brophy]," or 'that's Jimmy Nesbitt', you know. But now we don't think about it at all.

''[We] were going from Stone Street [Studio's in Wellington's Miramar] up to the set at Mt Crawford, [to] the set of Dale, in a car. [I was] just kind of wondering why people were doing that to me. And I was like, 'Yeah, I'm dressed as Bilbo Baggins'.

''So we're driving around as dwarfs or Bilbo. And yeah, this would really be a weird thing to see in Miramar's high street, or whatever.

Kind of odd.

'''Why's that bloke dressed like that? Oh, it's Martin Freeman.'''


The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has its world premiere in Wellington on November 28 and opens on December 12.

More of Tom Cardy's interviews with cast and crew on the set of The Hobbit will appear in the coming weeks.

The Dominion Post