The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which is out today on DVD and Blu-ray, recently cracked $1 billion at the worldwide box office, only the 15th film ever to do so. It hadn’t quite gotten there when we spoke to its star, Martin Freeman, but the writing was on the wall. “When people start talking about a billion dollars and all, that’s very gratifying,” Freeman said, dressed in a smart purple jacket with matching vest. “You know, I’ve done plenty of films where people haven’t really seen them in great numbers, so it’s lovely when they have.”
With the amount of people of all ages who adore the source material, there didn’t seem to be too much danger of The Hobbit’s first onscreen chapter not being well-attended. However, Freeman didn’t concern himself too much with the legacy of the book. “My bible is the screenplay, really,” he said, “because that’s the one we’re doing. We’re not literally making the novel, or the appendices, or whatever else that [writers] Pete, Fran, and Phil [Jackson, Walsh, and Boyens, respectively] drew on. The thing that they give me is my starting point and finishing point.” While he’s fully aware of the appeal of the character of Bilbo Baggins, he’s been in the business long enough to know audience reaction is still a crap shoot. “I can’t satisfy everybody’s vision for what it’s going to be. We’re too busy working. So I hope 8-year-olds who love Bilbo will like what I’ve done with it, but that’s all you can do; you can just hope.”
The actor got his start doing guest roles on various British television shows before gaining notoriety for his role as Tim Canterbury in the now-classic sitcom The Office. From there he did plenty more sitcoms and began appearing in high profile films like Love Actually and Hot Fuzz, and got the coveted role of Arthur Dent in 2005’s long-awaited big screen adaptation of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. With much of his resume filled with comedy, it may seem strange that producer Peter Jackson always felt Martin Freeman would make the perfect (and indeed, his only) choice to play Bilbo Baggins, one of fantasy literature’s most enduring heroes. “Peter’s been at pains to say that I was the only one who could have played him. I don’t think I’m the only one who could have played him, but I’m one of them.” Indeed, there had been no other choice for the role, something for which the actor was not at all prepared. “When [Bilbo] came to me, I didn’t have to jump through hoops; there wasn’t a load of circuitous maneuvering where I thought I was gonna lose it. They made it very clear; First, Guillermo del Toro made it very clear, and then when the baton was passed to Peter, I was the only person they wanted, so… he really wanted me. Which, of course, is a huge vote of confidence and, again, really nice if you know the director really wants you.”
Getting the part wasn’t the hard part, but keeping the part almost was. “The only thing that almost got in the way was that I had to not do it because I was doing Sherlock in the UK.” In 2010, Freeman scored the role of John Watson in the BBC’s updated take on Sherlock, a role which has struck a major chord with audiences, opposite Benedict Cumberbatch, who also appears in The Hobbit films. Sherlock’s long shooting schedule, consisting of three feature-length episodes, nearly meant he wouldn’t get to be Bilbo. However, the film’s director quite literally moved a (Misty) Mountain in order to secure his lead. “Peter rearranged the entire shooting schedule so I could take four months off to do Sherlock and then come back to The Hobbit.” This will have to happen again this summer, when the shooting of Sherlock’s third season will coincide with the filming of what’s left to shoot in Middle-Earth. “We do it in June and July. It’s finite for me because my commitment to Sherlock kind of bookends my re-shoot, so we start Sherlock in March, then I go back to New Zealand for a finite time, and then I finish Sherlock.” It’s possible Martin Freeman has more frequent flyer miles than George Clooney’s character in Up in the Air.
He may not know what his final scene to film will be, but he vividly remembers his first: the iconic confrontation with Gollum that represents the turning point in Bilbo’s journey and the first movie. Despite having been in New Zealand for two months for what he called “Dwarf Bootcamp,” Freeman still felt like the new kid at school when it came time to shoot. “By that time I knew Andy reasonably well and I knew Pete reasonably well, but up to that point you haven’t actually done your work in front of Pete. So, it was a process of, between the two of us, finding out who this Bilbo was going to be,” he said, adding it wasn’t difficult to do with such a reactive scene. “I didn’t find out who Bilbo was in a kind of nice pace at Bag End, I found him in extremis. That’s my first go at Bilbo is him thinking he’s gonna die, which is hard in one way, but in another way, it’s great, because Andy is as good as Andy is.” As far as the technical aspects of shooting the scene, once again the actor rolled with the new experience. “I’d never really worked with performance-capture before, but it didn’t make any difference at all, because once you get over the fact that he’s on a track suit with light bulbs on it, and a light and a camera in his face, all I was seeing was Andy as Gollum. The technology wasn’t intrusive; it was just two people in a scene. It was like a play.”
For someone who was typically a comedic television actor to now be playing, in Bilbo and Watson, two massively famous and loved literary characters, and heroes at that, isn’t something that much crosses Freeman’s mind. “It doesn’t honestly occur to me until someone brings it up. None of us wake up in the morning and sort of list our achievements off like some self-help group, so it’s just the good fortune of the parts that are coming my way.” However, as a father, he appreciates the coolness points that playing heroes can offer. The big moment for his children came in the form of a very tiny piece of merchandise: “When we were all given our LEGO figures on the last day [of filming], I knew that was gonna be, in my children’s eyes, when I arrived. That’s when my job is worthwhile. I was quite excited for me that I was LEGO, but I knew for my son it would be something tangible.”
Like Bilbo himself, Martin Freeman is a man on an unexpected journey, hitting pay dirt with two huge franchises with their own sets of rabid fans. He comes at it not like someone who thinks they deserve what they’re getting, but as someone who has worked incredibly hard for many years and this just happens to be the stage he’s at now. “The last two things I’ve done have been really fucking big hits; Now, that’s clearly not the story of an actor’s entire output. I wish it were. But it’s just fortunate that those two things have hit hard with pop culture.” He’s managed to become an everyman hero of the highest order, but like any actor, he revels in diversity. When asked what he thought of his continued onscreen heroism, he simply said, “Well, not forever. I hope not forever.” For the sake of fans everywhere, let’s hope it lasts a bit longer.