Martin Freeman on The Hobbit, acting and more

We chat to Bilbo Baggins himself, Martin Freeman, about starring in The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug...

It’s not often you hear a Hobbit swear. But when Martin Freeman, dressed in a lively electric blue suit with a knitted, stripy necktie, came bounding into the interview room earlier this week, that’s more-or-less what happened. Because while the title character of The Hobbit is quiet and initially timid in the face of danger, Freeman’s funny and gregarious, with his anecdotes, self-effacing humour and language just as colourful as his suit.

The Desolation Of Smaug, out now in the UK, gives Freeman’s Bilbo a greater range of light and shade, with the story giving him plenty of opportunities to show off his talent for physical humour, as well as a chance to explore the darker corners of his character, too.

So with this at the front of our minds, here’s our roundtable interview, which, as you’ve probably gathered by now, contains one or two naughty words.

Jon Plowman [the OBE-winning BBC producer who produced The Office, among many other things] said that you have the ability to play absolutely anyone. Do you agree with that?

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Jon Plowman said that? Well, he never fucking told me. [Laughs] That’s nice. I don’t know. You’d honestly have to ask him about that. I’m pleased that he thinks that. I wish more people felt like that. But I don’t know… I honestly just try to be good, but there are lots of people who do that. He might be in the minority there, but I’m glad he thought that.

After The Office, you were so loved by audiences, you were still seen as that character. Is that also the case with The Hobbit, where you’re in danger of being known as Bilbo?

I think a few years ago, post The Office, it bothered me more than it does now. I went through the inevitable thing, which I think most people go through, which is, “Oh, come on, don’t just see me as that. I’ve a right to do other things, and if you use your fucking brain, you’d know that my playing of that character is nothing like playing Tim.” You’re putting two and two together and getting five as far as I’m concerned.

But yeah, in 20 years, if people are shouting “Bilbo!” at me in the street, well, I should be so lucky. There are only a limited amount of things you’ll do in your working life that will resonate with people, and I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve done a few already. And I’m still a very young, 25-year-old man. [Laughs]

So I’m lucky with that. And I know people will say, “Oy Bilbo”. I know they will. And a few years ago, that would have bothered me, in relation to Tim, but it doesn’t bother me now at all. I think, you’re lucky if that resonates. Because – please God – I’ll never stop doing the work I want to do. I don’t see myself as what other people see me as – I know it’s not me. So whatever you want to shout at me on the street as fine so long as it’s nice, and I’ll just carry on ploughing my little furrow, you know? 

Bilbo’s character’s a bit more comical in the film than the book. Did you come up with that more comic take on the character, or were you directed to play it that way?

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[Conspiratorially] It’s all my idea. [Laughs] It’s a combination, like every job. A combination of the writing and you and the director, I’d say.

Could you give us examples of moments that were yours?

Fucking loads, to be honest. I mean, loads. Everything I do, if I chose to be mental, I could point to loads of things that happen in the moment, from The Office to this. Depending on the team behind you, they’ll either be gracious in acknowledging that or not. But there are things that could only be me, and anyone who knows me knows it could only be my work. But that’s not to say I’ve improvised Bilbo or that it’s all mine, because it’s teamwork. But ultimately it has to come from you.

The job I do is take what is hopefully a good script and make it even better. And that’s my job on everything I do. That’s everyone’s job – it’s the art department’s job and Peter’s job. If the script isn’t good, then you’re fucked. You’ve got not chance. But if the script is good, and you can make it even better, then you’ve really got something.

Is it true Peter Jackson waited for you for two months?

Yes. He arranged the whole schedule around me, which was very flattering. And surprising. I thought it was gone, a ship that had sailed, but then I got a call from my agent saying it was back on. Pete’s rearranged it all for you, which is something people don’t do. 

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In this second film, you get to be a bit darker with the ring starting to have an effect on you. There’s a bit of fighting as well. Did you enjoy that new dimension to the character?

Very much, yeah. I was in more of a hurry to get there than Pete wanted me to be. I remember saying a few times to Pete, “Come on, when does he stop looking around and being bemused by everything?” [Laughs] When do I get a bit more layered, I suppose. And he would always have the hand on the tiller, going, “No, not yet”, steering me through the waters of Bilbo’s journey, going, “It will come”.

Because he knew I was looking forward to playing all that stuff, because I like playing a variety of things. I think that ingenue Bilbo is fun, and it’s got some mileage comically and all that, and a bit emotionally as well – you feel for him and you empathise with him, hopefully – but I don’t want to do that for two years, you know?

And I don’t think it’s justified, because when faced with death or murder and mayhem, people don’t just go, [dreamily] “Ooh”. It changes you in some way. So I wanted to play those changes, definitely. And they were always going to be there, I was always in a hurry to play them before Pete wanted me to.

Was the film shot chronologically?

No. Actually, no. It would have been a lot easier if we had. But on week five, say, we might have been shooting a scene that is way, way down in the story, and I’d say, “Has he got there yet,” and Pete would say, “No, not yet.” It was not sequential. Largely.

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I’ve heard Pete say that we shot this more or less in sequence. That’s not my memory of it at all. Not at all. But it’s keeping an eye on when it’s time to play up that colour, or play down that aspect of a character. So between you, between me, Pete and the writers, we always have our eye on that. It’s page one of acting: where have you been, where are you going, what do you want.

But it’s harder to maintain over two years. Over two months, it’s doable, but you have to be careful that you’re not just generalising over the course of two years. You want to be specific, and detailed about it. 

 What’s it like to be on one project for such a long time?

It’s very weird, because you aren’t used to it. I’ve never done anything for that long. So it’s a war of attrition. You have to keep your head down, do your time. That makes it sound like prison, but it’s a very enjoyable prison – an open prison! You just have to not come out of the traps at 100 miles per hour on day one, because you have a long way to go. Don’t think you’re going to show everything in the first week – you’re going to barely scratch the surface after a month, you know.

As you can imagine, this is a big film, and the set-up times are huge. You can feel some days feeling like you haven’t done anything. I mean, you have, but you don’t feel expressed, and you don’t go home thinking, “Ah, I did really good work today.” It was a rare feeling where you thought, “Fuck, I really did something today.”

It’s so incremental and so slow.

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What qualities do you need to play a good Hobbit?

Uh, vulnerability. Humour, I think. A sense of the ridiculous, I guess. He has a certain pomposity about him, certainly in the first film, that gets pricked all the time, you know, in a pretty standard, traditional comic way, I guess. Seeing someone who’s okay in this world, then you put them in that world, and they look ridiculous. Anxiety.

Nothing particularly macho or egotistical, I guess. That wouldn’t make a particularly good Hobbit. Humour and vulnerability, mainly, I think.

Maintaining that nervous energy that your character has between scenes – for example, there’s a scene where you’re stamping on the floor before you unleash the barrels – how do you keep that level up if there’s so long between takes?

I think it’s my genius, really [Laughs] It’s my undoubted genius. Plowman was right! Once you’re doing something for a couple of weeks, you’re in it. It’s like anything. For the first few times you do it, you might… I didn’t stay in character as Bilbo, you know what Imean, but if you’re doing an accent, it’s a good idea to keep that going just as a muscle memory kind of thing.

Or if you’re doing a particular physical thing, it’s good to keep that going. But after a while, for example that scene, I’d been doing it for a long time, and it becomes second nature. You hear “Action”, and you are Bilbo. It’s just a muscle memory over time.

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Martin Freeman, thank you very much.

The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug is out now in the UK. Our review is here.

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