Martin Freeman interview

The actor speaks to Time Out ahead of his new film, 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey'

Martin Freeman’s about to be known the world over as the hairy-footed Bilbo Baggins. Tom Huddleston meets Sherlock’s sidekick and reluctant star of ‘The Hobbit’. Just don’t call him nice.

© 2012 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Martin Freeman is annoyed. You wouldn’t know it from his film and TV roles, which range from Tim in ‘The Office’ to Watson in ‘Sherlock’ and now Bilbo Baggins in ‘The Hobbit’, the first of three films of JRR Tolkien’s 1937 novel to be directed by Peter Jackson.

Neither would you know it from Freeman’s face, which looks, at the very most, mildly peeved with an edge of disgruntlement. But his words leave little room for doubt. ‘I’m not particularly affable in real life, I have to tell you,’ he says, a steely edge creeping into his voice. ‘I have played nasty people.’

We’ve met to talk about ‘The Hobbit’, the biggest movie release of 2012 and the film that’ll inevitably make Freeman a household name worldwide. But although he’s hugely enthusiastic about the film and the folks who made it , and proud of his own work on it to boot, he’s not really ready to embrace life in the public eye. Nor is he willing to live up to his accidental ‘nicest-guy-in-showbiz’ reputation. In fact, he’s not entirely sure any of this is a good idea at all.

Obviously this is the biggest project you’ve ever been involved in.

‘I’ll never do a bigger film. There aren’t bigger films! This is the biggest film.’

Your life is probably going to change wildly. How do you feel about that?

‘I don’t know. It’s a hard question because it either implies that I’ll be disappointed if it doesn’t, or “poor-me” if it does. I get to do a great gig and play Bilbo, but the price of that is another part of my privacy is gone. Which is a huge issue, a real downside. I like being private. People ask, “So why are you an actor, then?” That’s a fair question, but it shows that they don’t really understand the situation. I work in public. That’s for you. But you can’t have my private life as well.’

Were you familiar with ‘The Hobbit’?

‘Not really. I knew the concept, I knew the 'Lord of the Rings' films, but I’d never read it. So I read it in the run-up, when I started talking to Guillermo del Toro, who was on board first as director [Peter Jackson later took over]. I haven’t read it to my kids yet but I’m sure I will. I know a lot of people who had it read to them, or for whom it was their first book.’

The first scene you shot was the ‘Riddles in the Dark’ chapter with Gollum – just him and Bilbo trading riddles in a cave. Was that a good way to ease into the scale of the production?

‘It was. And I wasn’t having to imagine Gollum, he was there! Albeit with a slightly different face. Andy Serkis is better-looking, but the voice and the physicality is all there. But I felt very welcome. I didn’t feel like the new boy because there were so many of us, actors and crew. A lot of them were also on “Lord of the Rings”, but others weren’t, so there was a good mixture of old and fresh blood.’

Did anyone in the cast or crew lord it over you: ‘Your gang don’t do it like the old gang’?

‘Not even vaguely. I think that even if anyone was silly enough to think that, they would never be silly enough to say it. We all bonded well together. I mean, Ian McKellen couldn’t fucking lord it over you if he tried! He’s a true team player, and all the more wonderful for it.’

In the behind-the-scenes footage from the ‘Lord of the Rings’ films, there’s a real sense of camaraderie and an adventure that everyone is going on together. Did you get that same feeling when you were filming ‘The Hobbit’ down in New Zealand?

‘I’ve seen those DVD documentaries but I didn’t watch them thinking: This is how I should behave. Because of course, that itself can be a kind of pressure, thinking you have to enjoy it as much as they did.

We were a very different group than the original Fellowship. We didn’t get tattoos or anything, but we did go for a lot of great Japanese meals. We’re at different stages of life: we weren’t The Monkees. But we were pretty tight. No one punched anyone, which, when I consider it, all that testosterone over 18 months and a lot of swords in hands, makes me very proud.’

Did your scenes overlap with your ‘Sherlock’ co-star Benedict Cumberbatch? He’s the voice of the dragon, Smaug.

‘We saw each other on his last day, and my first day back after Christmas. So, alas, we didn’t really overlap in a work sense. But it was funny that we were put forward for it at the same time, pretty much the same week, while we were doing the first series of “Sherlock”. He’d always loved “The Hobbit” as a kid, so he really wanted to be involved.’

Have you seen scripts for the next series of ‘Sherlock’?

‘I haven’t seen scripts, but I have spoken to Mark [Gatiss, the writer] about it. For instance, I know roughly what happened at the end of the last episode and how he survived, but I don’t know fully how it happened and I don’t know details of the first episode.’

Have any theorists got it right?

‘I’ve read things which were pretty close.’

Elijah Wood – Frodo in the LOTR films – has just played a serial killer in ‘Maniac’. Would you ever want a role like that?

‘Well, before “The Office”, I mainly got cast as little toerags. But then I became lovable Tim and quite a long shadow was cast. I’m happy with it, but you can only do what people will allow you to do. I’m not able to just go and make my Ripper film. I know I have other aspects to me, but the more I say it, the more it sounds like I’m protesting too much.

I could say I want to play a French-African humpback, but I probably won’t get that role. I did a play once where a reviewer said, “Martin Freeman’s too nice to play a bad guy”. And I thought: Well, bad guys aren’t always bad guys, you know? When I see someone play the obvious villain, I know it’s false. The times when people play horrible fuckers that I really believe in, it’s much more ambiguous.’

And Bilbo’s not just a nice guy, is he?

‘Not at all. He’s devious, he’s quite pompous. You wouldn’t go for a drink with Bilbo because he probably wouldn’t want to go for a drink with you. He probably thinks he’s more proper than you, more correct than you.

But he becomes more rounded as the tale goes on: he finds his bravery and he finds his rage. Life kicks him up the arse. I suppose until life does that to any of us, we don’t really know ourselves. You’re not fully you until life has booted you in the behind.’

Read our review of 'The Hobbit' and watch the trailer

  • It’s the first of three films to be fashioned from the professor’s novel of faux-medieval fantasies chronicling how a magic ring (‘the precious’) came to be in the possession of a mere hairy-footed Hobbit in the first place.