MINNEAPOLIS — Although Bilbo Baggins is a diminutive Hobbit, he may be the most human-scaled character in all of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth fantasy world. He is a quiet sort who enjoys nothing more than a nice cup of tea by his snug hearth. No adventurer, he’s dismayed in Tolkien’s novel when the wizard Gandalf and a cadre of dwarves recruit him for a battle with a seemingly invincible dragon.
Still, for an actor to play the timid Bilbo takes some nerve. Millions of Tolkien readers have their own image of The Hobbit’s protagonist. Stepping into his oversized footprints is not a casual lark. Little wonder, then, that Peter Jackson wanted Martin Freeman to star in his Hobbit trilogy, which launches worldwide this week with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
The English actor specializes in taking the Everyman role in adaptations of much-loved bestsellers. He has played hapless earthling Arthur Dent in the film of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Dr. John Watson in the BBC series Sherlock. In a phone conversation last week, Freeman said he didn’t feel he was sticking his head in a dragon’s mouth by taking on the iconic Bilbo.
Q. How would you describe the young Bilbo, who is a much older minor character in Lord of the Rings?
A. He’s not particularly bold. He’s not the main guy in the room. He’s not an alpha male. There’s a timidity to him which is part of his pomposity as well, as we join him at the beginning of the show. In many ways he wouldn’t say boo to a goose. But he’s quite pent up and I guess that comes out extraneously through his fidgeting.
Q. Did donning Bilbo’s large feet affect your performance?
A. The feet were key. If your feet are six inches longer, then your gait changes. Your balance, your equilibrium, everything changes. Those things don’t have to be a conscious decision. But they do add to it.
Q. Does it really feel like entering a fantasy realm to perform in a Peter Jackson megaproduction?
A. You’re aware that you’re entering a magical realm. On the other hand it’s highly practical, highly pragmatic and very unromantic. The magic and all that is what the audience sees. What you see day to day is going to work. Albeit very pleasurable work. You’re still making a movie, which is graft, you know?
Q. Does it require more imagination to act opposite computer-generated characters like Gollum?
A. Yeah, given I’ve never seen a warg (big bad wolf-hounds with a taste for Hobbit flesh) let alone killed one, that does require a lot of imagination. It’s a leap of faith between you, the director, the digital people, everything, to kind of construe exactly what it is I’ve got my sword embedded in. It does call a lot on the imagination. I found I really enjoyed that. After all, we’re people who do for a living what we all do when we are five. Haven’t grown out of it.
Q. Peter Jackson said he cast you because you are rather Hobbity in real life. You seem to be a rather cozy, stay-at home type. I’m told you don’t drive.
A. Yeah, I don’t, but I still leave the house. Hard to grasp for Americans but there is such a thing as public transport. Isn’t that just communism, that sort of thing?
Q. In this role and in Hitchhiker and Sherlock, you’ve taken on roles in which fans have a huge investment. Is that especially challenging?
A. It doesn’t feel like that at all. I have a very straightforward view of acting, which is, it’s acting. And it’s not life-and-death. If you don’t like what I do, there’ll be another John Watson along in a couple of years. There’s a Joan Watson along now (played by Lucy Liu in the CBS drama "Elementary"). Someone else can have a go at any of these characters. I don’t expect mine to be definitive. It’s one interpretation. You will never please all the people. The fact that you manage to please a lot of people is enough for me. You can never be inside a person’s head while they are reading a book. That’s why people say almost by rote, "Oh, it’s not as good as the book." Fair enough, but that film can’t literally pick apart the synapses of your brain and present what you were kind of hoping for it to look like.
Q. There are many newcomers to the story in the cast, but also many actors who had lived in their parts for years in the original Rings trilogy. Did that feed helpfully into your performances together?
A. It helped me working with Gollum, the first stuff I was doing. It helped that Andy (Serkis, whose on-set performance was data-captured to create the creature) was so adept in that character. To be nose-to-nose with Gollum, on the receiving end of his threats and his malice and his madness, really helped me in finding how Bilbo reacted in life-and-death situations. And with Ian (McKellen) as well, as Gandalf. You feel you’re working with this solid base. And also you’re in Pete’s hands. He knows what he’s doing. He knows what he’s doing in Middle-earth. That gives you the freedom to skip around and find things and play.
Q. What’s it like to work amid a troupe of 13 dwarves?
A. On a film like this you get to do intimate stuff and huge stuff with hundreds of people around you. It’s nice when there’s a large number of you, because you never get tired of each other’s company. You kind of rotate more than if there’s three or four of you and it becomes a bit claustrophobic. After days when it was sort of solitary I enjoyed it when these guys came in. It was company.
— Star Tribune (Minneapolis)