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Hobbit director had one choice, and he got his man, er... Bilbo

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NEW YORK -- Martin Freeman is a master at doing deadpan with a hint of fretfulness.

The 41-year-old refined the technique while playing Tim Canterbury on the British series The Office.

He did a variation on the anxious stare as Arthur Dent in the film rendition of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and he recently received an Emmy nomination for his anxious efforts as Dr. John Watson on the BBC show, Sherlock.

It's not a surprise, then, that Peter Jackson wanted him to portray the finicky Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which opens Dec. 14.

In the first of three prequels to The Lord of the Rings adventures, the reluctant Bilbo is persuaded by the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to join a band of 13 dwarfs determined to reclaim their homeland and a treasure guarded by the fierce dragon Smaug.

Returning from The Lord of the Rings series are some familiar faces besides Gandalf.

Back is Frodo (Elizah Wood), Old Bilbo (Ian Holm), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Saruman (Christopher Lee) and Gollum (Andy Serkis).

Goblins, Orcs and Wargs also make their evil presence felt in An Unexpected Journey and will again in The Desolation of Smaug next year and 2014's There and Back Again.

In An Unexpected Journey, the homebody hobbit discovers he is more heroic than he thought he could be.

It's a made-to-order role for Freeman, which Jackson quickly acknowledged during interviews promoting the first Hobbit film at a Manhattan hotel.

"He was the only person we wanted," said the director and co-writer of The Hobbit movies. "He is a dramatic actor with rare comedic skills. And who better to play a fussy Englishman?"

So desperate was Jackson to get his man that he made a huge concession to make sure Freeman was in his films of the J.R.R. Tolkien fable. "I had a lot of sleepless nights over this," Jackson said.

Indeed, the director shut down production for eight weeks in New Zealand so Martin could fulfil his commitment to shooting episodes of Sherlock back in London.

In turn, Freeman said he was grateful to Jackson "for allowing me to enjoy the best of both worlds."

Mind you, The Hobbit world was something he had never experienced before. At first, he was a little intimidated by the massive sets, the long hours in the makeup chair each day and the logistics of acting in a special-effects production that included three movies.

"I first read Tolkien when I got this," admitted Freeman. "My experience of Middle-earth was making the film. But it was a pleasure to be with the cast, to get to know the actors who subsequently became friends. So doing it had a way of not being intimidating, which was lovely."

Unfortunately for the actor, his introduction to the shoot was playing Bilbo opposite Andy Serkis as Gollum decked out in full performance-capture gear.

In The Lord of the Rings films, Gollum's sequences had to be filmed separately, but the technique has improved enough to allow actors to be in the same soundstage at the same time.

"I felt sorry for Martin," said Jackson. "He had to start this whole thing with Serkis coming at him full force."

Eventually, the newcomer became immersed into The Hobbit universe and adjusted to the attention to detail with the makeup and the costuming.

"It was sort of gradual because Bilbo went through a huge selection of noses," Freeman said. "We tried a snub nose and a Cyrano de Bergerac slightly pointy one, but it was decided my nose was weird enough."

The hair was another slow process of experimentation. "Yes, the wigs changed and the colour changed, so I went from a sort of a middle-aged rocker to being what Bilbo looks like now, which is a middle-aged rocker."

Happily, the themes of The Hobbit remained consistent in the movies, which the actor appreciated.

"It seems like the classic tale of a small guy who ends up being a hero against his will," said Freeman of Bilbo. "I think that's what is always said of true heroism. It is when deeds of bravery are done when you're scared. Bilbo is a small guy thrust into a huge world who manages to do the right thing most of the time."

And like Bilbo, the actor said there was something else he learned about himself during the shoot of more than 260 days interrupted by his eight-week break.

"I learned I can be away from home a long time," he reported, barely smirking.

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 14, 2012 D6

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