Martin Freeman had some hairy prosthetic feet to fill as Bilbo in Peter Jackson's The Hobbit, but the acclaimed actor was up to the challenge. We sat down in an exclusive interview and quizzed Freeman about filming the much-anticipated trilogy, his life in Middle-Earth, and, most importantly, his thoughts on Leonard's Nimoy's classic song "The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins." Read our full interview with the Shire's best burglar now.
How did Peter Jackson direct you to handle the ring?
Martin Freeman: With curiosity, I think. That was what we kind of went for. When I first see it, when it drops out of Gollum's pouch in the goblin tunnels, to just literally notice it and go "oh." It's just a flash of color in this dark place. A flash of gold. And as I get closer just to have curiosity and not to imbue it with a great kind of force or a sense of epic-ness. Like a trinket. Then there's something magpie-ish about Bilbo and he thinks, oh I'll have that that might come in handy. But there's no sense of a semi religious import.
Which is interesting because LOTR was first and they spent most of the film building up the ring's reputation. Are there just a bunch of rings tossed about on set?
They have a few, yeah they have a few. I'm afraid I don't have a very pragmatic or unromantic view of props. I don't imbue them with any great sense of mystery or anything. It's a lovely ring, they're all lovely rings. I don't really think it's the ring of power.
In the press conference you mentioned while you were reading [the script] you couldn't help but read it from Bilbo's point of view. What sort of things did you notice that maybe the casual reader wouldn't have picked up on that you added to your character?
I don't know what other people noticed or not, but the things I liked about him and it, and the things that struck me were… well, very obviously was [Bilbo] having a last second realization that if he doesn't go on this trip this ship will never dock again. And this is the last opportunity. This is the only opportunity for a trip like this. Having a departure from his life. I love that bit in the film actually, and that was a second unit shot. That was a circus shot where Bilbo comes downstairs and he's checking to see if all the dwarves have gone, and they've gone and he's fucking delighted. He's so glad he's got them out of the house. And then there's the realization that "fuck, they're gone." He's got what he wanted, and it's not what he wanted. Because then the house feels very empty and very quiet. And all that possibility, all that excitement has left. I like the fact that he bolts out the door. That was one of the things that struck me while reading and with watching it. We shot that a long time ago, as you can imagine. So watching it, I think, is a very strong image.
And that's the first turning point for the character. But you shot a major turning point for Bilbo first. What was that like shooting the scene with Andy Serkis as Gollum the first week on set? Dealing with someone who has been doing Gollum for a long time and trying to understand and develop your character in this massive moment?
Yeah I suppose that is always one of the potential pitfalls of shooting out of sequence, which most things are. Then it's about your own preparation, which is making sure you're as prepared as you can be intellectually for where you are in the play. Even though you can't be viscerally prepared for it, because you haven't done anything else. You can only know in your head, you can't have the knowledge of a memory "well when I did that it was like that." You can only think when Bilbo is here, he must have been through X,Y and Zed. And he's about to go through this… so he'll be about here. And that's just about, we'll I'll have a punt at this then. That's where choice comes into it, I'll try this way, I'll try that way. That's as much for me, and for Pete. I'm quite self-critical, where that comes from of trying things out is not just because I like showing off. It's because I haven't got there yet. I'm very rarely satisfied with where I've got to anyway, so I'm constantly thinking, "well, if that's not it then why don't I try this."
What did you discover after shooting the Gollum meets Bilbo scene [straight through with minimal cuts] for a whole week?
I just think there was just was a character. I think that's how it changed, I went from not having one… The difference was at the end of that, I had something now. And it was a great scene to do because it required reaction. So it was very helpful, actually. It was a good scene. On one hand it was jumping into the deep end. But that's the only place you can go in.
It doesn't feel cheated. It's weird. All that cave, there was a lot that was real. We were shooting in a place that was physically there. And a big lake! Beyond from where we were standing it was a a panorama of green. But from our stage it was a lot of rock. It felt real. Andy feels real. Obviously he doesn't look like Gollum, strictly speaking, but he's being Gollum. And I'm an animal of the theater and you're used to using your imagination. You don't have to use your imagination that much when you hear that voice and see the physicality you think oh, "there's Gollum, there's a man or a creature that wants to eat me." It didn't feel very cheated at all. Gollum is such a beloved character. There's a special place in people's hearts for Gollum I think. People who love the books and the films are delighted he's in this, I think.
Is there a particular dwarf you had chemistry with that changed your relationship in the movie?
Well I suppose the dwarf I spend the most time with is Thorin. Over the course of the whole thing there are some really nice scenes between Bilbo and Thorin. And of course because Bilbo sees him go through all of these emotions that has a bit of an effect with Bilbo. I really enjoyed the scene where I'm about to go back to Rivendell and James Nesbitt stops me as Bofur. And they have a little thing just before they fall into the goblin tunnels. Where he sees in Bilbo, "yeah, fair enough, you should go, we love you, but if you feel you have to go, you should go." I love those tender moments. Because Bilbo sees Dwarves as uncouth, dirty inbreds probably at the beginning of the movie. So any moment where they show some humanity for Bilbo is a really nice thing.
It's easy to root for the anti-hero or a great heroic character, but he's not really that. He struggles. He's awkward, good for a laugh but how do you make people cheer for him?
I guess that's a combination of me and Pete and everybody, and Tolkien. I think you just have to show humanity. A lot of it is the way you look at people and the way you listen to people (character) and the way you talk to them. You know that he's actually receiving by the way Bilbo responds. I think when see you a character on the screen who is actually being touched by the world, and the stuff is actually landing on him, it makes you empathize. I was never interested, nor was Pete, with building a caricature or cartoon English gentleman. Everything being awkward I'm not interested in the in the least. I fine that deeply, deeply tedious. It has to be human.
There is a lot of fun Hobbit memorabilia and things in the fandom, did you perchance listen to Leonard Nimoy's "The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins?"
Yeah a long time ago, I'm still baffled by it.
Did it help you prepare for the character at all?
No it didn't. [Laughs] It helped me enjoy that three minutes of listening to it.