Best known as Tim, the affable everyman character in the original version of the BBC sitcom The Office, Martin Freeman might seem an unlikely hero for an epic adventure spanning the far reaches of Middle Earth. Exactly like Bilbo Baggins, then – the eponymous, self-effacing hobbit he plays in this new film. After 18 months on location, Freeman tells us about his craft, and why he doesn’t expect to be cast as a killer any time soon.
How did you feel when they confirmed you had the lead in The Hobbit?
I couldn’t believe it – it was like my agent was taking the mick or something. First I could do it, then he rang saying we had to let it go, since I was filming Sherlock, and then he rang saying it was back on. I’m still amazed that it really happened. But I know it did, because I’ve just been in New Zealand for 18 months.
Was The Hobbit something you were familiar with?
Not really – I knew the concept, obviously, I knew The Lord of the Rings as films, but I’d never read the book. So I read it in the run up, when I started talking to Guillermo del Toro, who was on board as director at that point. That was the first time.
Did you look at what Ian Holm had done in The Lord of the Rings for guidance?
I did. I used it as a sort of template of where Bilbo was going to be in 50 or 60 hobbit years. Just certain gesticulations or patterns of speaking. You can’t be hamstrung by it, but I certainly looked at it.
I know that the first scene you shot was the key ‘Riddles in the Dark’ scene with Gollum. Did you use that scene to explore the character, to find different ways to interpret Bilbo? Was Andy Serkis helpful in that process?
He didn’t offer any advice, but he was helpful just because he was good, because he was always there. With any good actor, you’re there when it’s on you and when it’s off you. It always baffles me when I hear that friends have been working with someone who virtually goes to sleep when they’re not doing their lines. But he’s always present and always giving everything, so it’s a lot easier.
Acting is reacting, and it’s always easier to react when someone is doing a good job. And Andy was obviously doing a good job because he’s pretty darn good at Gollum. I wasn’t having to imagine Gollum, he was there! Albeit with a slightly different face – he is a bit better looking, but the voice and the physicality is all there. So you concentrate on the other person and you let it take care of itself. It’s when you start worrying about what you’re doing, you’re dead.
What are the scenes you’re most excited to see on the big screen?
‘Riddles in the Dark’ is really good, and I like the Bag End stuff as well, the meeting of the dwarves. From my own point of view, I like the scenes that are a bit more actor-y. The decision to go on the journey, the conversations with Gandalf. I loved all my scenes with Ian because he’s so generous.
With some people, you could be juggling and it wouldn’t affect what they’re doing. But any slight thing you do for Ian he’ll receive it, and it will affect his next line. He said things to me that were unbelievably generous, and I knew it wasn’t bullshit, he totally means it. He’s been everywhere, he’s done it all and he’s really good, but he still has the generosity and the openness to say, well done. I’m really glad to have met him.
Elijah Wood has just played against type in Maniac, as a serial killer who slashes up women all over New York. Would you ever go that way, could you play someone that nasty?
I have played nasty people, but not everyone has seen that stuff. Before The Office I mainly got cast as little toe-rags. But then I became loveable Tim and quite a long shadow was cast. I’m happy with it, but you can only really do what people will allow you to do. I’m not a writer, director or producer. I’m not able to just go and make my Ripper film. You have to wait until you’re seen as able to do that, until someone gives you a go. I know I have that other stuff in me, but the more I say it the more it sounds like I’m protesting too much.
Like, I could say I want to play a French-African humpback, but I probably won’t get that role. But there’s more to me, unsurprisingly, than just affable. There is to most people. I’m not particularly affable in real life, I have to tell you. I’ve got that side to me, of course, but that’s not all I am. But it’s a question of doing that without making it look forced. ‘And for my next trick, I’ll be a baddy!’
I did a play once where were 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? Hitler was nice and charismatic and a great orator and blah blah blah. No one’s a ‘bad guy’. Also, I have aesthetic standards when I see someone play the obvious villain. I know that’s false. The times when people play horrible fuckers that I really believe in, it’s much more ambiguous.
And Bilbo is not just a nice guy, is he? He can be a little devious?
He’s devious, he’s quite pompous. He’s certainly not a bad guy but he’s not purely a good guy. I play characters sometimes that you’d like to go for a drink with. You wouldn’t really 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.
He’s essentially very decent, he has a moral compass and a sense of right and wrong, but there’s more to it than that. But he becomes more rounded as the tale goes on, he finds his bravery and he finds his rage, life kicks him in 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.