Interview – Martin Freeman for THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES

We talk to Martin Freeman – the heart and soul of THE HOBBIT films – about his time in Middle Earth…

It’s strange to think that just 13 years ago, Martin Freeman was best known as the adorable but unsuccessful Tim in the UK version of THE OFFICE. Since then, Freeman has shown his acting skills and his talent for playing relatable everyman characters with roles in Edgar Wright’s Cornetto Trilogy, HITCHHIKERS GUIDE TO THE GALAXY and of course, TV’s FARGO and SHERLOCK. This week, Freeman returns to a role that catapulted him into public consciousness; Bilbo Baggins in THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES. sat down with the actor, who was sporting a very impressive beard for his role as Richard III on the London stage, to find out how he feels now that THE HOBBIT is coming to an end…

How do you feel now that THE HOBBIT is coming to an end?
Martin Freeman: To be honest, I always like things ending, I think things are supposed to end; life is supposed to end, jobs are supposed to end, it’s all supposed to stop… So I never particularly get too sad about that. Hopefully I’ll like the film and hopefully I’ll be happy with the job we’ve done. Then I’ll find out of Peter [Jackson] is making The Silmarillion or not [laughs].

How did it feel to work on telling the same story for so long?
MF: It’s like a marathon, whenever you go away from it, always in the back of your mind is the knowledge that you’re going to be going back to that world, figuratively and literally, that world, and you are playing that part again. You always retain an essence of what you’re doing, as Bilbo or as whoever, however long you’re away from it you’ve got to tap back into it. Obviously I’ve not done anything Bilbo-ish for over a year, and then I come to a studio in Soho and am re-voicing scenes that I did a long time ago. You’ve got to remember where you were all that time ago; psychologically and emotionally and everything. It’s a challenge, it’s a pleasurable challenge, but you can’t ever fully switch it off.

You were playing Richard III when you were doing these voiceovers for Bilbo, did you have to avoid putting some of this Shakespearean character into Bilbo?
MF: No, although when I was watching myself on the screen and re-voicing, I was wondering ‘Why are you using both arms?’ because for four and a half months, since rehearsals started, I did not use my right arm at all, everything has just been left handed. I was watching FARGO as well, when it was on telly here, and was thinking ‘You’re using your right arm! Stop! …Oh no, it’s OK’. It’s ingrained in me now, all acting is to be done only left handed. No, I didn’t put any Richard in, that wouldn’t be quite right for Bilbo [laughs]

Looking back, how demanding was the experience of THE HOBBIT, mentally and physically?
MF: It was all demanding really. As I say, just because you have to stay there; you have to mentally and emotionally stay in that place for quite a long time. I don’t mean over lunch; I wasn’t staying in character the entire time, but you have to always leave part of yourself there just so you remember who you’re playing, where you are and what you’re relationships are with the other characters. They were long days, but not that long… They are humane working hours in New Zealand; I have done a lot worse. Filming is always tiring, especially if you’re going through a lot of heavy, emotional stuff, a lot of crying or shouting… If you’re doing that for hours and hours a day it’s very tiring. As you see the finish line come into sight you either get ill, or you get an exhilarating rush of thinking ‘God, we’ve nearly finished this’, and I like finishing things.

Did you get ill?
MF: I didn’t get ill actually. I think, on the last day of filming, that was the only time I had got slightly emotional. Graham McTavish, one of the Dwarves, came up to me and said ‘It was really good to work with you’ and he had a slight catch in his voice, and he nearly set me off. Then other people were looking a bit teary and I got a bit teary and thought ‘Yeah this has been two and a half years of my life, on and off, and sharing a huge experience with these people’.

What do your children think of you playing Bilbo?
MF: They definitely like THE HOBBIT and they like THE LORD OF THE RINGS, and their friends think it’s quite cool that their dad is Bilbo Baggins. Any job I do I think ‘I wonder what they’ll make of it’.

Your scenes with Richard Armitage as Thorin are quite intriguing, how did you build a rapport with him?
MF: We all spent time, as a group, outside [filming] anyway, and it didn’t take me long with Richard to like him. I think he’s a very decent person. I think Richard’s a good person, not just a laugh or whatever, he’s a very solidly decent human being. He’s fairly quiet, he keeps himself to himself in a way that I respect because I understand that as well. We didn’t especially hang out for that because Bilbo and Thorin’s relationship is quite complicated; I think Richard, while we were filming, kept a slight distance from us, because that helped him to feel slightly isolated. That helped really, because I didn’t feel that I knew this character inside out, I didn’t feel like I was overly familiar with this person. However well I got to know him, there was always a barrier, which is right because for Bilbo there would always be a barrier, because he’s quite a foreboding person.

Bilbo starts off very childlike, and has to grow up and make tough decisions as he goes on this unexpected journey. What was it like, as an actor, to portray this?
MF: It’s fun to play changes, I feel. It’s fun to go through different stages with a character, obviously helped and directed by a script – none of this is ever your idea – you are directed by the novel and then by the screenplay. It’s nice having those parameters, within which you play. At first you see him as an innocent, and everything that involves, and it is incrementally he starts to change. The hard bit, because obviously a lot of the time you are shooting out of sequence, is what percent child is he now? Halfway through his journey, whereabouts is he? That was a conversation I had a lot with Peter. It was just that technical aspect of where exactly he is on his – I will try and get through this interview without saying the word ‘journey’ – on his thing, on his mission, because he changes a lot while being still the same essential person. That’s the fun bit.

Which aspect of Bilbo was more difficult for you; was the childlike stage of his character harder to play?
MF: It’s harder for me, sort of, because that’s not very me. I can access it and tap into it. Comedically, I suppose, it immediately lends itself more to comedy. I have grown up watching Laruel & Hardy, so I tap into that side of my taste; the wide-eyed innocence and being a slight idiot, although Bilbo is not an idiot. That, for me, is more of a challenge because it is more of a challenge to do that and not over-act, and not do what we call ‘mugging to the audience’; begging to be approved of and liked. My natural state is somewhere further down the line; a bit more cynical and a bit more angry.

Did you use the book as a reference for the character?
MF: Not once I had read it. Once I was familiar with the book, my bible was the screenplay; that was the thing I carried around. McKellen would always have the book as well, and he would be very very good at pointing things out – little character things or story things – so that was good for him, but for me it was like, well the thing we are doing is the screenplay, so this is now Peter, Fran [Walsh] and Phil’s [Boyens] story. Of course, Professor Tolkien is the main man, but we are not literally doing that book, because he didn’t write all the dialogue that they have written, and he didn’t write the stage directions… My thing was the screenplay itself. Once I had ingested the novel I didn’t carry it around any more.

Was there a particular scene that you enjoyed the most?
MF: That’s a hard question, because there were so many – as you would imagine – there are a lot of scenes and they are all enjoyable, in different ways, to do. I like fighting, I like when he starts to get involved in the battle. My taste, as an actor… I am less enthralled in running around away from an imaginary something, than I am in two people looking at each other and having it out. I like those scenes, I like the emotional and psychological aspect of acting. It’s probably, subconsciously, why I got into it in the first place. I like talky scenes; [Bilbo] has a few of those with Thorin, he has a few of those with Bofur – Jimmy Nesbitt’s character. I like the stakes being high, and for Bilbo, by this time in the story, the stakes are high 100% of the time. I like playing against odds, and I like that feeling that any minute now a big iron fist can come down and crush him, and he has to find ways around it.

With your work on THE HOBBIT, SHERLOCK and FARGO, have you noticed a change in your theatre audiences?
MF: One thing that I am really proud of, and that I think we’re all really proud of at Trafalgar [Transformed] is that we worked out that 55% of the people who came to see [Richard III] are first time theatre goers, and I am really proud of that. I think if you can get people to see what I hope is an invigorating and enlivening night at the theatre, spoken in language that we don’t really use in the last 400 years, and people are usually very very welcoming of it… I hope that brings that 19-year-old person back to the theatre to see something else. Yes, I have seen some faces there several times; there are people seeing it almost as many times as we are doing it – which is their prerogative, I would probably advise them to go and see another one of London’s great plays – but there are a lot of young people. If you want people to still be engaged, young people are going to have to come and join in. In order for that to happen you don’t have to play down to them, you don’t have to patronise them, we’re doing the show that we want to do, but we are making it – hopefully – genuinely exciting. We’re not doing a watered down pop musical version of it; we’re doing the play as well as we can possibly do it, and lo and behold, young people have responded. If some of them have come through the door for me, great, but if they stay and they get the play, that’s not because they are fans of Bilbo or John Watson, that’s because we have done a good production. I have been delighted with it.

Ian McKellen did that amazing version of Richard III on screen…
MF: …Well, it wasn’t that good! [laughs]

Did you ask him for tips?
MF: I certainly did not ask him for tips. Obviously I think Ian is brilliant and his Richard III was brilliant, but I didn’t really ask anyone for tips, because I didn’t see myself as being in the line of people who have played Richard III. I just thought ‘I am doing a play’ and we treated RICHARD III like it was a new play. [Ian McKellen] came to see it, and he was very nice about it. He offered a bit of advice, which was good actually. I took his advice… Which was to do it all in English …’Cos before, I had been doing it in Czech! [laughs] No, he did offer a bit of feedback and it was good feedback. He’s a very smart, obviously a very talented man. It wasn’t lost on me. I was glad he didn’t tell me was coming in; he texted me after he had seen it. I was glad I didn’t know he was in, because that would have made me kind of nervous. I don’t generally seek out advice, not because I think I don’t need it, but because I know I’ll get it from the director, and I’ll get it from the other actors, and I’ll get it from the experience of doing it. Sometimes, as soon as you take on too many things, it weighs you down, and you can only do your version of anything. That’s why I was very pleased Ian Holm seemed to like what I did as Bilbo, but I wasn’t in a massive hurry to drive down to his house and ask ‘how should I do it?’ because I am doing it. It’s my go!

You are obviously passionate about theatre; what is your favourite medium to work in?
MF: When I left drama school, for the first few years I would have said theatre, without question. When I started working in front of a camera, I don’t think I really knew what I was doing; I didn’t feel I knew what I was doing. I felt much more at home in a rehearsal room; it’s the six weeks you spend digging around, excavating what’s going on in a play that you really enjoy, sharing it with an audience is just a bonus. You don’t get that in film or television; you don’t get to really, really, really rehearse. Film and television rehearsals are often very perfunctory; at best, you’re blocking it. Over the years, the more I have done in front of the camera, I have also come to really love that aspect of it; love the speed of that, and I love the discipline of you have to come knowing what you’re doing. Of course, there will be times you need help, and you don’t know what you’re doing, and that’s also a part of that nice struggle as well. I couldn’t choose between any of them; I can’t envisage a life where I will never do a play again, I love the theatre, but I also love camera work as well, and I have got better and more comfortable with it over the years.

THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES is released in Irish cinemas on December 12th 2014

Words: Brogen Hayes