'The Hobbit's' Martin Freeman on being Bilbo and Benedict Cumberbatch as Smaug
If there is one thing Martin Freeman is not, it is a man who buys into his own hype.
"All I had heard before this film started was that I was the only person who could ever play Bilbo. I know that's not true," says Freeman during a Q&A on the New Zealand set of "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." "That's clearly not fucking true, because no actor is the only person who can do anything."
As a matter of fact, Freeman even questioned whether Peter Jackson was happy with his performance in the early days of production - despite having heard that he was the director's first choice for the role.
"Indeed, that's what he said. So I was thinking, 'Oh, okay,'" Freeman tells us. "But then the first few days start, I thought, 'Well, I don't know if he's this thrilled with what I'm doing. And I don't know if I'm really that thrilled with what I'm doing.' So yeah, it took-- I would say there was a period of negotiation where I was thinking, 'Why is he saying that?' And he was probably thinking, 'Why is he doing that?'"
What he was doing - at least in his very first scene - was to unwittingly channel Elijah Wood's performance as Frodo, a mismatch in tone that Jackson quickly set out to correct.
"When we started filming, my first stuff was with Gollum and Gollum's cave, and I think...I was subconsciously playing Frodo," he says. "Because he is the nearest thing to Bilbo in those films. He's the audience, effectively, and he carries the story and he carries the humanity or the hobbitity of it through the story. And Pete said a good thing, he's like, 'This is a different thing. It's something that your children are going to want to watch,' and it's a family story and it's more like-- Not that it's as crass as 'then I just changed all my acting,' but just internally I was able to get a clearer picture of tone...It's not [the] deep, dark, quasi-religious, heavy, symbolic thing that 'Lord of the Rings' is."
The actor, sitting before us out of costume (if not out of his pointy hobbit ears), is light-hearted and witty but also a straight-shooter, never mincing words as he offers a refreshingly honest take on the often very difficult work that goes into making a film - not to mention one as wildly ambitious as this.
"If you come out of the blocks at a hundred miles an hour, within four weeks you'll be burned out, because if you have that kind of youthful impatience about it or that youthful vigor...you'll be dead in a month," he tells us. "You have to do your time. You have to, in a way, just get your head down and do the work and not expect every day to bring riches and not expect every minute to bring wild excitement, 'cause it just doesn't. It doesn't on films, anyway. We all know that people who've never been on a film set think it's way more glamorous than the people who work on them. We know this to be a universal truth, and this is no exception. Especially if it's something that goes on this long."
So long, in fact, that it's easy to lose sight of the bigger picture - which is why, when Freeman actually saw the trailer for the first installment during a trip to a Wellington movie theater, it was jarring to see the vision he'd had such a hard time picturing up to that point projected on a big screen.
"I didn't get a tear in the eye, but I got kind of excited," he says. "Because you go, 'this is real.' It's very easy to go through this period and not really think it's going to come out, because it's like an elongated 'Big Brother' or something. 'Is this really true? Is this an experiment?' Because it's so far off. ...It's kind of like you've been taken away, put in this place, in this island down here, making this film that is clearly never going to come out because it's too big and too unwieldy or whatever. And you can't quite believe it's real. So when you see a trailer, you think, 'Well, we've got to bring it out now.' Contractually, we have to honor that, otherwise we get sued."