Hobbit in the Headlights

As Martin Freeman returns as Bilbo, he tells Nick Aveling about his epic journey from the desolation of Slough to the ‘Desolation of Smaug’

Hobbit in the Headlights

'I’ve been doing interviews for years,’ says Martin Freeman, ‘and in all that time I’ve virtually never read one and gone, “Yep, factually and tonally that’s exactly what happened.” Pretty much never.’ Well, this is awkward. Or at least it would be if today’s interview hadn’t gone bounding off-script. Ostensibly, the 42-year-old, who originally made his name more than a decade ago as the put-upon Tim in Ricky Gervais’s ‘The Office’, is here to promote his starring role in ‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’. It’s the second film in director Peter ‘Lord of the Rings’ Jackson’s three-part return to Middle Earth, following last year’s billion-dollar grossing ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’. But we hardly touch on the topic of dwarves. For all Jackson’s cutting-edge effects, ‘The Hobbit’ remains a well-worn and familiar 76-year-old story. So, we move on to other topics...

‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’ was a box office record breaker – has its success changed you?
‘I remember having those conversations before “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” came out [in 2005] and thinking: Fuck, is everything going to change? And it didn’t, really. I’m a big believer in the idea that life changes as much as you want it to. If you invite in all the madness, life will change. If you don’t, if you kind of let the world quietly know, “No thanks; I still want to get on the train and live my own life,” then somehow it doesn’t have to.’

So celebrities are to blame for their own lack of privacy?
‘That’s a cruel attitude: if someone’s unhappy, you should leave them alone, even if they wanted attention five minutes ago. But I do think – in a very real, common-sense way – that if you want to be famous, you can be. It’s not a great talent; if you put yourself forward, it will happen to you.’

Has there ever been a hilarious mix-up involving you and Morgan Freeman?
‘No, not a real one.’

Do you find that playing Tim in ‘The Office’ has left you stuck with the ‘everyman’ label?
‘Tim cast a very long shadow. I mean, I’m very proud of “The Office”: it was one of the best things I’ll ever do. But you do become a slight victim of your own success in the sense that people think that that’s you, that’s what you are and that’s what you’ll play for ever. Before “The Office” I was playing quite diverse roles – not famously, but quite diverse – and because of the success of that show, there’s a feeling that you’re the “everyman bloke”.’

Bilbo Baggins is a kind of every-hobbit: he developed quite a bit in the first film – what can we expect this time around?
‘This is the film where Bilbo becomes totally invaluable to the group – he’s not a mascot or someone to be patronised. In fact, he saves their arses on numerous occasions, so he’s really needed. He finds more character, more backbone, than he knew he had. I love Bilbo’s “plucky” side, but I’m also interested in the times when he has to get serious. In war, manners and politeness don’t mean too much.’

He does a lot more fighting in ‘The Desolation of Smaug’. Was that fun to film?
‘I do enjoy fighting, actually. Fighting wargs [giant wolves kept by orcs] is good fun. But usually it’s the stunt team dressed in green-screen ninja outfits carrying a big fucking head that you’ve got to stick with a sword. At least if I get started on by a warg now, or if any elves step to me, I’ll be fine.’

Speaking of violence, you’ve just signed on to ‘Fargo’, an American TV series based on the Coen brothers’ film. What’s it going to be like?
‘It’s in the same universe as the film – there’s a similar tone – but it’s not based on the film in terms of plot. Billy Bob Thornton’s in it, and his character comes along and teaches mine to take control in ways that aren’t always saintly.’

Have you started to work on the accent?
‘I’m having lessons via Skype and, well, pride comes before a fall, but I think I’m doing okay. It’s daunting: I don’t want to rip off Bill Macy’s accent, or rip off an accent that’s already passed into comedy, so I’ve been on YouTube to see how real Minnesotans sound. Trouble is, some accents lend themselves to comedy. They just fucking do.’

'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug' opens in cinemas around Tokyo on Feb 28, 2014.

This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in Time Out London.

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Portrait by Jay Brooks
Please note: All information is correct at the time of writing but is subject to change without notice.


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