Shire call­ing

Martin Free­man tells Don­ald Clarke about be­com­ing Bilbo

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FRONT PAGE -

‘Ihave done quite a few parts where I am a like­able af­fa­ble per­son,” Martin Free­man says. “They would go to Ray Win­stone if they wanted a hard cop or a vi­cious crim­i­nal. They go to me if they want a like­able per­son. Oh well. We all have our crosses to bear.”

This shows some self-aware­ness. It has been six years since we last met. On that oc­ca­sion, the ami­able, ap­proach­able ac­tor qui­etly be­moaned the fact that he seemed to have be­come an every­man for the new cen­tury. He first shoul­dered that bur­den as Tim Can­ter­bury, de­cent Joe strug­gling with mun­dane bu­reau­cracy, in Ricky Ger­vais and Stephen Mer­chant’s mag­nif­i­cent The Of­fice. In 2005, he took in the role of Arthur Dent, sub­ur­ban drone con­fronted with comic in­fin­ity, in the fit­ful film adap­ta­tion of The Hitch­hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. His fine per­for­mance as Dr Wat­son in the BBC’s re­cent Sher­lock de­vi­ated some­what from the pat­tern, but he was still act­ing as the eyes of the au­di­ence.

Now, Martin em­barks on one of the great or­di­nary-bloke roles in pop­u­lar cul­ture. Un­less you have spent the last five years in holy or­ders, you will be aware that, from this week, Martin Free­man can be seen as Bilbo Bag­gins in the first part of Peter Jack­son’s tri­fur­cated adap­ta­tion of JRR Tolkien’s The Hob­bit. Bilbo may be a Hob­bit, but he has al­ways come across as a very un­pre­ten­tious, down-to-earth class of fan­tasy fig­ure.

“It’s all the same job, whether you are play­ing an ant or a king,” Free­man, now 41, says. “Your job is to con­vince peo­ple the char­ac­ter is liv­ing and breath­ing. He is a dif­fer­ent species, but you’re right. He is the clos­est thing to the au­di­ence. There are hu­mans in the story. But com­pared to dwarves and elves and wizards, the Hob­bits are the most hu­man. Bilbo is the au­di­ence, but not quite.”

This is not some­thing they teach you in drama school. Squat Mid­dle-Earthian crea­tures do not have the same frames of ref­er­ence as – think­ing back to The Of­fice – pa­per-sup­ply op­er­a­tives from Berk­shire.

“That re­minds me of some­thing Peter said to me early on,” Free­man mused. “He said: ‘Martin, that’s not how he would re­act. Re­mem­ber, he’s not quite hu­man.’ It’s not like do­ing Kafka’s Meta­mor­pho­sis, though. It’s not like be­com­ing a bee­tle. I saw him as a bit if a meerkat. Ha ha!”

Some­thing scary is about to hap­pen to Free­man. He has al­ready had his fair share of at­ten­tion. The Of­fice was a sen­sa­tion. Sher­lock has been a world­wide hit. But the Mid­dleEarth films are some­thing else again. The Hob­bit tril­ogy, of course, ends up as a prequel to Jack­son’s mighty take on the Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Sher­lock Holmes fa­nat­ics can be very pre­cious about their hero. But Tolkien en­thu­si­asts are re­li­gious in their de­vo­tion to the sa­cred text. One won­ders whether Free­man is ready for the hur­ri­cane of dig­i­tal com­men­tary that is about to come his way. With two more Hob­bit films in the pipe­line, he could find him­self ap­pear­ing as a hash-tag for years to come.

“In terms of sat­u­ra­tion, it will be a step up from ev­ery­thing I have done,” he says. “I can’t tell if I am pre­pared for it. You can get away from the dig­i­tal stuff. You just don’t turn on your com­puter. What you can’t avoid is restau­rants and pubs and life. You can’t tell how peo­ple will re­act to you in the street. You don’t know how it will make you feel.”

Free­man’s role as the every­man must, surely, en­cour­age ci­ti­zens to ap­proach him in the su­per­mar­ket. In the flesh, he is more self­con­fi­dent than Tim Can­ter­bury and more re­laxed than Dr John Wat­son (and taller than Bilbo, ob­vi­ously). But he does, in­deed, come across as an or­di­nary fel­low with few ob­vi­ous pre­ten­sions.

“Yeah. I think they are more likely to ap­proach some­body like me and as­sume that I’m their mate,” he says “And that can be fright­en­ing. It can be frus­trat­ing. Peo­ple talk to me like they know all about me. They know noth­ing about me. And that’s how I like it. It’s a kind of mad­ness.”

Hav­ing been told how much he wants to keep his pri­vate life pri­vate, let’s ask him a lit­tle more about his pri­vate life. He was born in Alder­shot and raised in outer Lon­don as the son of a naval of­fi­cer and a hard-work­ing, in­spi­ra­tional mum. His par­ents split up when he was a child and dad died just a few years later. Left with five kids – of which Martin is the youngest – his mother must have had a real strug­gle.

“Well. yeah. My par­ents had al­ready split up by the time he died. So she wasn’t sud­denly left with us. But it must have been hard. And I was a sickly child.”

Really? But I had read that he be­came a topflight squash player as a teenager.

“I did. Yes. Ha ha! Who’s laugh­ing now?

Top: Martin Free­man as Bilbo in The Hob­bit: An Un­ex­pected Jour­ney. Above: With di­rec­tor Peter Jack­son and co-stars Eli­jah Wood and Andy Serkis

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.