Martin Freeman tells Donald Clarke about becoming Bilbo
‘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