It’s technically a small part in a big movie, but that’s just because Bilbo Baggins isn’t that large. For Martin Freeman, who plays the diminutive title role in Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” trilogy, the actor has never stood taller.
Best known for his current role as Dr. John Watson in the BBC’s modern-day “Sherlock” and past work on Britain’s “The Office,” the 41-year-old actor will be a presence in American multiplexes for a long time to come. In addition to starring in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” which opened to a strong $84.8 million in its first weekend, Freeman returns in next December’s “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” and 2014’s “The Hobbit: There and Back Again.”
Because the story unfolds several decades before “The Lord of the Rings” takes place, the production was unable to recast the 81-year-old Ian Holm as a younger Baggins (although Holm makes a cameo in the new film as Old Bilbo). Freeman said “nearly half of Britain, I think” was considered as a replacement, and even after Freeman earned the lead role he nearly had to hand it back.
The films (originally two, now three movies) were first set to be directed by Guillermo del Toro, who cast Freeman as Baggins in early 2010, with filming set to begin later that year. But when the start of production was repeatedly delayed by the financial woes of co-producer MGM, del Toro left the endeavor, and was ultimately replaced by Jackson, who was del Toro’s “Hobbit” producer.
Jackson was happy to keep Freeman on board, but more delays meant that the actor was contractually obligated to return for a second season of “Sherlock.”
“So there was a period when I had to give up ‘The Hobbit.’ The BBC wanted to strike while the iron was hot. And I adore ‘Sherlock.’ These were two jobs that I really wanted to do.”
Jackson ultimately was able to realign his shooting schedule so that Freeman’s conflicts were resolved.
“They held the movie for me in an unbelievable way,” Freeman said. So he went straight from “Sherlock” into “The Hobbit.”
“It was a crazy time,” he said.
In inheriting a movie role firmly recognized in the popular culture, Freeman theoretically had some large shoes to fill (if hobbits actually used footwear). Freeman watched Holm in his “Lord of the Rings” performances, looking for points of reference he could emulate.
“Those films were so effective it didn’t feel like homework,” Freeman said.
Yet it wasn’t just Holm’s physical mannerisms Freeman sought as reference; it was also the way Holm delivered a line.
“I would pick up a bit of a gesture here, a bit of syntax there—just the way he structures his sentences,” Freeman said. “I sort of hope there’s a continuity to it. Old Bilbo is established. But that doesn’t tie me down.”
Although reviews for the film have been mixed, Freeman has attracted a fair amount of praise.
“Martin Freeman makes an endearing Bilbo, fearful and fey yet clearly up for a call to perilous action, and if that action is slow to come, it’s certainly spectacular once Bilbo leaves his cozy shire,” Joe Morgenstern wrote in the Wall Street Journal. Added Mick LaSalle in the San Francisco Chronicle: “Freeman was born to be a hobbit; he is ideal casting.”
As written in the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien and adapted in the screenplay by Jackson, del Toro, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, Baggins is a most unwilling hero. When the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) knocks on Baggins’ door to enlist him in a dangerous mission that ultimately leads to a fierce dragon, the hobbit has little interest in joining the crusade.
It is only near the end of the first film that Baggins shows a little mettle, and in deciding not to kill Gollum (Andy Serkis) exhibits some nobility. Audiences will have to wait for the second film, in which Baggins battles some oversized spiders, to see him do something equally selfless and dangerous.
“He’s more parochial—he hasn’t been anywhere, and he’s certainly reluctant to go on the journey,” Freeman said of Baggins.
But rather than simply have greatness thrust upon him, his character ultimately chooses greatness.
“His courage is also in knowing not when to take a life but when to spare one. He is essentially a decent person—he has a very proper sense of what’s right and wrong.”
Freeman remains supportive of Jackson’s controversial decision to shoot (and, in some theaters, exhibit) “The Hobbit” in 48 frames per second, which, combined with the film’s 3-D photography, has left some moviegoers and critics unimpressed.
“He really believes in it,” Freeman said, adding that because early clips showcasing the technology were “out of context,” audiences were overly “snippy about it.”
One thing Freeman is not complaining about is the last-minute decision made by Jackson and his team to make a third “Hobbit” film, which will require several weeks of additional photography next year.
“It was announced to us the day of the wrap party,” said Freeman. “But we had an embarrassment of riches.”
— John Horn
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