‘Hobbit’ star Martin Freeman on comedy in ‘Smaug,’ Bilbo’s Englishness

Dec. 16, 2013 | 1:58 p.m.
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Martin Freeman as Bilbo, from left, Jed Brophy as Nori and Richard Armitage as Thorin in a scene from "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Mark Pokorny / Warner Bros.)

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Ian McKellen as Gandalf, left, and Sylvester McCoy as Radagast in "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

apphoto film review the hobbit the desolation of smaug Hobbit star Martin Freeman on comedy in Smaug, Bilbos Englishness

Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel and Orlando Bloom as Legolas in "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (James Fisher / Warner Bros.)

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Richard Armitage as Thorin, left, and Dean O'Gorman as Fili in a scene from "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Graham McTavish as Dwalin, left, Ken Stott as Balin, Martin Freeman as Bilbo, Richard Armitage as Thorin and William Kircher as Bifur in a scene from "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Martin Freeman, left, and John Callen in a scene from "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Mark Pokorny / Warner Bros.)

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Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Mark Pokorny / Warner Bros.)

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Ian McKellen as Gandalf, left, and Sylvester McCoy as Radagast in "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Azog, portrayed by Manu Bennett through motion-capture technology, in "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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William Kircher as Bifur, left, John Callen as Oin, Richard Armitage as Thorin and Ken Stott as Balin in a scene from "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Stephen Fry as the Master of Lake-town, left, and Ryan Gage as Alfrid in "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Peggy Nesbitt as Sigrid, Mary Nesbitt as Tilda and John Bell as Bain in a scene from "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Azog, portrayed by Manu Bennett through motion-capture technology, in "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel and Lee Pace as Thranduil in "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in a poster for "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel and Orlando Bloom as Legolas in a poster for "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Ian McKellen as Gandalf in a poster for "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield in a poster for "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in a poster for "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Ian McKellen as Gandalf in a poster for "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Orlando Bloom as Legolas in a poster for "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Lee Pace as Thranduil in a poster for "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Luke Evans as Bard in a poster for "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield in a poster for "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in a poster for "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” smashed the competition at the box office this weekend, earning more than $73 million.

The second installment in Peter Jackson’s planned trilogy based on the J.R.R. Tolkien novel also garnered more critical esteem than its predecessor, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” with much of the praise falling to the film’s star, Martin Freeman, who plays Bilbo Baggins, a diminutive hero with a growing sense of courage.

In “Desolation of Smaug,” Bilbo faces off against enormous spiders, dangerous elves and, of course, the  dragon Smaug, voiced by Freeman’s “Sherlock” costar Benedict Cumberbatch.

Hero Complex caught up with Freeman to talk about what motivates Bilbo, the interweaving of fright and comedy and the pressures of taking on a character so beloved by Tolkien fans.

Hero Complex: Bilbo Baggins seems to really find his own in this film.

Martin Freeman in Dec. 2012. (Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times)

Martin Freeman in December 2012. (Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times)

Martin Freeman: Yeah, he does. That’s been really nice to see. Obviously, the filming of it is not all sequential and chronological. You weren’t just going, “Oh, this is film one, and this is film two, and I’m here, and then he turns into…” Your sequence is all over the place, so you’re just hoping that what you give cuts together OK. I was pleased with it. You can definitely see a different color to him in this one. There’s a different sort of nuance I was pleased with.

HC: In the first film, Bilbo was such an unwilling hero, while in this one, he acts honorably and courageously several times, and not because he’s forced to.

MF: Yes, though I would say I still think he’s slightly unwilling in that the things he does which are very honorable and very noble are out of necessity. Because literally, if he doesn’t, who will? If he doesn’t use his invisibility to save his friends from a certain spider death, then who will? And if he doesn’t get his friends out of an elvish prison, then who will? I’m sure Bilbo at heart would still rather tuck into a breakfast and sit down to a nice book or something, but he just can’t. Most heroism is sort of unwilling, I guess. Do you know what I mean? That’s why most heroes don’t see themselves as heroes. It’s like, “Well, there was nothing else I could do. It was just something I had to do.” And I think he would probably have to answer the same to that, like, “I had to do that, because they’re my friends, and no one else was there.”

HC: I don’t know if it was just the pacing, but it seems like there was so much more action.

MF: There was. I don’t think it was the pacing. The pacing was brilliant, but you’re right, there is a lot more action. It’s really enjoyable to do, actually. It’s just another aspect. It’s all acting, it’s still pretending. It’s all part of the same job, but it does give you a different feeling when you’re up on  your feet being much more physical, and it makes you bring something else to it. When you’re clinging onto a barrel in 6-foot water, not really in control of where the barrel is going and trying constantly to face the camera and also act when you’re thinking, “I could drown or smash into a rock at any second,” then yeah, it demands something else of you that is actually quite different to sitting down and doing “Twelve Angry Men.” But it’s a proper challenge. I like it.

Richard Armitage as Thorin, left, and Dean O'Gorman as Fili in a scene from "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

Richard Armitage as Thorin, left, and Dean O’Gorman as Fili in a scene from “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.” (Warner Bros.)

HC: So you were actually riding in barrels down the river?

MF: I wasn’t on a river, I was on a sluice, which is like a man-made creek kind of thing, which had huge underwater engines pushing out a current, basically, and quite a fast current so you would be just pushed around this 100-foot creek sort of thing. It was really good fun, but it was also the sort of thing that you had to have your wits about you. You had to concentrate. You couldn’t drop off during it because you had to be in charge of what you were doing. You couldn’t just be a passenger.

HC: A lot of the biggest foes Bilbo faces — like the dragon and the spiders — weren’t actually there. How did you do it? Was it just you in a room with a green screen?

MF: Pretty much. That’s basically what it is. We’re just on a sound stage, with usually part of the physical set, which was a fantastic mountain of gold and treasure, and you know, a big green tennis ball and Pete giving me where the eyeline is — “He’s over to the left, and now he’s coming just above your head, and now his face is right up next to yours.” So it was just a lot of old-fashioned pretending, you know, like schoolyard style.

HC: How difficult was it to walk on a pile of treasure?

MF: Very. I’m glad you asked me that. I don’t think there are enough acting awards for walking on piles of treasure. It’s like quicksand. As soon as you’re in there, your feet just go through these piles of coins and goblets and trinkets, and yeah, you sink down to your knees in no time at all. It’s good, actually. It should be difficult for you because it’s very difficult for Bilbo to negotiate. So you can’t really do it in a very balletic way. It’s very cumbersome. And it’s like wading through molasses.

Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.” (Warner Bros.)

HC: One of the most beautiful things about your portrayal of Bilbo is how much comedy you bring to the role. You could have played it straight with Smaug and just been terrified. How did you decide that you wanted to approach it with comedy?

MF: I think once you know who you’re playing, in my experience anyway, and once you’ve kind of set that up, then it’s just part of your bones, and it’s part of the DNA of the character you’re playing. So then what happens in the moment is just what happens in the moment. And if you could see of all the 58 takes I did of whatever, then you could see 58 slightly different performances, or sometimes very different performances, just because I like to go through the gamut of what is possible. Some of them will be more comedic than others. I like comedy, and without sounding conceited, I can do it. I know that Pete likes it, and I don’t think I ever got the direction, “Martin, do less comedy.” I think he would always err on the side of, “I think that can be a bit funnier.” Because although I have a sort of comedic instinct in my taste, I always have an instinct to fight that. Because part of me thinks, well yeah, this can be funny, but actually the stakes have got to be high, and people have really got to care that this character’s going through this stuff, and he’s genuinely terrified, so I don’t just want to make it all about gags. But at the same time, there’s a way in which we express humor through fear, and sometimes when we are frightened, we find things humorous out of nerves. So I think that’s a pretty obvious and hopefully valid match, that it doesn’t jolt you out of the fear; I think in a way it kind of serves the fear. Because we all know there is humor to be had in fear and unease.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman as Dr. John Watson in the popular TV series "Sherlock." (Robert Viglasky / Hartswood Films for Masterpiece)

Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in “Sherlock.” (Robert Viglasky / Hartswood Films for Masterpiece)

Obviously if it was just terror, it would be a different film. It would be a very different tone, and I don’t think it would be very Bilbo, because there’s always something — from Tolkien to Peter’s interpretation of Tolkien — there’s always something kind of light about Bilbo, and there’s always something slightly comedic about him. And, it’s an odd thing for me to say because I’m English, but from an outside point of view, there’s something kind of archetypically English and wry and slightly self-deprecatingly silly about him. So humor lends itself very well to him, and I like playing it, but as I say, I often fight against that as well, ’cause I always think, “Oh, let’s just be serious.” I like being serious and I like being straight, but if there’s something funny there, I will find it. And I know Pete will sort of want me to find it anyway, because it’s in there. It’s in the material.

HC: Bilbo’s civility and cleverness beating out the dwarfs’ brute force is a recurring theme in the book.

MF: Yes. He’s not used to fighting. He’s not used to getting his hands dirty. He would be a bank clerk or something. He’s not a natural warrior. I think he finds a lot of that stuff distasteful. And I think he still finds it hard further on into the story, but as I say, he has to do it because if he doesn’t do it, there’s no one else.

HC: Do you think there’s a role you’ve done that prepared you for this one?

MF: Recently in New Zealand our local cinema in Wellington, they did a night dedicated to a film that I did called “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” and the part that I played in that was a man called Arthur Dent, and I think that character owes some things to the sort of pantheon of kind of reluctant English heroes. And I would say Arthur Dent owes something to Bilbo Baggins. He’s sort of thrust out into a very, very, literally out of space adventure from a quite cozy, you could sort of say dreary, country life. And that has an echo of Bilbo, I would say.

Warwick Davis, Sam Rockwell, Mos Def and Martin Freeman in a scene from "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." (Laurie Sparham / Touchstone)

Warwick Davis, Sam Rockwell, Mos Def and Martin Freeman in a scene from “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” (Laurie Sparham / Touchstone)

HC: With “The Hobbit” and “Hitchhiker’s Guide” and playing John Watson in “Sherlock,” you’ve taken on several characters from literature who are extremely beloved. Do you feel more pressure taking on such established characters?

MF: In all honesty, not really. I don’t feel that much pressure because I choose not to take it on. John Watson has been portrayed many times, and he’s been portrayed very well, and so I just go, “Well, OK, this is my go, then.” And it was in a very different context to any other Sherlock Holmes that I’ve seen. Out of all the Sherlock Holmes that have been made, I think this one will be around for a while. And in the case of “The Hobbit,” that character is so beloved by people, if I stopped to think for a minute about how I could mess it up, I’d never have done it. I just sort of feel, well, like I’ve got as much right as anybody. Like if they’re going to make this thing, I’ve got as much right as anyone to play him. Someone’s going to play him, and why not me? I think it helps as well, in the case of “The Hobbit,” that I didn’t grow up as a fanatic. I enjoy it, I think it’s a really good book, but I read it in the run-up to playing him, so I read him with a worker’s mind, with a job to do, as opposed to a world I disappeared to when I was 12 years old. I looked at it from a very practical point of view. Weirdly, I didn’t feel a massive pressure, so now I’m just reaping the whirlwind of it now. Maybe I should have felt it more, but at the time, I take these things on thinking, why not? It’s acting. I have a right to play it, I guess.

– Noelene Clark | @NoeleneClark | Google+

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