Bilbo Baggins actor on dragons, fame and Sherlock Holmes
Martin Freeman reprises his role in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, out next week. Here, he talks accents, interviews and getting mixed up with Morgan Freeman.
‘I’ve been doing interviews for years,’ says Martin Freeman. ‘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 – conducted across an oceanic glass coffee table in London’s iconic Claridge’s Hotel – hadn’t gone bounding off script. Ostensibly, the 42-year-old is here to promote his starring role in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the middle film in director Peter Jackson’s three-part return to Middle Earth, following last year’s billion-dollar grossing The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. And of course there’s Sherlock, in which he stars as Dr Watson to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes, back for a third series on UK TV screens very soon.
Between the projects, for a couple of weeks, anyway, Freeman will be the biggest star on Earth. But neither bears much in the way of news: The Hobbit, for all Jackson’s intervention, remains a 76-year-old story; and every conceivable explanation behind Sherlock’s death-defying leap at the end of the last series has already been speculated, counter-speculated, and counter-counter-speculated at least twice. So instead of dwelling on dwarves and detectives we move on to other subjects. Naturally, Morgan Freeman, accents and the trouble with interviews are among them.
Your character, Bilbo, developed quite a bit during The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. What can we expect in The Desolation of Smaug? 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 backsides on numerous occasions, so he’s really, really needed. He finds more character, more backbone, than he knew he had.
The last time you spoke with Time Out was just before the release of An Unexpected Journey. Our interviewer suggested your life was bound to change. Have you yourself had to develop more backbone? I remember having those conversations before The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy came out [in 2005] and thinking, is everything going to change? And it didn’t, really. I’m a big believer that life changes as much as you want it to. If you invite in all the madness, it will. If you don’t, if you kind of let the world quietly know that, ‘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 at fault 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.
Both The Hobbit and Sherlock breed cult-grade devotion. Are there any obvious differences between each group of fans? In the UK, anyway, Sherlock is watched by millions and millions of people: your uncle, my cousin, that teacher, that librarian, that plumber. Normal folks. But the ones who really make themselves known are almost all women between 16 and 21. It’s a very clear demographic. As for Hobbit fans, there are clearly loads of them given how well the film did, but they’ve been a bit more reticent, actually. They’re very polite.
You’ve just signed on to Fargo, an American telly series based on the Coen brothers’ Academy Award-winning film. 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. My character’s great; there are similarities between him and William H Macy’s character [from the 1996 film]. Billy Bob Thornton’s in it too, and his character teaches mine to take control in ways that aren’t always saintly.
Have you started to work on the accent? I’m having Skype lessons and, well, pride comes before a fall but I think I’m doing OK. 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 do. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is in cinemas across Dubai from Thursday December 12.
More Hobbit Stuff
Bilbo does a lot more fighting this time round. Was that fun? ‘I do enjoy fighting, actually. Fighting wargs [giant wolves kept by orcs] is good fun.’
And how do you simulate that? ‘Usually it’s the stunt team dressed in green-screen kind of ninja outfits carrying a big head that you’ve got to stick with a sword or whatever, so that when it barges at you you’ve actually got something to react to.’
Do you get proper training in terms of that? ‘Yeah, you do quite a lot if for no other reason than fitness. It ended up being quite a gruelling shoot – less so for me than for others. At least I wasn’t carrying 50kg like the dwarves with fat suits, armour, equipment and clothes. Those beards alone were a kilogram. But I still had to stay healthy.’
Do you feel more of a tough guy in your personal life having had all that training? ‘I know if I get started on by a warg or if any elves step to me, I’ll be fine.’
Benedict Cumberbatch does the voice for Smaug, the film’s titular dragon. Between this and Sherlock it almost feels as though your careers are bound by fate.
‘We both do Sherlock; that’s a job two actors do. And I knew they wanted him for Smaug ages ago, but I don’t think they’re being cute: “Hey look! It’s the Sherlock people!” He was just good casting for Smaug. I don’t think it feels like we’re bound together, but it’s definitely a good time for us.’