‘The Hobbit’s’ Martin Freeman on being Bilbo and Benedict Cumberbatch as Smaug

If there is one thing Martin Freeman is not, it is a man who buys into his own hype.

“All I had heard before this film started was that I was the only person who could ever play Bilbo. I know that’s not true,” says Freeman during a Q&A on the New Zealand set of “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.” “That’s clearly not fucking true, because no actor is the only person who can do anything.”

As a matter of fact, Freeman even questioned whether Peter Jackson was happy with his performance in the early days of production – despite having heard that he was the director’s first choice for the role.

“Indeed, that’s what he said. So I was thinking, ‘Oh, okay,'” Freeman tells us. “But then the first few days start, I thought, ‘Well, I don’t know if he’s this thrilled with what I’m doing. And I don’t know if I’m really that thrilled with what I’m doing.’ So yeah, it took– I would say there was a period of negotiation where I was thinking, ‘Why is he saying that?’ And he was probably thinking, ‘Why is he doing that?'”

What he was doing – at least in his very first scene – was to unwittingly channel Elijah Wood’s performance as Frodo, a mismatch in tone that Jackson quickly set out to correct.

“When we started filming, my first stuff was with Gollum and Gollum’s cave, and I think…I was subconsciously playing Frodo,” he says. “Because he is the nearest thing to Bilbo in those films. He’s the audience, effectively, and he carries the story and he carries the humanity or the hobbitity of it through the story. And Pete said a good thing, he’s like, ‘This is a different thing. It’s something that your children are going to want to watch,’ and it’s a family story and it’s more like– Not that it’s as crass as ‘then I just changed all my acting,’ but just internally I was able to get a clearer picture of tone…It’s not [the] deep, dark, quasi-religious, heavy, symbolic thing that ‘Lord of the Rings’ is.”

The actor, sitting before us out of costume (if not out of his pointy hobbit ears), is light-hearted and witty but also a straight-shooter, never mincing words as he offers a refreshingly honest take on the often very difficult work that goes into making a film – not to mention one as wildly ambitious as this.

“If you come out of the blocks at a hundred miles an hour, within four weeks you’ll be burned out, because if you have that kind of youthful impatience about it or that youthful vigor…you’ll be dead in a month,” he tells us. “You have to do your time. You have to, in a way, just get your head down and do the work and not expect every day to bring riches and not expect every minute to bring wild excitement, ’cause it just doesn’t. It doesn’t on films, anyway. We all know that people who’ve never been on a film set think it’s way more glamorous than the people who work on them. We know this to be a universal truth, and this is no exception. Especially if it’s something that goes on this long.”

So long, in fact, that it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture – which is why, when Freeman actually saw the trailer for the first installment during a trip to a Wellington movie theater, it was jarring to see the vision he’d had such a hard time picturing up to that point projected on a big screen.

“I didn’t get a tear in the eye, but I got kind of excited,” he says. “Because you go, ‘this is real.’ It’s very easy to go through this period and not really think it’s going to come out, because it’s like an elongated ‘Big Brother’ or something. ‘Is this really true? Is this an experiment?’ Because it’s so far off. …It’s kind of like you’ve been taken away, put in this place, in this island down here, making this film that is clearly never going to come out because it’s too big and too unwieldy or whatever. And you can’t quite believe it’s real. So when you see a trailer, you think, ‘Well, we’ve got to bring it out now.’ Contractually, we have to honor that, otherwise we get sued.”

But back to the whole “Martin Freeman is the only actor alive who can play Bilbo Baggins” thing. Freeman seems to be inching closer to an acceptance of the idea, however grudgingly, when one reporter mentions that the production actually went so far as to accommodate his “Sherlock” Season 2 filming schedule right in the middle of production.

“They did,” he concurs. “And I’m realizing there is a limit to how modest I can be about this. Yes. I don’t know how self-effacing I can be and it not sound like absolute bullshit. Yes, they love me. They love me. I can’t help it. I said it. Yeah, it’s an amazing compliment. It’s an amazing compliment and one that I still find quite hard to fathom. I couldn’t believe it at the time. It was like my agent was playing a joke on me when he said, ‘They’re going to put it into different sections so you can do ‘Sherlock.””

Speaking of “Sherlock,” fans of the popular BBC series will recognize a familiar voice when Smaug takes the screen, as the dragon is voiced by none other than Freeman’s patner in crime/Tumblr Gif magnet Benedict Cumberbatch. Not that Freeman had the pleasure of enjoying his co-star’s presence on set.

“He wasn’t there,” he tells us. “He had recorded his stuff before I got there for this last block. And I had Leith [McPherson], our dialect coach, reading in over the Voice of God, the sort of amplified mic [as Smaug]. ‘Amplified mic?’ What am I, my fucking grandfather? ‘Amplified mic.’ Shit. Over the cat’s whisker of the radio and the valves of the gramophone player. So yeah, that was all done with her voice, very, very loud, and me reacting to it. …But I’m familiar with Ben’s voice and Peter had played me his read as it stands there…So I had Ben’s voice in my head while I’m getting the dialogue from Leith.”

Of course, on a film like “The Hobbit,” pretending that something or someone is there when they’re actually not is par for the course. Take Smaug, for instance – a CG creation that required Freeman to fully engage his imagination during filming.

“Lots of tennis balls,” he says of the visual aids used to approximate where Smaug would be inserted digitally later on. “Yeah, and different cue lights changing for when Smaug is going to be– Because obviously he moves a lot quicker than anyone on two legs does, any human does, so even that eye line would be too slow…so it’s a lot of really rudimentary Theater 101.”

Despite the massive scale of the trilogy – “The Hobbit” is by far the biggest endeavor of his career, budget-wise – it is in the film’s smaller, more dialogue-driven scenes that Freeman feels truly at home. As an example he brings up a scene in which Bilbo must conceal the fact that he has pocketed the Arkenstone – a precious gem found during the raid on the Lonely Mountain that the hobbit is planning to use as leverage for a peace deal between the dwarves and the devastated residents of Lake-town – from the dwarf Bofur (played by James Nesbitt).

“Bofur intimates that, ‘I know you want to leave us because we’re having a fucking great battle tomorrow. So if you want to slip away, I won’t tell anybody.’ But he doesn’t know that Bilbo’s got the Arkenstone and Bilbo is going to slip away, but not out of cowardice but because he wants to go and negotiate a peace between the [dwarves and the residents of Lake-town],” says Freeman. “I love the smaller scenes. I love the smaller, slightly more theatrical scenes. It’s what I loved about starting the film off with Gollum, because that wasn’t predicated on it being a huge blockbuster film, it was just two actors in a room, or in a cave.”

When all is said and done, of course, the sheer hugeness of the production – with its attendant worldwide fanbase, merchandising opportunities and billion dollars in box-office – means that whatever else he does in his career going forward, “The Hobbit” may well remain the thing Freeman is most identified with. So is he okay with being pegged as “Bilbo” for the rest of his life?

“I don’t mind that as long as it’s good and as long as I’m good,” he says. “I mean, if I’m pleased with the work I do in it and if I like the film, and I’m pretty sure I will like the film, I’d be happy with that. …When you’re younger, you can see that kind of thing as a prison more, you can see it more as a trap…Well, actually, the older you get–twenty-nine (he jokes)–the more you think actually you should be so lucky that you do a role where people identify that with you anyway, because most actors don’t get one. Do you know what I mean? So I think the fact that I’ve had a few, and this is another one, I’m really, yeah, I’m very lucky with that, yeah.”

“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” hits theaters on December 13.