The perfect Bilbo

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Martin Freeman speaks of his experience as Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, writes Bibi Nurshuhada Ramli

THE Lord Of The Rings director Peter Jackson remarked that British actor Martin Freeman is probably a person he’d call closest to a hobbit.

“I’d say he can talk,” Freeman retorts jokingly in response to the flattering comment during a Press junket for the highly anticipated film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, in New York recently.

Jackson and the producers of the film all agreed that Freeman was their first and only choice to play Bilbo Baggins.

Freeman, best known for his role as Dr John Watson in the BBC TV series Sherlock, only did one taping for the role in 2010. Guillermo del Toro was to direct The Hobbit then, but when Jackson took over the position, both insisted that Freeman play Bilbo.

“They have always been making it very clear that they wanted me, which is very nice. I don’t feel enormous pressure, though, because the biggest star of the film is the film itself, or perhaps Peter.

“I keep hearing that comment (that I’m like a hobbit),” Freeman continues. “I’m only a probably because I think Peter is the person closest to a hobbit. I did leave home for 18 months (to shoot the film in New Zealand). He didn’t (because New Zealand is his home).”

Jackson, who directed the Oscar-winning and highly acclaimed Lord Of The Rings (LOTR) trilogy, returns to his directorial chair, and to Middle Earth with The Hobbit, based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel of the same name.
It will be made into a trilogy, with the first part being The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

Set 60 years before Frodo (Elijah Wood) is set to have his own adventure, Bilbo Baggins is swept into an epic quest along with Gandalf The Grey (Ian McKellen) and 13 dwarfs, including the legendary dwarf warrior Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). Together, they brave mountains, goblins, Orcs and trolls to reach the lost kingdom of Erebor, which was conquered by the nefarious dragon Smaug.

“The Hobbit is much lighter than LOTR. It is just as epic but Bilbo is essentially a lighter character than Frodo,” says Freeman who will reprise his role as Bilbo in the second and third instalments of the trilogy — The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) and The Hobbit: There And Back Again (2014).

PLAYING BILBO

Bilbo’s colourful past, shown in The Hobbit, had drawn Freeman to play the character. “It’s a really lovely story. He’s a complex character, but I don’t mean that we created a complexity from what is essentially a simple book.

“He has a story arc where he starts as what he is and ends up being something very different. For an actor, that is always good because you get to play with different colours and shades. I like that.”

Bilbo is tame and home-loving, but he goes through circuitous routes that lead him to something dark. “I like playing different things within a story, because I believe we are all those things. No one is all nice, and no one is all unpleasant. It may sound simple to say, but it is often overlooked in
story-telling.”

When asked if he thinks he shares any similarities with his character, Freeman answers with a straight face and without missing a beat: “Same face. Smaller feet, though.”

Smiling, he continues, “I think the universal thing about Bilbo as a character and why he is so loved is because he is the closest thing to us in the book. Most humans want peace, a quiet, comfortable life and to be at home. If I’m like Bilbo because I like being at home with my family, then that means everyone is like Bilbo.

“He’s likeable, but he’s pompous and a snob. He has to learn not to be. Once he’s on the road, he learns that the things he held dear in Bag End (his home) are of no consequence at all. His prejudice towards uncouth dwarves doesn’t matter either because they’re the only friends he has, plus Gandalf, of course.”

Freeman also loved the character change in Bilbo, from signing the contract to join the dwarfs’ adventure, to stealing the ring from Gollum.

“He chooses to keep the ring a secret because he knows there’s something about the ring that will intrinsically be helpful. He doesn’t know what it is yet, but seeing Gollum’s reaction when he loses it tells him that it is too late to give it back.”

WORKING WITH ANDY SERKIS AND PETER JACKSON

The confrontational scene between Bilbo and Gollum is one of the most memorable and pivotal scenes from the book, and Freeman is glad it was adapted well. “Andy (Serkis, who plays Gollum through motion-capture) is amazing. We shot the scene over and over for about 10 days.”

“It was a really nice way to work because you’re working with someone who ups your game and makes you better.”

Freeman has a unique comment about Serkis. “He has the strongest body I’ve ever hugged. It’s like hugging a wall. I know there are more ripped people than him, but when you knock on his back, it would sound like...” He knocks on the table twice. “That. There’s nothing on him except sinew.

“You can see why, because he is always working as Gollum. He’s on his knuckles and ankles all day. What he’s able to do with his body is very impressive.”

Serkis also acted as the film’s second unit director. “Andy is one of the nicest, most positive and generous people I’ve ever met. He’s an actor too, so he understands where we stand. He always knew that this is Peter’s film and that he was Peter’s eyes and ears.”

Freeman says that everyone liked going to second unit, because it was a slightly more relaxed atmosphere.

“Andy and Peter are both brilliant, but they are different energies.”

Working with Jackson is another worthwhile experience for Freeman because the latter believes they have a mutual understanding. “We have a similarity where if we don’t have to say that much, we won’t. He trusts that his actors know their job, and I certainly trust him.

“He won’t go into a lecture about what he wants you to do, he just trusts you. And I like that, rather than someone who tells you how he wants you to act.”

Freeman points out that Jackson is much uncomplicated, has a sense of humour and sarcastic (“so am I!”), so they got along very well.

Relatively new to the production team, Freeman feels that he is in good hands. “Most of them had worked on LOTR. The more relaxed people there are, the better.”

ACTION!

The Hobbit is an action adventure film that would naturally require its actors to be in top form. Freeman and the dwarf cast had undergone a boot camp of weapon and movement training and horseback riding.

“I’ve always liked stage fighting in drama school, so I enjoyed the boot camp. I didn’t have the same training as the dwarves’ because they walk differently. They have their own way of walking or carrying themselves.

“I treated Bilbo the same way as I would treat any other character. I gave him a character walk, which is light, quick and always alert for danger.” Freeman agrees that Bilbo isn’t very muscular, but he still wants to be healthy and fit to play the character. It was 18 months of long nights and days of shooting, so stamina-wise, he needed the preparation.

Did he run eight kilometres a day? “Hell, no,” Freeman admits, looking ashamed but honest. “I run quite regularly, maybe for half-an-hour, but not that far.”

Freeman has had his share of stunts. “I like being physical and doing as much as it is wise to do. I had a very good stunt double, Brett Sheerin. If someone says, ‘Do you want to jump off a 6 metre wall?’ I’d say, ‘There’s Brett.’” He chuckles. “I’ll do what is sensible.

“Brett is a really good actor, too. He actually studied me. He wants his moments in the film to be seamless.”

The most challenging scene for him to shoot was when they had to move away from the stone giants. “In the sound stage, a huge portion of it was a real build of a mockup mountain. The rain and wind machine were on full-blast.

“The rain is falling heavily, the wind is louder than earthquake. The rain is going into your wig, the glue is flowing into your eyes. You can’t see or hear anything. I think there was a cue from Peter: ‘Martin, can you open your eyes a bit?’ I can’t! I can’t unglue them!” It was a hysterical moment for Freeman — he was laughing like an 11-year-old girl because he couldn’t get over the fact how ridiculous it was.

NEW TECHNOLOGY

Unlike LOTR, The Hobbit incorporates a more modern filming technology, employing a 48 frames-per-second 3D format. There is more clarity to the picture, giving the characters in the film a lifelike disposition.

It didn’t prove to be a problem at all for Freeman as an actor, who chose to focus solely on portraying Bilbo, rather than letting the technology be a hindrance to his acting.

“There was a lot of green screen on this job as you can imagine, but essentially I just saw that as tapping into the same thing that I was doing when I was five and playing soldiers,” Freeman says.

“If you have a clear direction on what or where the mark is on the green screen, or as long as you know where you’re running from or to, then you’re good to go. “I got on better than I thought I would. I thought I wouldn’t like it but I did because I liked the mixture of CGI and the actual materials.

“There were plenty of times that we were sitting at real tables or running over real hills to make the green screen better. I think if I were to do 18 months of CGI, I would’ve found that difficult.”

Playing Bilbo also entails wearing large prosthetic Hobbit feet. “Running in them was okay for me. It took a bit of practice, by the way. I got the hang of it after about a week.”

Freeman says that the feet took longer to put on during LOTR days, but for The Hobbit, it took about 10 minutes, thanks to newer technology.

Freeman is very thankful for it, because he is a “big fan of not waking up at 5 o’clock in the morning.” Any extra time in bed is a progress for him.

The Hobbit also sees the return of old characters from LOTR, including Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Saruman (Christopher Lee). Other cast members include Benedict Cumberbatch, James Nesbitt, Ken Stott and Aidan Turner.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey opened in cinemas yesterday, both in 2D and 3D.

 

Once Bilbo joins the quest, he has to leave behind his home and general opinion on dwarfs.

Freeman has high admiration for Serkis, who has a challenging role as Gollum and second unit director.

The new 3D technology offers breathtaking visuals for viewers.


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