'Hobbit' Star Martin Freeman Helps 'Lord of the Rings' Lighten Up: 'I'm Quite a Whore… I Like Being Funny'

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Although they were a massive gamble at the time, the Lord of the Rings films have become synonymous with big-screen, epic storytelling. Their serious, sweeping take on fantasy filmmaking was something that was not simply commercially successful, but artistically credible, winning awards and legitimizing genre movies more than ever before.

In The Hobbit: An Unexpected Adventure, however, writer-director Peter Jackson maintains the massive scope of its predecessors, but offers audiences a (slightly) more light-hearted adventure, anchored by Martin Freeman’s amazing performance as reluctant Hobbit hero Bilbo Baggins.

Freeman say down with Celebuzz at the film’s New York press day to discuss the challenges of recreating the magic of the first three films, and then finding a tone that would be appropriately fun after the operatic gravitas of the Lord of the Rings series.

Celebuzz: Peter Jackson talked about how you had to juggle your schedule in order to do the movie, but did you have any trepidation about taking on something this enormous and what would be such a commitment?

Martin Freeman: Every time I say it, it sounds like I’m now questioning it, [but] I didn’t feel it, and I am just checking to see if that’s true and it is true. Because I think maybe if I had been in love with The Hobbit since I was 11 then I might have thought that, but I didn’t grow up as a Hobbit child so I wasn’t carrying that weight of that stuff myself. It felt very freeing for me actually, I can get stressed and anxious about almost everything else in life, but not work, because it’s the thing that I feel most confident about. It’s the thing that I really feel I know what I’m doing. But for this kind of thing, also because Pete had made it so clear that they wanted me, and they were so pro me, that’s relaxing. It kind of makes you kind of feel like, all right -- I’m wanted, you know. You didn’t have that sort of actors thing, sometimes thinking “I don't even think this guy digs me very much.” Pete's not a very effusive person -- he’s not a gusher at all -- so when he says something, you sort of trust that he means it. So I didn’t really feel pressured, no; I felt enjoyment.

CB: What was the most important thing for you as you’re coming into portray this younger version of the character Ian Holm played? Was there anything that you specifically drew upon or were you able to create a character for yourself out of whole cloth?

MF: Tolkien created the character, and then Philippa [Boyens], Fran [Walsh] and Pete adapt that for the screenplay, and then I come and do what I’m going to do, and mixed in with that is what Ian Holm did twelve years ago. I obviously re-watched the films more closely this time and re-watched Ian Holm more closely this time. I find it always very hard to talk about because it’s easy to be glib and English and just kind of say, "Well, I’ll just learn my lines and don’t bump into furniture," but that’s not quite true, you know. But at the same time, I didn’t go and live in a hole in the ground for six months to prepare. It’s more sort of subtle and invisible than that. A lot of work you do, you just do immediately without thinking, well, this will look good in Chapter Three of my biography. It’s like sex -- it’s kind of difficult to talk about, do you know what I mean? When you actually get down to it, you kind of go, well, either feels right or doesn’t.

Read the script is what I do, and again that might sound glib, but all the clues should be in there. Everything should be in there. But we're not literally making the novel, we have to be making the screenplay of it. So I treat that as my bible. I would sometimes go back to the book -- but not as often as Ian McKellen did. McKellen always had the book in his hand -- always. Reading the script, I'm a big believer in that and learning lines. That's sounding more glib by the minute! But it's true, man; it's true. I think a lot of the time you can talk yourself around trying to win yourself a Nobel Prize for what you did or didn’t do. I don’t give a fuck what you did or didn’t do. I don’t care apart from what I’m watching on the screen. And if you get there by living in a dust bin, great, and if you get there by kind of doing the crossword and then coming up and doing it, I don’t give a shit. I didn’t do either.

CB: Talk about your collaboration with Peter because this material is lighter than the first three films, but it’s not purely comical. Or did you merely offer 40 versions and leave it to them to find the tone in the editing room?

MF: There was a lot of that, just giving choices. I mean, some of them will be right and some of them won’t be, and I kind of don’t know what they'll be until they come out – that sort of thing. I know super-objectives and all that -- I know what area we're in, so I wouldn’t go completely bananas, but within the tunnel of where we're at there are still 20 different ways to do it. I know he appreciated that choice and I like giving that choice. So, I think a lot of it is just down to taste and good casting. He trusted that I've got some comedy chops. But I'm not a standup, I'm an actor, who can be funny when called on. But yeah, that’s Bilbo -- he is a lighter character, it’s actually true. And there were periods in the early part of filming where I know I sort of felt a bit almost envious. I realized that I wanted to be in Lord of the Rings, you know what I mean?

I was always aching; the thing that I was chomping at the bit about was, when's this going to fucking get dark? Because there were times when I was like, I don’t want to keep playing light. I don’t want to keep playing, excuse me, sort of fluffier Bilbo. And I think in my head, I probably had Elijah [in mind]. He wasn’t really being funny, [though]. And Peter reminded me Frodo and Bilbo are different people, and this is a different film. It’s a film that your kids are going to want to come and see, and will for hopefully decades to come. But I’m usually drawn to darker choices, believe it or not. I think once you've established that you can be funny, all I want to fucking do is then not make them laugh ever again -- I’m just going to take the choices that are going not make people smile.

But at the same time, fuck it. I’m quite a whore and I quite like playing comedy when necessary, and that will also be a natural choice for me; I do like being funny. I like other people being funny and I like laughing. So those dual things are both quite immediate to me. I like being funny but also like being serious.

CB: If the clues should all be in the script, at what point do you feel like you know what a character is? Do you have to know the first day shooting, or is it seeing what you did when they put the final product together and going, "Oh, that’s not really what I had in mind the entire time, but it’s cohesive."

MF: I think you can intellectually think what the character is by the first day, but acting is not an intellectual exercise. It’s more akin to sports actually. It’s like a sort of sport with your brain. It’s not a thinking, you have to do it. And every actor knows that I've got it right in my head, but when it comes out it's just not coming out right. So I had to find Bilbo in the moments with Gollum, which is a perfect place to try to find him because it’s him in a life-and-death situation, which I found was the best place to find him.

CB: Ultimately, what do you feel like was maybe sort of the biggest challenge for you making this? Was there something that demanded use of a skill set that you had never really exercised before?

MF: I think it was the stamina more than anything, actually. I think it was just the mental stamina of just doing something for 18 months. I have never done that before. And 18 months as far away from home as you can possibly be -- cue more Bilbo parallels (laughs). But I think for most people, people want to be in their house, they want to be in their garden at some point, and just keeping a focus and keeping your mind set on this, essentially on a character, when I would never have fucking dreamed that I’m carrying a film. I’m not carrying the film, but the character is taking you through the film. It has to be this person taking you through. So just keeping focused on that for that length of time, I have never done before, and will probably never do again, because these films don’t come along very often. So that was the biggest challenge for me.

Watch the theatrical trailer for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey below. And let us know what you think of Freeman's performance in the comments section after it opens December 14!

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