Martin Freeman Interview
The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies Media Junket
Transcribed by Lauren Jones; Edited by Amanda Aayusya
Published in: All Film #60
(This is an unabridged transcript of the talent interview that appeared in All Film #60, used for the main article and individual actor’s interview pages in the magazine. Please mention All Film if you’re going to post this transcript, and credit Lauren Jones & Amanda Aayusya for the transcription work. Linking here would also be appreciated.)
You’re almost done with the whole Hobbit… do you feel free?
MARTIN FREEMAN: Not yet, not yet… It’s kind of strange, because I haven’t seen the film yet, but I’ve done the last bits of ADR – the last bits of looping – last week. So I’ve only seen snippets of it, and you’re reminded of things you did 2 and a half, 3 years ago, or whatever, you know? When I finished, I thought I’m never going to any more voicing on that, and in a little while the film will open and that will be it. So, I mean… to be honest, I always like things ending. I think things are supposed to end. You know, life is supposed to end, jobs are supposed to end, it’s all supposed to end, so I never particularly get too sad about that, you know? I’m happy, you know, hopefully I’ll like the film and hopefully I’ll be happy with the job we’ve done. And then I’ll find out of Peter is making The Silmarillion or not!
How has it been to have the same setting, the same story, for so long?
Well, it’s like a marathon. Whenever you go away from it, always in the back of your mind is the knowledge you’re going back to that world, and to figuratively and literally that world. And you’re playing that part again, so you always retain an essence of what you’re doing, as Bilbo or as whoever, however long you’re away from it. You’ve got to kind of tap back into it… obviously I’ve not done anything Bilbo-ish for well over a year… and then I come to a studio in Soho, revoicing scenes I did a long time ago, and you have to kind of remember where you were, all that time ago – psychologically, emotionally and everything. And, yeah, it’s a challenge. It’s a challenge. It’s a pleasurable challenge, but you can’t ever fully switch it off.
Did you have to avoid putting anything of Richard III into Bilbo?
No. Although when I was looking at… when I was watching myself on the screen and revoicing, I was wondering, “Why are you using both arms?” Because for the last four and a half months, since rehearsals started, I’ve not used this right arm, at all, everything has just been left handed. I was watching Fargo as well, when it was on telly here, and thinking, “You’re using your right arm… Oh, no, no, no, you’re allowed to!” ‘Cause it’s ingrained in me now: all acting is to be done only left handed. But no, I didn’t put any Richard in. That wouldn’t be quite right for Bilbo.
How was the experience, at the end of the road, mentally and physically?
it was all quite demanding, really. As I say, just because you have to stay there, you have to mentally and emotionally stay in that place, for quite a long time – I don’t mean over lunch, or anything; I wasn’t kind of staying in character the entire time – but you always have to leave part of yourself there, just so you remember who you’re playing, and where you are and what your relationships are with everybody, with the other characters. Long days… but not that long! You know, they’re humane working hours in New Zealand. I’ve done a lot worse. But filming is always tiring, especially if you’re going through a lot of heavy emotional stuff, or a lot of crying, a lot of shouting, fighting and stuff… You’re doing that for hours and hours a day, it’s very tiring. But as you see the finish line come into sight, well, you either get ill, or you either get an exhilaration rush of thinking, “God, we’ve nearly finished this!” And I like finishing things.
Did you get ill?
D’you know what, I didn’t get ill, actually. I think on the last day of filming, that was the only time I got slightly emotional, when Graham McTavish – one of the dwarves – came up to me and said, “It was really good to work with you” and he had a slight catch in his voice and he nearly set me off. And then other people were looking a bit teary and I suddenly got a bit teary and thought, yeah, this has been 2 and a half years of my life, on and off, sharing a huge experience with these people.
Probably because you have children… Maybe this film has more impact, in terms of your filmography, to your children?
Yeah, maybe. Maybe so, yeah. I think they… Well, they definitely like The Hobbit. They like Lord of the Rings. And their friends think it’s quite cool that their dad is Bilbo Baggins. You’re always aware that… Well, actually, whatever I do, any job I do, I kind of think, “I wonder what they’ll make of it?”
Your scenes with Richard Armitage were very intriguing – how did you develop your rapport with him? Did you have to spend time with him outside…
We did. I mean we all spent time, really, as a group, outside, anyway. And it didn’t take me long, with Richard, to like him, you know… I think he’s a very decent person… I think Richard’s a good person, as in not just a laugh, or whatever. He’s a very solidly decent human being. He’s fairly quiet, he fairly keeps himself to himself, in a way that I respect, because I understand that as well. No, we didn’t especially hang out. But also, Bilbo’s and Thorin’s relationship is quite complicated, anyway, so it’s… I think the fact that Richard, while we were filming, kept a slight distance from us anyway, just as Thorin, that helped him to feel slightly isolated. That helped really, ‘cause, I didn’t feel I knew this character inside out. I didn’t feel I was overly familiar with this person. However well I sort of got to know him, there was always a barrier, you know, which is right. Because for Bilbo there would always be a barrier, because he’s quite a foreboding person.
The synopsis they gave us says, “Unable to help Thorin see reason, Bilbo is driven to make a desperate and dangerous choice, not knowing that even greater perils lie ahead.” So, can you tell us about that…
What do you think? The answer to that would be, “No, I can’t.” [everyone laughs] Apparently, I’ve just been given a list of all the ones I can’t say. I can talk about the fucking weather…
The Hobbit is a growing up story and the centre of that is Bilbo. He starts out very childlike and by the end he’s really made some very hard decisions, and this film is going to be the one where he makes the hard ones. How was that, as an actor, to get from that innocence to that growth?
Well, it’s fun… it’s fun to play changes. It’s fun to go through different stages with a character, obviously helped and directed by the script. None of this is ever your idea, “Oh, I think he’s going to do this…” You are directed by the novel, and then by the screenplay, so it’s nice having those parameters, within which you play. So at first you see him as an innocent, and everything that that involves… Incrementally, he starts to change, the hard bit is… [Martin coughs] Excuse me.
Because, obviously, you’re shooting a lot of the time out of sequence, so the hard bit is, what percent child is he now? He starts at 100% child and, by the end he’s, a lot less percent child… You can tell I’ve not worked this out… Halfway through his journey, whereabouts is he? That’s the conversation I had a lot, with Peter: where is he now? ‘Cause what you’re shooting on Monday might be month five. What you’re shooting on Tuesday might be month two. So it was just that technical aspect of where exactly he is on his – [I’m] trying to get through this interview without saying the word ‘journey’ – on his thing, on his mission. He changes a lot, while being the same essential person.
Was it hard to play Bilbo’s innocence? Do you find that easy, or was it harder to do?
It’s harder. Well, it’s harder for me, sort of, because I’m not… yeah, that’s not very me. D’you know what I mean? I mean, I can access it, and I can tap into it. And it’s comedically… I suppose, it immediately lends itself more to comedy, ’cause I’ve grown up all my life, watching Laurel and Hardy, so I tap into that side of my taste, that wide eyed innocence and being a slight idiot, although Bilbo’s not an idiot… So that, for me, is more of a challenge. Also, ’cause it’s more of a challenge to do that and not overact, you know? Not to do what we call ‘mugging to the audience’, begging to be approved of and liked, you know? I’m somewhere more in the… my natural state is something more, further down the line, a bit more cynical, a bit more angry.
Is there anything that you particularly liked doing?
That’s a hard question. Because I mean, I really… There were so many, as you would imagine, there are a lot of scenes, and they’re all enjoyable in different ways to do. I like fighting. I like when he starts to get involved in the battle we can’t talk about…
In the armies! [everyone laughs]
I’ll give you a clue: it’s 4 plus 1. [more laughing] I mean, again, my taste as an actor is more toward… I am less enthralled in sort of running around, away from an imaginary something, than I am in two people looking at each other and having it out. I like those scenes. I like the emotions, the psychological aspect of acting; it’s probably, subconsciously, why I got into it in the first place, so I like talky scenes, really. I like those. Je has a few of those with Thorin, he has a few of those with Bofur, Jimmy Nesbitt’s character… and I’m saying all this, but I’ve not seen the film. I don’t know how much of this is gonna be there, but I know I did them! I certainly made them, I don’t know if they’ll be in the film. I like the stakes being high, I suppose, for Bilbo. By this time in the story, the stakes are high, one hundred percent of the time. I like playing against odds, and I like the feeling that any minute now, a big iron fist can come down and crush him and he has to find ways round it. I like that.
Did you use the book, the original book, as a reference?
To be honest, not once I’d read it, no. I think, once I was familiar with the book, my bible was the screenplay, really. Yeah, that was the thing that I carried around. McKellen would always have the book, and he would kind of be very, very good at pointing things out – little character things, or story things. So that was good for him… But for me, the thing we were doing was the screenplay. This is now Peter, Fran and Phil’s story. Of course Professor Tolkein is the main man, but, you know, we’re not literally doing that book, because he didn’t write all the dialogue that’d they’ve written and he didn’t write the stage directions… So, yeah, my thing was the screenplay itself. Once I had sort of ingested the novel, I didn’t carry it around anymore.
I just saw your Richard, which was extraordinary…
Oh, thanks. I hope, thanks… You might have meant terrible…
No, I don’t usually see Richard IIIs, because I’m a Ricardian, so…
I just wondered if you’d noticed a change in your theatre audiences, having gone from National Treasure to International Treasure?
Well, thank you. Well, one thing that I’m really proud of, that I think we’re all proud of at the Trafalgar (Theatre), is… We worked out… they’re very big on, like everyone is now, on statistics, and statistics of audience… 55% of the people who’ve come to see it are first time theatregoers and I’m really proud of that. I think if you can get people to see what I hope is an invigorating and enlivening night in the theatre, spoken in language that we don’t really use for the last four hundred years, and people are usually very, very welcoming of it, I hope that brings that 19-year-old person back to the theatre to see something else.
And, yes, I’ve seen some faces there several times. There are people seeing it, almost as many times as we’re doing it, which is their prerogative… I mean, I would probably advise them to go and see another one of London’s great plays. But, yeah, it’s a lot of young people… And there were some cynical voices, before we started, saying “Oh, they’re just getting… they’re playing the young people card by getting Martin Freeman involved”, as if that was a bad thing, d’you know what I mean? Because in 20 years, where’s the theatre audience gonna come from? If it is only rarefied, white middle-class people of seventy, they’re all gonna be dead soon! So we need – and I’m not saying that ours is the only play that does it, obviously – but this is a conversation that theatre has been having with itself since John Osborne in 1958, about new theatre, about new audience, young audiences. If you want people to still be engaged… young people are going to have to come and join in. And in order for that to happen, you don’t have to play down to them, you don’t have to patronise them.
We’re doing the show that we want to do, but we’re making it, hopefully, genuinely exciting. Not theoretically exciting, which, you know, is very often not exciting at all. “Oh, this is so daring!” No, it’s not daring… Ask an 18-year-old if it’s really exciting. And if an 18-year-old says, “Yes, I was excited by that,” then it probably was sort of exciting. It doesn’t mean we’re… We’re not doing a watered down pop musical version of it. We’re doing the play, as well as we can possibly do it. And, lo and behold, young people have responded! And if some of them come through the door for me, great! But the fact, if they stay, and they get the play, that’s not because they’re fans of Bilbo or John Watson. That’s because we’ve done a good production. So, I’ve been delighted with it.
Ian McKellen did his amazing version onscreen…
Well, it wasn’t that good… [laughs]
Did you ask him for tips? Did he give you any feedback?
I certainly did not ask him for tips, no. Obviously I think Ian is brilliant, and his Richard III was brilliant… but no, I didn’t ask him for tips. I didn’t really ask anybody for tips, because I didn’t see myself as being in the line of people who’ve played Richard III. I just thought, “Well, I’m doing a play.” You know, we treated Richard III like it was a new play. We treated it as if someone had presented this to us as they do at the Royal Court or the National or whatever. What bits need cutting, what bits need zipping up, what bits need really pointing out… And we treated it like that, rather than the gospels, you know what I mean, like these must be held up in aspic. Because that’s bullshit. Because that’s how theatre ends up as a museum, you know.
Well, [Ian] came to see it. He was very nice about it, and he offered a bit of advice, which was good, actually… it was good advice. I took his advice… which was to do it all in English; ’cause before I’d been doing it in Czech. [laughs] No, he did offer me a bit of feedback, and it was good feedback. He’s very smart… obviously he’s a very talented man. It wasn’t lost on me. I was glad he didn’t tell me he was coming in. He texted me after he’d seen it, and I was glad I didn’t know he was there, or it would have made me kind of nervous.
I don’t generally seek out advice, not because I think I don’t need it, but because I know I’ll get it from the director. And I’ll get it from the other actors, and I’ll get it from the experience of doing it. I think sometimes, as soon as you take on too many things, it just weighs you down… and you can only ever do your version of anything. That’s why I wasn’t… I was very pleased Ian Holm seemed to like what I did as Bilbo. But I wasn’t in a massive hurry to drive down to his house and say, “How should I do it?” ‘Cause I’m doing it… d’you know what I mean? It’s my go.
You’ve been talking about doing theatre. But what is it do you prefer – theatre or cinema?
I think for a long time… Well, when I left drama school – probably for the first few years after drama school – I would have said theatre, without question. ‘Cause when I started working in front of a camera, I don’t think I really knew what I was doing, I didn’t feel I knew what I was doing, and I felt much more at home in a rehearsal room. Some people think, “Oh you like theatre because it’s the stuff you get back from the audience” and most actors, me included, say, “No, we like rehearsing, actually.” It’s the six weeks you spend digging around, excavating what is actually going on in the play that you really enjoy, and sharing it with an audience is just a bonus. You don’t get that in film or television – you don’t get to really, really rehearse. In film and television, rehearsals are often very perfunctory. They’re just, well, “you’ll stand there and I’ll do that and the camera will sort of be…” It’s not a rehearsal. At best, you’re blocking it. But over the years, the more I’ve done [things] in front of a camera, I’ve also come to really love that aspect of it, love the speed of that, and love the discipline of you have to come knowing what you’re doing. And of course, there will still be times when you need help, and there are times you don’t know what you’re doing, and that’s also part of the nice struggle, as well. I couldn’t choose between any of them. I mean I can’t envisage a life where I’ll never do a play again. I love theatre, but I also love camera work now as well. I’ve got better at it, and I’ve got comfortable with it, over the years, and I sort of feel more I know what I’m doing there now. Whereas, for a long time, it just seemed this big enemy, sticking its face in mine, and making everyone act weird. Your rehearsal would be natural, your rehearsal would be very fluid, and then, all of a sudden, “Action!” and you freeze up! And I don’t feel that, anymore. I feel absolutely relaxed in front of a camera now. Not a stills camera – I hate those! – but a film camera, of course.
And you feel the same with doing a TV series?
Yes. I think there are different paces and there are different budgets and there are different schedules, but the same principles… the principle for me are absolutely the same. I see no difference at all between film and television. Because the best television is what it is, and there are some terrible films… [laughs] So what I think try and do is do films and television that I like, that I think is quality, at least in my taste. So I think the principle is exactly the same. Your job is to tell the truth in front of that lens, and that’s it. And, beyond that, then it’s just differences in speed and budget, but the art form, I think, from my point of view, is still the same, absolutely the same.
Audio Files available here: