To play Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson's three-part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's “The Hobbit,” Martin Freeman left his home in London and traveled to one of the farthest points on the globe. Freeman spent 266 days in New Zealand, which doubled for Tolkien's Middle Earth in both the “Hobbit” films and Jackson's “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, and the lengthy, faraway shoot became what Freeman called “a war of attrition.”
“Acting generally is a very, very enjoyable job. Nice work if you can get it, but that doesn't mean it's not hard,” Freeman said during a recent phone interview to talk about the latest installment, “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.” “It doesn't mean it's not ... tiring. So it's basically about pacing yourself when you're doing something for that long. What feels different about it is that you wake up on Day 215 and go, ‘Wow — I'm still playing this character.' Apart from that, your job doesn't change.”
Jackson and writing partners Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo Del Toro have earned reputations for sweating the details, but as of now, Freeman said there are no plans for reshoots. Principal shooting is complete for the final third of the trilogy, 2014's “The Hobbit: There and Back Again,” so with Jackson concentrating on postproduction, Freeman said there is nothing in his schedule that suggests he would need to go there and back again. He chalks that up to the fact that so much was handled during the actual shoot, including quite a few on-the-fly changes.
“They're perfectionists, you know?” Freeman said. “If there was something they thought was OK two months ago and they got a better idea last night, you'll be seeing it this morning on a piece of paper.”
“The Desolation of Smaug,” which covers the middle period of “The Hobbit,” chronicles how Bilbo and the dwarves of Erebor led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) travel through the forest of Mirkwood, are captured by the Wood Elves and then escape to the human settlement of Lake Town. The film culminates with Bilbo facing Smaug, the dragon that laid waste to Erebor and settled in the bowels of Lonely Mountain, covered in the gold he stole from the dwarves.
Smaug is voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, Freeman's co-star in “Sherlock,” the BBC's rapturously received modernization of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's “Sherlock Holmes” stories — Freeman is Dr. Watson to Cumberbatch's Holmes.
While Freeman shares considerable screen time with the massive dragon in “The Desolation of Smaug,” he said there was no actual interaction with Cumberbatch, so he was not able to draw much from the chemistry they enjoy on the series.
Freeman simply had to match wits with a tennis ball.
“Well, Ben isn't a dragon, so I'm not imagining Ben, I'm imagining a 400-foot lizard,” Freeman said. “I couldn't even imagine Marlon Brando, though one should never mention Benedict and Marlon Brando in the same breath — he doesn't need that. Don't give him any more ideas, please.
“But obviously, I can imagine his voice,” he said. “I know Ben's voice pretty well and knew what he might be doing as Smaug, but it was somebody else reading his words, and it was me looking at tennis balls. It would be nice to think that, because of ‘Sherlock,' we would have this symbiosis that would conquer everything.”
The value of ‘Sherlock'
The irony is that “Sherlock” made both Cumberbatch and Freeman much bigger and busier stars, so busy that filming the “Hobbit” trilogy and a spate of other work made going back to “Sherlock” much harder. In a 2012 interview on Chris Hardwick's “Nerdist” podcast, “Sherlock” co-creator Stephen Moffat said that while he was confident it would happen, bringing the series back for a third season would require a great deal of work, considering his stars' packed schedules.
Fortunately, Freeman and Cumberbatch are returning to 221B Baker Street in January, thanks to their considerable dedication to the series.
In Freeman's case, he was willing to go halfway around the world to get back there from the “Hobbit” set.
“We did it with great difficulty, with a lot of work and negotiation and finding bits of time here and there,” Freeman said. “Stephen's busy, (co-creator) Mark Gatiss is busy and Ben and I are busy, thank God. But it's always worth being part of something you value. ‘Sherlock' is not just another gig. ‘Sherlock' is special. It really is, and we're all really proud of it. I wouldn't take it lightly at all. I think if you can, you should make time for it.”