It may be nearly a decade since the last Lord of the Rings film (2003’s The Return of the King), yet each of the franchise’s three instalments are still among the 30 highest-grossing movies ever. The trilogy is based on JRR Tolkien’s three-part novel, itself one of the best-selling books of all time. So perhaps it was inevitable that director Peter Jackson would turn his attentions to that book’s predecessor, The Hobbit, a children’s novel containing the same characters, plus a similar plot and scenarios.
It’s been a long journey. In 2007 it was announced Jackson would act as executive producer for two films based on The Hobbit. A year later, Pan’s Labyrinth director Guillermo del Toro was hired – but after co-writing the script with Jackson, del Toro left the project in 2010. Jackson then took the director’s chair himself, before announcing this summer he would extend his adaptation to run to three films, with sequels expected annually in December 2013 and 2014. The first instalment, An Unexpected Journey, is released in the UAE on Thursday December 13: here we hear from 41-year-old British actor Martin Freeman about taking on the role of Bilbo Baggins.
How did you feel when they confirmed you had the lead in The Hobbit?
It was amazing. I couldn’t believe it – it was like my agent was joking with me. I’m still amazed that it really happened. But I know it really happened, because I’ve just been in
New Zealand for 18 months.
Were you familiar with The Hobbit?
Not really. I knew the concept – I knew The Lord of the Rings as films – but I’d never read it. So I read it in the run-up, when I started talking to Guillermo del Toro, who was on board as director. That was the first time.
Have you read it to your kids yet?
Not yet, but I’m sure I will. I know a lot of people who had it read to them, or for whom it was their first book.
Did you look to Ian Holm, who played your character in The Lord of the Rings, for guidance?
I did. I used it as a template for where Bilbo was going to be in 50 or 60 hobbit years. Just certain gesticulations or patterns of speaking. You can’t be hamstrung by it, but I certainly looked at it.
Can you talk about the transition from Guillermo Del Toro to Peter Jackson?
My conversations with Guillermo were all very positive. But then one day he called me, saying, ‘I just want you to know I’m not going to be the director any more. There’s no drama, I just have things I want to do and I have to crack on or I’ll never have the chance to do them’. Then there was some slight umming and aahing about who was going to direct. If it’s not Peter, then who? Because no one else knows Middle Earth that well. And of course I thought: if Guillermo’s gone then maybe that’s my chance out the window. Then when it was formally handed over to Peter, that just carried on. But it’s not a bad choice, you know, Guillermo Del Toro or Peter Jackson. Pete is pretty good. I don’t know how it would have been different with Guillermo, because I didn’t see any of his specific designs. We’ll never know. But I’d love to think that one day I’ll get to work with him on something else.
Obviously this is the biggest project you’ve been involved in.
I’ll never do a bigger film. There aren’t bigger films! This is the biggest film.
How were the hairy feet?
A lot easier, I think, than for the boys on the first trilogy. They took about eight minutes to put on, whereas I think it was between 45 minutes and an hour for the first lot. They’re fantastic, they have real movement to them, they have amazing veins, the puckering of the skin – it’s beautiful. They’re real works of art.
What was it like working with Peter Jackson? Is he as ridiculously dynamic and hard-working as he seems?
He is extremely hard-working. I don’t know how he keeps things in his head, really. He’s editing three films as he’s speaking to you, you go into his little tent and he has every single scene and every single take up there on the screen. Nothing happens on that set without him ultimately yea’ing or nay’ing it. Nothing. He’s still very humorous and he’s still very well liked – he’s informal and doesn’t take himself too seriously.
He loves to do epic reshoots, doesn’t he?
Yeah, he does! People would say to me, how long are you out here for? I’d say, I don’t know, about a year? And they would laugh, like, oh, you fool. Because everyone had been through it before.
Do you feel as though your life is going to change dramatically in the wake of all of this?
Possibly. It’s a hard question because it either implies that I’ll be disappointed if it doesn’t, or poor me if it does. The deal is, I get to do a great gig and play Bilbo, but the price is that another part of my privacy is gone. It’s a huge issue, a very real downside. I like being private. When I signed up as an actor, the culture was slightly different. It’s changed in the past 15 years. It wasn’t expected that you give up your private life. And I intend not to, but at the same time I intend not to kill myself defending it. I’ll pick my battles.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is in UAE cinemas from December 13.