The star of The Office and Sherlock steps into the hairy feet of JRR Tolkien’s beloved fantasy character
As soon as Peter Jackson, the director of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, announced he was going to bring The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien’s other classic work of fantasy – to the big screen, rumours began circulating about who was going to play the lead. Film website imdb.com claims Daniel Radcliffe, James McAvoy, Tobey Maguire and Shia LaBeouf were all names in the frame. But according to the director himself, there was only ever one person on his wishlist: Martin Freeman.
“From a studio point of view, there is no way I would have been first choice – no way,” Freeman humbly tells Time Out. “But what was nice is that artistically I was first in the queue. If you listen to Peter there was no queue – it was just me. And if that's not true, it’s a nice lie.”
Freeman heads up an all-star cast including the likes of Sir Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Orlando Bloom and Andy Serkis, who all knew each other well from The Lord of the Rings. But there was at least one familiar face on set. Benedict Cumberbatch – Freeman’s co-star in the hugely successful BBC series Sherlock – plays the dragon Smaug.
Freeman had no idea if he was a good choice for the lead because he’d never read The Hobbit before he bagged the part. “But then I thought well I suppose I’d better read it,” he says, rolling his eyes and sighing theatrically.
So what did he read as a child if he wasn’t interested in fantasy? “George Orwell and lots of politics – even when I was 11. I was always quite intelligent but I did horrendously badly at school. I was never academic unfortunately. Well, I say ‘unfortunately’ but fuck it, I’m the Hobbit! It’s not held me back frankly.”
Freeman seems unfazed about stepping into such an iconic character’s shoes – or rather, big hairy feet. “Yes, I have prosthetic feet and a wig and ears,” he says. “Compared to the rest of the cast I get off quite lightly but compared to anything else you would normally do in your life, that’s fucking big. I was in [make-up] for an hour and 15 minutes every day and then when I went down to set, I would put the feet on and that would take another 10 minutes.”
The movie’s subtitle – “An Unexpected Journey” – is rather apposite. Filming was initially beset by delays due to the writers’ strike in Hollywood and then the bankruptcy of MGM Studios that meant that the first-choice director Guillermo del Toro had to pull out. This left executive producer Jackson to take up the directorial reins too, filming in 3D and – in a cinematic first – pin-sharp 48 frames per second instead of the usual 24fps.
Given that The Hobbit is just one 360-page book, it’s remarkable that Jackson is squeezing a trilogy out of it. Initially there were only supposed to be two parts, which were made concurrently in a mammoth 18-month shoot based in Wellington, New Zealand. But at the wrap party in July, Jackson announced to the cast and crew that he would, in fact, be calling them back again next year to flesh out the story for a third film. “We’d smelt something in the air,” says Freeman. “We were thinking: ‘Is this really going to be the end?’ Turns out, it wasn’t.”
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey opens Dec 26.
Five fast Hobbit facts
1 Oxford academic JRR Tolkien wrote the novel in the mid 1930s as a distraction from marking school certificate papers
2 Stanley Unwin of Allen & Unwin asked his 10-year-old son Rayner to assess the manuscript. Rayner wrote: “It should appeal to children between the ages of 5 and 9”
3 A 77-minute animated TV film of The Hobbit was made in 1977 by Rankin/Bass. Aimed at younger audiences, it got a mixed reception
4 Ian Holm played the older Bilbo in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and returns in The Hobbit trilogy in bookend sequences with Elijah Wood (Frodo)
5 The number 11 has mythic significance in Tolkien’s work and The Hobbit will be released just on 11 years after The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring