Unadventurous and bucolic, Hobbits aren’t exactly the most impressive creatures to inhabit the lands of Middle-earth in J. R. R. Tolkien’s fiction.
It is, therefore, unsurprising to hear British actor Martin Freeman’s objection to director Peter Jackson’s description of him as a real life Hobbit.
“He can talk!” Freeman scoffs. “Peter is the person who is closest to a Hobbit. And unlike a Hobbit I did leave home for 18 months, he didn’t!”
He has a point. Freeman, the star of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, spent a year and a half in Jackson’s native New Zealand, shooting three prequels to the hugely popular The Lord of The Rings trilogy.
That series remains the highest grossing film franchise ever, winning a record 17 Oscars. “Everywhere I walk is my face!” laughs Martin. “If I translated that into thinking I’m responsible for the film I’d go mad. Fortunately, the star of the film is the film [itself]… and Peter.
“But I would like a ring of power. I’d use it to be invisible and get in and out of this hotel.”
Martin is going to need that ring even more once An Unexpected Journey is released in cinemas world-wide. Based on J.R.R Tolkien’s children’s book The Hobbit, this first film introduces us to a younger Bilbo Baggins [Freeman] who is perfectly happy in his boring life at home until Gandalf [Ian McKellen] ambushes him with a pack of dwarves and convinces Bilbo to come on an adventure.
“Martin was always our first choice for Bilbo,” admits Jackson. “Bilbo is written in a very English style – slightly fussy, suspicious of adventures and other people, doesn’t want to get into danger. We wanted to find an actor who could do the dramatic parts of the role but also have the comedy.
“We did have a problem that by the time we were green lit, Martin was on a TV show [filming the second series of BBC’s smash-hit Sherlock] and not available. I went into a real panic; I couldn’t imagine anyone else doing it. So we did something no one does, we started shooting with Martin, and we stopped so he could shoot the show. That’s how badly we wanted him.”
That risk was certainly worth it, with Freeman impressing everyone on set, including veteran actor Sir Ian McKellen.
“I remember quite late into the shoot I was standing behind the camera feeding him lines, and I watched him do the same passage over and over again and every time, he did it differently. I was in awe; I couldn’t see how he did it,” McKellen attests. “Martin’s a brilliant comedian and I wouldn’t mind taking acting lessons from him, but he said ‘Oh, I’m not going to give you any tips…’
McKellen is one of the few actors reprising their roles from The Lord Of The Rings, but he admits that, for a time, he wasn’t sure if he’d come back.
The Hobbit suffered major production delays, partly due to MGM’s financial difficulties and partly because of a change in directors, with Peter Jackson unsure he wanted to do it.
“I had to buffer myself in case the film was never made by thinking up all the reasons why I wouldn’t want it,” admits McKellen. “Like, ‘I won’t have to live away from home for 18 months.’ Or ‘I won’t have to revisit a part I’ve already played.’ But in the end a friend said to me, ‘Ian, the fans aren’t going to care that you’re going to be inconvenienced somewhat by going back to Middle Earth. They just want you to be in the film.’
“I don’t think that had ever been said to me before about any part I have played – that there were an awful lot of people who wanted me to do it. And I realised I wanted it myself. I just couldn’t have John Hurt coming in, putting on a beard!”
As to why fans are so invested in the films, Jackson believes it stems from the realism Tolkien created: “What Tolkien does is make fantasy feel authentic, making it feel like part of history, even though it has these creatures. Somehow it feels real in a way that a lot of fantasy doesn’t.”
And this time around, the films will feel even more real, with Jackson utilising a new high frame rate 3D format, making the images look so clear, it’s as if you’re peering into a window rather than onto a flat screen.
“This format is a gift, a tool I can use to make you feel part of that world,” says Jackson. “But of the 25,000 cinemas around the world screening The Hobbit, only about 1,000 of them are going to show the new format. We just want to see what the response is. It’s a very different look, there’s a reality to it that takes some time to get used to.”
Andy Serkis, who reprises his role as Gollum, also worked with the new format as Second Unit Director. “I think it’s brilliant. It’s invigorating, totally immersive and the level of detail is unparalleled. It will shock and upset people, but it’s new, and things always shock and upset people when they’re new,” he says. “Kids used to playing video games will not even think about it for a second, because they’re used to looking at incredible clarity and receiving stories at that level. Our generation is in love with the old format because it’s what we’ve grown up with, and how we see film. But that will change.”
Something that isn’t likely to change is how beloved Serkis’ Gollum character is. The actor admits, “On a daily basis people come up to me and talk about Gollum. I’m on the tube in London and people talk to me, start doing their impersonation or ask me to do Gollum. It’s just become part of my life, bizarrely.”
Sir Ian McKellen agrees that the fans connection with his character will probably never end, admitting, “I suppose if I have a gravestone it will say ‘Here Lies Gandalf’ and I can imagine the newspaper headlines, ‘Gandalf has died’. But they’d be wrong because Gandalf never dies…” he says, with a wink.