It’s been a year of quests for Martin Freeman, whose been busy saving Middle-Earth from orcs and dragons in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit franchise and Earth from invading androids in Edgar Wright’s The World’s End. In the new installment of the Tolkien trilogy, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (alternate title: The Hobbit: More Adventure! Less Singing!), Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins has his work cut out for him, whether he’s busting his pals out of elf jail in river-borne barrels (one of the most thrilling movie action sequences in recent memory) or confronting the fire-breathing, smug Smaug (voiced by Freeman’s Sherlock co-star, Benedict Cumberbatch). The 42-year-old star rang Rolling Stone from his London home to give the franchise’s critics their due, to discuss the finer points of green-screen acting and to tout the American TV series that is his next unlikely adventure.
Before the dwarves show up, what does Bilbo do for a living?
[Laughs] Good question. I don’t think it was specified. He’s probably an out-of-work actor. He likes food and clothes. He might be one of my species.
Were you and Benedict Cumberbatch ever even in the same room together, to film the scenes with Bilbo and Smaug?
We weren’t even on the same continent. There was no crossover at all. I’m not even imagining Ben. I’m imagining a dragon. Obviously, I do know Ben pretty well, and I had his voice in my head. But whether we had had a working relationship or not, the process would have been the same.
What surprises you most about the finished film?
The CG never fails to surprise me – what they’ve done with scenes where you were just looking at a tennis ball in a green room. And they’ve managed to make that into something truly spectacular.
The barrel sequence looked so difficult; I don’t have any idea how you made that.
Nor do I. That was an interesting week. I was in six feet of tepid, murky and horrible water. You’re in a barrel and trying not to get your legs crushed by rocks. That was the only time I said a quick prayer every morning before going on the set, because I knew I was going to have to keep my wits about me. There was a fantastic stunt team – and it was a reasonably safe-ish situation – but it was still possible to get hurt. Fortunately, it didn’t happen to me, but it focuses the mind when you know that you could either smash into a rock or drown.
What should viewers expect from the final installment next year?
For those that are conversant with the book, they can expect to see everything that’s in there. For those that aren’t, there’s still two and a half hours of thrills and spills and all that. There’s a lot more to happen, relationship-wise, between me and the dwarves and Gandalf – Bilbo grows even more as a character. I’m making it sound like thirtysomething. Imagine thirtysomething, but with swords.
How do you respond to hardcore Tolkien fans who resent the new additions to the story, or general critics who find the films overlong and padded with incident?
I agree wholeheartedly with both – he said, as he never worked with Peter again. It’s fair enough. I didn’t grow up a Tolkien fanatic. So I approach it more from the context of: does it work in this film? Because a film is not a book – it can’t ever be, it has never been the same medium. So I understand if you have a massive emotional investment in this being holy writ. But does it work for you for those couple of hours that you’re in the movie theater? If it does, it does, and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. It’s all subjective. I don’t know if it needs to be padded out, from a financial point of view. I would think that if Peter wasn’t already doing okay for money – he needs money like he needs a hole in the head – and I don’t know Peter like a brother, but I know him reasonably well, and I don’t see him as someone who’s motivated by bread. A) he doesn’t need it, and B) he doesn’t need to spend any more time in his life on something that he’s not totally artistically invested in. That’s not how he comes across in person. It’s not how he directs. Have you seen him? He’s still the 12-year-old that he was, just being passionate about films. I don’t think he’d be making the film into a trilogy unless he really in his gut wanted to.
Between The Hobbit bookends and The World’s End this summer, what has this year been like for you?
The Hobbit‘s a big gig. It’s a huge circus that you become a part of. The World’s End was fun because that was a family thing, an old friends’ reunion. We just finished Season Three of Sherlock as well, which is always extremely enjoyable. It all goes by too quickly. I can’t believe it was a year ago that we were in Tokyo and New Zealand promoting the first Hobbit film. It goes by frighteningly quickly.
What’s next for you?
I’m doing a series of Fargo for FX for American TV. We’re doing it in Calgary, that’s doubling as our Minnesota. It’s great. We’re doing 10 episodes, written by Noah Hawley [Bones, The Unusuals], and he’s really channeled something of the Coens’ dark humor. It’s a potentially fantastic piece of work.
Will there ever be a sequel to your movie version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?
It would’ve happened, had it just made more money. It did very well – it was No. 1 in the U.K. and the U.S., but it didn’t sustain enough. By today’s standards, it has to make catastrophic amounts of money for them to plow into it again. But we all enjoyed it. That was probably one of my favorite jobs, actually, for the experience. It was a happy time.
That must be where you learned all the green-screen acting techniques you used in The Hobbit.
That’s where I cut my teeth, baby.