Playing Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit is the biggest role of Martin Freeman's career but he's not looking forward to the inevitable exposure that it will bring him, as he tells Susan Griffin.
By Susan Griffin
Martin Freeman is on the cusp of major league movie stardom, so you'd imagine he'd be feeling on top of the world about his good fortune. Not a bit of it.
The actor has been in the public eye in Britain for more than 10 years, and he laments: "People have been annoying me in restaurants for a long time, and now it'll just be all over the world. Yippee."
Freeman, who shot to prominence as Tim in Ricky Gervais's The Office, might not be embracing the fame game but he's going to have to get used to it - and sharpish - with the imminent release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in which he has the starring role of Bilbo Baggins.
Based on the 1937 fantasy novel by J.R.R Tolkien, it's been painstakingly brought to life by the visionary director Peter Jackson.
"I'm getting a glimpse of that external reaction to it now, the nearer the film gets to release," says Freeman, a youthful-looking 41-year-old. "I mean that level of fame obviously is something very different to what most people will get to experience, but my life doesn't feel any different yet."
Wearing a blue polo shirt and a black suit, Freeman comes across as friendly and thoughtful, if a little caustic at times.
That could simply be his sense of humour or perhaps a protective reflex given that he describes himself as "a very, very private person".
So private that he doesn't want to confirm how many children he has (a Google search reveals he has a son and daughter with his long-term partner Amanda Abbington). What he will say is that he that doesn't want his kids to see him as anything other than their dad.
"I want to keep my children absolutely out of it until they're of an age where they can decide," he says. "Sometimes when I'm stopped in the street and I'm with my children, I always try and get them out of the picture and they'll go, 'Why don't you want us?' and I'm like, 'No, I'm protecting you!'"
You can understand he may be a little defensive, given that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is just the first of three films from the team behind The Lord Of The Rings trilogy.
The following movies, The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug and The Hobbit: There And Back Again, will be released in 2013 and 2014 respectively.
Set in the fantastical Middle-earth, the tale begins 60 years before the events of The Lord Of The Rings, and sees a young Bilbo Baggins swept into an epic quest to reclaim the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor from the fearsome Dragon Smaug (voiced by Freeman's Sherlock co-star Benedict Cumberbatch).
New and old faces pop up along the way. Andy Serkis returns as Gollum, while Sir Ian McKellen reprises his role as wizard Gandalf the Grey, who appears out of the blue to task Bilbo with his audacious plan.
They're soon joined by a band of 13 Dwarves led by the legendary Thorin Oakenshield (Spooks star Richard Armitage) and a host of other new faces.
Together the eclectic group embarks on a journey that takes them from the comfortable safety of Hobbiton into the great unknown, through treacherous lands swarming with Goblins, Orcs and deadly Wargs.
It's the stuff of every child's fantasy but Freeman admits he only read the novel two years ago.
"I just didn't grow up with it. I'm a fan now and see what it's about but it just wasn't in my universe then," says the Hampshire-born actor.
Since The Office, Freeman has appeared in a host of British films such as Love Actually, Nativity!, Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz. He also recently earned an Emmy and Bafta TV nomination for his role as Dr John Watson in Sherlock but he was far from a global 'name' when Peter Jackson cast him in the lead role.
That didn't deter the director, who was so determined to hire Freeman that he rearranged the shooting schedule to allow the actor to leave the film set in New Zealand to film Sherlock in the UK.
"I was truly shocked and pleased because I really wanted to play Bilbo, and that's not the kind of offer that comes back," says Freeman. "It showed they had such faith in me. They must have seen something in me that could play worry but with humour."
For that reason, Freeman says he didn't feel too stressed in tackling such an iconic role.
"I didn't feel any pressure is the honest truth," he says. "At least I didn't feel Bilbo pressure but I felt the pressure that I always feel in that I want to be good."
Describing his Hobbit alter ego, Freeman says: "The things that struck me about him suggested a certain timidity in many situations, a certain hesitancy in life, because his world is his home and Hobbiton and beyond that's a bit scary."
In his own life, the actor says he's not particularly adventurous. "Well, depending on the adventure. I mean I wouldn't go into life and death [situations] really but nor would anyone unless you're a moron," he says.
"But I'm an actor and I've chosen a life where there's no security, where there's no wages, no pension - so for a start that's braver than those who go to work at the bank in my opinion."
Freeman says the role was physically demanding from the beginning, not least because he had to cope with the flipper-like Hobbit feet.
"I won't miss them," he says. "I'd have to shave my legs, talcum powder them, then they'd put an inner sole on and put this latex leg and foot over it. It was a two-person job and took about a week to get used to."
Given that the three movies were shot back-to-back over an epic 18 months, Freeman felt it was important to remain as fit as possible.
"Obviously Bilbo's not a superhero so I wasn't bench-pressing 200 pounds every hour, but you do as an actor have to be healthy and ready," he says.
And in that time he only returned twice to his home in London. "It didn't take long to get away from the role but after that experience of being away, it's like decompression," he says.
"You're away for so long in a completely different world figuratively and literally, you come back to your world and your home and it takes a while [to return to normality.]"
Ever grounded, he remains pragmatic about the future. "I try not to expect anything because there is no guarantee of anything at all," he says. "I've been told before, 'Your life's going to change after this comes out'. No it didn't, it didn't change.
"Obviously this is a huge film but any premature expectation or patting on the back is a very dangerous thing to do because it can only come with disappointment."
Extra time - Behind the scenes on The Hobbit
:: It took a team of 350 people to design and create a layered, multi-faceted and palpably real Middle-earth.
:: Look out for Barry Humphries, best known for his comedic alter ego Dame Edna, as the hulking Goblin king.
:: For the first time, Jackson used state-of-the-art digital cameras to record the action in 3D at an unprecedented 48 frames per second.
:: In addition to playing Gollum, Andy Serkis served as Jackson's second unit director throughout the shoot.
:: The original small-scale set for Bilbo's home at Bag End should look familiar. It was pulled out of storage, restored and substantially enhanced for The Hobbit.
:: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is released on Thursday, December 13 (With pictures)