McKellen and Freeman as creatures of "Hobbit"
When auditioning for the lead of Bilbo Baggins in "The Hobbit" film trilogy, Martin Freeman learned he was destined to roam Middle-earth in big, furry feet.
The British actor, 41, currently starring as Dr. John Watson in BBC's "Sherlock" series, remembers hearing he was the favorite for the title role from filmmaker Guillermo del Toro and later, when del Toro left the director's chair, from his replacement, Peter Jackson.
"It always felt like I was the person they wanted, which obviously makes life a lot easier and a lot more relaxing," says Freeman, whose epic adventure through the perilous wilds of Middle-earth opens in theaters today.
"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is the first of three film adaptations filmed back to back of the 1937 J.R.R. Tolkien novel. It opens 60 years before "The Lord of the Rings," which Jackson also brought to the big screen as a trilogy, a project that culminated with 11 Oscar wins for "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," including best picture, best director and best screenplay honors.
Freeman was a big fan of those films.
But the actor, who made his mark as prankster Tim Canterbury on Ricky Gervais' original hit British TV series "The Office," and the hapless Arthur Dent in Garth Jennings' 2005 film "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," was not acquainted with Tolkien's universe as a reader.
So, in preparation, he read The Hobbit before filming began last year in New Zealand.
"Of course he is a brilliant comedian and that's what may have initially appealed to Peter Jackson, because 'The Hobbit' film and The Hobbit book is more lighthearted than 'Lord of the Rings,' " says co-star Ian McKellen of Freeman. McKellen reprises his role as Gandalf in this latest Tolkien film.
"Martin triggered into that immediately," he adds. "He's my sort of actor, full of detail. But he's got a spontaneity in front of the camera, which is enviable. So I was very happy to be working with him."
The feeling was mutual.
"It's lovely to work with Ian because he's just one of those people who makes you want to be better," Freeman says. "He's there, he's open and he's listening and not everybody is. You come away saying, 'Yeah, I can see why you want Ian McKellen because he's really [expletive] amazing.' "
In the film, Gandalf the Grey, who has known Bilbo since he was a boy, plucks the Hobbit from a quiet life of tea and books to help a band of dwarves recapture their ancestral mountain home from a fire-breathing dragon.
But Bilbo is reluctant to go.
"Gandalf is a little bit appalled to discover this Hobbit, Bilbo, is settling down to a life in Hobbiton away from the big world outside, and so Gandalf pushes Bilbo out into the world," McKellen says.
Because of technology, that fantasy world of Middle-earth also materializes in a kind of hyperreality.
Accompanied by 13 Dwarves and the prince Thorin Oakenshield, they journey into the farthest reaches of Middle-earth where they encounter Goblins, Orcs and Wargs, as well as a mysterious and sinister figure known as the Necromancer.
While escaping the Goblin tunnels, Bilbo meets the creepy Gollum.
The film is populated with digital creatures that appear to interact alongside the actors on screen.
In fact, many of the actors were seldom shot in scenes together because of their characters' differences in size, including Gandalf, who towers over Bilbo and the Dwarves.
"As long as I looked at the tip of his hat and he looked at my sternum, they could enlarge [Gandalf] in postproduction and the eye lines would work," Freeman says.
He remembers a scene when Gandalf first arrives at the door.
McKellen was 10 yards away at a small-scale version of the set looking at a tennis ball with Freeman's face on it and Freeman was on the real set looking up at taped markers on the ceiling.
But they could hear each other through earpieces, so that they could act in real time.
"If you're an actor, the one thing you want to do is look in the eyes of the person you're working with," Freeman says. "When you can't do that, and you're only listening to a voice in a disembodied way, it feels like madness.
"I remember thinking, this is not going to work," he says. "I was wrong, it does work."
Asked if he'd like to pursue another fantasy adventure like McKellen, who will make his return to the X-Men franchise as Magneto, the father of two explained it's not about epics for him.
"All I try and do is find films that I like and can see the point of, and do parts where I can do something weird or that might be a challenge," Freeman says. "Otherwise, I have no preference because there are good films in every genre.
"But I don't think I'll make a habit of going away from home for 18 months."