Martin Freeman, the 41-year-old actor currently best known as Dr Watson to Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock Holmes, is considering the occasionally tortuous route to the making of Peter Jackon's Hobbit trilogy.
He was to journey far to rugged foreign lands to meet with a bearded giant and embark on a long and perilous quest. His odyssey would take 18 months - a lifetime for the young elven-folk he had to leave behind at home. It would test him sorely, but the prize would be fame and acclaim from sea to shining sea.
Thankfully the experienced and quietly ambitious British actor has proved a hard hobbit to break. The opening saga - subtitled An Unexpected Journey - sees his character, the young Biblo Baggins (played in The Lord of the Rings by Ian Holm), leading a band of dwarves to the Lonely Mountain to retrieve a treasure stolen by the dragon Smaug.
"Um, well, yeah," he begins hesitantly. "It would have been very difficult to pass on, do you know what I mean? It's not the kind of ship that comes into dock very often. There was a period when I had to watch it sail away, so to speak... It looked like I couldn't do it because of filming for the second series of Sherlock. So with a heavy heart I had to pass on it for a while..."
Considering the scale of the project, it's an incredible compliment to this plucky, shaggy-haired actor that director Peter Jackson was determined to get his man, rearranging the filming schedule on the big-budget spectacular to acommodate his leading hobbit.
Jackson was very particular about the casting of his Lord of the Rings prequel. "Maintaining the 'Englishness' of The Hobbit was very important to us," he has said. "So, we looked to Britain for the majority of the casting." Which meant that Freeman was in very familiar company on set with a host of British television's finest.
In many ways, Freeman is perfectly cast. He hates the epithet, but the actor who shot to fame in The Office has great everyman qualities - a key attribute for someone playing the comfort-loving homebody and everyday hero Bildo Baggins.
And, uncannily, he looks not unlike a young Ian Holm. In fact, he nods, "when I was having my face cast [for prosthetic ears], I was told that the dimensions of Ian's and my face are almost identical. Which they thought was a good omen. I think he’s got a tiny bit of a wider bridge of the nose. But all our measurements are kind of the same. Although ‘downstairs’,” he winks, “obviously it’s different…”
At 5ft 7in, Freeman is not the tallest of chaps, which is appropriate for the homunculus stature of Middle-earth hobbits. And, like Bilbo, he’s a bit of a clotheshorse. Alongside Bradley Wiggins, this Hampshire-born, Hertfordshire-based father of two is probably the most famous non-muso Mod in Britain. Did the actor - today resplendent in a vividly coloured suit - manage to introduce any subtle Mod references into Bilbo’s clobber?
“Well,” he smiles, “among my coterie it’s always been referred to as The Mod-it. In the book, [Bilbo’s home] Bag End is described as having a whole room dedicated just to his clothes. So I can definitely relate. He’s got those tendencies. But he does wear a little neckerchief, and a very nice wine corduroy jacket, with a bit of brocade on the waistcoat… So, clearly, not a Mod, Bilbo,” he clarifies. Tolkien’s famously phantasmagorical Middle-earth menagerie might encompass hobbits, men, elves, dwarves, orcs, trolls, dragons and the slithery grotesque that is Gollum, but there was no room for a proto-Paul Weller.
As much as the role seemed made for Freeman and however flattering the attention of Jackson, the thought of being on the other side of the world from January 2011 to July this year, mostly separated from his two young children and his partner (actress Amanda Abbington), did give him pause. So much so that, when film industry union action threatened the New Zealand production base and Leavesden Studios in Watford, Hertfordshire, were mooted instead, Freeman was quietly pleased. “Well, they’re only 20 minutes up the road,” he shrugs.
“The main thing I’m focusing on,” reflects the man about to become globally famous as Bilbo Baggins, “is that I want to be good in the films. D’you know what I mean?” he asks, a blokey conversational tic that he deploys often. “’Cause I’ve made a few films that only 300 people have seen,” adds the star of Nativity!, The Good Night and Confetti, “but at least I’m proud of them. And I wouldn’t have unmade them because they didn’t make money.”
“So my first judge, my first critic, is me, as with most of us who are creative about what we do. And I want to like The Hobbit. And of course I want zillions of other people to like it too.”
Freeman is an established talent, but he’s also a private man who is comfortable with the personal/professional division he’s carved out for himself. He’s only too aware of what the films will do for his profile. Accordingly, the kind of super-celeb exposure he’s about to receive was “something to consider”, he says carefully. “Because at the moment I can go places in the world where I’m unmolested, and that’s kinda cool. Whereas there won’t be anywhere in the world where this trilogy isn’t shown, I guess.”
But, it seems, Martin Freeman is everywhere already. Following our interview, I bump into him at Heathrow. He’s in the company of actor and Sherlock writer Mark Gatiss, and they’re on their way to Los Angeles for the Emmy Awards. They and the BBC drama come home empty-handed - Homeland and Game of Thrones sweep the board - but Sherlock’s future is rosy. Freeman and Cumberbatch are filming a third series in a few months time after he finishes work on Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s latest film collaboration, The World’s End. He also has to return to New Zealand to film the spectacular battle climax of the third Hobbit film.
He’s relishing the prospect of Sherlock and rekindling his onscreen bromance with Cumberbatch, not least because their filming schedules didn’t overlap too much on The Hobbit - Cumberbatch is playing a dark wizard, and is also the voice of Smaug. With his upcoming role as a villain in the next Star Trek film, that makes three evil parts in a row for Cumberbatch. What makes him such a good baddie?
“The resonance in his voice,” smiles Freeman. “He’s got good chest resonance! Good depth! Good enunciation as well…” he concludes of the well-bred Old Harrovian.
A couple of weeks later I meet him again, at the annual awards ceremony held by rock magazine Q. Freeman, a guest at the do, is a music nut, and has released his own Motown compilations. For all the acting grandees, sirs, TV stars and hot up-and-comers in the Hobbit cast (Ian McKellen, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Billy Connolly, Richard Armitage, James Nesbitt, Aidan Turner among them), Freeman insists that the only time he’s starstruck is when he meets musicians. “Music predated everything for me,” he says. “I know Paul Weller reasonably well now, but initially he was someone I was like, wow… People like that are heroes to me, people who’ve been in my record collection since I was a kid.”
Over the coming 18 months, during which The Hobbit trilogy will unspool at multiplexes the world over, his passions, and his down-to-Middle-earth common sense, will keep Freeman grounded. The only bedazzling, it seems, will come from his colourful wardrobe.
“I call this suit aubergine,” he says during our interview, brushing imaginary crumbs from the bespoke tailoring. “Or is it indigo? What really annoys me is when people say, ‘Oh, it’s that purple suit!’ No way!” he exclaims. As if he’d wear something purple. He might be front and centre in an epic fantasy film destined to appeal to kids big and small, “but I’m not a children’s entertainer.”
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is in UK cinemas from 13 December.