Martin Freeman didn't just hang out with the dwarves while making the “Hobbit” movies. Sometimes his main companion was a tennis ball. And he didn't spend any time with his “Sherlock” co-star Benedict Cumberbatch despite sharing the biggest scene of the new film.
In “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” — the second installment of director Peter Jackson's trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien's novel — the British actor returns as Bilbo Baggins, the reluctant warrior who is helping a band of dwarves in their attempt to reclaim their ancient kingdom. One of the many obstacles they face is Smaug, a rather ugly sounding name for a rather fearsome and formidable dragon voiced by Cumberbatch.
Cumberbatch, who also plays Sherlock Holmes to Freeman's Dr. Watson in the updated TV version of the famed detective story, says it's deceptive for people to think the two worked together on “The Hobbit,” which opens today.
Freeman elaborates, saying, “It was me doing a lot of imagining with a lot of tennis balls and having Ben's lines read in by somebody else.” Freeman was there for most of the 266 days that were initially blocked for filming in New Zealand.
Like Jackson's other adaptation of Tolkien's work, “The Lord of the Rings,” “The Hobbit” was shot all at once, then structured into three films, adding massive amounts of special effects and some reshoots along the way. The last of the trilogy, “There and Back Again,” is due out next year.
In contrast to Freeman, Cumberbatch, who also will be seen in the upcoming “August: Osage County,” worked about eight days on the films. He calls Freeman “one of the funniest men I've ever met, and he's a craftsman. He works incredibly hard and creates authentic characters.”
In “Smaug,” Bilbo is less of a stumblebum than he was in “An Unexpected Journey,” the first film of the trilogy. While not exactly an action figure, he's more assertive, and the film itself dives right into the fray. Pursued by evil Orcs, Bilbo and the dwarves immediately encounter a new danger. Even a band of elves, led by their king, Thranduil (Lee Pace), is suspicious of them. One of them is Legolas, played by Orlando Bloom, 10 years older than when he starred in “Lord of the Rings,” but his character is decades younger. His chief warrior is Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), who has eyes for Kili (Aidan Turner). “He's quite tall for a dwarf,” she observes a little dreamily.
This is all leading to Bilbo's climactic face-off with Smaug, which is both comical and tense, something Freeman excels at. “I am Fire! I am Death!” the dragon bellows when Bilbo is sent to find a special jewel in the beast's lair. Like a jester soothing his monarch's silly vanity, Bilbo placates with him with the somewhat sarcastic comment, “Truly songs and tales fall utterly short of your enormity, O Smaug the Stupendous.”
“Early on in my acting career I was always surrounded by comics, and comedy writers, and people assumed that I came from those roots as well,” says Freeman, 41, who played Tim on the original British version of “The Office.” “But that was never really the plan. I always wanted to do drama.”
His Dr. John Watson on “Sherlock,” which will return for a third three-episode season on PBS Jan. 19, shows that side of the actor. Rather than a comic foil for the brilliant Holmes, which is the way the character is often played, the good doctor is a hardened Afghanistan war veteran on the edge. “My favorite things make you laugh and cry,” says Freeman, giving “The Sopranos” and Laurel and Hardy as examples.
Martin says he and Cumberbatch knew they were onto something good with “Sherlock” when they made the pilot in 2009, but didn't realize how big a hit it would become around the world.
“It's the most successful thing I've done so far,” says Freeman, who won a British Academy of Film and Television Arts award and received an Emmy nomination for his role as Watson. “ ‘The Office' and ‘The Hobbit' have been great, but as far as critics and awards are concerned, it's unprecedented for me.”
Now, Freeman is taking aim at America. He is set to star in FX's reboot of Joel and Ethan Coen's 1996 movie “Fargo,” playing a small-town insurance salesman. The 10-episode series will involve a new crime story.
“I'm striking a blow for British actors doing a decent Minnesotan accent,” he jokes.
Of course, Freeman will have one more “Hobbit” movie to promote next year. By then, the filming, most of which took place in 2011, may seem a distant memory. “We shot it kind of in chronological-ish order to some degree,” says Jackson, sounding a bit unsure himself.
“One of my main challenges was still holding onto where Bilbo was at any given moment in the journey,” Freeman says. “So I had to do a lot of checking in with Pete.”
Jackson says one thing he appreciated about Freeman was that he would give him choices. “What that means is that every single take he does is different. He's exploring the whole time,” says Jackson, adding that sometimes the actor would come up with “a very radically different approach.”
Luckily for Freeman, all his acting wasn't with tennis balls. “I would have found that quite tiresome,” he admits. “There was quite a good balance of working with humans on sets and with green screen.” It sounds like he had a nice time, too, describing the “Hobbit” cast and crew as “a fine bunch of egoless people, and funny as well.”
Follow Rob Lowman on Twitter: @roblowman1