Peter Jackson salutes the “best phone call” he ever made, when persuading Martin Freeman to take on the lead role as Bilbo Baggins, speaking graciously at the press conference for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
Taking place in Claridges Hotel, London, earlier this week – Jackson was joined by producer Philippa Boyens and various members of the cast – including the entire Company of Dwarves as well as Freeman, an actor the Kiwi director had many kind words about, and was even willing to delay the shooting of the film for…
“Back when we were originally thinking about The Hobbit, Martin was the first person that came into mind and the only person that we wanted for the role,” he said. “We spoke to Martin about 18 months before we started shooting and during that period it was hard for the film to get a green light because MGM was having financial issues and the studio was being sold, so it wasn’t possible to proceed with the movie until that situation was resolved. We were in a waiting game to some degree, and during that period of time Sherlock arrived and by the time we could actually formally offer Martin the role, the second series of Sherlock was due to start shooting right in the middle of The Hobbit.
“I was in a state of panic because we couldn’t think of anyone else… I was having sleepless nights, and I lay awake one night with my iPad and I had just downloaded Sherlock and I was watching it at four in the morning, and thinking, he’d make the perfect Bilbo, this is a disaster. So I got up in the morning and made some phone calls and basically the idea I had which was pretty audacious really in the way that the film industry works; to shoot as much as we could and then to stop filming and let Martin go back to the UK to do Sherlock, and then continue on again, and I asked the studio and checked in with Martin to see if he would be up for that, and it was the best phone call I ever made.”
Freeman, famed for his work in The Office and Hot Fuzz, also spoke of his sheer delight at being offered the part of Bilbo, despite the mitigating circumstances that potentially jeopardised his involvement in the biggest role of his career thus far.
“I was delighted when that phone call came. I had already said goodbye to The Hobbit, I’d had to pass,” Freeman continued, “I’ve never really been one to dwell on things, onwards and upwards and all that, but I’d rather not have had to do that. However long it was later, I was rehearsing and I got a call from my agent again saying “It’s back on, Peter has rearranged it” so yeah I was amazed… Suffice to say I was extremely surprised and took it as a huge compliment, and I still do”
Freeman is, however, taking on the role of the younger Bilbo, as a film that is set 60 years prior to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Sylvester McCoy – who plays Radagast – tells us of how close he came to playing the elder, original role that Ian Holm wonderfully depicts.
“I was up for the part of Bilbo all those years ago and got down to the last two actors, and the other was the amazing Ian Holm, and I was a bit miffed, but I was also delighted to be in such company”, McCoy said. “Then when I met Philippa, Peter and Fran (Walsh) they said “It’s a good thing you didn’t get it because we’ve written a rather interesting part…” and I think they were right.”
Despite the apparent camaraderie of those who have taken part in this huge franchise, Jackson admits that legendary actor Christopher Lee – who plays Saruman – was upset to have been left out of the theatrical release of the final Lord of the Rings instalment, Return of the King.
“I’m very, very pleased Christopher is in this film, me and him are fine, but he was very upset to be cut out of the theatrical release of Return of the King, but he’s in the extended cut… I did talk to Christopher the other day to talk about him coming to the premiere and he said “Am I still in the movie?” and fortunately this time I could say yes.”
Another British acting heavyweight Sir Ian McKellen is also definitely in the movie – reprising his role as Gandalf the Grey, and McKellen, equipped with a lavish pink scarf, was in a rather frivolous mood as he discusses the difficulties in working alongside actors who would often have to shoot their scenes in a separate room…
“I adore all the dwarves, they know that. There is a special dwarf, and he knows who he is, but enough of that”, McKellen quipped. “The trouble with the dwarves, is that despite what they look like in real life, they have to look smaller on the screen, and there are a number of devices to accomplish that, and none of them are really congenial to acting, which is about spontaneity and looking the other actor in the eye and working with him, or her.
“In these films you don’t have that necessity and sometimes, cruelly, you are not in the same place while filming the same scene. It’s magical when you see it, but when you’re doing it, well, on the first day I rather ashamed myself when grumbling to myself “This sort of film wasn’t why I became an actor” and I was wearing a microphone so the whole set heard,” he finished.
Meanwhile Jackson discusses a quite important influence himself and McKellen had found for the character of Gandalf…
“When Ian first came to New Zealand back in 1999 to work on these films we were talking Gandalf and his voice, his mannerisms and character and one of the things Ian based the character on is Tolkien himself, we studied some audio recordings that Tolkien did where he’s reading extracts from Lord of the Rings, and some interviews he did with TV when he was alive as well, and whenever I watch Ian as Gandalf, certainly Tolkien is very close in spirit.”
McKellen is just one many actors who has become somewhat synonymous with their character in the franchise, and Jackson admits that casting is one of the most key aspects to the film’s success.
“I do think that the role of the director is a little overstated, and I don’t quite subscribe to the auteur thing, and the whole singular, director thing. I think if you get the script right and the casting right, that’s 75% of the job done and honestly, that’s the greatest challenge is the script, and then to make sure you get the casting right.”
And finally, to ensure the actors feel as affectionate towards their director as he does to them, it sounds like Jackson puts on quite the spread, as when asked to compare between Peter Jackson and Peter Greenaway, Freeman said… “There’s better sandwiches on a Peter Jackson film.” A sentiment echoed by McKellen… “Talking of the sandwiches, it was the best food I’ve had on any job”.
Also on the panel at the press conference were; Richard Armitage (Thorin), Andy Serkis (Gollum), Adam Brown (Ori), Aidan Turner (Kili), Dean O’Gorman (Fili), Graham McTavish (Dwalin), James Nesbitt (Bofur), Jed Brophy (Nori), John Callen (Oin), Mark Hadlow (Dori), Peter Hambleton (Gloin), Stephen Hunter (Bombur), William Kircher (Bifur) and Ken Stott (Balin).