Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage
Masatoshi Okauchi, Rex Features

When time came for writer-director-producer Peter Jackson to retake the mantle of J.R.R. Tolkien for The Hobbit, he had his old guard from the massively successful trilogy of The Lord of the Rings.

But, this time, his new three-film story would have to be told by relative outsiders. Which, in the case of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, means our trusty senior Bilbo Baggins once again presented to us in the form of Ian Holm soon gives way to British television acting veteran Martin Freeman.

And for Freeman, a 41-year-old veteran of British original The Office and an adaptation of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, has really been diving into something new.

“I thought The Lord of the Rings movies were fantastic,” Freeman says to a group of reporters welcoming in the first of The Hobbit films in Manhattan. “I didn’t grow up as a Tolkien-head, really. I read Tolkien in the run up to this. My experience of Middle Earth was via the films, which I think are still great pieces of work.

“From my point of view, turning up and being involved in it, it was a pleasure to be with Pete. It was a pleasure to be with a crew that committed. To get to know actors that I knew a little bit from home, but not very well, who subsequently became friends, you know? And the other people I’d never met whose work I liked. Yeah. It was great. It had a way of not being intimidating, you know, which was lovely.”

And it is Freeman who Jackson wanted all along. In a lengthy shoot fraught with delays legal and technical, Freeman came with a catch: He would have to take two months out of the shooting schedule to return to England to shoot a second season of the TV series Sherlock, to which he was previously committed.

For the director, the time was entirely worth it.

“The story of Martin really was ultimately simple, but it kind of had complexities,” Jackson says. “I mean, Martin was the only person that we ever wanted for that role. And that was really even before we met Martin.

“We knew him from The Office and Hitchhiker’s Guide. We just felt that he had qualities that would be perfect with everyone – sort of that very essential kind of fussy, English, slightly repressed quality. We thought him to be very good at playing that. He’s a dramatic actor. He’s not a comedian, but he is a dramatic actor who has a very rare comedic skill. That was going to be important, because there is a lot more comedy in The Hobbit than there was in The Lord of the Rings films.”

Viewers do initially see Bilbo Baggins, the playful schemer of Bag End, as we got to know him in The Lord of the Rings, with Holm blending a sort of wizened impatience and paranoia into the innocence. The Hobbit, though, reaches back before the three previous films and the books that spawned them, meaning soon enough everyone rolls back to a younger Bilbo who is recruited by the wizard Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellen) to be the stealth burglar among Dwarves trying to reclaim their home on Lonely Mountain, which has been crashed by the dragon Smaug.

Enter the next newcomer: Forty-one-year-old Richard Armitage, thrust into the Dwarf leadership role of Thorin Oakenshield, a vengeful last in a long line of kings who has seen his father brutally murdered in battle, and who has seen his people cast out and away from the fortress of gold in which they had lived and toiled so peacefully.

Armitage is best known in Britain for his prominent roles in the BBC serials North & South, and Robin Hood.

“Well,” he begins, “we arrived together at the beginning of 2011, and we went straight into a kind of training program – all the Dwarves together. Martin joined, as well, even though he wasn’t a Dwarf. So, there was a kind of bonding experience which became extended, because there was a delay in filming. That process really kind of formed our group, and the sort of status and the hierarchies formed during that process. But in terms of coming into an old franchise or an existing franchise, we were just always made to feel very welcome, like we were coming into a family. And so many people returned that were working on the Rings trilogy. It was just very easy.”

The term “franchise” famously makes McKellen bristle, and he clamps down on Armitage’s description immediately. “This isn’t X-Men!” he half-playfully admonishes at one point.

“Well said,” Armitage responds.

The process of being part of such a mammoth enterprise isn’t simply one of showing up and having the acting chops in order. A triumph of effects, innovation and art direction, The Hobbit – like The Lord of the Rings that came before it – is crucially set up by hundreds of effects technicians and makeup artists who turn each of the actors into creatures that aren’t much like themselves.

“The first time I ever got created into a Dwarf, it’s quite shocking,” Armitage says. “I remember they did like a time-lapse photography of the process, and it took something in the region of four and a half hours. And I actually kept my eyes closed for all of it because I didn’t want to see how it worked, and just opened my eyes at the end. It’s very strange when you don’t recognize yourself. Actually, at that point, it was quite extreme. But they went through a process of sculpting many different kinds of face… In terms of getting into character, it’s always brilliant when you look in the mirror and you don’t really recognize yourself. So, I really enjoyed that side of the process.”

“It was gradual,” adds Freeman, “because Bilbo went through a few phases. Like, there were a couple of noses for Bilbo – the idea in having a more snub nose, or just a more slightly Cyrano de Bergerac kind-of-shaped nose. And then it was decided that my nose was weird enough. But the wig sort of slightly changed and the colour changed, so it went from a more sort of middle-aged rocker, to being what Bilbo looks like now, which is…”

Freeman (who does bear more than a passing resemblance to Welsh rocker Dave Edmunds on screen) pauses for a second: “…a middle-aged rocker, really.”

“It’s an interesting but useless piece of trivia that every single character in Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit wears a wig,” McKellen jumps in. “And many of them wear a prosthetic: false ears, feet, hands. In my case, a nose.”

To make The Hobbit work, there are many touches of the familiar. Not just scenery, but characters: Holm, of course, but some crucial others. Cate Blanchett reappears at a pivotal moment as the kindly, wise Elf Galadriel, and our introduction to the entire enterprise is courtesy of Bilbo’s favourite relative, Frodo Baggins, picked up again by Elijah Wood.

“I think that in playing Frodo over the course of four years,” Wood says, “ending that chapter and then a funny thing happens: The films came out and then the character and all of the characters kind of get absorbed, as Andy [Serkis, who is back as the troublesome Gollum] was saying, in the popular culture. So, the character kind of became bigger than I. And, so, the characters, in that way, have been with me ever since. The emotional, sort of, end kind of came at the last bit of pickups. And that was sort of it, for me, in terms of playing the character.

“It’s a funny thing being part of something that is so known in popular culture. The character is everywhere. You know? People on the street daily reference Frodo, and it’s kind of been that way ever since. It’s like a little shadow.”

Though new and somewhat uninitiated, pre-Hobbit boot camp, in the ways of Tolkien, both Armitage and Freeman took to the writing and the lessons within right away.

“One of the things that I really find when I look at that book is I can get a sense of Tolkien’s Catholicism, his kind of Christianity,” Armitage says. “And not necessarily in a denominational way, but just in terms of his chivalric view of the world – his nobility, which is expressed through kindness and mercy. I think that pervades all of his writing and it’s almost in all of his characters. And I find that inspiring.”

“It seems the classic tale of a small guy who ends up being a hero against his will,” Freeman adds. “And that’s what is always said, is true heroism is when deeds of bravery or whatever are done when you’re scared. Because if you’re not scared, then you’re not being brave, you know? Then you’re just being normal. But if you are scared and you do something anyway, then that’s real bravery. And I think that’s encapsulated in this, certainly.

“It’s hard, because obviously when I read it, I read it more looking at Bilbo, I guess. I can’t read it totally as a civilian. But certainly for that main character of The Hobbit, then that’s a big thing for me. He’s literally a small guy who’s thrust out into a huge world who manages to do the right thing most of the time – which I think is not a lesson. It’s not a lecture to us. But there are interesting things to be drawn from that as a reader, and hopefully as a viewer.”