Your name was mentioned for a while for the role of Bilbo Baggins. What was the first you heard of it?
I put it down to the fact that I’ve just got a weird face, which is sort of a back-handed compliment, because if people think you look like a Hobbit, that’s not necessarily a good thing. [Laughs] But I bumped into Andy Serkis, and he said, “Has anyone spoken to you about playing Bilbo?” And I said, “Not really, apart from rumors and stuff.” And he said, “I think they will, or they should.”
It was never definite until about February 2010. I put myself on tape for it, and from the time that it was just all very positive. I was told that they weren’t wanting to consider anyone else, and I was the only person they wanted to play it.
So, there were never any big names in the mix that you were up against?
It wasn’t like that. It was, “Either you, or we’re not going to make it!” You learn to take things with a pinch of salt, but it was nice.
There was a terrible moment when it looked like “Sherlock” might come in the way. That’s another great role, so it would have been a difficult choice.
Absolutely, I desperately wanted to do both. I loved doing “Sherlock”; it was a big hit in the UK so that was great, and I didn’t want to turn my back on that. Well, I couldn’t anyway, it was contractual! So I said to my agents, “I’m going to have to let Bilbo go, aren’t I?” Then I heard it was back on, that Peter had rearranged the schedule so that I could do it. That was amazing! It was like somebody was gagging on me, and I couldn’t quite believe it. I still think that’s a big fluke!
So where did you start with Bilbo? Did you turn to the book?
No, I read the book in the run-up to it. I hadn’t read it before. And then I didn’t go over it. I didn’t start with Bilbo really until I went over to New Zealand some months later. I started working on him physically—how the feet change your physicality. He has long feet, so there’s the Hobbit gait: how you hold yourself, how you literally look at the world, how you move your head and your shoulders. And, again, it isn’t massively different. They’re the most human of all the species, but Hobbits aren’t human; they’re different. So Peter [Jackson] was keen that it should be very recognizable. It’s not like playing a bloke, although as a species they are the most familiar to a reader or a viewer.
Bilbo is the heart of the story, so there has to be a sort of neutrality to him. If your job is to carry the audience through, it can’t be too dividing, I suppose. It has to be likeable; it has to be engaging and truthful. But there are certain physical and vocal traits that are Hobbit-y, and Ian Holm-y, and just Bilbo-y.
Did you go back and look at Ian Holm’s performance?
I did, yeah. I didn’t want to worry about it too much once I’d seen it. I didn’t want to keep referencing it before every take. But I watched his bits a few times, to get a taste of it, so it would just be there somewhere in the background. I didn’t want to have to bring it out, to say, “Look, I’m doing my research; I’m playing Ian Holm!” It should just be there somewhere.
How were the costume and the Hobbit feet? Were they comfortable?
Compared to the Dwarves, very comfortable! They were in prosthetics and big fat suits. I had a much easier time than most people did in makeup. So, by Hobbit film standards, quite a short makeup, but by normal film standards it was quite involved. Putting on big feet and prosthetic ears and a Hobbit wig is more than you normally do. But the costume was nice.
Your first scene was “Riddles in the Dark” with Andy. It’s a pretty amazing place to start.
It’s lovely, and it was nice to start there. Some people asked if I wanted to start somewhere more sedate, but it’s more fun starting on a fun scene. You’re straight into it, and that’s a good way of finding out who Bilbo is. Because, of course, until you’re doing it you don’t know all the choices you’re going to make. You’re finding it, really, as you go. So, between you and Peter, you’re kind of going, “What about this? What about that? Up that bit and down that bit!” It was great.
And I was doing it with Andy, who is not only very good but knows that part and created that part so brilliantly. It’s a truly iconic part in the canon of those films, and he’s good at it! It’s lovely doing it with someone who raises your game.
How were the action scenes? Those must have been difficult!
There was a lot of running, it was very physical. The 3D cameras did slow things down a bit, but not a whole lot. They got on top of the technology, and the technology improved all the time.
What about the theme of the film? If “The Lord of the Rings” was this very sweeping, good vs evil story, this seems in some ways more like a more personal story about Bilbo.
Well, certainly from his point of view, it is. The Dwarves, I suppose, don’t give a stuff about Bilbo’s self-discovery! For Bilbo, it’s a decision to put himself completely out of his comfort zone or to be open. If that is his overriding thing, he’s made a decision to put himself in the place where he has to just receive and not control everything.
What Bilbo discovers is that the stuff that will really enrich his life is not the stuff he can physically take with him on the journey. It’s not his wines, his shoes and his maps. He’s got all the books and maps and all that, but he hasn’t been anywhere. That’s the thing that Gandalf tries to appeal to in him: It’s out there, the world’s out there! It’s not in your maps! Which I think is quite a nice moral, if it is a moral.
He’s a bit like Tolkien himself; he didn’t travel very much either.
I think so, absolutely, absolutely. That’s what it seems to be. He was a very Hobbit-y man.