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Martin Freeman talks Tolkien, Doyle, Shakespeare

Gary Thompson chats with versatile actor Martin Freeman, who has played Bilbo, Dr. Watson and Richard III.

Martin Freeman appears in a scene from the film, "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies." (AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures, Mark Pokorny)
Martin Freeman appears in a scene from the film, "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies." (AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures, Mark Pokorny)Read moreAP

NOW THAT "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit" movies are finally wrapped, the filmmakers involved seem more exhausted than elated.

At least their post-"Hobbit" interviews make it seem that way. So I asked the opinion of Martin Freeman, who plays the title character in director Peter Jackson's "Hobbit" trilogy. (Jackson also did the "Rings" trilogy.)

"I'm probably not as exhausted as Peter is, who has spent every day and every night on it for many, many years," the actor said. "My sense is that he's very relieved and very happy that the story is complete. I had a lovely time doing it, but one of the rewarding parts of any job is ending it."

Especially a job as pressurized as these adaptations - few books are as jealously guarded by devotees as those of J.R.R. Tolkien.

"I think everybody's glad the whole thing has been very well-received. It's the sort of thing that could have gone dangerously wrong, especially with a fan base as loyal as this one," said Freeman, who watched Jackson sweat the million details of every production.

In the end, those involved seem pleased to have pleased so many.

"If we'd really screwed up, we'd have heard about it," Freeman said.

After Freeman concluded his work for "Hobbit," he took on the daunting challenge of another iconic role, the title character in Shakespeare's "Richard III" on the London stage.

"Just the physical toll of speaking those many words, that many lines, is hard. Then there's the [disfigured] body, and the limp, and the using one arm, and killing your wife and all that - just punching out that many lines is a challenge, and doing that eight times a week . . ." Freeman paused to consider the tone of his remarks, then laughed. "It's all well worth it, of course."

Freeman said he marvels that his older "Hobbit" co-star and Shakespearean specialist Ian McKellen was able to play Richard at a later stage in life. Freeman played Richard at 43, McKellen at 53.

I asked Freeman, known as a private and publicity-shy fellow, if he'd learned anything from the way McKellen has embraced his work as Gandalf in "Lord of the Rings," or Magneto in the popular "X-Men" movies, connecting via social media with a large, new audience.

"Ian has a much happier disposition than I have. He's a little bit more at ease with that than I am, and I really don't know why," Freeman responded.

"I'm very grateful and honored by attention, but I'm never sure I can give people what they want if attention comes my way as a result of something I'm doing on screen," Freeman said. "Acting, when it's done well, looks like you're not doing anything, that it's just you. But it's not just you."

On television, Freeman has played still another icon of British literature, Dr. Watson, from Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes books.

"In the way that Tolkien is the father of modern fantasy fiction, Doyle is the father of modern detective fiction," the actor said. "His work provides the archetype and blueprint for a thousand other stories. I think that's why it endures. And of course, Sherlock Holmes is such a fascinating enigma.

"Or, people just like a smart-ass."