Susan Wloszczyna, USA TODAY
NEW YORK - As Bilbo Baggins, the reluctant traveler at the center of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Martin Freeman survives encounters with all manner of Middle-earth menace, from rock creatures who burst forth from mountainsides and hurl giant boulders to a hygiene-deprived troll who mistakes our wee hero for a tissue.
It is odd, then, that during an interview, the British actor - who stars in the first of three films based on J.R.R. Tolkien's literary precursor to The Lord of the Rings, opening nationwide Friday - is thrown for a loop by a wooden stirrer that is topped by an ornate lump of rock-candy crystals.
"Is that sugar?" Freeman, 41, inquires while staring incredulously at the fancy utensil he just plopped into his room-service latte. "Is that a real thing here?"
Assured that the item is not considered a necessity in most American households, he looks relieved. "This is not part of Obamacare, then."
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Such wit has served Freeman well throughout a career that began in U.K. sitcoms, including the original version of The Office as the prankster cubicle drone played by John Krasinski in the long-running U.S. knockoff.
For some reason, his Tim was changed to Jim on this side of the Atlantic.
"Are there many Tims in America?" asks Freeman, once again stymied by Yankee customs. "I don't know if I can think of many American Tims."
The specialist in awkwardly self-effacing Everymanliness moved on to features such as 2003's Love Actually, finessing a role as a shy movie double in explicit sex scenes who chastely falls for his female counterpart. The yuletide-set ensemble romance has evolved into a holiday perennial on TV. As Freeman observes, "People watch it whether they want to or not. It's become a new Wizard of Oz for Christmas."
The actor has boldly dared to take on such cultish icons as sci-fi nomad Arthur Dent in 2005'sThe Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, as well as placing a contemporary spin on Dr. Watson (he blogs!) opposite Benedict Cumberbatch's antisocial sleuth in Sherlock on PBS, which starts shooting its third season in March.
But none carry as much baggage as the Shire's Bilbo, who is recruited by wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen, reprising his Rings role) to assist a gang of rowdy dwarves on a quest to reclaim their treasures from fierce dragon Smaug.
It's not just that Tolkien's 1937 fantasy is a childhood rite of passage that has sold more than 100 million copies and has never been out of print. Or that the epic adventures based on the Rings trilogy - also directed by Peter Jackson at his New Zealand-based filmmaking empire - have grossed nearly $3 billion worldwide and won 17 Oscars, lifting expectations for The Hobbit to oxygen-depriving heights.
But just as Bilbo is coerced out of his comfort zone, the very private Freeman, who has been known in interviews to testily refuse to disclose the ages of his son and daughter with his significant other, actress Amanda Abbington, must deal with global fame on a potentially invasive scale.
Not easy for someone who once described himself as "a creature of habit, mashed-potato comfort. I like rugs. Our sofa is squishy. Maybe too squishy. It's hard to get up sometimes."
But unlike Elijah Wood, who was 19 when he played Frodo, Bilbo's nephew, and saved the world as the ring-bearer in The Lord of the Rings, Freeman believes he is well-equipped to ward off the downside of inhabiting a very popular hobbit. Even having to walk around in those ungainly and hairy prosthetic hobbit feet didn't put him off.
"I'm not a kid," he says. "I've been around the block. I've lived with that at home for more than 10 years. I've been well-known in Britain for a long time. Of course, this is a different thing on a different level."
It helps that it seems he was somehow destined to play Bilbo. As Jackson has said of his first and only choice as his lead: "Martin is probably one of the nearest people to a hobbit that I've ever met."
He was so determined to snag Freeman that he actually arranged a two-month hiatus from shooting the threeHobbit movies in mid-2011 so his star could fulfill his Sherlock duties.
"Look, he has a certain English fussiness about him," explains the Kiwi filmmaker. "He is slightly conservative - not in his politics, but in his lifestyle. He's got that wonderful English sense of loving home and being a little bit suspicious of going abroad." All very Bilbo.
Even more importantly, Jackson notes, "he's a dramatic actor who can do comedy. You just think about the strong dramatic actors out there, and very few of them are funny. Martin is a rarity."
That versatility will prove handy later on when situations grow more dire for Bilbo and his pals. "I call it my mini-Michael Corleone arc," Freeman says. "I go from wide-eyed to some pretty dark places."
Does he consider Jackson's observation about his hobbit-like qualities a compliment? "Well, it's probably not an insult, because he considers himself a hobbit," he reckons. "I guess what he means by that is that I like home and I like being comfortable. But in that case, 99% of the human race is a hobbit."
Still, it wasn't an easy decision to fly to a land 30 hours away and uproot his existence for 18 months. But, as he says, "opportunities like this don't come along very often, if ever. And if everyone on this artistic team is saying you are Bilbo, you are the person we want to do it, that is kind of implying that they don't want to make the film without you. If they have that much faith in me, then I should do it."
Another convincing factor: He and Ian Holm, who shows up briefly in The Hobbit as the elder Bilbo, share some physical similarities beyond their curly wigs.
"We have almost exactly the same facial dimensions," he says. "The measurements of the forehead, the cheek, the chin. Only at the bridge of the nose is there a slight discrepancy. I am sure that was on their minds. If they thought Denzel Washington would have been a perfect Bilbo, there might have been a problem. But it might have been a way to go, too."
It's probably not unusual in his generation, but all that Freeman knows of Tolkien's universe comes from Jackson's interpretations. He readily owns up to never reading the books, without a hint of embarrassment. But he devotedly watched each of the director's cuts of the already-lengthy movies, as well as devoured the DVD extras.
In fact, there might be a not-so-sensible fanboy side of Freeman under that square exterior. First clue: He is mates with uber-geek director Edgar Wright and actor Simon Pegg, appearing in their Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and the upcoming The World's End.
Another sign is his boundless enthusiasm for a coveted Hobbit souvenir. Namely, Bilbo's stunning quilted patchwork robe. Does he wear it at home?
"Hell, yeah. You better believe it," Freeman says. "I was given it at the end. As soon as I put it on, I was like, 'I'm going to have this after this job.' They made a new one for Peter as well. He and I both had designs on that. It is the most comfortable thing in the world. Huge velvet cuffs and shawl collar."
It must be a hobbit thing.