The fans lined up outside the Ziegfeld Theater in Midtown Manhattan on a chilly Thursday night were not just there to cheer a movie premiere; they also were witnessing a coronation.
Already well-loved by genre devotees for his lead role in the 2005 adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and co-starring as Watson in the BBC series Sherlock, Martin Freeman cemented his status as nerd hero by taking on the iconic role of Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit. At the premiere of the first film in Peter Jackson's trilogy, Freeman was happy to acknowledge his advancement.
"I’m geek royalty now," he said with a laugh. "That’s the main responsibility. It’s not playing Bilbo, it’s my responsibility as a geek prince."
Already, his subjects are putting him to work. Fans lined up not just outside the theater but also at the barriers of the cross-town restaurant where Warner Bros. held the film's afterparty. Some hardcore fans of Jackson's films, and J.R.R. Tolkien's original book series, even paid $500 to get into the premiere, with the money benefiting the American Film Institute. Many stalked around, hoping for a photo with their hero or perhaps to have him sign their copy of the book. Finally, 75 years after Tolkien first published The Hobbit, his vast audience had a vision of what a young Bilbo looks like.
Freeman, though, didn't read the books growing up.
"I came to it as an adult for this," the 41-year-old said. "It was nice coming to it that way around, actually. In a way, it decreased the pressure. I think if I had been carrying that around since I was 10, that would have been quite overwhelming by the time I grew up. My being here would be overwhelming. As it was, it was more exciting than scary."
And not just exciting but rather easy, too. Jackson told reporters Wednesday that he was desperate to cast Freeman in the role -- no other actor could play it, he insisted -- and while his star didn't totally agree with the flattering opinion, he said he didn't have much trouble embodying the nervous, unlikely, furry-footed hero.
"I didn’t find it hard," Freeman said with a shrug. "I think the hardest part about anything you do for 18 months is just keeping yourself together for 18 months. But I do think I’m quite good casting for it. I don’t think I’m the only one, but as a candidate, I think I was pretty good casting."
So good, in fact, that he's prepared for it to follow him forever.
"I hope by the time my life is over I’ve given them something else to talk about," he said of the fans, "but I think in all reality I think it’s very likely that they’ll be calling me Bilbo."
Email: Jordan.Zakarin@THR.com; Twitter: @JordanZakarin