The middle film in a trilogy can be a risky venture. The first film? Audiences are introduced to new characters and exciting possibilities. The final film? Hollywood pulls out all the stops to send those characters off with a bang. The middle? Well, directors often save their best tricks for the finale.

Every now and then a middle film can buck that trend, though: “The Godfather: Part 2,” “The Empire Strikes Back” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” all held their own when audiences came back for a second round. It’s too early to say how “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” will be judged once Peter Jackson’s “Hobbit” trilogy is completed, but for the most part, the reviews for this sequel have improved considerably on those of its predecessor, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” (2012).

“It’s a gargantuan undertaking, I suppose the biggest since the two ‘Star Wars’ trilogies,” Martin Freeman, who reprises his role as Bilbo Baggins, tells The Japan Times.

During his second outing as Bilbo in the film series based on “The Hobbit,” the 1937 novel by British author J.R.R. Tolkien, 42-year-old Freeman says he has discovered a new aspect to his character.

“I think at the get-go he was a semi-reluctant participant who perhaps felt himself a bit of a puppet or a pawn. When you set up the characters and story in the first part of a trilogy, there’s a lot of exposition. It’s necessary, if a bit boring. I don’t think ours was boring, but I do think the pace and interest pick up this time around,” he says.

“For me, part of that is Bilbo’s elevated excitement and sense of purpose. There’s more going on inside of him as a character and a participant. I know as an actor there was more going on inside me while acting the part.”

Much of Bilbo’s thunder this time around is stolen by Benedict Cumberbatch in the role of the titular dragon, Smaug. The actor voices the villainous creature with motion-capture techniques employed so he could provide facial expressions and body movements for the part.

“This was something I could sink my teeth into,” says the 37-year-old rising star. “I see it as one of the great villain roles of our era. I’ve usually been drawn to characters with a dark side. Here, it’s darkness piled upon darkness. Some movie-buff friends were comparing Smaug to villains of golden-age movies, and the one they thought the best comparison was the Wicked Witch of the West in ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ “

Cumberbatch and Freeman are co-stars on the hit BBC television series “Sherlock,” playing famed British literary characters Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, respectively, and the two Brits are well-known at home.

Cumberbatch has also set up a production company called Sunny March with producers Adam Ackland, Ben Dillon and Adam Selves. Among the roles he has on the horizon, this year’s “The Imitation Game” looks particularly interesting. In it he portrays Alan Turing, the doomed “father of the modern computer.” Turing was prosecuted for homosexuality in 1952 and died of poisoning in a suspected suicide in 1954. Queen Elizabeth II gave him a posthumous pardon just two months ago.

“I find as I grow older and become more individual, as we all do, that extraordinary roles suit me more and I fit them better,” Cumberbatch says. “In one’s 20s it’s about conforming and trying for success and pleasing others. With time and confidence, it’s more about going your own way, career-wise and personally.”

When told he’s quite popular in Japan, Cumberbatch gurgles with pleasure.

“Really? How wonderful . . . rather apt, too,” for the actor is Buddhist. “The Zen spirit in particular intrigues me. One can’t always achieve it — it’s a goal, that becoming one with what you’re trying to achieve . . . as in that wonderful book about Zen and the art of archery, where the archer momentarily becomes the bow and the arrow. In special moments, that can happen in acting as well.”

The versatile Cumberbatch played rugby while attending the prestigious Harrow School in London and studied at the University of Manchester. He spent a year teaching English at a Tibetan monastery, and was captured along with two friends and held overnight at gunpoint by locals in South Africa in 2005. They were released without explanation.

“I’m saving some of my experiences for the eventual memoir,” he says. “But they’re not going to waste till then. I use them in my performances.

“An experience of fear or terror can be channeled into creating a character who instills fear and terror in others.”

It has taken a long while for international stardom to find Cumberbatch. He says he isn’t “stopping to consider or enjoy it,” in fact he admits he would have been satisfied just to get work in Britain.

“Hollywood-style stardom was never my goal, yet it seems to be happening due to particular projects,” he says. “I don’t seek, I don’t avoid . . . I just follow my path, doing my best. And if I’m well regarded or liked in Japan — what a marvelous bonus.”

Cumberbatch says “The Desolation of Smaug” will feature more action, fantastic special effects and some emotional high points in the plot. Freeman agrees, and mentions in particular the universality of a prominent theme in the trilogies regarding power and how it can corrupt.

“Nobody is immune,” he says. “Even Bilbo, temporarily, when he obtains and gets to use the One Ring . . . we’re reminded that power should never be amassed in great quantity by any one individual or entity.

“That rather speaks to modern politics. This movie creates its own world and it’s an escapist fantasy, but it has parallels to our world.”

Fans have suggested that “The Desolation of Smaug” is more in keeping with the grandeur of Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, the third chapter of which won 11 Academy Awards including best picture, than the first “Hobbit” film. Both “Hobbit” films have been nominated for Oscars, but only in technical categories such as sound and editing.

Cumberbatch has a theory as to why almost none of the actors in the Tolkien series have been nominated: “Most nominees in any (category) are victims. They suffer . . . villains inflict suffering. You’ve had great villains throughout movie history, but very, very few have gotten nominations, let alone awards. The residual childishness of awarding fictional victims rather than villains continues — not that I anticipated any nomination for this.

“There’s the factor of success, too, and the inherent commercialism of any trilogy or series, be it the James Bonds, Harry Potters or the Tolkiens. Possibly those who nominate feel that simply being on screen in any of these films is reward enough — and who’s to say they’re wrong?”

Freeman has a different take on the lack of acting Oscars: “Character parts requiring a lot of makeup, CGI or other effects may be viewed as requiring less from the performer, as if your costume and (effects) do the acting for you. Actors know this is false . . . it’s not easy acting under all that — it can be distracting — though to some extent it puts you inside the character’s frame of physical reference.”

The series’ toughest critics are likely the legion of Tolkien fans who know the book inside and out. Freeman explains that Jackson has had to take some liberties with the story in order to appeal to filmgoers who haven’t read Tolkien’s books.

“When you make three movies, none of them very short, you must embroider,” he says. “I’m sure that holding a movie audience’s attention through film after film — regardless of the source — is a very difficult, even tiresome thing.”

As tough as this balancing act between satisfying newcomers and veterans is, Freeman looks on the bright side. When it comes to the majority of viewers, who haven’t read the book, the film may introduce them to “a more Tolkien-esque worldview, the one the author originally intended. I think a very positive result of this is to increase reading … as it did with the ‘Harry Potter’ series.”

“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” opens in cinemas nationwide Feb. 28.

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