Actors Return to Middle-earth in ‘The Hobbit’


Front Row Features

NEW YORK—Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen and Andy Serkis reprise their respective roles from “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy in Peter Jackson’s fantasy epic prequel “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” the first in what is planned to be another three-parter. This time the films are adapted from a single J.R.R. Tolkien novel.

Joining the cast in this newest trilogy are Martin Freeman (of “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” fame), who stars as Bilbo Baggins, a Middle-earth hobbit who is coaxed into a cross-country adventure by a gang of dwarfs that show up on his doorstep one day. They urge the simple hobbit to aid them in their effort to reclaim their faraway kingdom from a fearsome dragon that has taken over. Another newcomer to fantasy epic series is Richard Armitage, who plays a dwarf leader named Thorin Oakenshield.  (The British actor actually is 6-foot-2-inches tall but thanks to some movie magic appears much shorter.)

The actors recently convened here in the Big Apple to talk about making “The Hobbit,” and taking another journey—or their first for Freeman and Armitage—through Middle-earth.

Q: Andy, how was it returning to the role of Gollum?

Serkis: He’s 540 years old in this film, not 600, so he’s much hotter! We will have a huge fan base with the teenage girl fans. What was great about Gollum this time around was that there was no modus operandi in terms of the performance-capture side of things. That was an ongoing kind of sidetrack alongside the development of the character (last time). What we established on “The Lord of the Rings” and returned to 12 years later wasn’t an issue. We were able to play our scene out and the performance-capture happens at exactly the same time.  When Elijah (Wood) and I worked together, we acted the scenes together but I had to go and repeat the scenes afterwards on a motion-capture stage. Now, the technology is in the room on the set at the same time so I played my scene out (with Freeman).

It was the first scene to be shot on the movie as an entire chamber theater piece. It was about 12 minutes and Pete wanted to do that so we could really investigate that scene with Martin. That allowed us to also experiment with the character.

Q: Is it strange returning to a character you initially portrayed more than a decade ago?

Serkis: The only weird thing about getting back into Gollum was there really was a sense of “Am I doing an impersonation of a character I once played 10 years ago?” But, very quickly, I engaged with Martin in the scene, and getting to play it out was so thrilling. Watching Martin develop as Bilbo in front of my eyes was amazing.

Q: How many times a day do people come up to you and say “My precious?”

Serkis: 432. No, but it’s an amount.

Q: For Martin and Richard, what was it like coming into the franchise and joining the fellowship of these actors who’d worked together previously?

Armitage:  We arrived together at beginning of 2011 and we went straight into a training program, all the dwarves together. Martin joined us, even though he wasn’t a dwarf so it was a bonding experience, which became extended because there was a delay in filming. That process really formed our group and the hierarchies formed during that process. As far as coming into an existing franchise, we were always made to feel very welcome, like we were coming into a family, and so many people returned that were working on the “Rings” trilogy. It was just very easy.

McKellen: It’s not a franchise; they’re films. This isn’t “X-Men.”

Q: For Richard and Martin, how big of a fan were you of “The Lord of the Rings” movies, and how surreal was it when you were actually on set in this world and interact with people like Gandalf and Gollum.

Freeman: “The Lord of the Rings” movies were fantastic. I didn’t grow up a Tolkien-head. I read Tolkien in the run up to this. So my experience of Middle-earth was through the films, which I think are still great pieces of work. But from my point of view of turning up and being involved in this world, it was a pleasure to be with Pete (Jackson).  It was a pleasure to be with a crew that was committed (and) to get to know the actors, who I knew a little bit from (England). (We) subsequently became friends and met other people I’d never met whose work I liked. It had a way of not being intimidating, which was lovely.

Q: What was the first day like when you saw yourselves in your full makeup and costume? How did the look of your character help you get into this world?

Armitage: The first day I was made up as a dwarf was quite shocking. It took four and a half hours (in make up) and I kept my eyes closed for all of it because I didn’t want to see how it looked. I just opened my eyes at the end. It’s very strange when you don’t recognize yourself. At that point it was quite extreme. They went through a process of sculpting many different kinds of faces and they eventually found something that was appropriate. It’s always brilliant when you look in the mirror and don’t recognize yourself.

Freeman: It was sort of gradual because Bilbo went through a few phases. There were a couple of noses for Bilbo. There was an almost snub-nose, and then a Cyrano De Bergerac-shaped nose, but it was decided that my nose was weird enough. The wigs slightly changed and the hair color changed, so it went from a sort of middle-aged rocker to being what Bilbo looks like now— a Middle-earth rocker.

McKellen: Here’s an interesting, but useless piece of trivia: every single character in “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” wears a wig, and many of them wear prosthetics, (including) false ears, feet, hands and, in my case, nose.

Q: Andy, you don’t wear prosthetics, do you?

Serkis: No, but I don’t take it personally. I’m a digital prosthetic.

Q: How did you all manage to shake off your roles emotionally and physically after “LOTR?”

Wood: A funny thing happened as the films came out and the characters become absorbed into popular culture and the character became bigger than me. The character is everywhere and people on the street daily reference Frodo (still), so it’s like a little shadow.

Armitage: We haven’t finished the story so I don’t think I’ve made any attempt to shake it off yet.

Freeman: Without sounding glib, I take off the wig, the feet and the ears and that’s it.

McKellen: What you might have difficulty shaking off when you remove the costume and the make-up is not the character but the effort that you’ve put into it and the intensity.

Q: Andy, you not only play Gollum, but you serve as second unit director on this. Can you speak about that experience? What did you learned from the first trilogy that you brought to the director’s chair?

Serkis: Pete invited me to be second unit director for two weeks, but it went from being a two-week job to a year and a half. I was utterly thrilled, and of course Pete knew I wanted to direct for quite some time. I started to direct short films after “King Kong.” I directed videogame projects and some theater. Basically Pete said, “Look, I want you to come down and do this, and we will have fun. .I want you to be bold, and I want you to be there for the actors mainly because the second you get on a project of this scale it’s going to be a big number.” I knew it wasn’t going to be just doing pick ups. It was going to be shooting and overseeing the performance level throughout all of the aerial shots and battle sequences as well as scenes.

Q: Why do you think he entrusted you?

Serkis: I just think he felt that he wanted someone he trusted who had been through the Middle-earth experience before and understood his sensibility and knew how he supports performance with the camera. I’ve always absolutely adored Pete’s way of shooting, keeping the camera moving, and the way that he intensifies moments. He was an amazing mentor, an amazing teacher and very generous.

Q: Do you think the material merits three epic-length films? Is it necessary or just a way to take in more at the box office?

Armitage: It definitely warrants three films. These pictures are textured and layered with incredible detail. The dwarf characters, for instance, in Tolkien’s book, they’re very, very thinly sketched and actually a bit of an anamorphous group whereas every single dwarf you will get to know throughout the course of this journey has very developed arcs. You can get to know them and see how they cope with the world. Also, because “The Hobbit” isn’t a separate universe, it’s entirely as you have seen from the first three films. The grand themes are feathered into the texture of it. So in order to do that fully— allowing each character to have his moment—and to play their part in those themes, you absolutely need three films to do it properly. Condensing it into two films seems almost impossible.

McKellen: Anybody who thinks Peter Jackson would fall for marketing forces rather than the artistic imperative doesn’t know the guy and his body of work. If we’d just made one movie of “The Hobbit,” all of the fans, and I’m thinking of the 8, 9 and 10-year-old boys and girls would watch it a thousand times. By the end of this, they will have three films to watch a thousand times.

Q: Ian, there’s a great scene with you and Cate Blanchett, who reprises her role as Lady Galadriel, in which you talk about the acts of kindness that rid the darkness. Can you expand on how that theme plays throughout the film, and applies to everyday life?

McKellen: We had appeared in the same scene at the end of “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” but we hadn’t actually worked together. They photographed us separately. For this, she was there in person. We had such a congenial relationship because she’s practically running the National Theater of Australia. We had so much to talk about, plays and everything else, as well as the fun of making a movie. We got extremely close and affectionate with each other. Her husband wasn’t around. (He laughs.) There was a moment where she just adjusts my hair, but I think it was Cate rather than Galadriel doing it, and it’s in the movie. I’m still rather shaking. There was a lot of innocent love and dependence going on. As for the message, we’re talking about something that Gandalf feels very strongly. It’s about the little guy that we need (Bilbo) who may be expendable, who may not come back.

Q: Do you have a favorite scene in the movie?

McKellen: Yes. When Martin says, “Am I going to come back? Can you promise that?” And I say, “No.” Not many commanders would say that to their soldiers. It’s a chilling, but heartwarming moment.

Q: Richard, can you talk about how you got the part?

Armitage: Yeah. It was a very simple process of going to meet Pete, and playing a scene that they’d written specifically for the audition. They invented something in that scene that isn’t really in the book, and they honestly captured the essence of the character and where they were probably going to take him in terms of the emotional journey as well as a physical journey. So I tried to interpret what they were looking for. I knew they wanted someone that could be quite fierce on the battlefield. So I was encouraged by that. That was it. It was very simple. Just one meeting, and the phone rang a few weeks later.

Q: What did you learn about yourselves in the process of making this film and the previous ones?

Wood: My experience on “Lord of the Rings” was unique. I was 18 when I traveled to New Zealand (the first time), so they were formative years for me growing into a man. That’s kind of what it meant for me. It was the first time I lived away from home for a great length of time. It was a huge journey for me as a person. I made some of the best friends of my life, and connected with this country, endured a responsibility as an actor I’ve never encountered before. So it totally changed me as a person. I think through the collected experiences of making the film, and going on that journey, and all of the people that informed that I’m partially the person I am today as a result of that.

Armitage: I suppose in working with Peter, the thing I realized is just when you think you’ve given everything you’ve got, he asks you for one more (take) and somehow you find it. So it’s like my own limitations—I’ve had to let those drop because there’s always more to give. When Peter Jackson asks you for another take when you think you’ve got nothing left and you give him three more, that’s something that I’ve learned about myself.

Freeman: I’m not quite sure yet what I’ve learned about myself. I don’t think that’s all fallen into place. I learned that I can be away from home that long. You can survive that.  But it’s like when you’re at drama school and the teacher says, “This might not make sense now but in seven years you’ll go, ‘Oh that’s what you were talking about.’” So I don’t think it’s all fully dropped for me yet.

Serkis: What I learned is that the kind of atmosphere Peter creates, he is a total collaborator, and filmmaking is a totally collaborative exercise, and there are 3,000 people on this film. It actually feels like most of New Zealand made this film. But, on a logistical level, organization is something that I’ve had to learn because for me those are my biggest challenges. But it’s also the enjoyment of other people’s craft. It was such an enormous pleasure watching and learning from fellow actors while I was directing the scenes, and just seeing people commit 150 percent each day. And these are really long stamina jobs. It’s like being pushed out onto sea on a very rocky boat, and all agreeing to get on that boat and seeing a big stormy sea ahead of you for a long time and knowing you can never get off it and you have to adapt. In nice way too.

Q: Ian, you’re playing a much younger Gandalf than you did in the “LOTR” trilogy. How’d you do it?

McKellen: I just played him the same. These six films, as they’re going to be in the future, will be viewed in the order not as they were filmed, but the order of the story. Is it going to be a little bit alarming for (audiences) to see everyone getting younger? The technology is younger. Do you remember Gollum in the first movie? He looked like a glove puppet compared to this.

Wood: And (in the next “Hobbit” installment) Frodo is going to get younger. I was actually de-aged for this. They softened my face. I’d lost all my baby fat.