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Hobbits barely knew what they were Tolkien about

Hobbits on guard, for what they're not sure (L-R): Samwise (Sean Astin), Frodo (Elijah Wood), Pippin (Billy Boyd) and Merry (Dominic Monaghan).

Even more incredible than realizing it's been 20 years since "The Fellowship of the Rings" launched the Oscar-winning "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy is knowing that the actors who played the ring-guarding Hobbits barely knew about author J.R.R. Tolkien and his classic tale when they joined the cast. I talked to them during the Cannes Film Festival of 2001, in a castle north of Cannes where most of the main "Fellowship" players had gathered for a day of press.

Peter Howell

Movie Critic

CASTELLERAS-LE-VIEUX, France -- Tolkien who? Lord of the what?

In the midst of the folderol and fiddle-dee-dee over "The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring," some shocking news breaks. An informal survey, conducted on the grounds of a rented French castle on this sunny May afternoon, reveals that three out of four hobbits barely knew their orcs from their elves when the movie began filming two years ago.

Elijah Wood, 20, who plays Frodo Baggins, says he owned a copy of J.R.R. Tolkien's classic trilogy, but he'd never read it prior to being cast.

Billy Boyd, 32, who performs as the fun-loving Peregrin "Pippin" Took, says he tried reading the book once, but "I was on holidays and I dropped it in the swimming pool."

Sean Astin, 30, who takes the role of Frodo's loyal sidekick Samwise "Sam" Gamgee, goes one further and admits he was blissfully unaware of either Tolkien or The Lord Of The Rings, before movie director Peter Jackson signed him on. "I guess I'm a unique American, " Astin says. "I'd never even heard of the book. I graduated with a degree in history and American literature from UCLA."

Only Dominic Monaghan, 30, who plays the adventurous Meriadoc "Merry" Brandybuck as the fourth hobbit member of the ring-guarding Fellowship, had first-hand prior knowledge of the book. And to hear him talk, it sounds as if a parental whip was cracking as he turned every page. "My Dad reads it every summer, so I was forced into reading it, " Monaghan moans.

It's a startling comment on modern educational standards, perhaps, but you won't find these four dudes, two Americans and two Britons, making much of an apology for their ignorance. On the contrary, as they gather together for interviews duties during the Cannes Film Festival, they seem every inch as carefree and mirthful as their hobbit alter-egos.

And well they should be. The $270-million (U.S.) Rings trilogy, which begins its multi-year multiplex assault Dec. 19 with the release of The Fellowship Of The Ring, the book's first adventure, is guaranteed to launch these four relative unknowns to the outer limits of celebrity -- which includes everything from seeing their faces on magazines to having their own plastic action figures at Burger King.

None of the four could yet be described as a household name, and only the Iowa-born Wood, the youngest of the group, has anything approaching lead actor status on his screen resume: he played Huck Finn in The Adventures Of Huck Finn (1993) and The Artful Dodger in a TV version of 'Oliver Twist' (1997). He started with commercials, but his first film break came soon after, a small part in the hit sci-fi sequel "Back To The Future, Part 2" (1989). He's also appeared in the blockbuster "Deep Impact" (1998) and Ang Lee's arthouse gem "The Ice Storm" (1997).

Wood's experience is so much broader than that of his hobbit brethen, who have mostly TV and small-film credits, it explains why he was chosen for the role of Frodo, arguably the most important character in The Lord Of The Rings. It also explains why he seems less star-struck by appearing in Rings than his fellow hobbits.

He seems bemused when Astin starts to enthuse. "I don't think any of us will ever have another experience like this, working on a film of this scope and detail, " says Astin, who hails from Santa Monica, Calif. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience, bar none."

Wood chuckles and wryly replies, "There will be other once-in-a-lifetime experiences."

However "The Lord Of The Rings" affects their careers, there's no doubt the film changed all of them as actors.

Says Wood: "This movie, I think all of us agree, it just kind of reaffirmed our passion for what we do. We spent 15 months taking our characters from one place to the next. We got to live that out with every kind of emotion and situation you can imagine. We went through that.

The enthusiasm was infectious. The four hobbit actors bonded as friends off-camera, too, during the 15 months they spent together making the film in remote corners of New Zealand. They trolled the local pubs together and read Tolkien together. They also discovered a shared passion for surfing and scarfing down giant submarine sandwiches.

Jackson drove them very hard to become hobbits both in deed and thought.

Says Monaghan: "We had a huge rehearsal process which was sword-fighting and physical training and dialect coaching and rowing. Pete was very keen on the whole Fellowship to become very strongly linked, both socially and at work. By the time we did the first day of filming as the four hobbits, were we very close."

"It was quite organic, " adds the Glasgow-born Boyd, whose Scots burr seems as strong as ever. "Because they did get us there early to do this training. And of course, we were spending evenings together, so we had tons of time to talk about things. So by the time we started filming, the characters were all there and we all had our relationships to each other. It seemed real."

Thinking the unthinkable, what if "The Fellowship Of The Ring" isn't as big a hit as everybody expects? Or what if the two sequels, planned for 2002 and 2003, don't do as well as the first movie?

In true hobbit fashion, none of the four actors take the questions seriously.

"I'd personally go out and sell them straight to video, " Wood quips. "I'd go out and market them on the streets, with sandwich boards and stuff."

Monaghan goes one better: "Maybe I'd become a scuba diver or an international spy, or something."

Astin tops them all: "I might go mad and actually build a hobbit home."

At this remark, the four actors lean back and cackle like loons, a true Fellowship for good times and bad. 🌓

(This story originally appeared in the Toronto Star in December, 2001.)



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