- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 15, 2001

NEW YORK — Actor Elija Wood decided he needed to do "something a little special" to nab the role of young protagonist Frodo Baggins in the marvelous movie "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship

of the Rings," which opens Wednesday.

Mr. Wood "rented this sort of cheesy little Hobbit costume" for his audition tape, director Peter Jackson recalls. "But the moment he came on the screen, I knew we'd found Frodo. Elijah has the most wonderful expressive eyes. You can see right into his heart. So, in a manner of speaking, Elijah cast himself."

In the J.R.R. Tolkien tale, Frodo inherits a magical but potentially corrupting doomsday ring from his elder cousin Bilbo Baggins and struggles to elude capture and death by marauders and monsters who crave the object for terminally despotic purposes.

Mr. Wood, 20, feels a debt of gratitude to Web site impresario Harry Knowles, founder of AintItCool.com, for urging him to pursue the Frodo role.

"He came up to me [on the set of 'The Faculty] and said, 'Dude, they're making "Lord of the Rings," and Peter Jackson's gonna direct. You gotta play Frodo,'" Mr. Wood recounts. "That was about a year before casting actually started. My agents called me when it was heating up and said, 'Look, you've gotta get in there. They're looking for an English actor, so you're under greater pressure. You need to sound English beyond a doubt.'"

Mr. Wood acquired a dialogue coach and started to work on his English dialect. Then he decided to get creative with his audition tape. Having committed a few Frodo speeches to memory, he rented a facsimile of a Hobbit costume and took to a wooded locale with his friend George Huang, a director armed with a video camera. The 10-minute tape was sent to Mr. Jackson's casting director in London.

Mr. Jackson says he was unaware of Mr. Wood until the tape arrived. "Everyone who reads the books tries to imagine a perfect dream cast," the director says. "We were able to do that for real. There were actors we wanted from the very beginning and got. That category included Ian Holm as Bilbo, Ian McKellen as Gandalf and Sean Bean as Boromir. Frodo was difficult to cast, being the Everyman. Who can stand in for every reader? We thought it would probably go to an English actor and auditioned about 200. Two or three were serious possibilities, but we were still looking."

Although Mr. Jackson had never seen a movie with Mr. Wood, his wife and close collaborator, Fran Walsh, had seen "The Ice Storm." She believed the Wood tape would be worth checking out.

The "Ring" story is familiar to many people. "The Fellowship of the Rings" is the first part of a trilogy derived from Tolkien fantasy novels, written between 1937 and 1949 and published in the mid-1950s.

Mr. McKellen, 62 and knighted a few years ago in recognition of his theatrical career, plays the wizard Gandalf.

"I'll admit that I was worried before I saw Peter's finished film," he says in cast interviews conducted by the press. "Worried that the story was too complicated. That it was incomplete, since the plan, of course, is to release the 'Ring' movies during three consecutive Christmas seasons. Worried as well that people who didn't know the books wouldn't be interested. Finally, that the technical aspects of the wizardry wouldn't look good enough."

But "within five minutes, I felt I'd been led in by Peter's hand to this magical world that never existed," he says. "I forgot I was at a movie. When it ended, I thought it had only been about an hour, rather than the three hours it actually runs. I longed to see Part II as soon as possible, preferably after a supper break."

The most troublesome casting choice for the movie turned out to be Aragorn, who rivals Boromir as a professional warrior in the Fellowship. That group consists of nine valiant souls who must return the magical but ominous ring to its point of origin in order to save the realm called Middle Earth from surrender to demonic forces. The ostensible date of the adventure is 7,000 years ago, which also corresponds to the age of Mr. McKellen's wise and bellicose Gandalf.

Two weeks into the production a prodigious affair that required about 275 days of shooting during an 18-month immersion in "Lord of the Rings," with Mr. Jackson directing all the live-action scenes for all three movies at locations in his native New Zealand young British actor Stuart Townsend was replaced. An emergency summons went out to Viggo Mortensen in Los Angeles to play the role of Aragorn.

"I was at home and got a call from my agent," Mr. Mortensen says. "He asked if I wanted to leave for New Zealand the next day. Well, I didn't. I needed at least a few hours to think about it. I was concerned about my son, who's 11 and thought it was a great idea. I thought that I'd be at a disadvantage professionally for the obvious reasons: no preparation time. Also, I hadn't read the books. At the end, I knew I'd always think of myself as a big coward if I turned it down."

Mr. Mortensen had missed a lot of preparation. Mr. Bean, as Boromir, arrived five weeks before principal shooting began to familiarize himself with weapons, get in a lot of horseback riding and rehearse fight scenes. Orlando Bloom, cast straight out of drama school in London, had a similar head start while playing the elfin archer called Legolas.

Lack of familiarity with the novels wasn't much of a drawback.

Mr. McKellen and Mr. Wood had read only "The Hobbit," the "prequel" to the "Ring" novels, before being cast. Sean Astin, who plays Frodo's loyal sidekick Sam, hadn't read a word of Tolkien.

Catching up on his reading while flying to New Zealand, Mr. Mortensen discovered that "a lot of the material was very familiar to me, down to the names." He had dipped into Celtic and Norse mythology as a boy. In addition, he recognized that "Led Zeppelin, 'Star Wars' and Harry Potter wouldn't have existed without what Tolkien had pulled together decades earlier."

Mr. Mortensen found a hero such as Aragorn hard to resist.

"An orphan raised by elves," he muses. "A little like Moses. He knows the best and bravest of his forefathers screwed up. They were not immune to the corrupting temptations of the ring. So why should he, a distant and diluted descendant of a noble line, fare any better? He becomes a master of disguise and assumes different names, living a nomadic, hit-and-run existence. Like the Lone Ranger, he helps people and disappears. The Shire is protected by people like him, who patrol the borders and keep the bad guys at bay."

Mr. Mortensen learned he was cast because Mr. Townsend looked too young to make self-evident sense as Aragorn.

"He was the same age as these guys playing Hobbits and what not," the actor says. "I think in 10 years he'd be perfect for the part. I don't know him, and I gather that he and Peter reached the decision mutually. There was enough to worry about on this project without the factor of someone in his 20s looking too young. Sean and I are in our 40s and can look adequately storm-tossed. Aragorn is also of a race that lives longer than Sean's character. He ends up living 210 years."

Despite the late arrival, Mr. Mortensen got into the spirit of the combat.

"Those of us who fought a lot had pulled muscles, twisted this-and-that, broken toes," he says. "It was such a long process. People got married, split up, got pregnant, left and returned. It was a traveling circus. We spent three months shooting one battle sequence, for the second film. All of it at night. It was always cold and wet, because the battle takes place in a rainstorm on hilly, rocky terrain.

"The stunt crew was just amazing. It's a relatively small pool of people in New Zealand," he says. "Remember that when you see the battles. They were so committed that they'd go at it full tilt wherever they were in the field of action. Every take. I'd say I killed every stunt person who plays a monster at least 50 times."

Mr. Astin, Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd play Frodo's Hobbit companions.

"There was a mood change when the Hobbits came on set. We brought a certain lightness," says Mr. Monaghan, cast as Merry. "With Viggo, he had to hang on to this ball of darkness to take him through the quest. But with the Hobbits, everything's open and free and honest."

The actors playing the Three Hobbits are American, English and Scottish in origin but share impish faces and somewhat short statures not in the Hobbit range of 3 to 4 feet, of course. Mr. Boyd claims to be "the tallest Hobbit," at 5 feet 6 inches.

"There's some high-tech stuff that shrinks us down to Hobbit size," he says, "but some of the illusion is simple forced perspective. Whoever is closest to the camera looks bigger, whoever is far away looks smaller."

Mr. Boyd explains the healthiness of the Hobbit outlook: "They don't think they're small. They come from the Shire, where everyone is no higher than 4 feet. They think people like Aragorn are incredibly tall. There's no Napoleon complex among the Hobbits."

Mr. Astin points out that the Hobbits were also doubled by authentic "little people."

"The company hired people from around the world who are grown-up and 3 feet tall to simulate us in certain shots," he says.

Asked if they have pondered years of attending "Lord of the Rings" conventions, perhaps rivaling the "Star Trek" tradition, the Hobbits claim to be ready for such an eventuality.

"Oh, yeah, we'll go to conventions," Mr. Astin says. "The question is, will the convention be the professional highlight of your year?"

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