A rapt audience filled the Marriott Atrium Ballroom on Saturday to enjoy the company of some very accomplished gentlemen. “Five Amazing Middle-earth Celebrity Guests” featured a wizard, a Steward of Gondor, and several dwarves from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit trilogy to talk about the process of making such monumental films and bringing J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved Middle-earth to the big screen.
The group—Stephen Hunter, Sylvester McCoy, Peter Hambleton, John Noble, and Dean O’Gorman—enjoyed some good-natured ribbing and a walk down memory lane, recalling some of the on-set antics and best moments working with director Peter Jackson.
O’Gorman did a killer Gollum impression. Hambleton raised both shoulders, one at a time, and copped some swagger to strut in place for his walk-like-a-boss troll gait. Hunter lovingly referred to his mates as “peanuts.” Noble lamented that he spent time in his trailer crying because his character, Denethor, was so dark. But, everyone agreed that being on set was like being with family, even when they were pulling fart pranks on one another.
And yet, if they had to eat each other in order to ensure their own survival (you know, if they were in some weird universe where they were a part of the infamous Donner Party), none would hesitate to eat Hunter first. O’Gorman imagined Hunter would be “delicious as an entrée.”
O’Gorman, who played Fili in The Hobbit series, kicked off the panel talking about the audition process, which Noble noted as being long and odd given its global nature. Both O’Gorman and McCoy originally vied for the part of Bilbo Baggins, which went to Martin Freeman for The Hobbit series and Ian Holm for The Lord of the Rings series.
“I was flattered to be up against such a great actor,” McCoy said of losing to Holm. “But, I hate him,” he then joked.
Hunter, who does a lot of voice acting, had to switch gears to play Bombur, a reticent and obese Dwarf. “It was a challenge as an actor,” he said about capturing the sheer physicality of the role.
To prepare for the role of the wizard Radagast, McCoy joked that he “read one little paragraph of The Hobbit.”
No matter the role, all the actors wanted to honor the work—both the original books, which Jackson insisted the films stay true to, and any preceding films.
“I knew it was such a global phenomenon,” Hambleton said. “It just felt like we were on this amazing mission…and I wanted to bring whatever I could to deliver the goods.”
They expressed their admiration for Jackson’s unusual, collaborative directing process; he worked closely with his Hobbit screenwriters—Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro—even during the filming and gave his special effects team a lot of room to innovate to visualize his ideas. He even honored Walsh’s and Boyens’ request to cut the dwarves nude bathing scene from The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (but, you can see it in the extended edition!).
Jackson was also a consummate professional, concealing his enthusiasm (for three years) to be working with McCoy, who played the seventh incarnation of The Doctor in the 1980s, until McCoy’s final day of filming. Jackson gave him a farewell toast in which he exclaimed, “AND I GOT TO WORK WITH DOCTOR WHO!”
They all admire their fan base, which has given them some gems in terms of interaction. McCoy was once in Minneapolis for an event while he was appearing in Doctor Who and a fan asked, “Now that you are famous, are you worried about being shot?” Hunter was once told by a little boy that he was the boy’s fifth favorite dwarf.
Each actor came to the profession in various ways. O’Gorman got his first job at 11 years old and realized then that he could get paid for not being at school. He never looked back. Noble started acting in community theater in the 1970s. McCoy fell (of course) into acting accidently after losing a job and becoming a hippie (surprise!). Hunter started acting in high school but stayed for the on-set catering and cool co-workers.
Hambleton stressed that acting is a precarious living with lots of ups and downs. “I still don’t believe I can make a go at it” he said but “seeing others carving out a career against all odds” gives him hope.
They’ve all stayed busy since their Middle-earth days. O’Gorman is showing an exhibition of WWI photos in Germany and France and has a film, which also stars Bryan Cranston, coming out in November. He spent most of filming trying not to piss his pants. Hambleton is directing King Lear in Wellington, New Zealand in 2016. Noble can next be seen on season four of Elementary as Sherlock Holmes’ father. Hunter has just finished shooting a science fiction film that features Billy Zane.
And, McCoy is headed to India for the BBC to test out the premise of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in the real world. But, don’t expect him to do any more work with a hedgehog. He really hates those damn animals.
NOTE: New Zealanders, Australians, and the Scots also do not know about the Donner Party and must have it explained to them. Sigh.