It was, to hear all involved, a journey like no other to bring to the screen a journey like no other. That is to say that delivering unto audiences across the world film versions of The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King required 16 months of shooting in New Zealand, infinite patience, buckets of blood, sweat and tears, complete and utter trust in director Peter Jackson and an unbridled passion for JRR Tolkien's masterwork, The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
"I would put it this way: Peter Jackson has achieved, to my mind, what was impossible," enthuses Sean Astin. "And that is a celebration of the power of his imagination and his own ability to engage, in a respectful way, this work that he so admired, this literature that he so admired, in a new medium."
Astin plays Sam Gamgee, an everyday Hobbit leading an everyday life in the Shire in Middle-Earth. Sam's life turns upside down, however, soon after another Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (Sir Ian Holm) arrives in the Shire and bestows upon Sam's friend Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) , a ring of great consequence. The Ring of Power corrupts all who possess it and according to a wizard named Gandalf the White (Sir Ian McKellen) it must be destroyed in the volcano in which it was forged or the dark lord Sauron will be able to enslave all who live in Middle-Earth. And so begins the arduous trek to destroy the Ring and save the Shire. It's a trek fraught with danger, as Sauron's nine Dark Riders and countless other threats loom large on the way to Mount Doom. Fortunately, the elf lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving) arranges for Frodo to be accompanied and protected by eight others - a combination of elves, dwarves, Humans and Hobbits. These include Frodo's pals Sam, Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd); the Humans Boromir (Sean Bean) and Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen); the dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davis), the elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom); and, of course, Gandalf. As the epic saga plays out, the Fellowship encounter a variety of creatures, friends and foes. Among them Orcs, Treebeard (Brad Dourif), the elf Arwen (Liv Tyler), elf queen Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), and the dark wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee).
Starburst caught up with both as Astin and Orlando Bloom for an early peak at The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which, not to employ too much hyperbole, promises to emerge as a landmark in cinema history. Astin and Bloom spoke just a few months after wrapping production on the trilogy, which was shot back to back to back, but will be released at a pace of one a year, each December in 2001, 2002 and 2003. "I graduated from UCLA with a degree in history and American Literature and Culture and I'd never ever heard of The Lord of the Rings before," says Astin, whose credits include The Goonies, The War of the Roses and Rudy, and who produced and directed the Oscar-nominated short film, Kangaroo Court. "I'd heard of The Hobbit, but I'd never heard of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I took a yearlong survey in British literature, everything from Anglo-Saxon poetry and Chaucer, but I'd not been blessed to read The Lord of the Rings. And thank God. Thank God. I wasn't ready for them yet. They're about Good and Evil, Right and Wrong, nature, technology as it operates in our society. They're completely relevant and always will be. To me, it's not just the books; it's everything Tolkien was about. When we were in Wellington preparing to do the movies, I read a lot of Tolkien's letters. There was a book of his letters that was published. Tolkien told these stories to his son. If I'm telling this correctly, after his son would fall asleep, he'd go write it down.
"I recognized the power of the literature," Astin continues, "I was thrilled to engage the literature in a living and breathing was. I am terrified that people in England, that the Tolkien estate, that people who love these books would think we were in any way reckless or didn't care about the importance of understanding the work before trying to adapt it because that was not what happened. What happened was I was a guy who was totally unaware of the literature and then fell in love with it as a function of trying to adapt it. I grew to love it. I've become a neophyte Tolkien-ologist in the sense that I've read the books, I've studied them and listened to the BBC radio show and the other CD's that have been compiled. I'm struggling, genuinely struggling, with a way to even talk about it. But I don/t mind the struggle. It's cool."
"When I was 14 years old I got about halfway through the second book and then kind of got more interested in girls and other stuff," says Bloom, a British newcomer whose credits include a small role in Wilde and upcoming films Lullaby of Clubland and Black Hawk Down, a big-budget Ridley Scott film co-staring Josh Harnett, Jason Isaacs and Ewan McGregor. "But I picked them up again as the casting process on the films began. I read them a couple of times before shooting began. They're on top of the bestseller list. It was on the reading list at my school. So it was a very daunting prospect to take on a character from such a famous book, to be able to portray him with as much truth as possible. But at some point you just have to let go of that in order to not inhibit yourself."
Toiling on the film required a variety of demands from all involved. Ask anyone involved and each will offer up his or her own very personal take on the matter, Some gripe about all the time away from home, while others decry the endless hours spent in a make-up chair. Some recount the rigors of training for the production, while others get into detail about the sheer physicality of the work. Astin, a husband and a father of a young daughter, had to weigh the pros and cons of committing to The Lord of the Rings undertaking. "I'd spent about a year of my life and most of the money that I'd made as an actor investing in my company and building my business, my entertainment company, and trying to get films made," notes the actor. "And I was at a point where I thought I was close to putting together a film that I wanted to produce. I was close, but it was not a sure thing. There was a moment where, finally, after six months of praying for it, that I was offered The Lord of the Rings. But I had to make a choice in my heart about it, 'Do I continue to strive for the ambition of the thing that I've been doing, that's within my control, or do I recognize that awesome, absolutely unique moment of opportunity, the confluence of cinema technology, Peter Jackson's talent, everything?'
"This was a once in a lifetime moment. So there was really no choice for me. I went into The Lord of the Rings. And I am so proud of myself and so proud of the work that I did. It was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life, absolutely. There were moments that I did not think I'd survive. There were times I'd look at my calendar and se how much time we had left. And I knew how I felt physically. I had to put on 30 pounds for the part. Peter Jackson said if I didn't do that then he was going to go with another guy. The way the weight felt on my body was horrible. It was uncomfortable. So on my mirror in the make-up bus - the four of us shared a make-up bus - I had charted out calendar days, just to organize the time in my mind. I knew that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity, but I needed to orient myself to how long I was going to have to be experiencing this. It was so hard.
"But I learned a lot about acting," continues Astin, who spent hours in the make-up chair each day as hairy Hobbit feet, big point ears were fitted on him. "I learned what the modern actor is really faced with in the digital age. I learned that as an actor in film there's a kind of powerless, especially the way Peter Jackson works, because he's such a dynamic filmmaker. I've been acting for 22 years and I have a very strong sense and a very strong instinct when I get to a moment of acting of the overall film. And on this it was impossible to do that. The overall film was changing so much and Peter's vision for it was evolving. Or it was completely clear to him, but was only clear to me at moments when he needed for it to be clear to me. So I learned as an actor that it's incredibly important to have faith and go give your trust over almost entirely to the film-maker because you have no other option. For the work not to suffer, you just have to have faith that you are going to be protected that you're not going to be made to look stupid or silly. I did things because Peter asked me to (do them), even if it didn't feel right. That's hard for an actor to do. Actually, that was one of the greatest things about it, just completely giving yourself over to the process. It was hard for me to do because, as a director and a producer, I've been able to control the process on some of my work. To not have control, to relinquish control, was hard, but I think I was able to do it, and I think that I am better for it."
And what of Bloom's greatest travail?
"Training," he notes. "I had a lot of archery trailing. I had a lot of training in the elven style of fighting. It's based on a kind of ancient European/Asian style of martial arts. I'd watched a film called The Seven Samurai, the Kurosawa film, and I wanted to try and have Legolas have that kind of focus and ability. In the relatively short amount of time that was available to me I tried to get that across. For archery, there's a technique to the way you use the bow. We had to be meticulous about that."
Astin, at least, had the benefit of knowing what to expect of Jackson. The acclaimed New Zealander directed Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles, Dead Alive, Heavenly Creatures and also The Frighteners, the last of which starred Michael J Fox and also Astin's father. John Astin, best known to TV viewers as Gomez Addams on The Adams Family, appeared in The Frighteners as a dead, but still horny judge. "He's the reason I wanted to do the trilogy," Astin says of his father. "When he got back from New Zealand with his wife and described for me, in great detail and with pictures, what it was like to go through the WETA special effects process, my father created in my mind's eye the idea of a perfect working environment, of a surreal, imaginative source in New Zealand. And the way he talked bout Fran and Peter was intoxicating. So when I was driving my car and talking on my cell phone to my agent, he said, 'Peter Jackson is doing The Lord of the Rings trilogy for New Line.' I only heard the words 'Peter Jackson' and 'trilogy', and I turned my car around and went to Barnes & Noble to buy a copy. W went home and read and studied and hired a dialect coach!"
Jackson, Bloom explains, was one of several reasons why he wanted to participate in The Lord of the Rings so badly. "Meeting Peter was a big part of it," he says. "Peter's vision for this piece was amazing. The amount of monitors he had in front of him, the number of units he was directing at once, was just incredible. There was no question about wanting to jump into something like that. We all knew that The Lord of the Rings could be special and we all wanted to be a part of it. Also, it was a chance for me to play someone with super human strength, sensory awareness, and reflex speed. The elves are the oldest race in Middle-earth. So it was a chance to work on myself and become what I think most people in the world want to achieve, which is that kind of centered, focused, giving, loving, strong, courageous, fearless quality. It was, 'Man, I'm going to ride horses. I'm going to learn to fight with blades. I couldn't believe it."
Beyond their director, Bloom and Astin had their co-stars to lean on. Astin, for example, found himself hanging out mostly with his fellow Hobbits. They ate together, hung out together on the set and even vacationed together. Astin joined in quite a bit of that, with the exception of vacationing together, as he had his wife and daughter on set most of the time. "We became friends for life," Astin says. "On the set, they were like uncles to my daughter. I was down there in New Zealand for 15 months. I spent a lot of time working with Elijah (as it's only Frodo and Sam traveling together for a major section of The Two Towers) and with Andy Serkis (as the aforementioned Gollum, who features more heavily in The Two Towers then in The Fellowship of the Rings). I also got to experience Cate Blanchett, if but for a few moments, for a couple of days. She must be an elf because she has this regal presence. Art imitated life or life imitated art, or something. I don't know. I got to experience Ian McKellen more because his make-up chair was in our bus, so even when he was filming other scenes I got to experience him, which I was really grateful for. I got acquainted with Ian Holm and Liv was there, and I got to hang out with her a little bit. It was a true kind of acting troupe. People would come in and they'd go out, and it was phenomenal to be around all that different energy."
Bloom echoes Astin's words. "There were a lot of young people in the cast and we all gelled very quickly and we all got on well," he notes. "Everybody helped each other through, because it was hard, and there was always somebody around on the set who really knew what they were doing. It was a real labour of love, so everybody was helping everybody to sort of bring the production forward. It was a good place to be. I feel incredibly fortunate to have been given the opportunity to play this character and to be in this world and to work with these people. It was really a dream come true."
Of course, dreams sometimes can devolve into nightmares. Like Star Wars and Star Trek and the James Bond films before it, The Lord of the Rings trilogy - with all the attendant hype and the short windows of time between the releases of the three chapters - could leave some of its cast members typecast as their respective characters. The possibility doesn't seem to apply much to Astin, who, after all, survived his status not only as a Hollywood child (his mother is actress Patty Duke), but also as a teen thespian and as a cast member of popular cult film, specifically that 80's pseudo-classic The Goonies. Bloom takes it far more seriously, employing a bit of denial to deal with the issue. In other words, the fear of being forever Legolas looms for Bloom. "I look completely different," he says, bringing the conversation to a close. "I've got a buzz cut now, but in the movie I have long blonde hair and blue eyes. I can't get my head around that. It freaks me out, but it's not really something that I can think about."