After a few years of rumors, scuttlebutt, delays and crises, the first official cast members for "The Hobbit," the two prequel films to "Lord of the Rings," were announced on Thursday. Originally intended to be directed by Guillermo Del Toro, who bowed out in the summer, Peter Jackson eventually agreed to pick up the reins again, and as with the casting for the first film (of whom only Ian McKellen and Andy Serkis, and potentially Hugo Weaving, are likely to return), he's picked a mix of semi-familiar faces and relative unknowns.
This was as expected: no one was really expecting A-listers to be hired (despite the brief, hilarious rumor that Tobey Maguire would take on the lead role). But neither should the new actors expect to immediately be catapulted to the A-list -- as with most of the actors in "Star Wars," taking on immediately iconic characters has its perils and, while most of the original Fellowship got a boost to some degree, it didn't really last. Viggo Mortensen decided he'd rather be a character actor than a heroic leading man, Orlando Bloom ran out of swashbuckling costume dramas to stink up, while Sean Astin was last seen cropping in various TV roles, and Billy Boyd was last seen on the side of a carton of milk, as far as we can tell. With twelve dwarves fighting for screen-time, few of the new additions are guaranteed to make any real impression in the film either.
Having said that, all these actors will have raised profiles as a result of their involvement in Jackson's films, and any one of them could turn out to have a lengthy career, and find themselves on the A-list before too long. To help you to get to know the people you'll be reading about on a weekly basis between now and Christmas 2012, we've assembled a bluffer's guide to the cast of "The Hobbit"
Martin Freeman - Bilbo Baggins
In the initial announcement, at least, Freeman's undeniably the best-known name, but is still perhaps something of an unknown quantity to worldwide audiences, despite his rumored connection to the role stretching back years at this point. The 39-year-old is probably still best known for playing Tim on the original UK version of "The Office" -- the role became Jim in the US remake, and was taken by John Krasinski. Across two seasons and a Christmas special of the beloved series, Freeman, the sane, likable audience surrogate of the show, was taken to the hearts of the British public, although he'd cropped up in the likes of cult series "This Life" and Jamie Thraves' woefuly underseen indie "The Low Down" beforehand.
"The Office" catapulted him to stardom, and he landed, among others, a brief role as a stand-in on a porn shoot in Richard Curtis' "Love Actually," as well as a more dramatic role in the miniseries "Charles II: The Power & The Passion," opposite Rufus Sewell. But his biggest exposure, until "The Hobbit" at least, was in the lead role of Arthur Dent in "The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy," another Holy Grail of the geek world. Freeman did admirably, but despite an excellent, off-beat cast (also including Mos Def, Sam Rockwell and Zooey Deschanel) and imaginative direction by Garth Jennings, the film never cohered, mainly down to an uneven script and studio interference, and the box office disappointed.
Nevertheless, Freeman continued to tick along, with decent performances in Anthony Minghella's underrated "Breaking and Entering," and the US indies "Dedication" and "The Good Night," as well as a cameo in Edgar Wright's "Hot Fuzz." He's had a quiet few years since, but 2010 saw something of a resurgence for Freeman: he cropped up in the Bill Nighy/Emily Blunt comedy "Wild Target," and gave an acclaimed performance in the stage play "Clybourne Park" at the Royal Court in London (the play transfers to the West End in January, but it looks like Freeman won't be going with it, as it clashes with the start date of "The Hobbit"). Most importantly, he took on a role that finally escaped the shadow of Tim Canterbury, earning critical acclaim and commercial success: Dr. Watson, in the BBC's mostly excellent modern day reenvisioning of Arthur Conan Doyle's famous detective, "Sherlock."
The show premieres this weekend in the States, and anyone tuning in to catch it will see that Freeman's capable of a range that he doesn't always get credit for. He can be overly mannered sometimes, but he's easily capable of playing both the bumbling Bilbo Baggins of the beginning of Tolkien's tale, and the wiser, wilier version that will emerge by the end. His resemblance to Ian Holm, who took on the role in "Lord of the Rings," can't hurt either. He was an early favorite for the part, and both Jackson and Del Toro seem to have kept their eye on him over the years -- indeed, Freeman auditioned for Stanley Tucci's role in "The Lovely Bones" in the meantime.
Having said that, he wasn't locked in til recently -- we know that this time last year, a number of actors, mostly unknown, and significantly younger than Freeman, were auditioning for the role. Newcomer Joshua McGuire, who made a major impression on stage in London this year in "Posh," was among those who looked like serious candidates at that point. But Freeman seems to have always been the filmmakers' first choice, to the degree that they were prepared to alter the films' schedule around his commitments to the second series of "Sherlock," and finally, the actor is now ready to don the hairy feet, and go there and back again...
Fun Fact: Freeman is a Motown obsessive, and released a compilation of handpicked cuts from the label in 2006. Used copies are available from Amazon from as little as £1.14...
Richard Armitage - Thorin Oakenshield
Even more so than Freeman, Armitage is little-known in the States, and perhaps even more so, he's a household name in the UK. The actor, also 38, began his career in musical theater, including West End roles in "Cats," before re-training at the London Academy of Musical and Dramatic Art, taking on small roles at the Royal Shakespeare Company not long after graduation. His big break came in 2004, as the brooding love interest in the BBC adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell's "North and South" -- the part, much as Mr. Darcy did for Colin Firth ten years earlier, launched Armitage as a housewives' heartthrob virtually overnight.
After that, he took a key role in the British indie thriller "Frozen," and various other TV roles, before playing the villainous Guy of Gisborne in three series of the BBC family hit "Robin Hood," and Dawn French's love interest, and eventual husband, in the finale of the long-running Richard Curtis sitcom "The Vicar Of Dibley." The last few years have seen him in more macho territory, as the mysterious Lucas North in the long-running spy series "Spooks" (known as "MI:5" in the States), and as a former British special forces soldier in Sky1's "Strike Back." The former is currently airing its ninth series in the UK, and the latter had been re-commissioned for a second run, although we're told that, due to Armitage's role in "The Hobbit," his character is likely to be written out in some form.
He'll receive a great deal of exposure next year with a small villainous role in "Captain America," in which Armitage will play Heinz Kruger, the Nazi spy who, in the comic lore, is the first foe that the hero faced. To be perfectly honest, we're not big fans of what we've seen of Armitage: he can pull off brooding well, but hasn't shown much range beyond that. But having said that, casting's always been a strong suit of Jackson's, and Sean Bean, a very similar actor to Armitage, gave perhaps his career-best performance in "The Fellowship of the Ring." Armitage isn't a natural fit for the bearded dwarf Thorin Oakenshield (and it's unlikely to make his huge, slightly terrifying female fanbase happy), but we'll trust in Jackson on this one for the moment, even if the rumored likes of Jack Thompson and Brian Cox might have been more natural fits.
Aidan Turner - Kili
Like the earlier two, Turner's more or less unknown to those unfamiliar with BBC drama series -- clearly, Peter Jackson's been paying his license fee... The actor, who was born in Dublin in 1983, appeared briefly in Showtime's "The Tudors," but was launched to fame in the cult BBC series "Being Human," in which he plays a vampire, going cold-turkey, in a house-share with a ghost and a werewolf. After a rocky start, the series has become an entertaining watch, and Turner's a solid presence in it -- there's a third series on the way, and the show's currently being remade for US audiences on SyFy, with Sam Witwer ("Smallville") taking over the role.
He also had a surprise success with another BBC show, "Desperate Romantics," which focused on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of painters, with Turner playing Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Like Armitage, he seems a little too brooding and cheekboned to play a dwarf (he'll be Kili, the youngest of the twelve who Bilbo travels with), but we're sure make-up and digital shortening will make the leap easier. Deadline reported that the actor was also looked at for the role of The Elf King, in Jackson's film, and he could easily turn out to be the breakout from the film, in a Orlando Bloom kind of way.
Rob Kazinsky - Fili
Kili's brother Fili will be played by Rob Kazinsky, an actor we have to admit that we weren't familiar with. In fact, among the general British public, he's probably better known than Turner, thanks to an eighteen month stint on the British soap "Eastenders," one of the most widely watched shows in the country (and one that we've rarely, if ever, watched). Unlike, say, Australia's "Neighbours," which gave birth to the likes of Guy Pearce and Kylie Minogue, "Eastenders" has, across it's 25-year continuous run, never really been a proving ground for rising British stars -- the closest it came was with Michelle Ryan, who played NBC's "Bionic Woman" for a single season.
But Kazinsky could well be the first: he's got a role coming up next year in the George Lucas-produced WW2 drama "Red Tails," as well as cropping up soon in an episode of "Law and Order: Los Angeles." While he was reported to be something of a hellraiser in his time on "Eastenders," and was said to be retraining as a mechanic after he left, his pairing with Turner could steal the show in the way that Merry and Pippin did in the original LOTR trilogy.
Graham McTavish - Dwalin
49-year-old McTavish is another recognizable face from TV, although this time perhaps more from American shows than British ones. While he's cropped up on British TV in the likes of "Red Dwarf" and "Charles II" (the latter opposite Martin Freeman), he's spent the last few years turning up in US TV procedurals like "NCIS," "Numb3rs" and "CSI Miami," as well as bigger recurring roles on the final series of "Prison Break" and "24." He's had some major big-screen roles, cropping up recently in "Secretariat," and he was one of Sylvester Stallone's merry band of throat-rippers in 2008's "Rambo," while coming up he'll be a villain in the Luc Besson-produced, Zoe Saldana-starring assassin thriller "Columbiana," and has a lead role in Robin Hardy's semi-sequel to his cult film "The Wicker Man," "The Wicker Tree."
The geek crowd may be even more familiar with McTavish than they think: like many British actors, he's made a decent living in the last few years voicing characters in video games, cropping up in titles even we've heard of ("Uncharted 2," "Dragon Age: Origins," "Modern Warfare 2"), as well as plenty that we haven't ("Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2," "Shadow Complex," "The Saboteur," "Metro 2033"). As the blue-bearded Dwalin, one of the older dwarfs in the diminutive dozen, McTavish should bring an authority lacking in some of the younger actors.
Stephen Hunter - Bombur
An Australian actor with a background in comedy, Hunter seems well-suited for the role of Bombur, something of the comic relief among the twelve dwarfs -- fat, bumbling and constantly asleep. Hunter's cropped up in a variety of Australian drama and comedy shows, including "Love My Way" and the hospital drama "All Saints," but isn't particularly well known, although "The Hobbit" will surely change that.
John Callen - Oin
Arguably the least well known name on the list, so much so that there doesn't appear to be a photo of him in existence, Callen's a New Zealander, who's mostly made his living as a voiceover artist, narrating over a hundred documentaries for TV, as well as performing in a huge variety of radio plays. He has cropped up in person in a few significant places otherwise, including "The Rainbow Warrior," the 1992 dramatization of the sinking of the titular Greenpeace ship, and in the British TV one-off "The Man Who Lost His Head," directed by theater veteran Terry Johnson and starring Martin Clunes ("Shakespeare In Love")
Coming up, he's got a supporting role in the NZ rom-com "Love Birds," which toplines Rhys Darby and Sally Hawkins, which may have been the role that landed him the gig. He'll play Oin (who is, hilariously, the son of Groin), who, along with his brother, is a skilled fire-starter. Well, everyone has one thing they're good at, we guess. Don't expect this one to be a major role. And for the curious, after the events of "The Hobbit," Oin meets his end by the sea creature that menaces Frodo & pals in "The Fellowship of the Ring."
Mark Hadlow - Dori
Unique among the actors so-far announced, Hadlow's worked with director Peter Jackson before. He provided a number of voices for the puppets in Jackson's early comedy "Meet the Feebles," and cropped up more recently with a brief role in "King Kong." But he's a well-respected actor generally in New Zealand, with a career stretching back to the 1980 docu-drama "Beyond Reasonable Doubt," and taking in the likes of "Xena: Warrior Princess" and cult sitcom "Willy Nilly."
He also spends a great deal of time at the Court Theater in Christchurch, where he's currently appearing in Yasmin Reza's "God of Carnage," in the role that Christoph Waltz is taking in Roman Polanski's upcoming film version. He'll play Dori, the strongest of the dwarves, who has something of a grumpy streak.
Peter Hambleton - Gloin
Another actor best known for his work on stage in New Zealand, albeit in Wellington rather than Christchurch (he played Charles Darwin there last year in the play "Collapsing Creation"), working there as both an actor and a director. He's had a lengthy TV career as well, cropping up in dramas like "The Strip" and, most recently, the wartime thriller "Spies and Lies," as the New Zealand prime minister. He'll play Gloin, the brother of Oin and, perhaps most notably, the father of Gimli, the dwarf played by John Rhys-Davies in Jackson's three "Lord of the Rings" films.
And The Unconfirmed:
There's a few other actors who've been mentioned in connection with the project, although none have officially signed on as yet. All of them are far more famous than those on the list above -- possibly explaining why their deals are taking a little longer to work out. Bill Nighy's said to be in negotiations to voice Smaug the dragon, the villain of the piece: a role that Guillermo Del Toro had allegedly earmarked for Ron Perlman. Nighy proved his villainous credentials as one of the few highlights of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" sequels, and should be a decent choice here.
The other name linked to a specific role is Irish actor James Nesbitt, who our pals at Pajiba told us had been offered the role of Bofur -- another dwarf. Nesbitt's another household name in the UK, thanks to his lead role in the comedy-drama "Cold Feet," but he's increasingly well known in the States, thanks to his excellent performances in Paul Greengrass' "Bloody Sunday," Danny Boyle's "Millions," and opposite Liam Neeson in Oliver Hirschbiegel's "Five Minutes of Heaven." He'll next be seen in Ralph Fiennes' adaptation of "Coriolanus."
And otherwise, four names who should be familiar to you by now -- Saoirse Ronan, Stephen Fry, David Tennant and Michael Fassbender -- have been connected to the project in unknown roles. Sixteen-year-old Ronan, who played the lead in Jackson's "The Lovely Bones," is an increasingly rising star, and has Peter Weir's "The Way Back" and Joe Wright's "Hanna" on the way imminently. What's puzzling is that there aren't really any female roles in the book, but we'd like to think Jackson's written something in to prevent it being too much of a Middle Earth sausage fest. As for Fry, he could easily be one of the dwarfs, barely half of whom have been filled as yet.
David Tennant and Michael Fassbender are both stars on the rise, the former, until recently BBC's iconic "Doctor Who," makes his Hollywood debut next year in "Fright Night," while Fassbender's on the verge of becoming a huge star with the role of Magneto in "X-Men: First Class." The two are similar types, and have been up for the same roles in the past (we're told that Tennant was on the list of possible Magnetos, and the two were both attached to John Landis' "Burke and Hare" at one stage), and we imagine that both could end up playing either The Elf King Thranduil (voiced by Otto Preminger in the animated version, somewhat bizarrely), or Bard the Bowman, the human who *spoiler* ends up being the one to slay the dragon Smaug. At a guess, we'd say that Fassbender is a little more regal, and so more likely to be up for the elven role (which is also smaller -- possibly key with Fassbender's star on the rise so much), with Tennant as Bard, but it could go either way. Another former Doctor Who, Sylvester McCoy, also says he's been offered the role of the wizard Radagast the Brown -- time'll tell if that's correct too (although it's worth noting that the character doesn't feature in the books).