The Sunday Times
July 18, 1999
Boyd Gets in the Hobbit
Deep in cyberspace the name of Billy Boyd is zapping from
Arizona to Cape Town. According to chatroom devotees Celt and Fruhead, he's perfect: a
theatrical wizard whose face hints at mischief. A photograph of the young Scottish actor
now hangs on the Ain't It Cool website, a locus for film trivia buffs.
Yet those who haunt the chatrooms of the internet are
interested less in what he is than what he will become: Pippin, one of the hobbit heroes
in The Lord of the Rings.
The announcement that JRR Tolkien's epic novel is to be made
into a trilogy of live-action films has spun fans into a frenzy of anticipation. Rumours
of which actor will play each role are posted on the dozens of websites dedicated to the
books and endlessly discussed in chatrooms.
News that Boyd was appearing on stage during the Edinburgh
festival was enough to encourage some fans to book tickets early.
They should be recognisable: a passion for Tolkien goes with
a wardrobe of anoraks and balaclavas. But by the time they settle into their seats to see
Boyd perform in The Speculator, about the man who invented paper money, at the Traverse
Theatre next month, he should have finished reading the book they love. "It's a
terrible admission, but I've just finished reading The Two Towers," says Boyd over a
beer in the Traverse Theatre bar, Edinburgh.
It was a casual call from his London agent that led Boyd, 30,
from Glasgow and a graduate of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, to London
and an audition for parts in the trilogy. The director, Peter Jackson, who directed
Heavenly Creatures featuring Kate Winslet, wanted little-known actors in many of the
hobbit roles and Boyd's young face and charisma won him a second audition.
"Then I was auditioning exclusively for Pippin, a
character whose naivety and inquisitive nature almost add up to bravery," says Boyd.
"The second scene I had to read was when he was lost in the woods. I felt it went
well but it was six weeks before my agent phoned and said: 'Guess who is playing Pippin in
The Lord of the Rings?' "
The three films based on The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two
Towers and The Return of the King that make up the hobbit ring cycle will be filmed in New
Zealand, back to back, beginning in October and continuing for more than 18 months. By
rights Boyd should be in New Zealand now for make-up and costume work, but his role in The
Speculator has kept him in Britain until the end of August.
In the meantime he is ploughing through the 1,200-page
trilogy about the band of hobbits (small people with big hairy feet) and their bid to
destroy an evil ring which, in the wrong hands, could enslave the world of Middle Earth. A
previous attempt by Boyd to read it five years ago during a holiday in America ended after
"The playwright Ronan O'Donnell told me just to use the
scripts, but that would take a braver man than me. So many people have read the books and
have their mind set on how it should be played, you have to do your homework. You look on
the internet and they are discussing scenes you don't even know about."
It was The Sunday Times that accurately captured the
phenomenon of The Lord of the Rings by declaring that the world was divided between those
who had read the book and those who were going to read it. Since its publication in 1954
as a sequel to Tolkien's children's book The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings had sold more
than 15m copies in 24 languages and in 1997 was voted by readers across the world as the
Book of the Century.
Despite its stunning success, previous attempts to film the
novel have failed. The film rights were initially bought by Saul Zaentz, the producer of
The English Patient, more than 30 years ago. Zaentz, however, quickly realised he could
not afford to shoot a live-action film with the limited special effects available and
instead made a full-length cartoon.
The company ran out of money and the subsequent feature
released in 1978 told just two-thirds of the story, finishing at the end of the second
book, The Two Towers. Today, technology and time are on Jackson's side as, most crucially,
New Line pictures is investing $260m in the three films and
new computer technology is being developed by Weta, New Zealand's leading special effects
studio, to create the hobbit's evocative world.
The benefit of shooting in New Zealand, Jackson's home, is
that all the necessary locations are already there. The mountains of Mordor, where the
ring is destroyed, will be shot on the North Island's volcanic plateau and the forest
scenes in the South Island. The completed films will comprise a mixture of live locations
and digital manipulation.
"We have such great real locations that we don't need to
struggle too much to create Middle Earth," says Jackson. "But one interesting
approach we are exploring is to digitise the entire movie into a computer, every frame,
which would allow us to fiddle with all our shots, adding sunsets, cloud formations or
waterfalls - whatever is needed to make it feel magical."
Computer technology has also helped Boyd, 5ft 5in, win his
role. All the actors will be shot normal size and then slightly reduced using computer
manipulation and careful camera angles. This is a relief for Boyd. "I don't know
anything about the technology. I'll just handle the acting and make the character
real," he says.
The accents will all be English, a decision the director made
before embarking on writing the scripts. "My preference is to use English accents as
I think an American accent would be out of place in Middle Earth," he says. "If
you are making Braveheart or Rob Roy then a basic aesthetic sense says an American accent
is not appropriate. The Lord of the Rings is a classic English story."
Final casting is not complete but rumours that Sean Connery
may play Gandalf, the wizard and one of the most powerful characters in the story,
continue to surface. Sir Anthony Hopkins is another potential Gandalf.
Either would suit Boyd. "The relationship between Pippin
and Gandalf is quite important. In the book Gandalf takes Pippin under his wing and it
would be brilliant if it turned out to be either Connery or Hopkins," he says.
New Line pictures is praying the film can emulate the success
of Star Wars in maintaining an audience's interest over three films and four years. One
lesson they could learn will be on the use of wholly computer-generated characters. Jar
Jar Binks, a computer character who was universally detested in The Phantom Menace, could
be dropped from the next two films.
In The Lord of the Rings there will be only one
computer-generated character, while all the battle sequences will be shot using as many as
15,000 soldiers from the New Zealand army. Only Gollum, the twisted character sucked dry
by the ring's evil, will spring directly from the computer.
"His performance has to be spectacular," said
Jackson in a recent interview. "It has to be way beyond anything we have seen to
date. The Gollum design is finished. I'd describe him as not too fishy or froggy, but we
have taken great care to make him believable."
Like the character he will play, Boyd says he is about to set
off on a great adventure. "It's amazing how quickly you get used to things, but deep
down I can't wait."