Ring Masters

Sipping chai tea in a Santa Monica coffeehouse on an October afternoon, Elijah Wood looks every inch the 21st-century guy: brown hair jabbing out in improbable directions, shards of a goatee, black-framed glasses. Still, there is something fantastical about his wide-set robin's-egg eyes and broad face. Such qualities were even more obvious when the former kid actor donned hobbit-forming breeches and a flowing shirt and took to the hills for his LOTR audition tape. He even recruited buddy George Huang, writer and helmer of the Hollywood satire Swimming With Sharks, to direct him. "With me being an American, I felt I needed to display my passion for the role, something a bit more than the sterile background of a casting office," explains the 20-year-old.

Good thing too, because Jackson had auditioned more than 150 actors, fruitlessly trying to find his Rings leader. "When you read the book, Frodo's the Everyman character, so he's hard to realize, because in a way you're imagining yourself," Jackson says. "But when we put in the tape, there it was. I was looking at Elijah and just going, Oh, wow, this is Frodo."

The other crucial role was mercurial wizard Gandalf. "Ian McKellen was always the please-God-let-us-get-him guy," Ordesky says. Unfortunately, McKellen was committed to another sci-fi franchise: He was set to play Magneto in Fox's X-Men. When the would-be wizard ran into Shaye at a London fish restaurant, McKellen bemoaned his scheduling overlap. "In true Hollywood executive manner, Bob growled: Leave it to me!" McKellen recalls. "Two days later, he'd spoken to Fox and they'd sorted it all out."

Over the summer of 1999, the Fellowship filled out: The role of Frodo's faithful servant Sam Gamgee went to Sean Astin. The two remaining hobbit spots were nabbed by Scot Billy Boyd (Pippin) and Brit Dominic Monaghan (Merry). Jackson handpicked Irish actor Stuart Townsend (About Adam) for mystery man Aragorn. Don't Say a Word villain Sean Bean nabbed the part of the darkly determined warrior Boromir; newcomer Orlando Bloom became elf archer Legolas; and John Rhys-Davies would play dwarf Gimli. While the players were critically respected, they weren't exactly superstars, and that was deliberate. "These are famous, famous characters, loved for nearly 50 years," Jackson says. "To have a famous, beloved character and a famous star colliding is slightly uncomfortable." That meant that although David Bowie was said to be keen on playing elf lord Elrond, the part went instead to Hugo Weaving, best known for The Matrix--which shares a producer in LOTR's Barrie M. Osborne.

As of fall 1999, most of the cast was assembled. Fan verdict: pretty positive, with special marks for Ian Holm as Bilbo, Christopher Lee as wizard Saruman, and Cate Blanchett as elf queen Galadriel. One major scandal: Liv Tyler, who'd grabbed the role of elf lovely Arwen. Online fans thought she was, how to put this diplomatically? "A very, very poor choice," wrote one. "A sad waste." Wrote another: "Need I remind you of the animal cookie scene in Armagedon [sic]!" Adding to the strife, rumors arose (and still swirl) that the novel's demure Arwen has been transformed into a sword-swinging riot grrrl--or Xenarwen, as fans dubbed her. Jackson didn't take the judgments to heart. "Once you try to cater to Lord of the Rings fans you're in trouble, because there are millions," he says. "And every one has a different opinion."

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