One must try not to make hobbit puns. No ''change of hobbit,'' no ''hobbit forming,'' no nothing, because Sean Astin is over ''The Lord of the Rings.'' ''I'm sick of it,'' he says, laughing. ''It sounds horrible to say, but we made these movies four years ago! I'm ready to be liberated.''
Dressed casually, a scarf draped around his neck, Astin, 32, nibbles on catfish in a hideaway Manhattan lunch spot and tries to wrap his brain around a post-''Rings'' schedule. First: Hole up in his new Cali home with wife Christine, his two daughters, Alexandra, 7, and Elizabeth, 1 -- and play a lot of computer games. Second: Well, that depends somewhat on whether he gets an Oscar nod come Jan. 27 for his poignant, much-lauded work in the trilogy's finale, ''The Return of the King.''
It's about time he got noticed. Thanks to the first two ''Rings,'' costars Elijah Wood and Viggo Mortensen became stars, Ian McKellen landed an Oscar nod, and Orlando Bloom turned cutie-pie pinup in ''Pirates of the Caribbean.'' Meanwhile, Astin waddled dutifully behind in a role that could have been humiliating if he hadn't played it just right: As pudgy hobbit Sam, Astin worries and fidgets, and even gets denigrated by a CGI creature. ''People ask me, 'When Gollum calls you fat, does it hurt?' Well, yeah, it hurts,'' he says. ''[But] I can actually laugh with the rest of the audience now.''
All those soaring reviews should help his mood. In ''King,'' Astin gets to be both hale (battling one mother of an arachnid) and hearty (serving up a series of killer weepy speeches). One scene in particular is wetting plenty of cheeks: On the side of Mount Doom, the heroes' journey in shambles, Astin's Sam heartens Wood's despairing Frodo with springtime memories of the Shire. ''It was like a zipper on my soul opened up and beauty started pouring out -- tears were streaming down my face,'' Astin says of shooting the scene. ''When we got down to the parking lot I was literally running around pumping my fists in the air.''