Stewart Sowman-Lund spent his teen years spotting cast members from The Hobbit around the streets of Pōneke.
Growing up in Wellington in the early 2000s felt like not being invited to the greatest party ever. In this case, the “party” was “being in Wellington while the Lord of the Rings was being filmed” and the lack of invitation was down to the fact I was a toddler. But the analogy stands: everyone older than me has a story to tell from their time in Wellywood. Like my parents, who casually stumbled upon the filming of the Isengard scene from Fellowship of the Ring, with Christopher Lee wandering around in our neighbourhood Upper Hutt park. Or simply the fact that seemingly everyone was in the damn films in some role.
As someone who has suffered from fomo my entire life – a state of mind possibly stemming from this exact time – it made child-me deeply envious of the generation of Wellingtonians who lived through the moment when the city became forever intertwined with Tolkien.
Jump forward to the late noughties, and things started to change. Suddenly, there was talk of The Hobbit being made. Sure, it would just be one movie – not a trilogy – but maybe it would be made in New Zealand. Some celebrities might visit Wellington. Perhaps I could be an extra!? After a few years of boring legal drama, the film inevitably became a trilogy (because everything Peter Jackson touches trebles in size) and, yes, celebs once again flooded Wellington.
It wasn’t long before every visit to the city resulted in a close brush with fame. During the 2012 comedy festival, I’d often see Billy Connolly or Ian McKellen sneak into the back of a club or theatre moments before a show started. Stephen Fry would crop up in the audience of a Shakespeare production at the arts festival. A friend of mine was accused of being a stalker by Martin Freeman because of how often he’d end up seated next to him at a gig. To be honest, that was probably fair.
One time, Ian McKellen came to my school to help teach a drama class and answer questions. Why or how, I’ve no idea. Orlando Bloom frequented the same cafe that I would sometimes skip class to go get a coffee from. And in the hills near my school, a life-size village was being constructed that you could spy on if you knew how to get to it.
I and a few of my equally celebrity-devoted classmates would obsess over meeting the cast a little like one might collect trading cards. The goal was to get the whole set.
In mid-2012, a few months before the first Hobbit film premiered (and before we experienced the crushing reality of how average the film actually was), we hit the jackpot. Ian McKellen was touring the country with a one-man show raising funds for the quake-damaged Isaac Theatre Royal in Christchurch. It was part Q&A, part theatrical experience, with McKellen performing renditions from Tolkien and Shakespeare while also happily answering questions about his experience working with Ricky Gervais on Extras.
I was sitting down in my slightly above-average seats when a ripple of excitement pulsed through the crowd. Peter Jackson was walking down the row in front of me, flanked by Martin Freeman. Lee Pace and Luke Evans were there too. Billy Connolly came in next, followed by the rest of the core Hobbit cast, including Richard Armitage, Aiden Turner and James Nesbitt. I couldn’t believe it; I was going to score almost the whole cast in one go.
It got better. The final act of McKellen’s show involved audience participation. We were given the chance to come on stage to act out a brief scene from Henry V with McKellen himself. It was already a pretty exciting opportunity, but McKellen added to it by inviting the whole Hobbit cast on stage too. McKellen said it was “a good opportunity” if anyone wanted to do “a little bit of Shakespeare acting with me and the cast”. An almighty understatement, by my reckoning. I didn’t even bother putting my hand up; my friend and I were out of our seats as quickly as we could manage.
So there I was, on the stage of the Wellington Opera House, squished between Gandalf and Bilbo Baggins. I was an actor… kind of. All I had to do was pretend to be a dead French soldier. But I was a dead French soldier next to Bilbo Baggins.
I didn’t quite secure the whole cast set that night. Cate Blanchett proved elusive, though I did see her sneaking out of a theatre into a waiting taxi. I never laid eyes on Andy Serkis – although based on his shower routine that’s possibly for the best. Nevertheless, Wellington continued to offer up bizarre celebrity encounters for the next few years. In 2013, I walked the red carpet with Benedict Cumberbatch at the local premiere of Edgar Wright’s film The World’s End. Why did it premiere in Wellington? Because Peter Jackson wanted it to, I assume. I later bumped into Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd – better known as Merry and Pippin – on Courtenay Place (they weren’t even in The Hobbit; I’ve no idea why they were in Wellington). I met Evangeline Lily, then most famous for her role in Lost, at Lyall Bay beach.
There’s never really been a time like it in Wellington since. For me, the defining legacy of The Hobbit was the chance for a new generation of New Zealanders, like myself, to experience the excitement of having Hollywood on your backdoor step. And unless Avatar 2 starts shooting its underwater scenes in Shelly Bay, it probably won’t happen again.
We’re talking about elves, dwarves, cave trolls and sneaky little hobbitses for an entire week. Read the rest of our dedicated Lord of the Rings 20th anniversary coverage here.