What was it like to be back in the body stocking?
‘It was great. It doesn’t really feel like I ever left New Zealand actually, I counted it up in my head and I think I’ve had seven birthdays there over the course of “Lord of the Rings” and “King Kong”, then going back for this. It’s a fantastic place to work, quite a simple place to work because it’s all about work, just a very creative and free-flowing atmosphere. And Pete (Jackson) is set up there, it does feel like an extended family, it feels like I can lock into work but I actually have great fun as well. I’m an outdoor person and if you like mountain biking and walking and all that, it’s paradise. The only downside for me was this time, as opposed to other times, I had to leave my family because of secondary school so there was a lot of communicating by Skype. But apart from that it was a wonderful, wonderful experience and I can’t believe we’ve been through it all again.
Did you slip back into Gollum easily, the voice and the movements? Have you been doing him at parties for the past decade anyway?
Yeah, Gollum has never really left me. He’s always been lurking around. There have been that many impersonations and spoofs and Saturday Night Live’s. The weird thing was stepping back onto the set and having to reclaim it, and not feel I was doing an impersonation of a character I played so long ago. But the very first thing we shot on The Hobbit was the scene between Bilbo and Gollum, “Riddles in the Dark”. It was a great way for Pete to get the crew back in the mood. And it was all the original crew really, just a bit older and more saggy and with kids hanging off us. But it was a good settling, focusing scene, a long extended scene. It’s a seminal scene for Gollum, where he loses the thing he loves and craves and is addicted to, and one of the most important moments in the piece comes when Bilbo decides not to kill Gollum, he pities him, and allows the journey to continue on to the final destruction of the ring. And of course it was great for Martin to discover Bilbo with one actor, as opposed to thirteen dwarves and a wizard. Pete shot it like a theatre piece, we played it through from beginning to end, every single take.’
You did some pretty strange stuff last time around, readers might be familiar with the footage of you in a body stocking rolling around in a river. Was there anything as freaky this time around?
Well, performance capture technology has moved on hugely since then. It evolved through Rise of the Planet of the Apes, where we shot performance capture at exactly the same time as live action. When I did Gollum the first time, my performance was filmed on 35mm but then I had to go and recreate everything on a motion capture stage, sometimes months later, so there was always going to be some kind of disconnect. That’s a tricky way of working. But this time around all the performance capture was done at the same moment, Pete was able to direct Martin and myself at the same time. Every single beat that Martin does affects me and is recorded, the performance capture cameras are filming my performance, and the live action cameras are filming Martin, so there’s no disconnect.
There seemed to be a remarkable sense of comradeship and adventure on the Lord of the Rings movies. Was that spirit recaptured a second time?
Absolutely. Obviously there was the old guard, the returning cast who were quite respectful. But we were outnumbered by the newcomers. It was almost like we were handing over to a new generation, to James Nesbitt and Ken Stott and Martin Freeman and Graham McTavish, and all the Kiwi actors too. They were so committed, they’d been training for months so by the time principal photography started everyone knew each other extremely well, they’d done all the weapons training, all the dwarves had been taught how to move. I worked with Terry Notary who is an extraordinary movement coach, he taught all the different species how to move, so Orcs and Elves and Dwarfs. And of course there’s a family side to it all, you're always made to feel welcome in New Zealand.
Did you lord it over Martin Freeman at all? ‘You know, Elijah never used to do it like that…’
No… Well, only a little bit, to keep him on his toes. I loved working with Martin because he’s so in the moment, that was the great thing about being able to play the scene through with him. Every single take was fresh and had a different approach. And because he was just finding the character he came up with some incredible stuff, and that’s the way Pete likes to work. He doesn’t drill down in one particular direction, the writing process continues right through until the edit so he can really shape and cut the scene how he wants it. The emotional arc of the scene really finds its way as late as the edit, so it’s all about giving Pete choices.
Was it a process of going back to a character that you already knew, or was it a case of finding new things about the character?
I actually had to unlearn everything that happened in Lord of the Rings because he’s 60 years younger, he hasn’t talked to anyone for 500 years. The Smeagol part of his personality is desperate to play games when Bilbo comes along, and he can’t help himself. He wants that fun and change of atmosphere. But then Gollum is all about the next meal. We’ve kept that schizophrenic character of Gollum very defined, adding more jeopardy and fun to the scene. Not only has Bilbo come across one weird character, but two.
Which scenes do you think are going to be the knockouts?
There’s so many. The trolls, the stone giants, the goblins, it’s such an epic journey through the course of three films. I think the Gollum and Bilbo scene will be one of those, it’s just so intense.
The book is a lot lighter in tone than The Lord of the Rings, is that going to be reflected in the films?
Pete’s always seen it as five films, now six films, which all fit together. So although the book has that almost childlike storytelling feel about it, this is a lot more embedded with the layers that Lord of the Rings has, in terms of the history, the enmity between the different races, how that’s a precursor to what happens in Lord of the Rings. It’s the Middle Earth that we know.
Were you involved in the decision to make this a trilogy, and how do you feel about that?
I wasn’t involved in that decision, but it makes perfect sense. I thought so as we were shooting, just because of the amount of material we were covering. You don’t want to be in a situation where it’s point-to-point storytelling, it’s got to breathe. You’re getting to know a lot of characters, you’re going to live with them over three movies, so you need to be able to really enjoy that, to absorb them. Everyone will have their favourites and everyone will get to really look at the secrets of all those individual characters.