Martin Freeman, Aidan Turner, and more of the director's handsome cast of dwarves

By Josh Rottenberg
October 29, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT

After a couple of years’ worth of maddening false starts and production delays, hobbit-watchers have long needed some hopeful news — and possibly a hug. They got the former, at least, last week, when director Peter Jackson announced he had cast several key roles in his long-awaited adaptation of The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved fantasy novel. English actor Martin Freeman — best known for his stint as the deadpan cubicle jockey Tim Canterbury on the original BBC version of The Office and as Dr. Watson on the series Sherlock — will play the hero hobbit Bilbo Baggins, who is reluctantly drawn into a perilous journey to steal a dragon’s treasure. ”Martin read for us months ago, and it instantly felt like we had seen Bilbo Baggins brought to life,” Jackson says. ”That’s the reaction you dream about, but [it] rarely happens. From that point on, we continued auditioning, but we were naturally comparing everyone else to Martin. Bilbo is the straight man to 13 dwarves in some respects, but in doing so, he’s terrifically funny, in that very English understated way.”

For the role of Thorin Oakenshield, the gruff leader of the company of dwarves that brings Bilbo along on the quest, Jackson cast English actor Richard Armitage, who stars on the BBC series MI-5. The casting of Freeman was widely expected — he’d been rumored to be in the running for months — but Jackson’s selection of Armitage raised some eyebrows among Tolkien fans, who were surprised to see such a hunky actor cast in the role of a dwarf. Then again, Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy provided breakout roles for Orlando Bloom (Legolas) and Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn), so clearly the man is not opposed to having some male eye candy in the mix. ”Thorin Oakenshield is a tough, heroic character, and he certainly should give Leggie and Aragorn a run for their money in the heartthrob stakes — despite being four feet tall,” Jackson says. ”In this partnership, we need Richard to give us his depth, range, and emotion as an actor — and we’ll make him look like a dwarf!”

While the casting announcement — which also named seven lesser-known actors (Aidan Turner, Rob Kazinsky, Graham McTavish, John Callen, Stephen Hunter, Mark Hadlow, and Peter Hambleton) in the roles of other dwarves — was an encouraging sign of forward momentum, there’s still unrest in Middle-earth. Various international unions have continued to feud with the production, prompting Warner Bros. to threaten to move the shoot out of New Zealand. At press time, studio executives were en route to New Zealand to try to work toward a settlement of the standoff. In an interview with a Kiwi TV station, a clearly weary Jackson expressed uncertainty over whether the film would be relocated. ”Is the movie going to come or go? We don’t know,” he said. The fact is, that’s just one of many questions swirling around The Hobbit at this point: Who will provide the voice of the dragon Smaug? How will the book be split into two films? Will there be any female characters? (The book is sorely lacking.) Answers may be slow in coming, but Jackson and his team are clearly on the march: ”We are only partway through the casting process, and there are auditions happening most days, somewhere in the world.”