By Josh Chetwynd, Special for USA TODAY
LONDON — The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring proved Monday night that Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone isn’t the only high-profile fantasy film that can conjure up fan enthusiasm at its world premiere. Although the crowd of several hundred was not as large as the Potter gala here, fans showed tremendous excitement as the Rings’ stars entered the theater. “I couldn’t believe it — they were all yelling Rudy, Rudy,” says Rings co-star Sean Astin, who also starred in the Notre Dame football film Rudy. “I didn’t even know that movie played over here.”
Most of the stars, many of whom had seen the film for the first time last week, alternately described the movie as “historic” and “biblical.”
Ian McKellen, who plays the wizard Gandalf, had not read the books before getting one of the movie’s most important roles. He signed on to shoot all three films based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary trilogy after discussing the part with Rings filmmaker Peter Jackson. Although it took more than a year to shoot the three films in the $270 million production consecutively, McKellen says the commitment was well worth it.
“I would have spent two years or three years doing this,” he says. “It was a wonderful experience.”
Other cast members were quick to distance Rings from its soon-to-be-box-office competitor, Harry Potter. (Rings opens Dec. 19 in North America and England.) “I’m sure Harry Potter is a marvelous film,” says John Rhys-Davis, who plays the dwarf Gimli and has not seen Potter yet. “But Harry Potter is a child’s film and this is not. They are not in the same company.”
All were in agreement that the aspect of the shooting they’d miss least was the makeup. Elijah Wood, who stars as the hobbit Frodo Baggins, said he had difficulty keeping his big (prosthetic) feet — which are a hobbit’s signature physical trait — from slipping off. “I have sweaty feet,” he admits.
“I went through prosthetic hell,” jokes Rhys-Davis. “I put on 4 1/2 pounds of prosthetic silicon so I wouldn’t be seen. That’s a way to end a career.” Along with the cast (sans Cate Blanchett, who recently gave birth), the premiere was attended by a group of U.K. celebrities, including actors Dougray Scott and Rufus Sewell, and musicians Bob Geldof and Simon Le Bon.
Not in attendance was the Tolkien family, which has distanced itself from the film — a point that didn’t displease Jackson. “They would have rather the film not happened,” he says. “That’s their decision and, frankly, it was a fine situation. We were able to avoid a bureaucratic mess.”
Still, Christopher Lee, who portrays the villain Saruman, believes Tolkien would have been proud of their work. “I think we have put the spirit of Tolkien on the screen,” says Lee, who met the writer in the 1950s.
Wood chose not to speculate and instead embraced the festive nature of the event and the fact that there will be two more premieres for the film’s sequels over the next two years. “It’s going to be a celebration every year,” he says.