Martin Freeman (Bilbo) and Aidan Turner (Kili) at today's press conference - this cast is a killer combo of wit and good looks.

“Fourteen individuals – and an ensemble.”

Today’s press conference opened with an apology from Peter Jackson, who said he couldn’t be there as he was “under a form of medical house arrest” since being hospitalised with a perforated ulcer last week.

“And to be honest, perhaps it’s just as well. These guys make me laugh so hard that I’d be in danger of popping a stitch or something,” Jackson continued in his statement.

Confirming the truth of that, the cast of 13 dwarves and one hobbit kept up a constant flow of quips and wisecracks throughout the whole press conference. We knew Martin Freeman was funny with a good script – well, he’s hilarious without one as well.

Many fans have been wondering whether 13 dwarves would become a generic mass in the film, or whether they would be fleshed out in the script to have individual personalities.

Dwarf actors William Kirchner and Peter Hambleton spoke on that: “We are thirteen distinct and strong personalities – but we are an ensemble as well”.

Speaking of ensemble, the dwarves confirmed they’d be doing their own singing. “It’s all staying very close to the book – yes, there WILL be singing.”

The dwarves apparently all look very different. Aidan Turner, or Fili, said that they were still experimenting with different amounts of facial hair to define their look. “Facial hair is under review – hence the different beards we’ve got today!” Jed Brophy, or Nori, (who played numerous highly- prostheticised characters in LOTR) said that yes, he [and we presume the others] would be recognisable. “I’m so happy to be me. And I hope to get through this film without dying. Horribly.”

As we saw before in LOTR, the script apparently offers each dwarf a chance to be highly individual, but furthermore, PJ, Fran and Philippa were alert to the quirks and strengths of each actor that became evident as they rehearsed together. So in that sense, the script – and its impact on the characters – is fluid.

Seeing the humour, camaraderie and respect between the actors already, I felt very positive that once again the film makers have picked a group whose synergy will power the appeal of the movie.

“It’s a great bunch of guys,” said Hambleton. “We feel like a bunch of mates already.”

“We’re all strong personalities, but we’re all equal and we get on well together.”

The cast said that far from being downcast about the delays in filming, they were appreciating having even more time to bond with each other. (There were a lot of jokes about dwarf bonding/bondage). “We don’t have to wear as much latex for these roles…but we can still enjoy some on the weekends.”

The team have been training hard in the four or five weeks since they arrived – going to the gym, learning some stunt moves, getting dialogue coaching. (Didn’t get to ask what dialect – a question for another day!)

The Kiwi actors talked about meeting and working with international stars like Martin Freeman, Ken Stott or James Nesbitt. Mark Hadlow (Dori): “It’s an amazing experience as a theatre actor, when you’ve been an admirer for years, as I have been, of Ken Stott’s work on stage and screen…to meet with him and get to talk about all the things that we share, has been extraordinary.”

The visiting actors paid tribute to the Kiwi’s talent as well. “Look at Jed here, he’s done it before and he’s been everything in the [LOTR] movies!”

John Callen (Oin) said it wasn’t just the cast who got on well. “When we’re together, we’re a group. We’re ‘as one’. But it’s not just us. The crew work ‘as one’ too. I’ve met hundreds of people working on this movie, and I have not met one tosser. Except Mark Hadlow,” he joked.

The cast have met their scale doubles briefly (“What a great bunch of guys”) and will be working closely with them later. The scale doubles are doing their own gruelling schedule of gym, fight and stunt training alongside the cast.

During the press conference I took note of who took a leadership role or spoke the most, since I suspect that will be a good indicator of how they act on screen.

William Kircher and James Nesbitt – Bifur and Bofur – spoke a lot and also bounced off each other like a naturally comic team. They’re very funny. Nesbitt went to the rubgy Sevens ( a sort of sports carnival we have in Wellington, with lots of costumes) dressed as a chicken. “I was in the corporate box and I was the only one in costume. People were talking to me obviously thinking ‘he’s supposed to be somebody [important] ….but….he’s a chicken.’” Why a chicken? “It just felt right.”

Rob Kazinsky – Fili – also took charge of a lot of the answers, with well-thought-out responses. He was sitting next to Aidan Turner, or Kili, who was also very charismatic “take charge”, as well as funny. They’re both good-looking guys and I imagine we could expect to see a lot of them on screen.

John Callen (Oin) said a few things. He had the air of a wise elder statesman, undercut by a strong vein of very dry, sly humour bubbling just underneath.

Richard Armitage (Thorin) spoke surprisingly little, but when he did he had a notably deep voice, exactly right for Thorin, and real gravitas. He walked into the conference with a kind of testosterone charged lope. I don’t think he’ll have any trouble holding the audience’s attention.

Martin Freeman (Bilbo) was simply hilarious. He spoke a little more seriously about how he had spent time watching Ian Holm’s performances as Bilbo. “Of course I’ve been looking at what he’s been doing…I need to look at it and then forget it, in a sense, though. I look at what he does with his voice and movement…Without trying to blow my own trumpet nor with too much false modesty, I think I’m quite a good match for him. I have to try to echo and give a nod to what he’s done, but still be me.”

Freeman spoke highly of PJ. “For somebody who is as rich as Croesus and has that many Oscars, he’s phenomenally normal. And I mean genuinely normal, as opposed to those people that play at being hip or cool or ostentatiously normal, sort of ‘look here’s me being normal and having a normal cup of tea’. No, PJ is a practitioner, not a star. I get the feeling that if you were to have known him when he was twelve, he’s basically the same person now – an enthusiast.

“There’s no tossers on this production – and you certainly don’t want one at the top.”

Nesbitt (Bofur) commented that PJ, Fran and Philippa, the writing team, were exceptionally clear and could articulate what they wanted. “But very importantly, they’re great listeners and take on board what you have to offer.”

Asked how they were preparing for megastardom and crazy fan hysteria, Freeman and the rest said that it was all theoretical at this point. “We’ve got to be good first!”

On the strength of this press conference, I think we’re going to see some memorable performances from a cast that is bound to become highly popular.

Questions were mostly confined to things the cast themselves would be concerned with, so we didn’t get into details some fans have been asking, such as the impact of Del Toro’s departure, or whether casting for Smaug was imminent.