WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Ever wonder what you gave Luke Evans for his birthday? Few realized it, but the staff and readers of TheOneRing.net gave him a present back in April of 2011.
Evans celebrated his 32nd year with a party at Gas Works, a bar and grill just walking distance from Stone Street Studios, the movie lot where Peter Jackson makes movies, including the forthcoming “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.”
In the mess tent of that set, on the white refrigerator that holds cream and milk and sundry items, near the always playing iPod, there hung a solicitation for all eyes to see: An open invitation from Luke Evans to celebrate his birthday on a Saturday night. (Regrettably I didn’t take a photo of the fridge.) The invitation was right there in perhaps the most trafficked spot on the lot, available for all, specified for none.
Are on-set reporters invited to cast and crew events? Advised by somebody from costume that it was absolutely okay (Jasmine I think, a real favorite), I decided to go only if could find a suitable gift from all of us, readers and staff of TORn. What would you buy an actor on behalf of the largest online Tolkien community? What does a guy making a living acting in New Zealand and away from home really want or need anyway?
Well, one TheOneRing.net baseball cap and a mustache kit of course! Evans was nice about it too, expressing gratitude. So I can finally tell you all: Luke Evans says thanks for the lovely present.
Important things learned that night at the birthday party:
1) The top brass behind the production and headlining stars like to celebrate birthday parties with Luke Evans. They mostly all showed up.
2) Hard working film cast and crew really know how to have fun.
3) Certain cast members hanging out at a bar are larger than life, no matter how they try to blend in and act like every body else.
4) And for this story, most importantly: That Luke Evans guy can really sing.
For me, the description of Evans that best encapsulates him, comes from his own Twitter account: “Welsh lad having the time of his life.” (@TheRealLukevans) That was true that night at Gas Works for certain, but it personifies his work on set, and as best as I could tell, his career. He is there to work, but he seemed to always enjoy it in a way not every actor can. He is professional but he was much easier to approach (at strategically appropriate moments) than others on the set.
But Pontypool, Wales, his birthplace, is a long, long way from living in Wellington, playing literary icon Bard. So it was fitting that he invited his workplace friends to celebrate at a party during an era of his life that one suspects will always be remembered. That night because he decided to celebrate, no matter what else is said, a smallish, local hangout had an absolute world class atmosphere with zero pretense and an absurd guest list. Any club in Vegas, L.A. or New York would roll out every enticement to land that crowd. But journalists weren’t kept behind ropes. Extras, linguistic coaches, parents of actors, scale doubles, producers, gaffers and all the other rank-and-file persons on the movie were also welcome and esteemed. It is a bit foggy now (time, not alcohol) but I believe some dwarf-actors picked up instruments and a crew member’s band played many songs. That night, to respect the privacy of hardworking people who were not at work, the reporter’s notebook stayed home.
In short, Luke’s party was kinda cool.
At the center of it all was Evans, playing host and singing occasionally and mixing with friends and crew and genuinely really having fun. Hard 12-hour days seemed to make the celebrations extra festive. Often on a set there is a lot to do or, when there isn’t, talking is kept to a minimum so those who are working can focus or communicate. Not so here. Talking was loud, greetings were boisterous and singing was joyful.
In contrast, Evans’ character isn’t quite so cheerful and isn’t likely to sing in taverns with merry company. Compared to the party, book Bard the Bowman is a little bleak, largely due to his powerful, generational link with Smaug — the big creature who is the only character that gets his name in a Middle-earth movie title. No Bilbo, no Frodo, no Sam (the true hero of LOTR) but Smaug manages.
Fascinating then to hear the actor (not at the party) talk about Bard.
“He is also a direct descendent of Girion, Lord of Dale, who happens to be the only other person in the history of The Hobbit that had a go with Smaug,” he said. “But unfortunately he didn’t kill him and so he (Smaug) ended up ruining Dale which was his descendant’s land; this was like 200 years before.”
The story goes, in the 14th chapter of “The Hobbit,” that Girion’s wife escaped the dragon on the Running River and preserved the line that eventually included Bard. He also had a sweet, sweet necklace that viewers can only hope makes it on screen. (I have no knowledge about anything regarding a prolog, but this mini-story would make a sweet one!)
But other than a glimpse into his ancestry, information about Bard is a little thin in the source material. The character is a key figure but this is a case where the film version demands some genuine adaptation. In the cinema we will feel cheated if Bard walks on the screen, does what he does, and walks off. Film demands Bard — introduced in the text first only as a grim voice in a crowd — gets some fleshing out as a complete character. Once a secret, word is now out thanks to video production diaries and Fan Event previews, that Bard has posterity in the film.
“We’ve developed Bard. We’ve developed his character and his backstory and where he goes and who he deals with in the film. It’s much, much larger than it is in the book and I think because he’s human people will be able to relate to him very, very quickly and easily because he’s going through things that we go through. He’s a father, he’s an only parent.”
From interactions with fans of Evans, its clear he already has a sympathetic (sometimes swooning) audience in the waiting. If the wider public audience can easily latch on to the character along with his rugged, appealing masculinity, he may well prove to be one of the highlights of the next films. A single father also tugs on heartstrings.
“He has three children and he’s forced into becoming a leader and he doesn’t really want to be a leader. I think he’s happy just looking after his family and just…he doesn’t want a war. His emotions are very human and I guess that will make him quite appealing to an audience.”
Don’t look for anything about the absent wife though.
“I don’t even mention her. I think she died during childbirth. In my head, I think that’s what happened but you’d have to ask Pete.”
While children on a screen can work on an audience emotionally, Evans knew the old movie adage when I asked.
“Never work with animals or kids, right?”
Right. So how was it?
“They’re awesome. They’re amazing kids. I mean, two of them are young adults almost. I can talk to them as adults and Peggy (Nesbitt) and John (Bell) are 14. (At the time of the interview.) Then we have lovely Mary who’s 8. She’s very, very cute and obviously my (Bard’s) wife, who’s obviously very, very beautiful because my kids are stunning. They didn’t get that from me. But they’re fantastic.
“I think I’m going to miss them. I think they leave next week which is quite scary. The Bowmans are disbanding.”
That “next week” was extended a little so my last day observing the film, the younger trio filmed their last shots, appropriately all together. Bell’s parents Iain and Susan became fast friends and I felt privileged to know them well enough to be comfortable observing both those final shots of the actors and the parents watching those final shots. There was a joy but a palpable melancholy too, the sweet sorrow of goodbye. They were keenly aware of the significance of what they were watching. It is one of my clearest specific memories from the whole of the shoot.
Mary and Peggy are the daughters of actor James Nesbitt (Bofur), who not only brought his daughters to work in New Zealand, they found jobs too. Laws of course keep on-set kids from working too long, even when they are willing or want to. Even when they beg to. They also are all required to continue with individual education.
For these young actors, the shoot was a part of their life-maturing process and the on-set folks became a sort of family. They not only bonded with the new family, they grew up on set. Now, two years later and they are all much older and finally get to see their work, as if in a time machine, from 2011. To my eye, there was genuine friendship and fondness and bonding. Hopefully they also get a chance to walk red carpets and experience the Hollywood side of premieres. The Nesbitt girls have clearly been around entertainment with their father and John has been in big movies such as “Wrath of the Titans,” and “Battleship,” in an after-the-credits sequence that is, IMO, great!
“Peggy and Mary have never ever acted in their life,” Evans said. “This is their first acting job ever and they’ve taken to it like a duck to water — like a duck to Lake-town. And they’re very natural about the way they are with me and John’s taken me as his father and we’ve — well John’s been here almost as long as I have and so we’ve worked together on a constant basis over the last year. He’s a great young man and he’s going to have a great career and it’s been a joy to work with him.”
It turns out working with kids and animals might not be as challenging as it is working with environments of greens.
“I’ve done plenty of green screen in other films but this one is complex because of the fact that most of the time I’m doing scenes with characters that are not my height,” he said. “They’re (the dwarves) a different race and so we have this very clever technology which is a camera that’s a slave to another camera in another studio and, for example, if I’m working against the dwarves, the actors playing the dwarves, they are in my house which is built a third bigger than it would be for me and then I work on a green screen version of my house and everything is green; the tables are green, the cups are green, the bowls are green, the chairs are green, the windows, everything is green and I work off just small markers on top of sticks. I’ve never done that before, so you really have to use your imagination. It is probably the biggest acting challenge to date.”
No actor is green with envy for sure. This can be hard work because actors play off other performances. They get energy and mood and timing from counterparts, but not in the situations Evans describes. Inside one sound stage, the “A” stage during my time, two distinct Bard sets were used, both in place and identical except for scale, just as was done sometimes on the LOTR films. Seeing this in person however suddenly makes the viewer aware that lighting must look identical, camera angles must match and it’s all a lot more impressive than from your couch at home.
For observers on monitors, both scenes overlapped on the monitors to make sure everything matched up. Some items, weapons on a table for example, might overlap Bard’s shoulder or characters sometimes walked through each other like ghosts, but it gave an excellent look at the shot, not much imagination required.
In one complex sequence Bard drops a bundle on the table in the green set and the human-sized actors playing scaled down dwarves must pick up the objects and examine them closely. It was a fascinating exercise to watch it all blend.
In a production diary later, Jackson says they abandoned the whole slave camera set up and turned to post-production rotoscope (painting out part of a shot) to lift actors from one scale to another. How much of Evans’ shot-on-green performance will make the cut, if any? It will be interesting to ask eventually because it sure was filmed.
“You have to just remember what the rehearsal was like and just keep it. The last one I did I had to keep Richard Armitage’s face in my head all day long.”
There are worse faces.
“There are much worse faces,” he agreed.
So why did Evans, this self described lad from Wales, want to spend such a giant chunk of time on the other side the globe on a long shoot?
“There’s quite a few draws. I think the obvious one is to work with Peter. I just think the guy is — he’s a genius, but he also loves what he does. He’s just a man who’s very passionate about what he does and I am very passionate about what I do and it’s just nice to be able to work with somebody who just loves what he does and we’re working on something that feels, that feels right that he’s directing it. So that was a very big one, to work with Peter. Very special.”
Was there any hesitation for Evans to take on the role?
“No, none at all. In fact I turned jobs down so I could do it.”
He hasn’t been lacking for work though. Earlier this year he popped up in the Fast & Furious franchise as Shaw. The movie went on to earn almost $790 million worldwide. Since wrapping Middle-earth he nabbed “Dracula Untold” and the title role in the remake of “The Crow.” With two more Hobbit films to come, it gives him a pretty impressive profile at the box office through early 2016. But despite the big shoots he is used to, he definitely felt the significance of the opportunity to be a character in Middle-earth.
“(It will be) part of something quite historical. This is a piece of cinema history being made. Lord of the Ring set a benchmark when it came to this sort of huge sweeping fantasy epic movies and Peter helmed it and did such a wonderful job. You feel very excited about seeing the final cut of this film, you know, seeing how it will look, knowing that its Pete’s world and that you created it.”
But what a long wait before he can finally see it. Even during shooting, he was aware that he would be tucked away until the second film and that wasn’t a negative for him.
“It’s nice to wait sometimes, especially when the job is as great as this one. I do so much, so many things, so many great stunts and such a lovely part that my character has in the second movie and it will be nice to wait and almost forget that I did it and then get to see it on the screen.”
All signs point to Evans having a good attitude because he didn’t mind the waiting and he didn’t mind the long shoot. Maybe because New Zealand felt a lot like home.
“It’s a lot like Wales. I feel quite at home and I think what makes New Zealand — and I think if you ask anybody this — it’s the people. The people are incredible. They’re the happiest, the nicest bunch you’ll ever meet. They work well as a team. There is no hierarchy. Everybody works, does their job, likes what they do and they work very, very hard and they’re just very happy. They’re happy folk.”
Inviting the whole cast and crew to his birthday party then makes a lot of sense. He also found time to enjoy himself away from work and birthday parties; He didn’t let New Zealand go to waste.
“Being on such a big movie, you get a lot of down time and I’ve utilized my down time and I’ve gone traveling. I’ve been up a glacier in a helicopter – don’t tell the producers. I’ve skydived – don’t tell the producers. I’ve thought about bungee jumping but I didn’t want to do it – you can tell the producers that.
“I’ve become a bit of a fisherman in my spare time and I’ve been catching a fish which is called kahawai in Maori which is “strong in the water.” So I’ve caught a few of them. Fed my whole neighborhood with kahawai. So I’ve had a great time. It’s been amazing.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arripis_trutta
How fitting that the actor most associated with Lake-town, a set canvased with prop fish, fishes a unique Kiwi marine animal in his spare time and shares it with neighbors. I tried to explain that by doing so he will raise the profile of that fish in Middle-earth movie fan circles which led into a discussion of fans and those who will adopt Evans, or already have, because of his portrayal of the iconic Bard. They will follow him for a career as they do with LOTR talent now.
“Well everything you’ve just said sounds very positive. I don’t see why I wouldn’t want any of those things to happen. You gain fans and you gain supporters and respect from people that like your work and follow you for the rest of your career, I mean, if people don’t watch your movies or people don’t like you, then you know, it’s going to be a very difficult career.”
The other career-positive factor Evans has going for him is how he treats people one-to-one. One particular evening while out with some friends from the set (yes, I made friends and nobody was more surprised than me) on an epic karaoke night, we all sang too long and then, after practically being kicked out, we found ourselves on a street just as Evans and a friend were walking along it.
Wellington seems to be that kind of city, where if you walk around a bit, you are bound to bump into somebody you know, especially if you hang around the film set for a while. He knew some in the group far longer and much better than me, but he was friendly to all of us. But, most charming of all, the regret he expressed for not having joined us for a sing was real. (Although he is an actor and could have faked it!) We all put on a brave face, but after his performance at the birthday party, there was probably some relief that he didn’t come put us all to shame.
He also remembered me by name on another top secret and very short set visit a whole year later. Take note world, the power of somebody remembering your name is remarkable. And finally, the day I left the embed, a final day for many as it happens, time and space conspired and I had an opportunity to thank Evans, in his Bard gear, for his demeanor, the interview and for generally being so warm.
Get ready fangirls and boys: Bard hugged me goodbye. A small thing, but come on, do movie stars do that? Not many.
A final detail: Somebody wrote and asked me what Luke Evans, or Bard smells like. (No really!) So here you are. He smells like the really pleasant, soft, hair product from the make-up team that touches him up between almost every take — and leather. Like the actor, quite pleasant.
Larry D. Curtis is part of the Senior Staff at the all-volunteer TheOneRing.net where he serves as a writer, editor, photographer, consultant and helps with social media and live events. His TORn pen name is MrCere. He is a freelance writer and creative, always looking for new endeavors. He is a filmmaker, a student and a fan of fans.
Note: Special thanks to @Saoirse_Lochlan from Twitter who helped transcribe for this report.
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Also from TheOneRing.net’s embed on the set of Hobbit filming:
Evangeline Lilly gets personal with TORn about Tauriel and ‘The Hobbit’
Evangeline Lilly explains the challenges of playing Tauriel in Peter Jackson’s ‘The Hobbit’
Bringing Lake-town to Life for ‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’
Set visit exclusive — Extras: Living large in the background of ‘The Hobbit’