Warner Brothers have announced the cast of the Hobbit, amid confusion over where the film will be shot.
Martin Freeman, long rumoured as a favourite for the top role, has been confirmed to star as Bilbo Baggins, with Sir Peter Jackson saying he was the only man for the job.
"Despite the various rumours and speculation surrounding this role, there has only ever been one Bilbo Baggins for us," Jackson said.
"There are a few times in your career when you come across an actor who you know was born to play a role, but that was the case as soon as I met Martin. He is intelligent, funny, surprising and brave - exactly like Bilbo and I feel incredibly proud to be able to announce that he is our Hobbit."
Richard Armitage, Rob Kazinsky, Aidan Turner, Graham McTavish, John Callen, Stephen Hunter, Mark Hadlow and Peter Hambleton will also join the ensemble cast.
Jackson added "Richard is one of the most exciting and dynamic actors working on screen today and we know he is going to make an amazing Thorin Oakensheild. We cannot wait to start this adventure with him and feel very lucky that one of the most beloved characters in Middle-earth is in such good hands."
Warner Brothers executives said since The Hobbit films received a green light on October 15, pre-production had been in full swing.
"Set for release in December, 2012 and December, 2013, we can confirm that Martin Freeman (The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Hot Fuzz) will play Bilbo Baggins, the hero of the story. Richard Armitage (UK TV's MI-5 and soon to appear in Captain America: The First Avenger) is set to play Thorin Oakenshield, the leader of the Company of Dwarves which sets off to reclaim the Lonely Mountain from a thieving dragon."
Rounding out the Company of Dwarves are Aidan Turner (TV's Being Human) and Rob Kazinsky (TVs EastEnders) who play Kili and Fili, respectively.
Jackson comments "Rob is an extremely talented young actor with a huge career in front of him, I'm thrilled that he has agreed to take on the role of Fili. Besides his talent as an actor, Rob is also a champion sword fighter; I'm looking forward to seeing the damage he can do to a horde of marauding Goblins!" He continues, "Adian is a wonderfully gifted young actor who hails from Ireland. I'm sure he will bring enormous heart and humor to the role of Kili."
The remaining dwarves will be played by Graham McTavish (Secretariat and TV's 24) as Dwalin; John Callen (TV's Power Rangers Jungle Fury) as Oin; Stephen Hunter (TV's All Saints) as Bombur; Mark Hadlow (King Kong) as Dori; and Peter Hambleton (TV's The Strip) as Gloin.
Jackson said, "Graham is a terrific actor, with a great depth of experience, which I know he will bring to the role of "Dwalin. I have worked with Mark Hadlow on many projects; he is a fantastic actor. I am thrilled to be working with both of them on these movies. He adds, "I am also proud to announce the casting of New Zealand actors as Peter Hambleton, John Callen and Stephen Hunter. Fran and I know that they will bring great depth and talent to our Company of Dwarves."
The two The Hobbit films are being co-produced by New Line Cinema and MGM, with New Line managing production, Warner Bros Pictures handling domestic distribution and MGM distributing internationally. Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Carolynne Cunningham are producing the films, with Phillipa Boyens serving as co-producer and Ken Kamins as executive producer.
The Oscar-winning, critically acclaimed LOTR trilogy, also from the production team of Jackson, Walsh and Cunningham, grossed nearly $3 billion worldwide at the box office. In 2003, "Return of the King" swept the Academy Awards, winning all of the 11 categories in which it was nominated, including Best Picture - the first ever Best Picture win for a fantasy film. The trilogy's production was also unprecedented at the time.
The casting announcment came against the background of an industrial dispute, which is threatening to take the movie offshore.
Yesterday, a furious Sir Peter Jackson said he would "fight as hard as he can" to keep The Hobbit in New Zealand – but is already listing key Kiwi staff to take if the two-part film goes overseas.
And the director hit back at Council of Trade Union president Helen Kelly's claims that he had set up the actors' union to take the blame if the US$500 million (NZ$667m) movie is lost.
"I couldn't believe it. It was the first time I really got very angry."
Asked if it was fingers crossed that The Hobbit would remain, Jackson said: "I don't know what to cross any more. I've just got to get some sleep. I haven't had much sleep in the past few days."
It was unlikely he would be able to take more than 150 Kiwi crew – compared with a minimum of 2500 he could employ here – but did not yet "have the heart" to choose who.
"I'm supposed to put a tick beside the ones that would travel and a tick besides the ones that wouldn't," he said, his voice breaking. "If we can't make films in our country then what hope is there really? We may as well not live here."
Among countries being considered by Hollywood studio Warner Bros is Britain, where it has talked to industry representatives and looked at film locations.
A Warner team – including a production person fresh from considering Britain's locations and logistics – will fly to Wellington on Monday to decide whether to move the project overseas.
Jackson said he was at a loss as to why the CTU blamed him and Warner Bros.
Ms Kelly cited a belief Warner had already decided to move the films for bigger tax incentives and lower wages, and Jackson – a "spoilt brat" – was trying to set the union up to blame. Jackson described her as clueless. "Why do people like Helen Kelly have to be driven by rhetoric and playing some kind of role where she's always got to be the victim and everyone else is to blame?
"She has tried every possible conspiracy theory. I'm expecting to be told I was on the grassy knoll in Dallas any moment now."
Outrageous Fortune star and Actors' Equity committee member Robyn Malcolm said yesterday she could not believe a request for a discussion around conditions was enough to derail the project. "We're not even the coffee budget. Nobody wants Cate Blanchett's salary ..."
Co-producer Philippa Boyens said: "I think Robyn truly believes that, and it's a lack of responsibility and a lack of understanding. It does still mean that you can feel they are being used."
The studio felt it would be "walking into a situation of industrial strife". A hold had been put on casting Kiwi actors and it was uncertain if New Zealanders already cast would appear.
"The thing that upsets me is that New Zealand would no longer be Middle-earth any more. That's the heartbreaker."
Jackson said Warner Bros had noted some actors citing the court case of former Weta Workshop model maker James Bryson – deemed to be an employee, not a contractor.
"Now they are saying: `What if an actor working on The Hobbit wakes up in the night and decides they are an employee, not an independent contractor, just like that other guy?"'
While rapt with the public support, Jackson was sceptical of it making a difference. "How do you turn this into a good result? I'm racking my brains every minute of the day."
- The Dominion Post
What do you make of New World's Little Shop toys?Related story: Shopping giveaway 'harming children'