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By Lucy Craymer
The hunt is on in New Zealand for hairy, toothless, wrinkled and extremely tall and short people to fill out the cast for a television series based on stories from "The Lord of the Rings" that begins production next year.
But human resources are stretched in the Pacific island nation of under 5 million inhabitants, and talent agencies are pounding the pavement to get more people to sign up.
Justin Smith lost his teeth as a result of surfing accident some years back. The 41-year-old recently answered an online advertisement for extras for the television series, which is based on J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy novels and produced by a subsidiary of Amazon.com Inc. Like the blockbuster movies that were filmed nearly two decades earlier, the TV series is set in the mythical kingdom of Middle-earth and its characters will likely include villainous humanoid creatures, village folk of small stature, and tall ethereal elves.
An ad from one of two local talent agencies helping with the search said it was looking for people with, among other things, missing teeth and "wonderful noses."
The other agency was more descriptive, calling for "hairy hairy people of all ages and ethnicities," as well as "stocky mean-looking bikers," individuals with many freckles, redheads, androgynous men and women, and people with lots of wrinkles.
"I've got more than missing teeth, I've got none," said Mr. Smith, who thinks he might have hit the genetic jackpot for a role. "Basically I'm short, I've got red hair and I've got missing teeth," the New Zealand truck driver added. He said he has submitted a series of images of his toothless grin and is waiting for a callback to audition.
Amazon, whose video-streaming service competes with Netflix, Hulu and cable channels, is banking a lot on the Lord of the Rings series. It agreed to pay $250 million just for the rights to it, and is planning multiple seasons over several years. The first episode could be screened in 2021.
The television series' lead cast and plot, which is supposed to avoid overlap with earlier movies, has been a closely-guarded secret. Including production costs, the series could be one of the most expensive TV shows in history.
Nearly two decades ago, the three movies produced by New Line Cinema cost a total of around $300 million and used more than 20,000 extras to populate village scenes, epic battles and communities of elves and hobbits. Expectations are for the TV series to feature thousands of extras each season.
Amazon declined to comment.
The search for extras for the television series began in the middle of the year. BGT Actors Models and Talent, an Auckland-based company, released a video on Facebook in October appealing for more people to apply.
"Do you have a few wrinkles? Have you been out in that sunshine? Is your face a little ugh?" said BGT's director Sarah Valentine. If you "look like a leather handbag or do have a gazillion wrinkles," that would qualify you, she added. BGT declined to comment, citing confidentiality agreements.
New Zealand, with its dramatic mountains, valleys, coastline and forests, has become producers' venue of choice for films and shows set in the wilderness. "The Chronicles of Narnia" movies and "Mission: Impossible -- Fallout" had scenes shot there. The sequels to James Cameron's "Avatar" are currently being filmed in the country, and TV shows scheduled for shoots include "The Wilds," an Amazon drama about teenage girls stranded on a desert island, and "Cowboy Bebop," a Netflix series starring John Cho as a space bounty hunter.
"It is busier now that it has ever been," said Larry Justice, a lecturer at Unitec Institute of Technology's School of Creative Industries in Auckland. "The film crews are saying that if you want to book someone, you have to book them now," he said.
Amy Leyshon, who runs casting events for British firm Uni-versal Extras, said fans of the Lord of the Rings books and movies would likely have expectations for what the characters should look like. Finding extras with specific traits would help producers save on makeup costs, wigs and special effects. Extras in New Zealand can earn about $200 a day and meals are covered.
Nick King, a Christchurch resident, decided to send in his application to be an extra this month after considering it for weeks, answering questions like whether he had sword-fighting training and how well he could switch between accents. Friends encouraged him to give it a try.
"They said I have the beard and I have a character face," he said, adding he isn't sure if the latter is a compliment. The musician, photographer and graphic designer is currently working as a freelancer. "I'd really like to play a bad guy," he said.
Getting an unnamed role could become a defining moment. Before 43-year-old Bret McKenzie starred on his own HBO comedy series "Flight of the Conchords," the New Zealander played an unnamed elf for three seconds in the first Lord of the Rings movie. Fans spotted him sitting next to Orlando Bloom's Legolas, christened him Figwit and created a fan website for him. Mr. McKenzie reappeared in the third movie, in which he got a couple of lines and a name: Escort Elf.
Steve Wrigley was in his early 20s when the movies were filmed in and around his hometown of Wellington. He said the opportunity to earn some money working as an extra was "a gift" as he was trying to launch his career as a comedian at the time.
Mr. Wrigley, who now lives in Alfred, N.Y., recalled that virtually anyone over 6 feet tall could get a role as an extra in the movies. He had a full head of dark locks then, and a relative close-up of his face was shown for a few seconds behind the character Faramir in the second movie. He met his wife through some Americans who had moved to New Zealand to work as extras in the films.
"It doesn't even matter what I've done in my life," said Mr. Wrigley, who is now 40 and mostly bald. "The only thing that anyone in my extended American family cares about is that I have about 10 seconds of screen time in Lord of the Rings."
Write to Lucy Craymer at Lucy.Craymer@wsj.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
December 15, 2019 13:42 ET (18:42 GMT)
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