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Sean Astin, Ian McKellen and Viggo Mortensen

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

It’s the story of the one ring, but the trilogy of performances from Ian McKellen, Sean Astin and Viggo Mortensen has the potential to grab Oscar voters in the supporting actor category.

“The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” is earning the best reviews of the series for its amazing spectacle but also for the refined acting and storytelling that gives the films the heart that sets them apart from “Star Wars” and “The Matrix.”

Leading the large cast is McKellen, who was nominated as supporting actor for his portrayal of Gandalf in the first installment, “The Fellowship of the Ring.” His Gandalf is the intellectual center of the film; he’s the one who always knows what must be done but has to depend on the courage of others to carry it out.

“I think my duty is to provide the raw material,” McKellen says. “I don’t think I’m quite brave enough to do that, but it’s something to aim for.”

McKellen says his character came to him easily with the assistance of makeup and costuming. The difficulty was in having to shuttle between Gandalf the Gray and Gandalf the White.

“He becomes even more focused on the job in hand and in doing that, of course, is alerted to the many difficulties,” he explains of his reincarnation in the second film, “The Two Towers.” “You see a little bit of the old Gandalf, who is not totally confident that he’s doing the right thing in ‘The Fellowship of the Ring,’ and I think a little bit of that quality comes through.”

McKellen also took J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel to heart, going so far as to having a pocket sewn into his costume for him to carry a copy of the book around in.

Director Peter Jackson says McKellen would lobby to get lines from the book into the script. “He’d say, ‘Now, I know you haven’t put this in the script, but if I was to say it, this is how I would do it. And he’d perform it for me, like a salesman. I’d immediately say, ‘That sounds great. Let’s put it in the film.'”

The surprise utility player of the trilogy is Sean Astin’s Hobbit, Sam. Astin says Jackson intentionally kept the character in the background in the first film so his development over the second and final emergence in the forefront of the action in “Return of the King” would be more dramatic and natural.

Astin says he gave himself over completely to Jackson and trusted completely in the director, and the lengthy process of making the three films. “I feel like I regave the entire performance two months ago in London on a looping stage,” Astin says. “A month and half before that, in New Zealand, I was in character doing scenes and shots that were dropped into scenes that were right in the climactic, emotional peak. So I had to go back to those spaces again or I had to discover new layers of emotional depth to deliver for Pete what he was doing.”

Rising to the challenge was difficult, Astin says, but it was made easier by the sense of teamwork that pervaded the project. “I saw my job as making sure that I didn’t drop the ball any time the focus came to me. To be able to kind of keep that mental energy and focus sustained over such an extended period of time was mentally exhausting. I had to find lots of strategies for how to do that because it wasn’t like most movies or most characters.”

While Astin’s character represents the loyalty and bravery of the common man, it’s Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn who has to step up and fulfill his destiny as the titular character of “Return of the King.” Though most reviews describe him as “steely,” Mortensen brings a comforting humanity and humility to his royal character.

Jackson says Mortensen was a selfless collaborator who prefers the process of acting over being a movie star, often sending over faxes late at night with ideas for the next day’s shoot.

“He was, more than anybody, there morning, noon and night. He’d say to me that if you want me to come on the weekend and finish a scene I’ll do it, I’ll do anything you want.”

Coming attractions: Astin – “50 First Dates,” “Elvis Has Left the Building,” “May Day”

McKellen – “Asylum”

Mortensen – “Hidalgo”

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