The Out of the Loop Fringe Festival at WaterTower Theatre begins tonight, and the first headliner is Canadian actor Charlie Ross, performing his One Man Lord of the Rings. He was last at Loop in 2009, with his One Man Star Wars Trilogy.
TheaterJones chatted with him about performing the characters of Middle-Earth from the J.R.R. Tolkien books, and more notably, from the award-winning Peter Jackson movies.
TheaterJones: How much during one year do you tour?
Charlie Ross: It's sort of set up weird this year, I don't have long stretches, it's a lot of short gigs, and it's making for a happier home life, believe me. This year I tried to cut back on my touring. I was spending eight months on the road. If I'm going overseas, like I've gone to the U.K. and Australia a lot, you have to make it worth your while. You try and go for two months at a time.
You started performing your One Man Star Wars Trilogy first. Was it difficult to get rights to perform that, and how did it compare to securing rights for Lord of the Rings?
George Lucas is the only person you have to deal with, so that was [relatively] easy. With Lord of the Rings, there's no exact figurehead who can say yes or no. There's the [Tolkien] family. My waiting for the rights had nothing to do with me, it had more to do with a legal thing with Peter Jackson, or I think New Line Cinema, over some DVD sales.
When the films have come out, they were so popular but there was actually few merchandising going on, unlike with LucasFilm, [for] which of course everything was merchandised. It allowed their brand to go a little bit cold, with no kids playing the toys. It came down to the fact that the big powers that be were clashing by night. So the people who do the little things, like make toys or myself with a show, we had to wait.
Had you read the Lord of the Rings books before the movies came out?
I had read the books, The Hobbit when I was kid, and then the Lord of the Rings when I was able to get my head around the somewhat boring prose. Later I realized that I like boring writing. I was immersed in all things Lord of the Rings before the films came out, and when they did, I was able to see all they had left out. A lot of people thought they were too long. I would have been happy with a television series that lasted many seasons.
How did you take 12 hours of film and boil that down to 70 minutes of your one-man show?
It comes down to what I can remember off the top of my head when I sit down at the computer. It kind of has to come from a place of improvisation. It's like when you riff with your friends, when you go for a beer or something, and you make fun of something that happened in school or someone who took themselves too seriously. You poke fun, in a good way. I get so familiar with the source material, the books and the movies, and after I have watched it enough, I riff with myself. I start writing out the lines that I can remember, trying to tell the story.
There's little bits of the films you can't leave out. For example, how Legolas, the Elf played by Orlando Bloom, his hair is perfect no matter what. Everyone else is covered with blood and snot, their faces are hacked off and their hair is burnt, and he looks like he has just stepped out of a salon. I can't let that slip by.
Do you basically follow the storyline of Frodo?
I still get about 45 characters in. It's a two-pronged story, the metaphysical story of the ring, and then there's the men. In the beginning I follow Frodo, and then I branch off into the two directions that it takes, so I'm following Frodo and I'm following Aragorn. Eventually they come back together at the end. The way the film[s were] constructed, we're watching Frodo go through something, and then we flash over to what the other guys are doing. So it works for me to jump back and forth between these two worlds.
I'm already doing these huge editorial jumps, but this way you're hitting the key moments. So if you're coming to see my show, I think you've probably read the books and/or seen the movies. I'm not giving the story from square one. This is the key and beautiful and funny parts of the film. It doesn't feel like much is left out, even though 11 hours of the films aren't there.
How did your knowledge of the books inform what you took from the films?
If there's anything I used from my knowledge of the book to inform how I construct and perform the show, it's with the characters. For instance Arwen, Liv Tyler in the films, she's not really in the book that much, and she really doesn't have anything other than the love story that they try to jam down people's throats in the movie. She doesn't really forward the story in any way at all. Frankly I appreciate it in the films, but it doesn't belong in my telling of the story. It's like when you get going fast with sailing, and then you throw out the anchor and say "let's lull around with Liv Tyler."
Was it easier to mimic the Star Wars characters?
No. That has some iconic characters in it, but for the most part, it's just people with American and British accents. Harrison Ford has a way of speaking, as does Luke, and you eventually pick up on the little idiosyncracies but there's not very many distinct voices. Whereas [with LOTR] you get the Orcs who actually speak, or you get the different British actors who have different ways of speaking. I feel like there's so much work that has already been done by the actors to make distinct choices in Lord of the Rings that for me it's a cake walk. There's so much to work with. In Star Wars it's a lot more difficult. Even though there are these great voices from Yoda and Jabba the Hut and Chewbacca and the Emperor, I find it more difficult to find juicy bits in Star Wars, whereas Lord of the Rings is rife with them.
When you performed Star Wars at Out of the Loop in 2009, there were a lot of fathers and young sons in the audience. Is it the same audience for LOTR?
There are a lot more girls at Lord of the Rings, I think it has to do with the fact that there are so many good looking guys in the film, and there's a bit of a love story, too. Even though Star Wars is science fiction fantasy, it is more of a sausage fest, a lot more guys in that story. Lord of the Rings is full of guys as well, but two of the main people who worked on the script were women, and they had a bit more of a female take on telling the story. I don't think there's any one particular demographic coming to it, because I've had people in their 70s who read the books back in the '60s, and they like the films or don't like the films, but still want to come check out the show.