Peter Jackson and the creative team behind the Lord of the Rings trilogy assembled a Fellowship on screen and on set. The experience of nearly two years of filming was so deeply felt by the ensemble that, after completing filming, the actors of the Fellowship got matching tattoos to cement the bonds they’d forged together in New Zealand. Only one member of the core cast doesn’t bear the elvish “nine” on their person: John Rhys-Davies.
2021 marks The Lord of the Rings movies' 20th anniversary, and we couldn't imagine exploring the trilogy in just one story. So each Wednesday throughout the year, we'll go there and back again, examining how and why the films have endured as modern classics. This is Polygon's Year of the Ring.
Since bringing Gimli the dwarf to life, Rhys-Davies has joked that he doesn’t have the tattoo because “whenever there’s anything dangerous or that involves blood, I sent my stunt double to do it.” But the true story is much more complicated and impressive. Another actor spent a great deal of time playing Gimli alongside the other actors of the Fellowship, albeit without much credit. Stunt- and size-double Brett Beattie has never spoken to the media about his time playing Gimli in the Lord of the Rings films until now, but in his own humble way, he’s ready to share the full extent of how much he put into the role, recall some old battle wounds, and reveal why he was chosen to become a member of the tattoo fellowship.
Beattie was about as green as they come when he stepped into the blockbuster world of Middle-earth. Although he had done “a wee bit” of high school drama while growing up in Canterbury, on New Zealand’s South Island, he had no serious acting experience to speak of. What he did have going for him, however, was a black belt in martial arts, plenty of horse-riding experience, and a height of 4’10” — helpful for a movie where many main characters are dwarves or hobbits.
“I’m a country boy. I come from a rural environment,” Beattie tells Polygon. “From having no experience. I couldn’t have gotten kicked more in the deep end, let’s put it that way.”
Initially, Beattie was hired to do horse stunts. (“I did that for two weeks and out of everything I’ve done, my god, that was dangerous.”) However, casting soon picked him up because he was an able scale double and could stand in for Rhys-Davies — who, despite playing a dwarf, was the tallest member of the main cast at 6’1”. But once it became clear that the facial prosthetics needed to bring Gimli to life triggered a nasty allergy in Rhys-Davies’ skin, Beattie became the go-to Gimli.
“I am aware that a lot of the people, even hard-core Lord of the Rings fans assume that a lot of the shots are some tricky sort of camera angle or some CGI shrinking John Rhys-Davies down,” Beattie says with a good-natured laugh. “I don’t want to burst anyone’s bubbles, but I can only think of a couple of shots where CGI was used to shrink Rhys-Davies down.”
Viewers can’t really tell when Gimli is Rhys-Davies and when he’s Beattie — that’s the whole point — but Beattie can. He recalls watching a YouTube video of one minute and a half of Gimli fight scenes and realizing that all but four seconds of the montage were him. Beattie says he spent 189 days — some 2,300 hours — as Gimli, all told.
His time on set was not without incident. Just last month, Beattie got his third knee reconstruction surgery, a consequence of having blown both knees while filming the movies. “The surgeon was asking me how I got those injuries, and I was like, ‘Well, I was battling Uruk-hai at Helm’s Deep,’” Beattie says, as he lists off other close calls like a sinking canoe, dodging horse hooves, and taking an ax to the head. While holding one of the heavier, more detailed prop axes for a close-up shot of Gimli running, Beattie attempted to toss the weapon from one hand to the other.
“I clipped my brow on the way past. Because I was wearing a prosthetic mask, the blood couldn’t get out. So the blood built up and built up under the mask until, eventually, an eye-bag which was glued on actually ruptured and the blood just started spurting out,” he recalls. “It looked a lot worse than it actually was.”
Even when they weren’t becoming blood balloons, those facial prosthetics were a lot to endure. The scale doubles playing the hobbits had full rubber masks they could just pull on and take off, and there was an unwritten rule that they couldn’t be in the masks for more than an hour at a time on set. Beattie, meanwhile, had more than 2 kilograms of silicon and foam rubber glued to his face for a minimum of 12 hours a day, sometimes more.
“A lot of guys couldn’t do it,” Beattie says, not trying to brag so much as just earnestly convey what a hardship those prosthetics were. “I’d actually seen a guy ask to put it on and he was getting claustrophobic and had to take it off.”
Towards the end of filming, Beattie was running on fumes — figuratively and literally, when you consider that he was essentially sweating out the chemical adhesives used to attach the Gimli prosthetics. He and his prosthetic artist Tami Lane were frequently the first people on set in the early hours of the morning to get him ready to shoot, and then he’d have trouble sleeping due to an onset of insomnia. He took to taking naps, in costume, while filming.
“I’d get woken up — ‘Brett, you’re on!’ — and the next thing I knew I’d be running through Fangorn Forest or the Mines of Moria getting chased by goblins,” he recalls. “I wasn’t awake, I wasn’t asleep, I just ended up in this really crazy state of consciousness.”
Beattie was doing far, far more than he ever imagined he would be when he first got involved with the Lord of the Rings films, and he was certainly going above and beyond what one might expect from a typical stunt performer. The rest of the cast knew it, too. This is where the tattoo comes in, as well as some of the more unsavory aspects of moviemaking.
With the encouragement of his seasoned movie star cast members, Beattie, who did not have an agent or any movie business experience, asked to get a screen credit befitting the amount of time and effort he’d put into Gimli. The producers agreed, saying that he was going to be listed in the credits as Gimli’s stunt, scale, and photo double. But a week later, he was told that he actually couldn’t be given the screen credit, due to “movie politics’’ and “concerns about preserving the illusion that is Gimli.” Beattie is listed in the credits, but just as a stunt performer. (Sean Astin’s book about his time filming Lord of the Rings, There and Back Again: An Actor’s Tale, confirms that Beattie almost got co-credit for playing Gimli.)
Beattie is hesitant to tell this story. As crushing as the bait-and-switch was, he holds no grudges, understands the impulse to protect Gimli as a character, and he doesn’t want to rock the boat or cause a controversy in the Lord of the Rings world. Still, the lack of a proper screen credit was a disappointment after everything he’d put into the movies. The cast picked up on this. While Rhys-Davies is often quoted as saying he sent Beattie to get a tattoo in his stead, Beattie says — and There and Back Again: An Actor’s Tale corroborates — that it was actually the rest of the cast who reached out to him.
“I remember Elijah Wood actually approached me first and invited me. And to tell you the truth, my biggest concern at the time was John Rhys-Davies. I knew that this wasn’t supposed to be for me to be asked to get this tattoo. So I said I had to think about it,” Beattie explains, adding that he relented when Viggo Mortensen and Orlando Bloom asked him again the following day.
So, on a Sunday afternoon, Beattie, Mortensen, Bloom, Wood, Astin, Ian McKellen, Billy Boyd, and Dominic Monaghan (Sean Bean was already in England, according to Beattie’s recollection) headed to a tattoo parlor in Wellington to get an elvish numeral engraved on their bodies. It was an honor for Beattie, “No doubt about it.”
Beattie’s only regret is what happened after. “After we got the tattoos, Elijah says to me, ‘Myself and a few of the cast members are going into Peter Jackson’s armory today, um, to play with machine guns. Come.’” Still utterly exhausted from the rigors of the shoot, he declined.
“I almost feel like I owe the cast some sort of an apology for not digging deeper and making that effort,” Beattie admits. “I spent a lot of time on set with the cast as a professional working. I spent a lot of time with mainly Viggo and Orlando socializing and fishing, but I didn’t have much to do with the [hobbit actors] or Peter Jackson. It was all very professional and that was an opportunity to get to meet them and them to get them to meet me without a mask glued to my face.”
Despite missing out on some machine-gun bonding, Beattie is still forever a member of this special fellowship. He’s not in touch with the other actors anymore, though Bloom made a special effort to track him down and catch up when they both worked on the Hobbit films. Nowadays, Beattie, who worked with EA Games on the Lord of the Rings video games after filming and still takes the occasional stunt role now and then, spends most of his time operating a native tree farm in Canterbury. He doesn’t show his tattoo off much or get any recognition, really, for what he put into the Lord of the Rings films.
Despite being thought of (if he’s thought of at all) as merely “Gimli’s stunt double,” Beattie is proud of what he accomplished during the making of the films. “I knew I’d done something harder than I’d ever done in my life, and I knew I’d never work that hard again,” he says, adding that he also feels that he did something good for his country, considering the tangible ways the trilogy benefitted New Zealand’s filmmaking and tourism industries.
Playing Gimli was a life-changing experience, for more reasons than just getting some permanent ink to quietly honor his unsung contributions. Beattie ended our interview by telling the story of his last day of filming. He’d been up until early in the morning for the home birth of his first child, then hopped on a plane to film the Two Towers scene where Gimli gets pinned by a dead warg and snaps an orc’s neck. Within 24 hours, he was back home holding his baby in his arms.
“There aren’t too many people who have been jumped by a warg, killed an orc, and delivered a baby all in the same day,” Beattie says with a smile.