Race row erupts over 'Hobbit' casting

November 29, 2010

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Guillermo Del Toro, the hobbit
Previously, “The Hobbit” had been stalled for years by wrangling over distribution rights, reported budget blowouts and financial woes at the MGM studio, prompting director Guillermo del Toro (pictured here) to quit earlier this year. - Photo by Reuters.

WELLINGTON: Peter Jackson's troubled “The Hobbit” project was embroiled in a race row Monday over a casting agent sacked for telling a would-be extra she was too dark to play one of the pint-sized creatures.

The independent contractor who made the comments and placed an advertisement in a local newspaper specifying female hobbit extras “should have light skin tones” had been dismissed, a spokesman for Jackson's Wingnut Films said.

“No such instructions were given, the crew member in question took it upon themselves to do that and it's not something we instructed or condoned,” he told AFP.

The row erupted after Briton Naz Humphreys, who has Pakistani heritage, attended a casting session in the New Zealand city of Hamilton last week, queuing for three hours only to be told her skin tone was not suitable.

“It's 2010 and I still can't believe I'm being discriminated against because I have brown skin,” Humphreys told the Waikato Times newspaper.

“The casting manager basically said they weren't having anybody who wasn't pale-skinned.” Humphreys has started a Facebook group called “Hire hobbits of all colours! Say no to hobbit racism!” The Waikato Times said video footage showed the casting agent telling people at the audition: “We are looking for light-skinned people. I'm not trying to be -- whatever. It's just the brief. You've got to look like a hobbit.” The agent also placed a classified advertisement in the Bay of Plenty Times listing essential requirements for potential hobbits, including age, 16-80, and height -- below 170 cm (5 foot 7 inches) for men and 158cm (5ft 2in) for women.

The additional demand for light skin tones applied only to women.

Humphreys said she was a huge fan of Jackson's Oscar-winning “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and, at 1.5 metres, had hoped for a bit part in “The Hobbit”, a two-part prequel to the original movies.

“I would love to be an extra,” she said. “But it just seemed like a shame because obviously hobbits are not brown or black or any other colour.

“They all look kind of homogenised beige and all derived from the Caucasian gene pool.” In “The Lord of the Rings”, Tolkien described three races of Hobbits inhabiting the Middle Earth fantasy world which is the setting for the movies, including harfoots, who “were browner of skin” than the others.

The Wingnut spokesman said anyone who met the height and age criteria was free to audition, regardless of skin colour.

“The crew member in question has been dismissed from the show,” he said.

“It's something we take very seriously.” The spokesman did not say when the sacking occurred.

He said casting for the 500 million US dollar project, which has been dogged by problems, had been contracted out, adding “we obviously have a very large crew, it's a very large shoot”.

A union dispute on the set of “The Hobbit” saw studios threaten to move it from New Zealand last month, until the government stepped in with generous tax breaks and changed industrial laws to prevent future unrest.

Previously, it had been stalled for years by wrangling over distribution rights, reported budget blowouts and financial woes at the MGM studio, prompting director Guillermo del Toro to quit earlier this year.

It is scheduled to begin filming in 3D next February with Jackson back in the director's chair and Martin Freeman from “The Office” starring in the lead role of Bilbo Baggins.