The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the third film in Peter Jackson’s trilogy, premiered in theaters 20 years ago (on Dec. 17, 2003) to throngs of moviegoers. It was a triumphant moment for everyone involved, the culmination of a franchise that entertained both existing fans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels about the heroic adventures of Frodo and the Fellowship of the Ring, as well as generations who’d never even heard of hobbits, taking in a combined $2.99 billion at the global box office and amassing 17 Oscars along the way.
For the nine members of the Fellowship (and their other castmates), the films became a calling card that launched them to international stardom. Elijah Wood, who was only 18 when he first donned Frodo’s cloak, still looks on them fondly, telling THR for the 20th anniversary of Fellowship of the Ring, “The films really do represent such an extraordinary time in my life, and they are films I really love.”
Now, two decades after the One Ring tumbled into the fires Mount Doom, there is still no end to the popularity of Tolkien’s Middle-earth, as shown by continued interest in film and series adaptations. Projects currently in the works include the second season of Amazon Prime’s megabudget Rings of Power series, the animated War of the Rohirrim movie (set to debut in theaters in 2024), and a new series of theatrical interpretations from Warner Bros. and New Line, announced earlier this year.
So in honor of The Return of the King’s 20th anniversary, read on to find out what has become of the famously close cast, including which group has a crossword puzzle challenge going, who has plans to reprise their role in War of the Rohirrim and who walks around barefoot like a hobbit in real life.
Elijah Wood (Frodo)
Despite his short stature, the ringbearer Frodo casts a long shadow, and continues to be the role Wood is most identified with. But the onetime child actor hasn’t been resting on his laurels: The very year after the release of Return of the King, Wood appeared in the Oscar-winning film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) as Patrick, who uses the memories of Jim Carrey’s Joel to try to seduce Kate Winslet’s Clementine. In 2005, Wood starred in Everything Is Illuminated as an American Jew whose family history was caught up in the Holocaust, and he played a cannibalistic murderer in Quentin Tarantino’s Sin City. The following year, he starred in the animated Happy Feet (2006) as Mumble the penguin, a part he’d return to in its 2011 sequel. The actor later revisited Frodo for 2012’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, with other notable film roles including The Last Witch Hunter (2015), The Trust (2016) and I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore (2017).
On television, Wood has done voicework for Tron: Uprising and the Emmy-winning miniseries Over the Garden Wall. He also starred for four seasons on the FX series Wilfred, as a man who sees his neighbor’s dog as a man in a dog suit, and played the sidekick Todd in the BBC’s Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, based on the Douglas Adams sci-fi book series. More recently, he appeared in such popular TV shows as Star Wars Resistance (2018-20) and Yellowjackets (as true-crime enthusiast Walter, 2023), and starred alongside Peter Dinklage and Jacob Tremblay in the film The Toxic Avenger, which premiered Sept. 21, 2023, at Fantastic Fest.
Outside of acting, Wood founded the record label Simian Records, which dissolved in 2015, and shares two children with his partner, Danish film producer Mette-Marie Kongsved. He also recently told the Wall Street Journal that he and his hobbit friends have an ongoing text chain where they compete daily on the New York Times mini crossword puzzle.
Sean Astin (Sam)
The Goonies star, who in LOTR played Frodo’s loyal gardener turned unlikely hero, followed up the trilogy with a supporting role in Showtime’s postapocalyptic series Jeremiah and a big-screen turn in Adam Sandler-Drew Barrymore rom-com 50 First Dates (2004). After a 10-episode stint on 24 as CTU’s acting head Lynn McGill, Astin rejoined the Sandler-verse in Click (2006). He then appeared in a string of TV shows including Supergirl, The Big Bang Theory, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Guillermo del Toro’s The Strain, as well as children’s shows like Disney’s Special Agent Oso and several Captain Underpants projects.
Astin also voiced Raphael in over 100 episodes of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles from 2012-17, played a news anchor in the political satire Swing State (2017) and co-starred in the Netflix series No Good Nick (2019). Notably, he had a season-long arc on Netflix’s megahit Stranger Things as Joyce Byers’ (Winona Ryder) boyfriend Bob (RIP). In just the past year, he’s appeared on series including Young Rock, Perry Mason and The Conners and in movies Hard Miles (with fellow Stranger Things player Matthew Modine), the comedy Go West (as the narrator) and Paramount’s serial killer thriller Vindicta.
He’s been married to wife Christine since 1992, and the oldest of their three daughters appeared at the end of Return of the King as Sam’s child.
Ian McKellen (Gandalf)
The two-time Oscar nominee (including a nod for supporting actor as the gray-bearded wizard Gandalf in Fellowship of the Ring) may be in his mid-80s now, but age hasn’t slowed him down a bit. In 2023 alone, McKellen starred in two films — Hamlet Within, an update of the Shakespearean tragedy, and the British thriller The Critic, as the titular theater writer — and narrated the short The One Note Man. That’s not to mention his recent starring turns in U.K. theatrical productions of Frank and Percy, Mother Goose, Hamlet and King Lear.
McKellen’s other film work in the post-LOTR years has included The Da Vinci Code (2006), playing a duplicitous historian of the Holy Grail, and The Golden Compass (2007), in which he voiced the polar bear king Iorek Byrnison. He’s also well known for his ongoing X-Men character Magneto, which he reprised in The Last Stand (2006), The Wolverine (2013) and Days of Future Past (2014). And in 2013, he officiated the wedding of his good friend and X-Men co-star Patrick Stewart.
As one of the few LOTR characters who also appears in the novel The Hobbit, McKellen donned Gandalf’s pointy hat again for the Hobbit trilogy of films. He also starred as a retired Sherlock Holmes whose memory is failing him in Mr. Holmes (2015) and played Cogsworth in the live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast (2017). On television, he appeared as one half a long-partnered but frequently antagonistic gay couple in the ITV sitcom Vicious from 2013-16. And in perhaps his one miss, he played Gus the Theatre Cat in the critically panned Cats (2019).
Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn)
Mortensen, who played the heroic ranger Strider turned King Aragorn in the trilogy, followed Return of the King with a not-far-removed role in Hidalgo (2004), as a cowboy in a horse race. He has steadily appeared in one or two movies every year since then, including starring in The Road (2009), based on the Cormac McCarthy novel. More recent highlights include Captain Fantastic (2016), where he played an eccentric father of six raising his kids in the wilderness, and the controversial best picture Oscar winner Green Book (2018), as the driver to Mahershala Ali’s pianist touring the Deep South in the ‘60s. In 2022, he starred in David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future opposite Léa Seydoux, and in Ron Howard’s Thirteen Lives, based on the true story of the divers who saved a youth soccer team stranded inside a flooded cave in Thailand.
The actor has also made two forays into directing; the first was Falling (2020), in which he also starred as a gay man whose father comes to live with his family. This year, he directed and starred in The Dead Don’t Hurt, a romantic Western following an immigrant (Vicky Krieps) who must defend herself against corrupt leaders of a small town in 1860s Nevada. Apart from the film industry, Mortensen (a dual Danish and American citizen) is a poet, painter and photographer, and co-founder of Perceval Press publishing house.
Orlando Bloom (Legolas)
Bloom, whose love for extreme sports helped him take on the role of the warrior elf Legolas, has also famously starred in another major film franchise — Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl arrived in theaters a few months before Return of the King, with Bloom playing Will Turner in four of the Disney series’ five entries (excluding 2011’s On Stranger Tides). He also starred in 2004’s Troy, alongside Brad Pitt, then left swordplay behind for a rom-com with 2005’s Elizabethtown. He later starred in the 2011 film The Good Doctor (not to be confused with the television series) and played the Duke of Buckingham in Paul W.S. Anderson’s The Three Musketeers that same year.
Bloom returned to the Tolkien universe with The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) and The Battle of Five Armies (2014), with his immortal character fitting in logically, though he did not appear in the source material. More recently, the actor played into his fantasy fandom in the steampunk-style detective drama Carnival Row, the Prime Video series also starring Cara Delevingne, though it was canceled after two seasons, reportedly because of difficulties posed by the COVID pandemic. And this year, he played a Nissan marketing executive in Gran Turismo, the real-life story of a video gamer who became a professional racer, which earned a solid A CinemaScore.
Outside of acting, Bloom has served as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador, including visiting Ukraine amid the Russian invasion. He shares a 3-year-old daughter with fiancée Katy Perry.
Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd (Merry and Pippin)
Forgive us for including these two hobbits under one entry, it’s just that they’ve done so much together. For instance, the Merry (Monaghan) and Pippin (Boyd) actors hosted 88 episodes their podcast The Friendship Onion, before putting it on hiatus in 2022 to pursue other projects. Among them was another podcast where they co-starred, Moriarty: The Devil’s Game, and next year they’ll reunite in a Canadian stage production of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead.
But the pair have balanced their joint efforts with solo work, too. On the big screen, Boyd — who’s also a singer — played the evil doll Chucky’s more innocent offspring in Seed of Chucky (2004), portrayed Banquo in Macbeth (2014) and lent his musical talents to the end credits of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014). The Scottish actor has also appeared on such TV series as Snowfall, Grey’s Anatomy, Outlander and Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood, and has a second career as frontman of the band Beecake.
Monaghan, born in Germany and raised in England, went on to play Charlie Pace on the megahit Lost (2004-10). He later played Chris Bradley, aka Bolt, in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) and starred with Megan Fox in the 2010 Rihanna-Eminem music video “Love the Way You Lie.” He’s also done voicework for video games including Quantum Break (2016) and Call of Duty: Vanguard (2021). In 2019, he entered the Star Wars universe with The Rise of Skywalker, as Resistance trooper Beaumont.
Andy Serkis (Gollum/Smeagol)
It’s safe to say that Serkis has an easier time walking around your average city incognito than most of his castmates. The actor’s acclaimed motion-capture performance as Gollum — achieved using technology that was revolutionary at the time — led to other high-profile motion-capture opportunities, among them as the simian chief Caesar in the Planet of the Apes franchise and Supreme Leader Snoke in Star Wars movies.
Serkis’ live-action performances have included roles as Jennifer Garner’s demanding boss in 13 Going on 30 (2004) and the assistant to David Bowie’s Nikola Tesla in The Prestige (2006). He also played arms dealer Ulysses Klaue in the Marvel films Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) and Black Panther (2018). More recently, he played the butler Alfred in 2022’s The Batman and Kino Loy, who organizes a prison break in the Disney+ series Andor.
After serving as second-unit director (in addition to reprising his role as Gollum) in the Hobbit trilogy, Serkis made his feature directorial debut with 2017’s Breathe, starring Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy, and later helmed 2021’s Venom: Let There Be Carnage. He also founded his own performance-capture production facility in 2011, known as Imaginarium Studios.
Liv Tyler (Arwen)
After her turn as the half-elf Arwen, the Armageddon and Empire Records actress (and daughter of Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler) appeared in the decidedly less successful Jersey Girl (2004) opposite Ben Affleck, which she followed up by co-starring with Casey Affleck, Ben’s younger brother, in the indie drama Lonesome Jim (2005). She also appeared in The Incredible Hulk (2008), which marked co-star Edward Norton’s only time playing Bruce Banner before the mantle was given to Mark Ruffalo, though Tyler is expected to repeat her role as Betty Ross in Marvel Studios’ upcoming Captain America: Brave New World.
She played Frank Langella’s flighty daughter in Robot & Frank (2012), an exploration of artificial intelligence, and made her TV debut in HBO’s The Leftovers as Meg, a member of the Guilty Remnant cult. Next, she played Amelia Earhart in Falling Up (2017) and co-starred in BBC One miniseries Gunpowder, about the 1605 Gunpowder Plot, opposite Kit Harington.
More recently, she joined the ITV/Hulu series Harlots in its second season, and played the wife of Brad Pitt in Ad Astra (2019). She then boarded Fox’s 911: Lone Star, but left the series after only one season when the COVID pandemic made her international commute from London too difficult. (The producers have expressed openness for her to return.)
Cate Blanchett (Galadriel)
Perhaps the most Oscar-nominated member of the cast (with eight nods and two wins), Blanchett played the goddess-like elf Galadriel. She followed up the LOTR series with 2004’s The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou as well as The Aviator, winning a supporting actress statue for her turn as Katharine Hepburn.
She played an American tourist who’s shot in Morocco in Babel (2006) and was again Oscar-nominated when she starred opposite Judi Dench in Notes on a Scandal that same year. She topped that in 2007 with two more nominations, this time for I’m Not There and Elizabeth: The Golden Age, then in 2008 starred alongside Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and played the villain in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. She later portrayed Marion Loxley in Robin Hood (2010), and dipped her toe back in Middle-earth’s cool waters for the Hobbit trilogy in the 2010s.
In 2013, Blanchett won her second Oscar for Blue Jasmine, as a wealthy woman forced by a change in circumstances to move in with her sister. She was acclaimed for her performance in the period romance Carol (2015), with other standout roles including the goddess of death Hela in Thor: Ragnarok (2017) and Lou in the female-ensemble heist film Ocean’s Eight (2018). She also starred in 2019’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette and played conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly in the FX on Hulu miniseries Mrs. America. She then collaborated with Guillermo del Toro twice — in 2021’s Nightmare Alley as Dr. Lilith Ritter and voicing the crafty monkey Spazzatura in 2022’s Pinnochio. Blanchett again courted the Oscars, but fell short of a win, with her tour de force performance in Tár (2022).
John Rhys-Davies (Gimli)
Rhys-Davies played the stout-hearted dwarf Gimli — but did you know he also pulled double duty as the voice of Treebeard? For the prolific actor best known as Indiana Jones’ friend Sallah in several films, including the recent Dial of Destiny, and who starred in the ‘90s time-travel series Sliders, the Tolkien series was just icing on the cake of a long and varied career.
With more than 270 credits now under his belt (and a whopping 12 upcoming projects listed on his IMDb page as of this writing), Rhys-Davies’ next big screen outing after Return of the King was in The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement (2004), as Viscount Mabrey. He later appeared in NBC’s Bill Pullman-starring Revelations, an apocalyptic miniseries.
Other standouts: The Welsh actor voiced the proud Brine King in Marvel’s Aquaman (2018) and played Galahad in DreamWorks’ animated miniseries Wizards for Netflix, part of the Tales of Arcadia trilogy.
Hugo Weaving (Elrond)
Best known as Agent Smith from The Matrix, Weaving played the wise Elrond, who orchestrates the formation of the Fellowship of the Ring. Among his many projects since, he portrayed William Rookwood in 2005’s V for Vendetta, reunited with Blanchett in indie film Little Fish, and reteamed with Wood in Happy Feet. He jumped into the world of Hasbro toys in 2007, imbuing Transformers’ Megatron with his imposing voice and returning for later franchise entries Revenge of the Fallen (2009) and Dark of the Moon (2011). In the MCU, he portrayed the evil Johann Schmidt (aka Red Skull) in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011).
The British actor is also active in the theater in Australia, where he has long lived, with notable productions including Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of God of Carnage and Sydney Theatre Company’s Uncle Vanya (in which Blanchett also co-starred), as well as starring in a Sydney staging of Macbeth.
After reprising his pivotal role as Elrond in two Hobbit films, Weaving played Tom Doss in the World War II film Hacksaw Ridge (2016), Benedict Cumberbatch’s father in the Showtime miniseries Patrick Melrose (2018), and a family patriarch in Australian series Love Me (2021-23). This year, his big-screen outings included The Royal Hotel, which follows Julia Garner as a girl backpacking in Australia, and The Rooster, playing a hermit who may hold the key to a murder mystery.
Ian Holm (Bilbo)
Holm, who played Frodo’s beloved Uncle Bilbo, died in 2020 at the age of 88 after battling an illness related to Parkinson’s disease. The British actor, who was a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, had previously been Oscar nominated for Chariots of Fire (1981), playing a running coach in the historical drama about the 1924 Olympics. Among many other memorable roles, he played an android in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and Father Vito Cornelius in The Fifth Element (1997).
After The Lord of the Rings, Holm was in Garden State (2004), The Day After Tomorrow (2004), The Aviator (2004) and Ratatouille (2007). He also reprised Bilbo as the older version of the character in the Hobbit prequel trilogy, with Martin Freeman starring as the protagonist in his younger days.
Sean Bean (Boromir)
The British actor with a gravelly voice and the ability to play complicated characters has been very active since LOTR. The year after Return of the King, Bean — who played the conflicted warrior Boromir — starred opposite Nicolas Cage in National Treasure (2004), as the greedy and underhanded treasure hunter Ian Howe. He later played Zeus in Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (2010) and flight director Mitch Henderson in The Martian (2015). Bean was also in the Adam Sandler video-game adventure Pixels (2015), as SAS Officer Corporal Hill, and the Snowpiercer TV series (2020-22).
Bean held the central role of Martin Odum in the two-season TNT series Legends, about a deep-cover operative who can become anyone for an investigation but starts to suffer from an identity crisis.
In his most high-profile part since LOTR, the actor made his mark on another wildly popular fantasy series, Game of Thrones (considered by many to be the anti-Lord of the Rings for its grittier, sexier tone), as Ned Stark. Though he was only in one season, the character was indelible to the series. “He was a principled man, he was fair,” Bean told THR in 2018 of why he was proud of the role. “He was too honest, really.”
He added that he would approve of more LOTR movies, “as long as it’s not just about monetary gain and if it’s good and it’s artistic and it’s true to the book.”
Miranda Otto (Eowen)
Otto, as the female Rider of Rohan who plays a crucial part in saving Middle-earth, is an Australian who made her initial leap to Hollywood with What Lies Beneath (2000), opposite Harrison Ford.
After the LOTR trilogy, Steven Spielberg cast her as Tom Cruise’s ex-wife in War of the Worlds (2005). She also appeared in season five of Showtime’s popular series Homeland, as the chief of station in Berlin, which was soon followed by another national security-themed performance in Fox’s 24: Legacy, as the national director of the Counter Terrorist Unit.
Otto segued into horror with the prequel Annabelle: Creation (2017), as a grieving mother who takes in six orphans, and played Aunt Zelda on Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018-20). After that, she starred in the woman-fronted Australian miniseries The Usual Suspects (2021), and is set to reprise her role as Eowen in the animated War of the Rohirrim film.
Peter Jackson (Director/Producer/Co-Writer)
The New Zealand director wowed fantasy fans worldwide with his trilogy, whose three entries were shot simultaneously in the enchanting wilderness of his native country. After winning Oscars for best picture, director and adapted screenplay for Return of the King, the founder of WingNut Films had his pick of projects. His choices included King Kong (2005), having said the original film was one of his early inspirations for entering the field; as well as The Lovely Bones (2009), based on the Alice Sebold novel. After some wrangling with partner New Line Cinema, he came back to produce, co-write and direct the Hobbit trilogy, which brought the total box office of the Tolkien franchise to nearly $6 billion.
In 2018, Jackson released a rare miss, the box office bomb Mortal Engines, but that year also dove into documentaries, with They Shall Not Grow Old, about World War I. The doc used pioneering film restoration technology to bring 100-year-old footage to new life in highly lauded 3D. He followed that with the eight-hour Disney+ miniseries The Beatles: Get Back (2019), which used similar techniques to restore extensive never-before-seen footage of the most popular band of all time.
Now a billionaire who is known to go barefoot like the hobbits in his films, Jackson has singlehandedly boosted New Zealand tourism with his work. Recently, he and Fran Walsh (his partner in the film business and in life, with whom he shares two children) made headlines for purchasing a piece of Wellington coastline that had been slated for a 350-home development. The move was met with praise by many who applauded their plan to return the land to nature, but panned by others who cited the city’s housing crisis.
And for those who hope the visionary director will have a hand in any future Tolkien films, alongside Walsh and collaborator Philippa Boyens, there are glimmers of hope. The trio released a statement following Warner Bros.’ announcement of its upcoming projects that said, in part, “We look forward to speaking with them further to hear their vision for the franchise moving forward.”