LOS ANGELES (Reuters Life!) - English actor Martin Freeman, best known from British comedy series "The Office," will play the heroic Bilbo Baggins in Hollywood's version of "The Hobbit," the producers of the troubled project said on Thursday.
The announcement of Freeman's casting -- along with that of eight largely unknown actors -- comes amid speculation that labor strife will drive director Peter Jackson's two-part adaptation of the classic J.R.R. Tolkien novel away from New Zealand, where he shot Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.
In recent weeks, unions representing actors and others issued "do not work" orders against "The Hobbit," trying to force Warner Bros. and Jackson's Wingnut Films to negotiate with them on employment for independent performers.
Warner Bros., a unit of Time Warner Inc, said earlier on Thursday that union actions have "forced us to consider other filming locations for the first time. Alternate locations are still being considered."
While the boycott has been lifted by key unions such as Hollywood's Screen Actors Guild, Warner Bros. said it was awaiting retractions by local unions in New Zealand and Australia.
The situation is so grave in New Zealand that non-union film workers have taken to the streets demanding that the $500 million production stay there. The country's prime minister, John Key, has said he is prepared to lobby studio executives when they fly to New Zealand next week.
Warner Bros' casting announcement later in the day did not shed any light on the imbroglio.
Britain has emerged as a frontrunner alternative location for shooting "The Hobbit" movies which are a prequel to the blockbuster "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, while Canada, Australia and the Czech Republic have also been mentioned.
But at least Tolkien's Middle Earth -- wherever that turns out to be -- has some inhabitants. Jackson said 39-year-old Freeman ("The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy," "Hot Fuzz") was born to play Bilbo Baggins.
"He is intelligent, funny, surprising and brave - exactly like Bilbo and I feel incredibly proud to be able to announce that he is our Hobbit," Jackson said in a statement.
British actor Ian Holm played the aging Bilbo Baggins in the first and third films of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy that grossed nearly $3 billion worldwide at box offices.
Richard Armitage, who starred in British TV series "MI-5" and will appear in the upcoming superhero feature "Captain America: The First Avenger," will play Thorin Oakenshield, the leader of the company of Dwarves.
The rest of the dwarves will be played by Rob Kazinsky, Aidan Turner, Graham McTavish, John Callen, Stephen Hunter, Mark Hadlow and Peter Hambleton.
The films are set for release in December, 2012, and December, 2013.
Reporting by Dean Goodman, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith