||by Joanne Brookfield
The Big Issue 07/2003
Gone are the days when a fan would simply stick a poster on their bedroom wall. Seems like such a quaint notion when devotion can now be displayed to a potentially global audience on a website. The internet, god love it, has uncovered all manner of kooks, weirdos and freaks and is the greatest celebration of the bizarre ever invented. Some sites you laugh at, and some you laugh with.
Figwit is one such example of the latter. Iris Hadad is a Lord of the Rings fan with a joyously irreverent sense of humour living in Israel. When the first instalment of Peter Jackson’s blockbuster film trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, came out she spotted an extra she fancied and for a laugh created a fansite as a muck-around tribute. It’s now world famous, having gone so far as to be front page news on the international daily USA Today.
At the time, though, she didn’t know that the actor’s name was Bret McKenzie; all she knew was that he played an elf in the background of the Council of Elrond scene and that she thought he looked “perfect, pouty and gorgeous”.
What’s remarkable about this is not that Hadad developed an infatuation with McKenzie’s ‘elfish good looks’ but rather that she even spotted him in the first place. McKenzie’s part in the three hour epic lasts maybe three seconds. As this is a rather crucial piece of information as to what makes this truly ridiculous pop culture phenomenon so goddamn hilarious, I’m going to type that in again. McKenzie is on screen for three seconds. In the background. Of a crowded shot. “To see me, I need to be there and nudge you or have the DVD on freeze frame,” McKenzie laughs, “but if you are interested, I’m the guy on the left of Aragorn.”
It was Hadad who christened this ostensibly anonymous and non-speaking elf Figwit, an acronym for ‘Frodo is Grea…who is THAT?!” She shared the sentiment with a British friend she met on a LOTR message board, Sherry de Andres. Who was this mysterious elf? What did he do? “Other people found it amusing and joined in the fun,” Hadad tells the Big Issue via email. “In March 2002 we started the website - a place to put all the pictures we found, the parody songs people wrote, the FAQ we wrote and everything else,” she says of the legendary figwitlives.net. “We really didn’t expect it to go beyond that; it was a little inside joke for a small group of people really”.
Figwit is now arguably the most famous film extra in the history of cinema. (Star Wars’ Boba Fett, who has a similarly insane following, at least had some lines…)A google search for Figwit will bring back over fourteen hundred results, other fansites have proliferated and devotees now create their own Figwit mythology in the great slabs of fan fiction they write about this elf that was never actually a character in any of Tolkien’s books. “It still amazes me when I think about it,” admits Hadad of what she has created.
McKenzie, for his part, thinks the whole thing is hilarious. His internet fame was first brought to his attention one night at a party. “Someone said, ‘Bret, there’s photos of you all over the net’. I went and looked and went ‘oh my god!’” recalls the New Zealand actor. So how does one feel discovering this? “It was exciting,” he says, when recently in Australia. Was he at all disturbed by it? “I wasn’t disturbed. I was amused and confused, probably. Mainly amused, because it was ..so..weird, but it was fun.”
As one half of comedy duo The Flight of the Conchords, McKenzie can appreciate the humour in Figwit. “It’s pretty much a huuuuuge joke. The whole thing is really funny and that’s why the website was a success because it’s so ridiculous to have so much effort put into so little,” McKenzie says. The fact his work is public (he also plays in reggae funk band The Black Seeds) has kept things buoyant, he believes, because fans now track his movements and keep updating their sites with that information. “If I’d been a shop assistant or something, who’d happened to do an extra week, then it wouldn’t have had its momentum as much,” he reasons.
Figwit fans are nothing if not committed, and went so far as to travel to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe last year to watch McKenzie perform. “Yeah, they wanted to see Figwit,” he says, noting that he’s no longer surprised by the weirdest things coming out of this extraordinary turn of fate that is bound to follow him for the rest of his life. “And of course, I could find out about this because it was on the net, and it was like ‘oh… my… god’. It was so crazy! It ended up that we were going to meet them, and so they came from Israel, a couple from England, one from Germany and two from America flew over and they’d never met each other either, they’d only met each other on the internet”. Now it’s my turn, oh my god….He continues, “I was obviously a little bit anxious about what they were going to be like,” he admits, “They were obviously a little bit out there because of this website but it turns out they have a really good sense of humour and find the whole thing quite funny as well, and were just rolling with it. In a way what they have created is way out of the control of them, as well.”
LOTR fans routinely appear when McKenzie is performing, although at this point in time Figwit remains more famous than McKenzie. “People generally need to make a connection, they need to have read about it,” he says, as without the wig and pointy elf ears he looks quite different. “It’s more the idea of it that’s famous, this rumoured elf guy”.
“A good term is like a passive celebrity because its not through anything that I’ve actually done that I’ve got this weird internet celebrity thing going on. It started because they liked my elfish looks, so that’s what I’ve got going for me, in terms of my trade.” And does he trade on his elfish looks? “Yeah, I’m trying to get more elf work but there’s not much around,” he laughs.