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When I reflect on nearly 20 years at Plugged In, one of my most memorable experiences has been interviewing the Lord of the Rings cast. It was a blast. But before you conjure images of intimate one-on-one conversations or a glamorous red-carpet affair, allow me to describe "the roundtable". Imagine a dozen journalists sitting around a large table set up in a typical hotel room. There's an empty chair closest to the door for the talent, who are whisked in and given 15 minutes to field questions before being ushered into another room full of eager reporters. A line of questioning? Conversational flow? Forget about it. So I decided to ask everyone the same question: "While working on these films, did you learn a life lesson that would be valuable for teenagers today?" Here's the advice they wanted to pass along—thoughts parents can use as a spark plug for family dialogue:

Sean Astin (Sam): "Contentment. That you can't do everything all at once, right away. Be patient and take things as they come. Learn to live each moment. It's the age-old thing that any 25- to 35-year-old person tries to tell a 15- to 20-year-old, but that they're destined not to learn until they're 25. As a 31-year-old man, I've finally gotten to that place."

Miranda Otto (Eowyn): "Lord of the Rings reveres and talks about things I think society is aching to go back to. A lot of films these days concentrate on so many negative aspects of society. In the '40s, [onscreen] ideals were about honor, loyalty and dignity—qualities that we tend to forego so quickly for money. If someone says, 'I'll give you $200 if you take your clothes off and run around the block,' a lot of people will do it."

Peter Jackson (director): "The need for determination. You have to believe in yourself and not let anything stand in your way. There have been several periods in the history of this project when it could've just died. People refer to luck and say it was lucky that New Line wanted to do a movie when Miramax turned it down, and it was lucky they wanted to do three movies instead of two and all this. I don't actually believe in luck. I think you sort of create your own luck."

Andy Serkis (Gollum): "Not seeing someone and taking them at face value. You can't help but sense what's going on in the world around you when you're making these films. Obviously we started before 9-11, and these things have been in the back of my mind. The threat of war. The inability to see another person's point of view. I feel it important to understand the nature of the dark and light sides of our personalities."

Brad Douriff (Grima): "The whole theme of fear and confrontation with yourself. Either we confront our fear or we don't, and what happens if you don't is really pathetic. What you're afraid of seems bigger than you are, but if you let it overwhelm you and overcome you it makes you small. If you face it, you triumph and become much more."

John Rhys-Davies (Gimli, voice of Treebeard): "Unity, courage and a willingness to sacrifice yourself. We need the spirituality of the Elf; the earthy, indestructible qualities of the Dwarf; and above all the good, simple hearts of the Hobbits. And we must aspire to be the king that has yet to come into his place. We all have a choice; we are either slaves or we are princes. We make slaves of ourselves so readily and so easily."

Dominic Monaghan (Merry): "If you keep what's pure—love of friends, your family, or defending something good and honest that you believe in—as opposed to greed, power, hunger and domination, then it seems to ring true that you'll have the best kind of fate. That's what the Hobbits stand for."

Billy Boyd (Pippin): "Don't get all stressed out wondering where your next 10 years are going to go. Partly from playing a Hobbit and partly from living in New Zealand, which has a more laid-back lifestyle, I've learned to be more happy in what's happening now."

Karl Urban (Eomer): "How Viggo [Mortensen] threw himself into his work was an inspiration to the younger cast members. He stood in the rain and sleet for three solid months of night shoots with no complaint. Then he chips a tooth in the middle of a fight and wants to superglue it back in and keep fighting so he doesn't hold up production."

Bernard Hill (King Theoden): "That it's only prosthetic deep. Let me explain. For the battle scenes we learned sword positions and practiced a lot. Because it can be dangerous, we needed to learn to trust each other. So we'd hang out with the stunt guys in trousers and such and really got to know each other. When it came time for filming the Helm's Deep scenes, they'd arrive in makeup and Uruk-hai armor with their false teeth in and we'd hear the call, 'Okay, heads on!' So they'd put their heads on and come at us and you couldn't tell who was who. My immediate reaction was, 'Ugh, I don't like this person.' Then you'd hear 'Hey, Shaw!' 'Who's that?' 'Andy.' 'Oh Andy, hi!' Inside this head was my friend. But with the head on something happened to him. I was frightened of this person because of an appearance that was only prosthetic deep. It forced me to think about my fears and innate prejudice."

Elijah Wood (Frodo): "You don't realize how important your friends are until you need them… . During tough times when you lose perspective or have mental or emotional fatigue, those are the people who pick you up and tell you, 'It's cool. We're in this together.' Embrace those friends that you have."

Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn): "The lesson, I guess, is that the union with others is more significant than your individual existence. It doesn't deny the importance of your individuality. It just means you're a better person the more you connect with others. You're going to know more. You're going to be stronger and you're going to have a better life if you get over yourself. That's part of growing up. … There's the one side that is 'get over yourself, listen to others and don't be selfish,' but you have to balance that with 'think for yourself and don't believe everything you hear.' We all have to do that."

Ian McKellen (Gandalf): "My parents brought me up to think that one had a 'prime of life' and that it wasn't going to happen anytime soon. You had to wait. You had to earn your prime when you knew what life was about and you were accomplishing something. And then the Beatles came along and told us that the best time of your life was when you were young, and I thought I'd rather missed out. But here I am at 64 and this is my prime of life. That would be my message: Don't worry. Don't try and hit it too early because your time might be later on. I think everyone has a different prime of life. Mine just happened rather late."

Liv Tyler (Arwen): "I learned about patience and trust more than anything, because it was such a long experience. Obviously we had all of this great material and we were quite clear, yet we also weren't a lot of times. We'd shoot a scene and a couple months later they would completely change it and shoot a scene with other characters and give them those same words. There's so much in the movie that would happen like that. So I learned to be patient and trust Peter [Jackson] to use the best material and do what was right. It's hard to trust somebody that much. I think that can be relevant in school with a teacher. You sort of think you have all the answers. I felt on this movie there were a couple times I made mistakes and I wish I had listened more to Peter. It has definitely made me more aware of that."

Orlando Bloom (Legolas): "I think friendship and the fellowship of strangers, mixed races putting aside their differences to come together and make a difference. Legolas and Gimli couldn't be further apart and yet they kind of, you know [he quotes from the film], 'What about standing side by side with a friend?' There's something about having the wisdom, courage and compassion to live life with integrity. All of the characters within Lord of the Rings act with integrity. So I think the message to the kids is courage, humility and integrity."

Published October 2010