Dean O'Gorman has gone from a dwarf in The Hobbit to playing Hollywood giant Kirk Douglas in Trumbo

Dean O'Gorman can't remember if he ever went up for a role in Spartacus, the locally made television series about the Roman gladiator who had been earlier depicted by Kirk Douglas in the classic 1960 film.

"I may have auditioned for some kind of muscular barbarian and not quite got it," he laughs.

Funny how things work out. Because the Auckland actor, best known for his roles in The Hobbit trilogy as well as being a local television veteran, not only gets to say the famous line - "I am Spartacus" - he plays Kirk Douglas during the troubled making of the movie, which Douglas also produced.

The making of Spartacus -- and how Douglas championed blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo - is a subplot to Trumbo, a biopic about the writer, which stars Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston in the title role.


As well, its cast includes Helen Mirren as Hollywood gossip queen Hedda Hopper, and Louis C.K., Diane Lane and John Goodman in supporting roles.

Frequently strutting, barrel-chested and elbows out, into their midst is O'Gorman's Douglas.

It's a role he won after The Hobbit got him good representation in the United States. Possibly helping is that O'Gorman knew his subject, having read the star's 1988 autobiography, The Ragman's Son when he was a kid.

"I don't think I walk that normally," he laughs about the gait. "He's an interesting guy because he is very vulnerable on one level but on another level he is very rigid and very physically strong.

"I think that it's great for an actor who is trying to figure him out. One is the vulnerable side and the other is the ambitious masculine side.

"Obviously Trumbo doesn't go into that much detail but it is all grist to the mill."

But being a Hollywood outsider also helped him play the screen icon. "I think in a way I was fortunate, because while I am aware of Kirk and I knew about him, being slightly removed from American culture, maybe the pressure was not as great.

"That said, there were moments where I was like, 'how can a guy from the North Shore of New Zealand play a Russian Jew who lives in New York from a completely different time era?'"

Douglas himself is still alive and kicking, having just turned 99. Director Jay Roach and Trumbo writer John McNamara consulted the veteran actor on the film.

"I knew it wouldn't go under the radar. I was also interested in seeing what Michael Douglas would think ... he has some strong opinions about actors and I heard him recently talking about Australian and English leading men -- that a lot of leading men in Hollywood at the moment are not American and I wondered if that statement had come knowing that his dad was being played by an Antipodean."

O'Gorman wrote Douglas senior a letter, asking for tips. Douglas wrote back saying "Don't worry about being me too much, just play the role, play the scene."

Douglas has seen the finished movie and apparently approves.

"That was really quite a relief to hear, because playing someone who is still alive has a little bit more pressure than if they weren't with us any more. I was really happy to hear about that."

No, O'Gorman didn't have to sit in a room of Douglas lookalikes waiting to audition. He did most of it by Skype from New Zealand, before heading to the US for final readings.

And no, an artificial chin replicating the Douglas dimple wasn't required.

"My chin has a little cleft - its not dimpled like his but it's enough. His is like someone has poked a hole in a doughnut. I read somewhere I was getting fittings for a prosthetic chin but it wasn't true. I had just finished The Hobbit and had spent three years in prosthetics, so I wasn't necessarily keen to replicate that.

"No one had ever said to me and I had never said to myself 'I look like Kirk Douglas'. But when I got the role it was 'oh yeah, I can see it'."

The 1950s Californian world of Trumbo was recreated in and around New Orleans late last year. There, O'Gorman shot scenes opposite Cranston and Mirren where the pecking order was the reverse of real life -- Douglas was the star, while O'Gorman himself was the unknown, relative to his castmates. It made the shoot interesting, says O'Gorman.

"My character was an alpha personality and was definitely not a wallflower. Like, Helen Mirren was aware that while she was playing her role she was also talking to Kirk Douglas. They didn't let their own ego interrupt the performance and they were really generous."

At the moment, O'Gorman is back in New Zealand filming the second series of Outrageous Fortune prequel Westside, before heading back to the US to do the casting rounds.

In Westside, he plays an 80s corporate high-flier. The big ginger moustache he's grown for the role probably prevents any comparisons to Michael Douglas' Gordon Gekko in Wall Street - though given his connections, the show's writers will be undoubtedly be tempted to have him to proclaim "greed is good".

He is also appearing as George Lowe in the Television New Zealand series, Hillary, due to screen next year.

O'Gorman says he won't know what Trumbo has done for his stateside career for a while -- it has already won a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination for best cast.

"I feel like there are all these battles you have to win as you are making a career and once you have conquered one step, more doors open for you. This film is definitely opening doors for me."

Who: Dean O'Gorman

What: Playing Kirk Douglas in Trumbo

When: At cinemas from Boxing Day