The global phenom surrounding the Lord of the Rings trilogy is enough of a life-altering experience for any young actor to cope with. (Action figures! Video games! Desperate fans!) But Dominic Monaghan — who plays tiny but tough hobbit Merry — says spending almost a year filming the three movies in New Zealand has really changed him as a person.

"I certainly grew up a lot on the movie set," he admits. "I arrived in New Zealand when I was 21. And now, I'm 27, [which] is just a defining point in any man's life. [Especially] to be in New Zealand, where they think completely differently from the English and the Americans, because it is a place hidden away from the rest of the world.

"I can't specifically name one thing that changed about me," Monaghan sighs. "I guess I did a kind of massive overhaul of every facet of my life."

Another benefit of making Rings is his lasting friendship with on-screen comrade Billy Boyd, who plays fellow hobbit Pippin. He's glad their bonhomie didn't dissipate after the shooting was done. "We met in New Zealand, and we spent every day — including the days off — with each other all of the time," he says. "You just get to know someone very closely. We still hang out. We write [music] together, and we are trying to get theaters involved with plays that we want to do together in London and possibly in New York."

But filming Rings wasn't all about bonding with buddies. For the final installment, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (currently in theaters), Monaghan enjoyed riding into battle on horseback with his lovely co-star, Miranda Otto, who plays Eowyn. "It was fun," he smirks, adding, "It is always nice to sit on the front of a horse with a female behind you."