The Hobbit's Richard Armitage talks Thorin, McKellan and Peter Jackson's epic return to Middle-earth
Bilbo Baggins may be the titular character in Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy but it could be argued that the first film, An Unexpected Journey, is just as much the story of Thorin Oakenshield as it is the reluctant adventurer. Quite literally a Dwarf prince among men (and hobbits), Thorin is a fearsome warrior and leader to the Company of Dwarves out to reclaim their homeland from the dragon Smaug.
Taking on the kingly key role in the saga is Leicester-born, LAMDA-trained actor Richard Armitage. Pretty much an unknown property to audiences on this side of the pond, the British thesp has earned praise and a legion of fans (known as the Armitage Army) through his starring roles in numerous well-received UK television productions. Come December 14 and The Hobbit's release, the tide of international recognition is sure to surge in his favour and recognition on this side of the pond is likely to follow in a hurry.
Clad in a decidedly dapper ensemble that included a smart cardy-and-tie combo atop a stylish pair of bespoke trousers, the refreshingly forthright and humble actor sat down with a number of eager Canadian journalists in the middle of a packed press day in Toronto this past Monday to talk Thorin, Tolkien, and impending fame.
What was the biggest change going from the episodic television series you're known for to a massive production like Jackson's The Hobbit trilogy?
Well, a lot more money! [Laughs] Not in my paycheck, but in the production. The amount of people that work on it makes it bigger, but Peter made it feel incredibly intimate. So I guess the money that I'm talking about, jokingly, buys you more time, so there was much more time to experiment with the character. Which is why I think many actors crave working in film, because you get time to develop your character further, and there is time to push yourself further with the character. I really felt that Peter allowed me to do that.
How overwhelming was your first day on set?
My first day on set wasn't actually filming. I had to stand up in front of the entire company, cast and crew and speak Maori to a line of Maori who were giving us a Powhiri, which is like a welcoming ceremony to bless the soundstage. So I was more terrified of that than actually the filming!
You get on the set and there are 200 people, and then behind a curtain there are another 200 people on computers, so it's bloody terrifying. But as I was saying, when you actually get to the nucleus of Pete's set, it's just you and him and another actor, and he keeps it so intimate and personal that he gets rid of the fear. Once you're inside of the character, especially one of relatively high status as I was, then you're just inside the character. It was important to me to walk on set and have the crew believe that this character was potentially a king, so I tried to protect that as much as I could.
Peter Jackson's first production video showed that Maori ceremony. Were there any other aspects of Maori or New Zealand culture that touched the production?
It took me about a week to learn that Maori. That speech actually became part of my vocal work. Because I wanted to pitch my voice lower, and create a resonance for the character. I built a program of works, and I had a vocal warm-up every morning. I used Shakespearean speeches to find certain things, but I also used that Maori speech every day. I found there was something in that culture that's essential to the feeling of Middle-earth. The warrior. I wanted an essence of that in the character.
As a fan of the original movie trilogy, when you found yourself on set and in Bag End, how did you cope with the thrill of being a fan and the nerves of entering the world of Middle-earth?
I did have to walk on set before filming because I knew I'd be slightly mesmerized by everything, so I had a good sniff for a couple days, just picking up pens and looking at handcrafted paper and hand-written letters because I thought I can't be thinking this when I'm filming. But when that door opens, and you step on to set and you look at Ian McKellen there is a moment of going, "OK, cut, can we just do that again?", because that's Gandalf, and I'm walking into Middle-earth.
It's so stimulating to the imagination. You're given your character because by stepping into this world, it's like you're walking into the movie.
What was it like walking into the established family environment of cast and crew who had bonded during their work on the previous trilogy?
From the very beginning, even when we met for the very first time and I was just auditioning, really, and realizing that as a part of that process I would have to come to New Zealand for two years, and I remember saying to [Peter] what an awful offer that would be! [laughs] How could I possibly do that? But from the beginning, any family members that came to visit the set, if it was possible, Pete would dress them up in costume and put them on the set so they were taking part in the film.
For the people who came back from The Lord of the Rings trilogy, it was like connecting blood vessels to those other films, giving oxygen to our film. Overall it fed us in every way that you could possibly think of.
There are people that I haven't worked with that I felt like I had worked with - people like Cate Blanchett. I sadly never had a scene with her, I'm begging them to give me a scene with Galadriel. But it was just incredible to have all those people together.There is something in Peter, in the way that he draws in loyalty, in the way that those people come back to him again and again and again, I took a little bit of that and kept it for Thorin.
Your character has a very interesting realtionship with Gandalf in the films, it's almost antagonistic at times. What was it like getting to explore that with a veteran like Ian McKellen?
Ian McKellen is just such a delightful man, that whenever I had to be antagonistic or aggressive to him there was always a pang of guilt inside of me that was like, "oh, don't be too rough on Gandalf!" That's part of the thrill of acting, that you have to push those bonds with other characters.
It's fascinating how Ian works, because every take that he does is nuanced in a different way that you can't quite detect what it is he's doing differently, there's just something in his eyes, and I really found that inspiring.
He did something on the first day, which I've never forgotten. You know, it's all about status. It's something every actor learns at drama school, but no one ever applies, because it means being selfless. Ian is a very selfless actor. When I walked in the door at Bad End, Gandalf, this monumental figure for me, bowed his head to me in reverence to Thorin Oakenshield, the legendary warrior. And I remember thinking, "God, he's giving me my status!" And from that point on I figured if Gandalf was giving it to me, then everyone else has to give it to me, and you don't therefore have to play any false weight of status because it's given to you. He completely understood that. He looks after everyone he's in a scene with, he absolutely looks after them. It's such a privilege to say I've worked with him.
You play both a younger and older version of Thorin. How did you approach playing each age?
I started with older Thorin because we were going to see more of him. The younger Thorin didn't appear until much later in the shoot, even though he's first up in the movie. But I always write a biography for my characters, so I wrote a kind of story for Thorin about where he came from as a young man, the experiences he'd had at Erebor.
Dwarves get harder with age, the best warriors on the battlefield will be the oldest men, which is kind of at odds with how human beings are. We see our young men as fitter.
I remember when we designed the Oakenshield, it was something I had in my head before I went down to New Zealand, I remember saying to Peter that I had this idea about literally having an Oaken Shield. I showed it to Peter and he asked me to sketch it for him. So I drew it and he sent it to Weta Workshop, and they came up with this design. I remember saying to him that it's the same piece of branch that he used at Azanulbizar to defend himself, and he's kept it. It's hardened with age, and it's become like iron. I think that in a way represents dwarves. I think they just get tougher with age. They slow down but they become more efficient, and more stoical. So that was may way of dealing with the fact I'm not a 60-year-old guy. It would be possible for this character to fight on a battlefield and still have the potential to be a king. I think that's mainly why they cast a 40-year-old. I know it was controversial, that people thought I was too young to do it, but that was the way I got myself through.
In terms of playing literally playing [the younger version of Thorin], I just wanted him to move faster, fight in a more inefficient way. I think as he's grown older, his fight still has grown much more efficient and he knows what he's doing on a battlefield. I wanted his voice to sound lighter, and actually I wanted him to smile! As an older man, his burdens are so heavy that he doesn't smile too often.
What kind of physical training did you have to do to prep for your role?
We actually trained with a Canadian, Terry Notary, who taught us to move like a dwarf and run like a dwarf. In terms of fighting, we all carried very specific weapons so it was all styled around what sort of weapon we were using.I worked very closely with my stunt double and we trained with each other. We did circuit training with the stunt team pretty much every day, though not necessarily once we got into filming. It was intense. We worked out what our strengths and weaknesses were. The weight we were carrying meant I had to work very hard to strengthen my back and my arms to wield the weapons.
The film is called The Hobbit, but the first episode really focuses on you and your quest. How did coming onto a set like this differ from first walking onto the set of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, where you were a much smaller cog in a similarly large, CG production?
The same fear! I remember on Phantom Menace having to attempt to cut Ewan McGregor in half with a Lightsaber, and they'd just given me a handle. I didn't understand what I was doing, or what was happening. I was looking around going "Where's the rest of the set? Have they not finished building it yet?" So years later I understood the filmmaking process a lot more clearly.
Going back to that idea from earlier, I really needed the crew to believe in my character, so sometimes we'd were called to set halfway through the process of getting ready, so sometimes without the wig on, and I remember hating it and wearing a hoodie. I just didn't want Thorin humiliated in front of the crew. I wanted them to believe that when the King walked on the set that they felt a change in atmosphere. It's like I didn't want anyone seeing the Dwarf suit underneath, because that's like Thorin being half naked. I know it sounds stupid, but I was really protective of that.
I could always gauge it, because I used to cycle to and from the studio, and most of the crew wouldn't speak to me because they didn't recognize who was leaving. It took them a long time for them to go, "Ah! That's the guy that comes in on a bike. That's Thorin!", which I always took as a complement.
How did the epic scale of warfare in Middle-earth compare to the more modern soldiers you've played in other productions in your career?
It goes back to Tolkien. Tolkien had experienced World War I, he'd lost very, very close friends at The Somme and I think that his experience is what he writes about. His fear of stepping out of his door and facing extreme danger. I think that you look at what's happening with troops and you can't represent what's happening now but there's a universal understanding of the ordinary man being called upon to [fight]. You just have to connect with that and understand it.
You're often referred to in the British press as a 'heartthrob,' which I've read you hate. How happy were you to transformation into a scraggly, bearded, messy-haired Dwarf for your big international debut?
You know I've always said of myself, I look better in the dark and I look better dirty. [laughs] I think it's true! And you know, it's not about what you look like but about the atmosphere that creates. I think I've got a face that suits a half-shadow, rather than full daylight.
Whenever I play characters that are a bit grubby and grungy, I just think it feels better. Maybe it's because I'm a Northerner, and I'm just meant to have my hands dirty but part of the thrill of playing Thorin was this transformation that I was going to go through. There were scenes where his face is beaten up and I love that.
I was working on second unit with [Second Unit director] Andy Serkis and we'd rehearsed a fight with twelve orcs, and you rehearse it at the right level, and then you elevate everybody because we're supposed to be shorter. I ended up smashing myself in the face with a shield, and putting my bottom tooth through my lip. My face swelled up, and the blood was sort of pouring down my face, and they were trying to put ice on it. Andy came in with a mirror and he went, "Look at this!", and I was like, "Oh, my god, that looks brilliant!" And he said, "do you want to carry on?" and I was like, "Absolutely!" It just looked so good, he ended up taking close-ups because it would have taken the makeup department a long time to create, because the blood was moving down my face, so I said, "yup, shoot it!" So yeah, I love it. I love being grungy and dirty.
Did you leave your role in "Spooks" ["MI-5"] to take on the role of Thorin? Is that why producers chose to end the series?
No. I decided to leave the show...to nothing. Three for me, is the magic number. I'd done three series and I thought that if I stay, I'll be too comfortable. I was enjoying the character and I thought it was right to finish it there.
There was another series that I was involved in called "Strike Back", which unfortunately I had to walk away from. The prospect of sitting in a cinema watching another actor play Thorin when I'd been offered the role - I mean sometimes that happens, sometimes you do have to walk away from roles or you can't make it work with dates - I couldn't have lived with myself seeing someone else play him. I would rather have given up my career for that. And actually I said to Pete when I got down there, "if this is that last piece of work I ever do, I'll be a happy man and a happy actor." I still feel that. If I never work again, I've had the most fulfilling experience an actor can have with this role.
What did you most enjoy about playing the part?
I really like learning to fight. I liked using that sword. Because it's shaped in the way that it is, it kind of has a motion of its own. It's kind of hard to control so once you've got it moving it kind of does its own thing.
Of all the characters I've played, without a shadow of a doubt that man [points to a poster of Thorin] there is my favourite. I don't think I've ever been challenged in the way this role has challenged me. It's like every job I've ever done has led to this moment because I've been able to take something from every piece of work I've done and use it with this role. I couldn't surpass that. Every expectation I've had [about the production] has been surpassed as well.
Who would you say is your favourite Lord of the Rings character other than Thorin?
[No hesitation] Grima Wormtongue! That's my kind of role. That slimy, grizzly little twerp, I love it. If was in Rings, I'd want to play that role.
What was your experience like working with Peter Jackson and realizing his vision for your character?
Peter is a very gentle director, he's very succinct. You don't really know that you're being directed, because he doesn't sort of point and shout and tell you where to stand. He kind of guides you down a certain road, and often uses other actors to do it. So he'll have a quiet conversation with somebody, who then walks into the scene and does something to you, and you don't know that you're being worked upon, but it's actually Peter using his characters to draw you down a line.
As a visionary, the way that he describes the world that you're about to enter is like a child getting excited about something that they've just seen or imagined. Then he has his concept artists show you pictures. I don't really remember ever seeing a green screen, because my head was filled with Pete's dragon bursting through the door that he'd just described to me. For some reason, you see it. It's crazy. His imagination is so vivid that you see it.
How about the dynamic working with Andy Serkis as Second-Unit Director in comparison to Peter?
Having Andy as Second-Unit Director was possibly one of Pete's best decisions. Normally a second unit is about mopping up odd shots, where people pick up things off the tables. But it was as exciting to go work on Andy's unit as it was on Peter's unit, it was as creative, and I think there are some incredible shots that remain in the film that are all Andy's work. Also his understanding of Middle-earth, and being an actor, only ever benefited what we did. He's as relentless and ruthless as Peter is, I think, he pushes actors and actually he has no sympathy when you're tired. That's what you want, you want a director that's like, "I don't care how tired you are, we'll do three more takes."
Were there any remnants of [original director] Guillermo
Del Toro's vision by the time you came on set?
I don't know about the residue from Del Toro, because I never saw what was his, and what wasn't. And I think that's right. I do suspect that there is a certain creature left in the film which is all Del Toro, and I'll leave that for you to decide. I think it's very, very evident, but also seamless, really, because they have similar tastes.
How do you take advantage of the myriad of choices you have as an actor in a production like The Hobbit while staying true to a character that's so well known to fans? How do you strike that balance?
By always staying with the novel. Because I am one of those readers that read that book as a child, read it as an adult; I am one of the fans that doesn't want to see this character ruined by some idiot actor who thinks he knows better than Tolkien. I always went back to Tolkien. I had the book with me throughout filming, if I ever got lost I was always back at the book. That was the only way I could honour the character.
You seem like a really humble guy. Are you ready for the wave of international awareness this movie will bring your way?
Armitage with fans at Toronto's Union Station. (Photo: Tal Ben-Izhak)
How do I get ready? [laughs] Tell me! I don't know. It's not something I've ever thought about. I just do the work that I do and try to do it well. I still hope that I can ride the subway, I think I will. I mean, I don't think I look particularly like that guy [points at a poster of Thorin] in the picture. I just hope that people like the film. Maybe if I get recognized in the street, fingers crossed they'll come up and say I did a good job. That's all I hope. If they start throwing tomatoes at me, I'll be in trouble.
You've put a lot of yourself and a lot of time into these films. How does it feel to finally share the first movie with audiences?
Martin [Freeman] and I talked about this! We both forgot that there was actually going to be a film at the end of it. The experience has been so epic, and so fulfilling, I didn't even think about the end product. The experience of making it was enough. And then come Wellington and the premiere, it was like, "Oh yeah! We've got a film to watch! Look at the hundreds of thousands of people who are going to watch it with us!" It was a surprise. But I'm glad and I'm really looking forward to the 12th of December, because they'll start to really understand what we went through.
Once you'd reached the end of production, were there any props or costume elements from set that you wanted to keep or got to keep?
You know, on the last day of shooting I was given Orcrist...and the Oakenshield...and the key to the door...AND the map! So I pretty much got the entire kit.
I can go on the journey and do it. I got it all. I'm a lucky boy.
Photo Credit (main): Tal Ben-Izhak