Richard Armitage likes to get dirty. He seems at his happiest talking about all the sword fighting, face smashing, and griminess that surrounds his character of Thorin Oakenshield in Peter Jackson’s long awaited return to the works of J.R.R. Tolkien in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. The British actor was lauded as being more of a sex symbol – a distinguishment he seems not to fond of more out of modesty and morality than it not being true – than as a serious worker in his chosen craft.
The moderately height Armitage was more than willing to sink his teeth into the role of dwarf leader Oakenshield who looks to team up with his fellow warriors, the great wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and a put upon Hobbit (Martin Freeman, playing a younger Ian Holm) to reclaim his birthright and homeland from the dark forces that have taken it over.
Sitting in a large, comfortable looking oversized chair at a Roots location on Bloor Street in Toronto, Armitage held court with press to talk about his high profile role in the new trilogy from Jackson, the on-set family vibe of being in New Zealand, and many other anecdotes from the set of one of the most anticipated films of the holiday season.
You’re no stranger to doing things that come in series. What was it like coming from television to one of the biggest trilogies there could possibly be?
RA: Well, I have a lot more money. (laughs) Not in my paycheque, but… this just feels bigger, but Peter just made it so intimate. So the money that I’m talking about quite jokingly actually just buys you more time, so there’s much more time to experiment with a character, which is why I think many actors crave working with film. You get that time to develop your character further and there’s time to push yourself further and I think Peter really allowed me to do that.
What was that bigness like coming from your background when you walked on set?
RA: My first day on set was one where I wasn’t actually filming, but I had to stand up before the entire company, cast, and crew and speak Maori to a line of Maori who were giving us a Powhiri, which is a welcoming ceremony. That was my first day before the actual filming, which was unlike anything before. But you get on set and there’s 200 people that you can see, and then behind the curtain there’s another 200 people on computers that you can’t. It was bloody terrifying, but when you get to the nucleus of Peter’s films sets, it’s like I was saying that its so kind of intimate. It’s just him and another actor. It’s so personal that you get over your fear, and once you’re inside of the character – especially if you’re playing a character that’s of relatively high status as I was – then it’s easier. It was always important when walking on set that the crew believed that this character was potentially a king, so I tried to protect that as much as I could.
You play both the older and younger versions of Thorin. How did you approach each of the ages differently?
RA: I obviously started by thinking about older Thorin first because we were going to see more of him, and younger Thorin didn’t even show up until much later in the shoot even though he’s up first in the movie, but I sort of always brought my own sort of autobiography to the character. I kind of wrote my own story for Thorin about where he had come from as a young man and of his experiences. But in terms of literally playing him, I wanted the younger version to move faster, fight in a more inefficient way. As he gets older his fighting style grows much more efficient because he’s getting that experience on a battlefield. And I just wanted his voice to sound lighter at the start. I actually wanted younger Thorin to smile a bit, because as an older man his burdens are going to lead him to not crack a smile too often.
You’ve said before that you were a huge fan of Tolkien and the original films, so when you first arrive on set was it a kind of fanboy styled thrill for you?
RA: Yeah, and that’s the other reason it was nice to walk on set before I was filming because I knew I would be slightly mesmerized by things. I spent a few days just walking around and picking up pens and hand crafted paper and hand written letters because I knew I couldn’t be thinking about this when I was filming. But when that door opens and you step on set and get a look at someone like Ian McKellan, there’s a moment when you’re going “Cut. Can we do this again? Because that’s Gandalf and I’m walking into Middle Earth.” But it’s just so stimulating to the imagination that you’re given your character, because by stepping into that world you’re literally stepping into the movie.
What was it like stepping into a huge production like this where you have a huge role as opposed to one of your first really minor roles in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace?
RA: It was the same fear. I remember on Phantom Menace I had to sort of attempt to cut Ewan McGregor in half with a lightsaber, and they just gave me this handle and I had no idea what I was doing. I kept going around thinking “Where’s the rest of the set? Have they not finished building it yet?” (laughs) So years later I pretty much understood the filming process all too clearly.
But going back to that idea, I really needed the crew to believe in my character. So sometimes we were called to set to halfway through the process of getting ready. Sometimes I would be asked to go to set without the wig on, and I remember hating it and I was wearing a hoodie because I didn’t want Thorin to be humiliated in front of the crew. I wanted them to believe when the king walked onto the set that they felt a change in the atmosphere. It was 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, and I could always manage it because a lot of times when I would leave the set I would walk through the gates and most of the crew wouldn’t speak to me because they didn’t recognize who was leaving. It took them a long time to figure out. “Oh! It’s that guy who comes to set on a bike!” (laughs) “That’s Thorin!”
A lot of people who worked on the original Lord of the Rings trilogy described the vibe on set as a sort of family environment, and I’m assuming that Peter worked with a lot of the same crew this time around again. As someone coming into a new trilogy in the same universe, is that environment still there and what’s it like to be the new guy in this world?
RA: Absolutely. In every respect. From the beginning when we met for the very first time and they hadn’t yet given me the role – I was just auditioning at the time – part of the process of talking through the role comes when you realize that it means you would have to be coming to New Zealand for two years. I remembered saying [sarcastically], “What an awful offer that would be! How could I possibly do that?”
But when you get there everyone could have their family there with them. My family was invited to set, and everyone’s elses was too. If possible we would dress them up and bring them to the set and they were all taking part in the film. People that came back from the Rings trilogy were coming back and it was like he was connecting blood vessels between the other films, and that was giving oxygen to our film. All I can really say is that it fed us in every way you could possibly think of.
There are people that I feel like I worked with that I didn’t actually work with, like Cate Blanchett, sadly. I never had a scene with her and I’m begging them to give me a scene with Galadriel. (laughs) It was just incredible to just have all those people, and I think there was something in Peter and the way that he draws in that loyalty; the way that he draws those people in again and again and again. I just took a little bit of that and kept it for Thorin. I even said to Peter that if this is the last piece of work I ever do again or I have to walk away, I’ll be a happy man. I’ve had the most fulfilling experience an actor could ever have with this role.
A lot of interviews in the UK talk about what a heartthrob you are…
…and you kind of hated that kind of attention, so were you really happy to have your big feature film be one where you got to play someone quite a bit dirtier?
RA: You know what, I always said that I look better in the dark and that I look better dirty. (laughs) I think it’s true. And it’s not about what you look like, but what it’s like with the atmosphere that creates. I think I have a face that more suits a half-shadow than full daylight. (laughs) Whenever I play a character that’s a bit more grubby and grungy, I think that’s something that just feels better. Maybe that’s because I’m a Northerner and I feel the need to have my hands dirty, but part of the thrill of playing Thorin is this transformation that he’s going to go through.
There are scenes where his face is all beaten up. I love that. There’s a scene where I was working on second unit with (second unit director and Gollum actor) Andy Serkis, and I was rehearsing a fight like normal at first, and then they elevate everyone else because we’re supposed to be shorter, and I ended up smashing myself in the face with my shield and I ended up putting two of my bottom teeth through my lip and my face was swelling up and blood was pouring down my face, and everyone was trying to ice it down. Andy came running in with a mirror and said “Look at this.” And I said it looks brilliant and he asked me if I wanted to keep shooting, and I said absolutely because it looked so good! (laughs) He ended up taking close-ups because it would have taken the make-up department a long time to come up with the same thing because the blood was literally running down my face. I love it. I love being grungy and dirty.
You kind of have to have a bit of an antagonistic relationship with Gandalf. What was it like working with Ian McKellen and trying to explore that?
RA: Ian McKellen is just such a delightful man, so that whenever I had to act aggressive or antagonistic towards him there was always a pang of guilt inside of me that made me not want to be too rough on Gandalf, but that’s part of the story and part of the thrill of acting. You have to push those buttons in other characters. It’s fascinating how Ian works because every take he does is kind of nuanced in a different way where you can’t quite detect what it is he’s doing differently, but you can see it in his eyes. I really found that inspiring.
He did something on the first day that was all about status, and it’s something that you often do in drama school but almost never really gets applied. Ian is a selfless actor and when I walked in the door of Bag End, this monumental figure that means so much to me fictionally and on set, bowed his head to me in reverence; to Thorin Oakenshield, the legendary warrior. I remembered thinking that he was giving me my status. From that point on I thought that if Gandalf is giving it to me, then everyone else has to be giving it to me, as well. I had to therefore had to play the role that way from there on out, and he completely understood that. He looks after everyone he’s in a scene with. He absolutely does. It’s such a privilege to do that with him.
What was your relationship like with Peter Jackson in terms of deciding what to do with Thorin?
RA: Peter is a very gentle director. He’s very succinct, and you don’t really know how he’s directing you. You don’t know that you’re being directed. He doesn’t point and shout or tell you where to stand. He kind of guides you down a certain road and he often uses other actors to do it. He’ll have a conversation with you and someone in a scene and you won’t know that you’re being worked upon. He’s just using the characters to draw you down his line.
But as a visionary and the way he describes this world you’re about to enter is like a child describing what he just imagined. Sure, he has his concept artists who show you pictures, but as I think as I was saying to someone that I never really saw or felt being around a green screen because my head was filled with what Peter just described to me. It’s crazy. You just see it. His imagination is just so vivid.
When you are coming to this material that’s so beloved and pored over what decisions do you have to make as an actor between your vision of the character and what you think of as a fan? How do you balance that?
RA: By always staying with the novel. Because I am one of those readers that read that book as a child and read that book as an adult, and I’m one of those fans that doesn’t want to see this character ruined by some idiot actor that thinks he knows better than Tolkien. I always went back to Tolkien. I always had the book with me during filming and if I ever got lost the answers were always there in the book. That’s the only way I could honour the character.
As a fan of the books, what’s your favourite character from this world aside from Thorin?
RA: (laughs) Grima Wormtongue. That’s my kind of role. I think that slimy, gristly little guy is great. I’d love to play that one.