Interview: Richard Armitage Talks Thorin, Tolkien, and Being a Leader of Dwarves in THE HOBBIT Saga
For an about-to-be World Famous Dwarf, Richard Armitage wasn't
looking too shabby when the man sat down in front of a bunch of eager
journalists during a long press day in Toronto. Dressed in a waist coat and
proper British slacks, the tall, angular man looked very different than his
more hirsute kingly character he plays in The Hobbit saga.
Armitage sat down on a very different throne, this one a plush leather easy chair, seemingly oblivious to the global fame that's about to befall him. Sure, he's got an very vocal "Armitage Army" online, consisting of slews of UK and Anglophilic fans of his TV work, mostly middle-aged women, but playing such a major role in Peter Jackson's Hobbit film will certainly take things to a whole new level.
What was the biggest change from episodic television to the massive production like THE HOBBIT?
Well, there's a lot more money! [Laughs] Not in my paycheck, in the production. The amount of people that work on it makes it bigger, but Peter made it feel incredibly intimate. The money buys you more time, so there was much more time to experiment with the character.
It's why I think many actors crave working in film, because you get time to develop your character further, there's time to push yourself further. I felt that Peter allowed me to do that.
On my first day on the set I had to stand up in front of the entire company and speak Māori to a line of people who were giving us a Pōwhiri, which is like a welcoming ceremony to bless the soundstage. I was more terrified of that than the filming!
You get on the set and there are 200 people, and behind a curtain are another 200 people on computers, so it's bloody terrifying. But when you get to the nucleus of Pete's set, it's just you and him and your fellow actors, 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 person could be a king, so I tried to protect that as much as I could.
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, I used Shakespearean speeches to find certain things, but I also used that speech every day. I found there was something in Māori culture that's essential to the feeling of Middle-earth.
How did you prepare to play both a young and older version of the same character?
I wrote a kind of story for Thorin about the experiences he'd had as a young man, from where he came from as a young man and the experiences he'd had at Erebor. In terms of playing [the younger version], I just wanted him to move faster, fight in a more inefficient way, and I wanted his voice to sound lighter, and I wanted him to smile!
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.
When we designed the Oakenshield, it was something I had in my head before we went down to New Zealand, about literally having an Oaken Shield. I showed it to Peter, who showed it to Weta Workshop, and they came up with this design, it's the same piece of branch that he used at the Battle of Azanulbizar to defend himself, and he's kept it. It's hardened with age, and has become like iron. I think in a way that represents dwarves, they just get tougher with age, but they become more efficient, more stoical.
I liked using the sword (ed. Orcrist, the Goblin cleaver, for those playing along at home) It kind of has a motion of its own. Once you got it moving it kind of does its own thing.
As a fan of the books and original series, how did you cope with the nerves of entering the world of THE HOBBIT?
I did have to walk on set before filming because I knew I'd be slightly mesmerized by everything, so I had a pretty good sniff for a couple days, just picking up pens and looking at handcrafted paper and letters because I couldn't be thinking this when filming.
When a door opens, and you step on set and look at Ian McKellen there is a moment of going, "OK, can we cut?", because there's Gandalf, and I'm walking into Middle-earth.
It's so stimulating to the imagination because you're given your character just by stepping into this world. It's like you're walking into the movie.
The film series is called THE HOBBIT, but really this first episode focuses very much on your own story. How did this differ from when you walked onto the set of STAR WARS: THE PHANTOM MENACE, where you were then a small cog in a very large machine, and you were now one of the main faces of the shoot?
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 and wondering "Where's the rest of the set? Are they not finished building it yet?"
Years later I understood the filmmaking process a bit more clearly.
Going back to what I said earlier, I really needed the crew to believe in my character, so sometimes we'd be called to set halfway through the process of getting ready, 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 to see 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 into the set, and most of the crew wouldn't speak to me because they didn't recognize me. It took them a long time for them to realize, "Ah, that's the guy that comes in on a bike, that's Thorin!", which I always took as a complement.
What was it like joining the established family of cast and crew that had been built over the previous trilogy?
From the very beginning, even when we met for the very first time and I was auditioning... we were welcome. It was like connecting blood vessels to those other films, giving oxygen to our film. 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 - I sadly never had a scene with Cate Blanchett, I'm begging them to give me a scene with Galadriel.
There is something in Peter, in the way that he draws in loyalty, in the way that people come back to him again and again, I took a little bit of that and kept it for Thorin.
How did you enjoy the transformation into a bearded Dwarf?
Whenever I play characters that are a bit grubby and grungy it just feels better. Maybe it's because I'm a Northerner, and I'm just meant to have my hands dirty. Part of the thrill of playing Thorin was this transformation.
I was working on second unit 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 pouring down my face, and they were trying to put ice on it. [Second Unit director] Andy [Serkis] came in with a mirror and said, "Look at this!", and I said, "Oh, my god, that looks brilliant!" It looked so good, he ended up taking close-ups because it would have taken the makeup department a long time, because the blood was moving down my face, so I said, "yup, shoot it!"
Grima Wormtongue [played by Brad Dourif in the LOTR films], that's my kind of role. That slimy, grizzly little twerp, I love it. If was in Rings, I'd have loved to have played that role.
What was it like playing a character antagonistic to Ian McKellen as Gandalf?
Ian is such a delightful man, whenever I had to be aggressive towards him there was always a pang of guilt inside of me that thought, "oh, don't be too rough on poor Gandalf!"
That's part of the thrill of acting, that you have to push those bombs onto other characters.
It's fascinating how Ian works, because every take is nuanced in a way that you can't quite detect what he's doing differently, there's just something in his eyes, and I found that inspiring.
He did something on the first day, which I've never forgotten, and it's all about status. It's something every actor learns at drama school, but no one ever applies, because it means being selfless. When I walked in the door in Bag End, Gandalf, this monumental figure to me, bowed his head in reverence to Thorin Oakenshield, the legendary warrior. And I thought, "God, he's giving me my status!" I figured if Gandalf was giving it to me, then everyone else has to give it to me, and you then don't have to play any false weight of status because it's given to you. He completely understood that, and everyone he's in a scene with, he absolutely looks after them.
How was your experience working with Jackson?
Peter is a very gentle director, he's very succinct. You don't really know that you're being directed, because he doesn't really point and shout and tell you where to stand. He guides you down a certain road, and often uses other actors to do it. 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've been 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. I don't 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. His imagination is so vivid that you see it.
How about the dynamic working with Andy Serkis as Second-Unit Director?
Having Andy on was possibly Pete's best decision. Normally second unit is about mopping up odd shots, where people pick up things off the table. It was as exciting to go work on Andy's unit as it was on Peter's, it was as creative, and I think there are some incredible shots that remain in the film that are all Andy's work. His understanding of Middle-earth, and being an actor, only ever benefited what we did. He's as relentless and ruthless as Peter is, he pushes actors, and 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."
What there any mark left by [original director] Guillermo Del Toro that you felt on the production?
I don't know about the residue from Del Toro, because I never saw what was his, and what wasn't. 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 evident, but also seamless, really, they have similar tastes.
How did you keep the character in check?
I do it by always staying with the novel. I am one of those readers that read that book as a child, read it as an adult, one of the fans that doesn't want to see this character ruined by some actor who thinks he knows better than Tolkien. I had the book with me through filming, if I ever got lost I was always back at the book, it was the only way I could honour the character.
How does it feel to finally share the film with an audience?
Martin [Freeman] and I were talking about this, we both forgot there would be a film at the end of this. 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. I'm really looking forward to the 12th of December, because they'll start to understand what we went through.
Where there any props or costume elements you got to keep?
You know, I was given Orcrist....and the Oakenshield...AND the Key to the door...AND the map! I can pretty much go on the journey and do it.
I got it all. I'm a lucky boy.