Throughout the three Hobbit films, Richard Armitage has certainly redefined the image of the warrior-Dwarf for fans of the Middle-earth epic.
With his regal bearing, smoldering intensity and keen skill in battle, Armitage has added extra dimension to the Thorin Oakenshield of the J.R.R. Tolkien novel, creating a fresh, often conflicted, hero. And in the final film, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, the actor gets to further flesh out the Dwarven leader when, after reclaiming the lost realm of Erebor, it appears the title of King under the Mountain comes with a high price.
A fan of Tolkien’s writing since childhood, Armitage joined SPINOFF ONLINE to reflect on his tenure as Thorin, the lessons he learned working with filmmaker Peter Jackson, and the spoils he brought home from his own quest to New Zealand.
Spinoff Online: From talking to actors over the years who've worked with Peter on these Tolkien films, I know the experience can be quite transformative. I'm curious where you are, coming out of the process: Did you find yourself changed as a result of taking on this sort of epic professional journey?
Richard Armitage: Yeah. I mean, from the inside out – rather than the outside in -- what it appears to have done for me, in terms of my career: learning about moviemaking in a way that I never understood before, from Peter's perspective, about good storytelling; about working with a digital world, which before Pete would've felt alienating or in some ways disenfranchising – it's actually become the opposite; learning to work with a sense of mischief and humor; and to engage with a fan base during the course of the filming, which is something I've resisted, and I see how important and how crucial it is.
You really get to take your character to interesting – hinted at, but until now unexplored – places for the third film. Tell me what it was like to map out that shift and really perform Thorin in a fresh way, as opposed to the first two films.
They talk about a graph of a character often, and this character really, really did have a very visual and obvious graph, but the trick for me … I don't want to call it a trick, but the thing that I tried to achieve was to make Thorin's journey feel unexpected, because I feel like the vocabulary of madness is something which is very difficult to write and because we tend to write in logic and we tend to, as actors, look for consistency when we're putting a character together. So we did the opposite. We tried to make the character feel inconsistent. And I think the term insanity, it's like the mind from the inside finding its way out. So allowing what was in his mind to sort of work its way to the surface – which at times could risk feeling disturbing and alienating – was something that we searched for.
You had read Tolkien, I understand, as a youngster. To bring The Hobbit to life, with the extra flourishes that Peter was able to bring to the story -- what was that like for you as a fan, to really blow this story open big and make it even more epic than it started out on the page when it was first written?
It was interesting, because the very first meeting I had with Pete and Fran [Walsh] and Phil [Philippa Boyens] when they gave me the scene, it made it clear to me that they were really going to explore the psychology of these characters as much as they could. Going down to New Zealand with the book in my head and thinking, "God, are they going to dress me up with a gray beard and the little blue hat with the bell on the end?" Thinking I had no idea – I may end up looking like a little Christmas elf. And seeing the very first images that were coming out of WETA as to what they wanted the characters to look like. It was such an exciting moment, because I knew what they were going to help me create. Something that was very, very relatable to as an audience, because we have to follow this character as if he had the potential to be King under the Mountain.
And that's something that it isn't necessarily there in the book, where we see a character that's probably further towards the end of his life than the one that we've created is, and I really, I think that's an improvement. I like what the decision was there. You have to have someone in their prime that could win or lose.
I met you once when you were in full makeup, and then I met you again as yourself, and it was such an interesting experience to kind of see you seemingly as two very different people. Did you ever get used to looking at such a different face in the mirror when you were all made up as Thorin?
Yeah, I mean, the first couple of times you do it, you look at your face and you see the work that's happened and you see the prosthetic thing stuck on your face and your head and your ears. But my makeup changed, as well. It became much more thinner – the sort of lines from where the makeup ended and where my face started – sometimes even I couldn't see where the gaps were. I got so used to seeing my image coming back at myself as Thorin, and I really liked it. I really felt like the character when I was sort of wearing him, and you literally did get into character with these guys. I couldn't have played the character without all that work, and one of the things I really hated was having to go onto set before I got into makeup to rehearse. I just couldn't play him without all of that adornment.
You mentioned that you recently formed lines of communications with the fans. What's that experience been like for you at this point? What's been kind of the surprise of it all, and the reward of making those contacts through social media and meeting them at different events and things?
The way I used to like to work was to kind of close the door, work in secret, open the door and show the finished product. And I still feel a little bit like that. I don't want to reveal too much of the inner workings of the artistry that happens, because I think when people can see all the cogs in the wheel they sort of stop believing. And I'm a real believer. We're all trying to create some kind of magic. But actually making contact with the fans is just a way for me to say, "Thank you." What I'm adamant about is that social media isn't a sort of billboard for me. I really try hard not to just tweet things which are self-promoting. I really like to say thank you to the fans, say thank you to the people that have given me good opportunities, to Peter – to Tolkien for The Hobbit, for taking a good picture of me. And to sort of talk about charity as well, because I've dipped my toe into that a little bit. So in that respect it's been very rewarding and, actually, remarkably easy.
You've just recently had such a great stage run with The Crucible in London. What was it like to go to that project after something like three Hobbit films, back to back?
I've been hunting for a piece of event theater for myself probably for about eight years. It just never happened. We didn't find the right play and then this came along. It was a play I coveted for 20 years, in a theater that I love, in the round – they'd reconfigured the theater – and with a really, really interesting director. So my decision to do it really wasn't about, "Oh, let's cash in on The Hobbit and get myself on stage." It was a purely artistic venture. I didn't even know if people would come along to see it, but the response was overwhelming, and actually, it's down the fact that we again, as a company, as an ensemble, are really embedded into the play. And I'm very, very proud of the work we did as an ensemble, but it's down to that director, Yaël Farber; she was extraordinary.
And you've got Sleepwalker in the works. Tell me what you can tell me about that movie.
It's a psychological thriller. It's about a young woman who is suffering from a condition whereby she's sleepwalking, and she's living on a number of different planes of reality, and I play a sleep doctor, who takes her into his care to analyze her state and kind of guides her through the story. It's a very interesting piece of writing.
Aside from some amazing memories making The Hobbit, did you walk off the set with anything you wanted to make sure you kept? Was there any little talisman you wanted to take with you?
I was given so many brilliant things. I was given Orcrist, the sword. I was given the Oakenshield, the map and the key. I was given a number of pieces of LEGO of myself and one of the WETA sculptures that they make so beautifully – one of those limited-edition sculptures. So I've got a lot of kits!
Spending as much time in New Zealand as you did, tell me what you took away from that experience in that unique and somewhat magical country.
We were based in Wellington, and we did a 10-week location shoot, so I really feel like I explored a great deal of the country as an employee, shall I say. And then in my downtime, I did some things I've never done before: I learned to fly-fish; I went paddle boarding; skied down a couple of mountains in the north and the south islands; got on some jet boats. So, I really took advantage of everything that New Zealand has to offer. I come away with such vivid, vivid memories, and I know that I'll be returning. I keep my fingers crossed that it will be for work.
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies opens today nationwide.