English actor Richard Armitage has reached a tipping point in his long and varied career. After tremendous success on British drama series, he abandoned TV for film in one of the most talked about roles of the season The Hobbit’s Thorin Oakenshield, King of the Dwarves.
With The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey opening now, the second in 2013 and the third in 2014, Armitage can expect a sea change in his career and professional standing.
We spoke with him in Toronto:
M&C: You were an essential and game changing character on MI5, but had yourself killed off. Then you left for New Zealand for two years to make The Hobbit films. MI5 called it quits. Co-incidence?
Armitage: I decided to leave the show, to go to nothing. I had done three series and was facing a fourth, I thought “You know what, if I stay I’ll be too comfortable” and I was enjoying the couch and I said “I could stop this”. There was another series Strike Back which was becoming another franchise, which I unfortunately I had to walk away from.
The prospect of sitting in a theatre and watching another actor play Thorin when I’d been offered the role … Sometimes that happens. You have to walk away and you can’t make it work with dates. But I couldn’t have lived with myself if someone else had played it. I would rather have given up my career.
If The Hobbit was the last piece of work I ever do, I would be happy. I still feel that if I never work again I have had the most fulfilling experience an actor could ever have with this role. I’ve never been challenged in the way this role challenged me.
Every job I’ve ever done has led to this moment; if I take something from everything I’ve done and reduced it in this role. Every expectation I had, myself and others work, has been surprising.
M&C: What do you think of Thorin’s down and dirty look?
Armitage: I have always said of myself I look better in the dark or dirty and I think it’s true. It’s not about looking. It’s the atmosphere that creates. I think I’ve just got a face that suits half shadow rather than full daylight. Whenever I play characters that are grubby and grungy it just feels better maybe because I’m a Northerner and always meant to have dirty hands.
Part of the thrill of playing Thorin was this transformation he goes through like the scenes where his face is being smashed. I love that. There’s a story. We’d rehearsed a fight with twelve Orcs and I ended up smashing myself in the face with my shield and my bottom tooth went through my cheek. My face swelled up and blood poured down and they were trying to put ice on it.
Andy Serkis came in with a mirror and I thought OMG look at this, that looks brilliant, that’s absolutely in the film. He ended up taking close-ups because it would have taken a long time to create it, and I was like “Yup, shoot it. Carry on!” I love being grungy and dirty.
M&C: You seem like a down to earth person. Are you ready for the fame The Hobbit’s going to bring you?
Armitage: How do I get ready? Tell me. I don’t know. It’s not something I ever thought about I do the work that I do. I can still ride the subway. I don’t think I particularly look like (Thorin). I just hope people enjoy the film. If I get recognized in the street, fingers crossed they might come up and say “You did a good job”. If they start throwing tomatoes at me, then I’ll be in trouble. They won’t even notice me.
M&C: How did you feel entering the set of The Hobbit the first time?
Armitage: My first day I wasn’t actually filming but I had to stand in front of company, cast and crew and line of Maori who were blessing the film set. I was more terrified of that than filming. You get onset and there are 200 people and behind the curtain there are 200 more people on computers. It’s lovely.
When you actually get to the nucleus, it’s just you and Peter and he keeps it so imitate and personal that your get inside the character, especially if you’re playing a character with status, and I was. You’re just inside the character.
It was important to walk onset with the belief that this character was potentially a king. So I tried to remember that. I did have to walk onset 24 hours earlier because I knew I would be slightly mesmerized and I can’t be thinking this when I’m working.
You step on the set and look at Ian McKellar and there is Gandalf and you think to yourself “There is Gandalf and I’m walking into Middle Earth”. So it’s so stimulating to the imagination. You’re given your character because stepping into that world is like walking into the movie.
Sometimes I was brought to set without the wig on and I remember hating it and wearing a hoodie because I just didn’t want him to be humiliated in front of the crew. I wanted them to believe that when they came on the set they felt a change in the atmosphere. It’s like I didn’t want them to see half a suit underneath because that’s felt naked.
I was really protected. It sounds stupid. I could always gauge it. I used to cycle into the studio and most of the crew wouldn’t speak to me. It took a long time to go “Ah that’s the guy who came down on a bike”.
M&C: Thorin was antagonistic towards Gandalf. How tough was that as a fan of McKellen and the character?
Armitage: 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!” 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. 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.
M&C: So much fighting! What was it like as Thorin, a mighty warrior now 60?
Armitage: We all carried very specific weapons so the fighting was very stylized around what weapon you’re using. I worked very closely with circuit training with stunt team, it was intense, we worked out what his strengths and weaknesses were the weight he carries, I had to strengthen my back and arms.
The best warriors on the battlefield were the oldest men. We see young men as better, but when they designed the Oakenshield, it was something I had in my head. I got this idea of literally having an open shield so I drew it for him and they came up with this design. It’s the same piece of branch he used to defend himself years earlier and it’s hardened with age.
The older warriors just get tougher with age, they slow down but they become more efficient. That was my way of dealing with (Thorin) being a sixty year old guy. It would be possible to fight and be a King, that’s why they cast a forty year old.
M&C: Where there any props or costume elements you got to keep?
Armitage: 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.
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