Richard Armitage Talks Dwarf Humor, Script Changes During Production, Parallels Between Thorin and Frodo’s Journeys, and More on the Set of THE HOBBIT

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As Thorin Oakenshield, the leader of the company of dwarves that accompany Bilbo on his journey, Richard Armitage has a huge part in Peter Jackson‘s The Hobbit.  Thankfully, if you’ve seen the trailers, you know that he not only looks the part, but he can lead a group of dwarves in song.  While I don’t know about the rest of you, right after I heard the group singing in the first trailer, I was completely sold on all the casting.

Cut to a few days after the trailer premiered.

In the middle of May, earlier this year, I got to visit the set of The Hobbit with a few other online reporters when the production was filming in New Zealand.  Shortly after he wrapped filming that day, Richard Armitage saw down with us for a group interview.  He talked about how he got cast, his character, his reaction to the first trailer and filming in Bag End, Thorin’s relationship with Gandalf, filming in 3D and in 48fps, the humor, and so much more.  Hit the jump for what he had to say.

richard-armitage-the-hobbitRICHARD ARMITAGE: I had a go with the beard today, having my own beard, ’cause there’s a lot of beard-wrangling to do.

Question: Do you normally have a much longer beard?

ARMITAGE: No, this is it.

So you’re the lucky one out of the cast.

ARMITAGE: Yeah, I guess once we’d decided what the beard was going to be like, I realized I could probably grow it myself. Because we started with a stick-on beard which was this kind of length. When it comes to the action stuff, and especially water and any kind of battle cry, it just starts to lift, and there’s much less fuss with this. And it looks better, I think.

Talk a little bit about– Was this a role that you went after? Did it come after you?

ARMITAGE: No, it absolutely came to me. I didn’t really– I knew The Hobbit was being made, but I would never have connected myself with a dwarf. So, yeah, I didn’t really ever vie that it would happen, because I figured that why would they want a six-foot-two guy to play a dwarf. And even through the early days of rehearsal and shooting, I didn’t really unpack my bag for about three weeks, ’cause I thought that I was going to be on the plane going home. But yeah, it’s worked out all right.

So how tall is your character as a dwarf?

ARMITAGE: The real height of Thorin is five-foot-two, so actually he’s not really that short. I think most five-foot-two people would be quite offended if they were to be called dwarves.

the-hobbit-richard-armitageYeah, so five-foot-two. And I think I’m sort of– They put lifts in my shoes because they wanted Thorin to be half an inch taller than Dwalin, so actually they made me slightly taller. But what’s really crazy about it is that when you’ve got all the gear on, the padding, the costume, you feel bigger than your real self, so mentally, I’ve been walking around for the last year as a bigger version of– It’s like a giant version of yourself, and then they shrink it down. But it’s not until you see it shrunk down that you think, actually– Yeah, it’s just a connection that you make in your head, ’cause you’re bigger than everyone, and heavier. But I think that’s not a bad thing, that we haven’t been playing small people.

That’s probably how the dwarves think of themselves.

ARMITAGE: Yeah, exactly. And when you see the way that they’ve got their kingdoms, they have this inflated– They’re compensated for the fact that they are a secret forbidden race that was nearly destroyed. And the Elves have their privileged existence, this almost spiritual existence, and the dwarves have to really fight for their place. And so they do it by aggrandizing their environment. So that’s been interesting.

You’re the one dwarf of this cast, that’s had– In Spooks for three years, you’ve had plenty of action practice. Did that come into play at all?

ARMITAGE: Sorry, say that again.

the-hobbit-an-unexpected-journey-dwarvesIn the Spooks series, they did all this action stuff, and you’re the one member of the dwarves that’s done that for a fairly long time. Did that come into play at all?

ARMITAGE: You mean in terms of getting cast? Or just– Yeah, I think the first time I really felt like I was inhabiting the character was when I fought as Thorin. That’s when I felt like I knew who he was. And it took a while, we didn’t really get moving until four-five weeks in, and I figured that was because we’d prepared him as a warrior more than anything else. It’s quite interesting if you don’t consider them to be– We were talking about this today, that human beings that are short, and are termed dwarves, they’re human beings. These are a different race, there’s nothing human about them. And actually, as they grow older, they grow tougher and stronger. So that’s why you get an army of dwarves, the most experienced fighters on the battlefield will be the oldest. So in a way, The Oakenshield represents that. It’s like an old piece of wood that’s grown hard with age. So, yeah, all of the fight skills have been really useful. But because I play the character younger as well, deciding how to portray that, the fight style has been a way of doing that. So when he’s a younger dwarf, he fights in a completely different way to when he’s older. He’s much more crazy and berserk, and as he’s got older, it becomes more efficient, so he doesn’t waste any energy. It’s a very heavy, disciplined way of fighting. So, yeah, the fighting has been a big character-building thing.

In addition to being the leader of the dwarves, Thorin does have a darker side to him, and I’m curious– I was wondering of you could talk a bit about playing that angle?

the-hobbit-an-unexpected-journey-martin-freemanARMITAGE: Yeah, I think knowing that his father and his grandfather have been touched by this dragon sickness which doesn’t necessarily affect all dwarves, but some dwarves are susceptible to it. It’s this attraction to gold which becomes their downfall, has always been at the back of his mind. And I think the burden of taking his people back to their homeland, which is so massive, makes him a lonely figure, I think. Knowing that his grandfather failed, and his father failed, so if he doesn’t do it, there’s no other member of his line that will ever do this. So he will continue through history as the king that failed to achieve the potential for his people. That’s something, again, which is a huge burden to carry. And I think that’s what drives him, but it’s also the thing that he fears, that he will fail. And there’s many opportunities for him to fail on this quest. But we haven’t really got into the mountain yet, and had to play around with the dragon sickness, but I think it’s going to be very interesting. I’ve looked at all sorts of different– I’ve looked at drug addiction, and along those lines, so that it actually has a physical effect on him, his mind and his body. But I think because he’s been a very heavy, melancholic character, I think the gold is going to change that, and it’s going to sort of bring him to life and make him the king that he should be, and more vibrant. But it comes at a price, I think.

We certainly see that theme in the Lord of The Rings movie, with Frodo as the Ring-bearer. Are we going to see any parallels between Thorin and Frodo’s journey?

the-hobbit-image-martin-freemanARMITAGE: Actually, that’s interesting, I hadn’t thought about that. I suppose, yeah, I think there is a parallel there. I think there’s also parallels with– There’s a few characters in Rings that are disenfranchised and are trying to reclaim what is rightfully theirs. Maybe Thorin is a little bit more mercenary about that. The Arkenstone is certainly something which he covets and craves. And he knows that without that gem, he can never truly be king. So that takes on a real significance, like a talisman that he obsesses over in a similar way to the Ring. But he doesn’t really carry that through the story with him, it’s just something that he’s going towards. But, yeah, there have been moments of taking him out of the present, sort of projecting his mind into the future, but also into the past, because of the trauma of the dragon coming to the mountain, he carries that with him as well. And there aren’t many on the quest that have seen Erebor, and experienced that holocaust that happened. So he has all of this inside of him.

Could you talk a little bit about filming in Bag End, and that song? And also, what was your reaction to seeing it in the trailer?

the-hobbit-an-unexpected-journey-ian-mckellanARMITAGE: My reaction? I only saw it about two days ago, ’cause I was about to go do some ADR, and I haven’t really seen anything. And I want to re-record it actually, because I feel differently about the character now than I did at the beginning. It’s weird, Bag End was the first week of shooting for this character, for me and for the other dwarves as well, and it feels so different. But it was good that it felt awkward. It felt like they were out of place, because they are in that environment. Dwarves don’t belong in a cozy, domestic situation. They belong in giant halls and on a battlefield. And so, to be in a kind of cottage-y, strange place, it was all very useful, the aggravation at being brought here to take this little strange person on a quest, which is monumental to them. This little fellow that he’s being forced to take on board is such a big frustration. So that was my experience of Bag End.

Are you saying that he’s been forced to take Bilbo on? When you look at the original story, it just seems like, “Well, we need a burglar”, and Gandalf just says, “This guy”. What does Thorin– Does he question Gandalf about, “Why this guy? Why are we– Why a hobbit?”

the-hobbit-an-unexpected-journey-martin-freemanARMITAGE: Yeah, it’s something which– They’ve used a lot of the appendix in Lord of The Rings. I think there’s two versions of this chance meeting between Thorin and Gandalf which happens prior to this story, which I’ve certainly used. We’ve discussed The Hobbit, and why we need to take him. But in terms of this story, it does unfold as we go along that we need a hobbit to go in to try and find the Arkenstone. Because the dragon will not recognize the smell of a hobbit, whereas he knows very well the smell of a dwarf. And there’s a possibility that they may be lighter on their feet, and more able to get in there. But it’s kind of a loose project for Thorin to accept, I don’t think he’s ever bought that. I think he needs Gandalf to go on the quest, and if Gandalf says they’ve got to take this hobbit, then fair enough. ‘Cause he can’t really do it without him, because Gandalf has the map and the key, and he’s kind of hoodwinked into doing it. But all the way along, there is this antagonistic relationship between Thorin and Gandalf. I think Thorin is trying to prove that Gandalf isn’t correct, and most of his assumption is that he’s trying to usurp his leadership. When Gandalf isn’t there, Thorin really becomes a leader, and when he turns up, he has to be subservient, and it’s not something that he likes at all.

Were you surprised that they offered you Thorin? Because the way that he’s normally portrayed, even though you’re playing a younger version of the character, he still always seems much, much older in drawings and stuff like that. You’re a younger man, so were you surprised that they went with that take on–

ARMITAGE: Yeah, I was. In the book, when Thorin calls Gandalf– I think he calls him ‘Master Wizard’ or something. He uses a term which suggests that Thorin’s even older than Gandalf, which is crazy. But yeah, it did– We played around with making him move much more slowly and speak differently. But actually, if you want that kind of character, then you cast an older man. But I think they needed him to be, and we– Well, I needed him to be heroic on the battlefield and somebody that still has a potential to rise to that state of brilliance on a battlefield, even though it’s like– He’s like a flame that’s fluttering, and has nearly been extinguished, but it has the potential to re-ignite. It’s like a dying flame when you first meet him, but he still has to be a flame. It’s something I’ve struggled with in creating the role, but then you get on with it.

Could you talk a little bit about when you first got to set that first day. Were you a fan of the Lord of the Rings movies? And what was it like for you, stepping into this world?

ARMITAGE: Yeah, there were quite a few pinch-yourself moments. Standing in Bag End, looking into Ian’s eyes and thinking, feeling like– I haven’t had that before, where you feel like you’re in a film, well, not really in a film, but actually in the world of the Rings films. It certainly helped the character, because you look at him, and he is the character, and he looks back at you as the character, and in a way, he gives you the character. But yeah, the whole film has been a bit like that. Every place we’ve arrived, it’s been– You don’t really have to do much work, like today, you don’t have to do much work. You sit in a barrel and get thrown around. Pete’s brilliant at explaining what he’s going to create around these moments, so you’re never in any doubt as to how vast the world is becoming.

The other dwarves were telling us that today was probably their most enjoyable.  Is it the same for you, or are there other days in the shoot that have been–

martin-freeman-the-hobbitARMITAGE: Most of the location shoot was– Yeah, you leap out of bed every morning and get to the top of a mountain. We had a few days like that where it just takes your breath away. Today is about just having fun, no dialogue.

You guys are pushing the boundaries of technology with the forty-eight frames a second, shooting on the Red Epic, and in 3D. Could you talk about your take on the forty-eight frames per second, and also your thoughts on 3D?

ARMITAGE: I’m not a massive fan of 3D. I’ve seen some good 3D, and I’ve seen quite a lot of bad 3D. I think if a film is created for the shock effect of 3D, then it’s a certain type of film that I’m not massively bothered about. But I think this film hasn’t been choreographed around things leaping out at the camera. It’s about texture, and showing Middle Earth in a way that is tangible, so that you feel like you’re really in there. And there’s so much of the world, like Mirkwood, and every opportunity there is to develop and enhance the natural world is taken. But also, I think, in terms of the fantasy creatures, I think at forty-eight frames a second, they sit much more comfortably with real characters. So real actors and created characters, I think that gap between them is lessened, from what I can gather. I haven’t seen a lot of it myself. I’ve seen a couple of shots, helicopter shots and the detail’s phenomenal. I think the motion blur during action sequences is gone. So I’m just fascinated to see this huge shift in cinema, this big step forward that’s inevitable. There is no stopping it, it’s going to happen, and it’s pushing the boundaries of the cinema experience. 3D sound is already in development. And I think that the cinemas have to give something which you can’t get anywhere else, other than in that cinema, and maybe this film’s going to be something that breaks through that boundary.

hobbit-an-unexpected-journeyIt sounds like, at least from piecing together from what the other actors have said that the Dwarves’ journey, it’s less about just getting gold, so much as it is reclaiming their homeland. Is that a correct assumption?

ARMITAGE: Yeah, I think so. I think the Dwarves by nature are greedy and stubborn, and they covet gold, there’s no getting away from it. They don’t see that as a bad thing. You have to remove your human sentiment when it comes to greed and the accumulation of wealth. They see it as a very positive thing. But this particular group of dwarves, only thirteen of them have come out on this quest. Everyone else turned their backs and said, “No, no, no, leave it alone. Stay away from that mountain.” So it really is about thirteen survivors that are going to attempt to do something which people have dissuaded other dwarves from doing. And so there is a sort of spirit of conquest in the dwarves. But as I say, we haven’t actually– We’ve done a few chase sequences around the mountain, but we haven’t actually got to the point yet where we really see the gold and start touching it and owning it. So it’s going to be interesting to see how that divides this very tight unit of questers.

An interesting spin on that in that it was almost more like a nationalistic sort of freedom fighter thing, not necessarily treasure-hunting.

ian-mckellan-hugo-weaving-the-hobbit-an-unexpected-journeyARMITAGE: Yeah. I, personally, from Thorin’s point of view, I think he’s thinking less about the gold and more about his people and his own personal agenda with his grandfather, his father, and his nemesis Azog who slaughtered his grandfather. And also the dragon Smaug, he has this personal relationship with Smaug who came and– I’ve used Hiroshima, actually, as an inspiration for that kind of devastation that drove them away from their homeland. So yeah, that’s been Thorin’s driving force.

Can you talk a little bit about the tone of the film? Because we obviously know that The Hobbit takes place in a different time and era in the universe. How are you guys– Are you guys having a lot of humor? Is it– Can you talk about the seriousness versus the humor?

ARMITAGE: Yeah, there is a lot of humor. Dwarves are quite strange little creatures. They’re rude, greedy. I’ve looked for Thorin’s humor, it’s quite hard to find. He doesn’t have a lot to laugh about. But it’s all about the camaraderie. The only place where they’re ever truly relaxed is in Bag End, before the quest starts. And as soon as it starts, there really haven’t been many moments of relaxation where they can kick back and have a laugh. But yeah, they manage to find these extraordinary circumstances where there is this sparkle of humor. Dwalin and Thorin are kind of best buddies, and there’s a sense of camaraderie between them. And on the battlefield, they back each other up, and there’s this one-upmanship in terms of their fight skill. So yeah, humor plays a lot into it, but not necessarily for my character.

martin-freeman-the-hobbit-an-unexpected-journeyOne of the things about the Lord of The Rings films– I call it the ‘holy shit’ moment, where they have– Legolas has some ‘holy shit’ moments, like sliding on the Oliphant. I’m just curious, with some of the action set pieces that you have in this film, do you have any moments that the audience are going to be like, “Oh, boy!”?

ARMITAGE: Yeah, I’m sure there are going to be. There’s a couple of– I think it’s mainly fight moments, I don’t quite know what Pete’s got in store for– We’ve sprinted through flames. They set fire to K-Stage, and I did a slow motion sprint through the forest which was on fire. And they were dousing the stunt guy with the flame retardant gel. And then he stood and watched me do it, at which I had a ‘holy shit’ moment. I was like, “You’re not going to put any of that on me.” But that was kind of cool. I’m just trying to think– I guess when the dwarves emerge from the mountain in their armor, that’s kind of– You’re talking stunts, aren’t you?

I’m just talking in general.

ARMITAGE: Yeah, I don’t know yet.

Is there any extra worry, running through that fire with all the long hair flying behind you?

richard-armitage-the-hobbit-thorin-oakenshield.ARMITAGE: Do you know what? If it catches fire though, someone will run in and throw a bucket of water over me. You’ve just got to do it. It was a good day, we’ve had a few good days like that, when you see what they’re going to do, and they practice it on the stunt guy, and then you get to step in and do it. I think we did something the other day on a rig where I was in the mouth of a Warg, being shaken around. Pete always wants to push it further, so it got to the point where I was being severely shaken around, but you watch playback, and at a hundred-and-twenty frames a second, it looks fantastic, so you think, “Okay, get me back in there and do it again. Shake me harder.” So yeah, I always wanted to do more.

How much does the whole get-up weigh? Like, with the armor and everything.

ARMITAGE: I think I carry– At my heaviest, I’ve carried an extra thirty kilos on top of my own, so it’s about a quarter of my own body weight on top of what I already have. Yeah, it’s been tough, but the only downside of it is you’re hot and you’re tired, but because everything’s bigger, your movement is kind of reduced. So you watch playback and you think, “I know I’m working hard, but it doesn’t look like I’m working hard enough. So you have to put extra effort in to make it look really dynamic. And then they shrink you down and it looks even smaller, so I don’t know. It’s been an ongoing challenge.

I’m curious, when you sign on, you get the script, and then often it changes while on set. How much have things changed for you and the film while you guys have been filming this thing? Have you been getting pages the night before?

ARMITAGE: Yeah, the script has probably– I don’t think there’s a single page left in the script that hasn’t changed. But all of the changes have been as a result of the process of filming, and you realize how the characters are going to develop, and how the characters speak. And that’s what I love about Philippa and Fran and Pete, the way they write is that they start to hear your voice, and they write for you, and they write for all of those characters. So the script has to change from where they started. And of course, all of the action sequences just develop, and you get a stage direction. And Pete will always do something that you don’t expect when you walk onto set, and he’ll say, “I’ve had to think about this moment”, and it’s always better than what’s on the page. So as much as it’s frustrating to get your dialogue the night before, it’s always brilliant, it’s always better. And you sit up till four in the morning learning it, and you come and do it the next day, and it’s a gift.

the-hobbit-an-unexpected-journey-posterHave you been directed by Andy Serkis in second unit? What’s he like?

ARMITAGE: Yeah, he’s brilliant. He knows Pete’s vision, he has a great rapport with him and the other actors. And because he’s also been in the film, he totally understands the process that we’re going through. We did some fighting, which was basically part of a prologue of when the dwarves take the gates of Moria, and it was a great day walking onto second unit, and he had Orcs on this mound and he was rallying them to start this battle cry, and wind machines going, and blood everywhere. It was a really good day. It’s great to walk into that energy, and he really creates great energy on set. The only difficulty is that Pete wants to direct both units, so you have to wait for Pete’s approval, which is amazing, ’cause he will not let a single shot go. He wants to see everything. I think I put a shield through my lip and I smashed the shield in and had a mouthful of blood and this big, huge broken lip, and he said, “Okay, can you just try another one now?” I’m like, “Yeah, okay”, with this big mouthful of blood. But it looks great on the shot, because I’ve got this sort of bleeding teeth and it’s dripping out of my face. Tami Lane will get a big applause for that.

So that’s one of the ‘holy shit’ moments?

ARMITAGE: That’s, maybe, a ‘holy shit’ moment, swallowing my own teeth.

For the people that are here on Friday, and have a few extra hours, is there one or two things in Wellington that you would recommend that we have to go see or do?

ARMITAGE: Te Papa Museum is brilliant, There’s a few good bars I can tell you about. Mighty Mighty is a good bar. Matterhorn’s a good bar. Is that what you mean? Yeah, go to Te Papa. Te Papa is really good.

Do you get recognized walking around town and stuff? No? Are you prepared to get recognized walking around a few months from now?

ARMITAGE: With the beard off? It’s interesting, ’cause that character really doesn’t look anything like me, so it’s kind of nice. It will be good.

Here is more from my Hobbit set visit:




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