Did you draw upon any real-life examples to portray “dragon sickness”?
The film was greenlit in 2011, so in 2008 the whole crash happened. You don’t use direct examples but it was certainly in my head. When it came to studying insanity, [J.R.R.] Tolkien just called it dragon sickness and didn’t describe it in great detail, so is it a physical ailment? Is it a mental ailment? Is it both? I wanted it to feel like he was inconsistent, unpredictable. Sometimes the dragon sickness would enliven him like a drug does, and you’d see him more vibrant than you’d ever seen him before, and then a real comedown.
Is it liberating to let him become unhinged?
It is, and you do all of your serious research and you start looking at the reality of insanity and you think, okay, I’ve got to play this in a fantasy film so it’s got to be something which isn’t alienating. In a weird way it’s got to be entertaining to watch him fall, so that we can call him back. As an audience we need to be shouting, “Wake up!”
Have you ever been on that precipice and felt the lure of wealth or power?
I never really have. I come from very conservative parents and we weren’t particularly wealthy, but we were comfortable. In terms of my career, I’ve never made any decision so far based on finance. I didn’t become an actor because I thought I’d make lots of money. I’ve never taken a job because it would pay any kind of money — sometimes as an actor you work for no money at all. I’m not interested in building wealth, which is kind of naive and probably frowned on, living in America. It’s something that people don’t necessarily understand, but if I die poor, I die poor.
Thorin’s fate and actions are so closely linked to his father and grandfather. Is there a thread that connects you to your father and grandfather?
Totally. I think it’s one of those things that everybody has. It’s not that you want to better your parents but you want to take the baton from them and cross the finishing line. But there’s a point in your life when you realize, “I have to pass the baton now. No one ever finishes this race.” But I also feel that my parents looked at me and went, “We want him to have more than we had.” I certainly know that my father had a relatively poor upbringing and worked very, very hard throughout his life. I don’t necessarily think he enjoyed his job so one of the things I decided when I was very young was, “I’m going to do a job that I leap out of bed for in the morning.” That was my primary reason for choosing this art form. I’m sure it gave my parents a big headache of worry, but it was nice to take them to the premiere in London [of “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies”] and say “we did it.”
What did your father say after watching the premiere?
My father doesn’t express himself in words very much, but I could hear him sniffing as the film was drawing to its close. I could hear him emotionally moved from it. When I wanted to go to a vocational school to study singing and dance and drama, my mom went out to work and took a job, and every single penny of her income went toward my schooling. To take them to the premiere was nice for me to say, “this is what it was all for.”
Do you have siblings?
I do, I have an older brother. He works a 9-to-5 job with motor vehicles. There’s a little nephew who wants to be an actor. He’s 10. He’s sort of the opposite of me. He’s very gregarious and he’s a real entertainer, whereas I’m not at all.
How does your brother feel about his son wanting to become an actor?
We don’t say anything but he just looks at me with a kind of “I wonder if he’ll grow out of this” look and I look back at him thinking, probably not.