When Empire first catches up with Richard Armitage, he’s in Detroit shooting an as-yet-untitled tornado movie. With The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey about to plaster his face across billboards the world over, it’s trite yet irresistible to think that he’s simply moved from one cyclone to another. This is before his character, the initially irascible but increasingly generous Thorin Oakenshield, even has to endure wargs, goblins, pale orcs and a certain wyrm with a penchant for bling. You’ve heard from the rest of the company, now read on to hear from the leader of the gang.
Tell us about Thorin…
Well, as people will know from the book, he’s the leader of the dwarves, a king who is on a mission to reclaim his kingdom. But Tolkien really wrote him as quite a cantankerous and bad-tempered being, and we’re trying to just soften the edges of that — there is going to be a point where he goes into meltdown in the second film. I’m trying to keep him as well-rounded as I can, so that you don’t just roll your eyes every time he opens his mouth because he’s got something bad-tempered to say. I’m really trying to find his sense of humour, despite the fact there’s quite a big weight on his shoulders.
Does that make him the Aragorn of this trilogy?
Certainly in terms of kingship, in terms of re-finding his kingdom, and that journey is an important one. I’m trying to make it benevolent, so that it becomes about doing it for his people rather than a selfish mission, but it ultimately becomes selfish. It’s good fun to sort of know what the character is and then try and find other elements to make him full.
Were you always going to be Thorin?
I’d read this book over and over and over as a kid. Then I got into The Lord Of The Rings as an adult, but sadly I was never in a position to even be considered for that trilogy. It was when Peter took the reigns again after Guillermo that I met him in London; at the time I was engaged for another production for Sky (Strike Back). So I came in to talk to them about maybe doing another character with a smaller role and less commitment. They had everyone read the same character and then it sort of disappeared and I thought, “Well, it was nice to meet them,” and started to proceed with the other job. Then they did a press release to say it was all happening, and I got a call saying, “Could you just hold off from that job?” To be honest, there’s nothing that would have stopped me from doing Thorin. If I never do another piece of work again after this, I think I’ll be happy, genuinely happy. It feels like an arrival.
Is that simply because of the book? Or because of Peter Jackson?
Both. It’s the fact that it is Peter Jackson and he’s picking up Tolkien and doing what everybody wants to be done with it. It’s his vision, and it’s so close, so close to my vision. The fact he’s using all the same team again, he’s got (concept artists) John Howe and Alan Lee, you can’t break with that, that amazing tradition. It’s all of those things.
How easy was it to get over stopping to gawp at all the amazing sets?
It’s weird. I did try to kind of come on set in character, even though it was sort of a halfway house. You can have a conversation with somebody, like this, but you’re still mentally the character. When I’m not in the costume, then I’m marvelling at the sets. On our first week, I felt so uncomfortable and I couldn’t work out what it was. I was going home beating myself up thinking, “It’s this part, I don’t think I can play it.” Then I suddenly realised, it was because they had put these Viking warriors, these dwarves, effectively in the suburban environment of Hobbiton where they just felt out of their comfort zone — they didn’t fit in there, they were clumsy, they were bumping into the furniture — and I thought, “That’s what it is.” The same with Rivendell — when the dwarves arrive in Rivendell it stinks of elf.
How do you sum up the experience so far?
I’ve loved it — you leap out of bed in the morning. I know that sounds really corny, but you do. You constantly sort of pinch yourself: “I can’t believe I’m standing in front of Hugo Weaving, in front of Elrond, and he’s telling me the secrets of this iconic map.” I learned how, in one of the drafts of the book, Tolkien wanted the moon runes to be actually written in, printed into the ink, and they couldn’t afford it. But just seeing the map for real and going, “Oh my God, I’m holding it, I’m holding it.” It was quite nice that I’m bringing a little bit of that wonder and magic to the character…
Do you feel a difference from The Lord Of The Rings?
I think Pete has done for the dwarves what he did for the elves in The Lord Of The Rings, he’s very much focused on them. The Hobbit looks very much at the world through the eyes of the dwarves, with, I suppose, a little more energy and a little more comedy. The dwarves live a bit more, I don’t know, working-class — especially our dwarves.
How has the swordfighting gone?
It was a constant challenge and you could never quite be as fit as you’d like to be. I was in the gym every day trying to strengthen my wrist, because it was a really heavy sword — it has the name Orcrist — and there was what I called the ‘show sword’, which was like a heavy-weight glamorous thing I could barely lift. It was good for holding, and literally holding for, like, 20 seconds. Then there was a slightly lighter-weight aluminium version, which I really enjoyed.
How did you find the dwarven propensity for breaking into song?
Oh, the singing was great fun, and they are great songs. Although I’m not going to win any opera awards soon.
Do you think small?
In real terms Thorin is the same height as Daniel Radcliffe, but he’s tall for a dwarf. It said in the stage directions, “Thorin enters, he is a dwarf, he is tall for a dwarf. He’s 5’ 3”.” About the same as Al Pacino. I always figured that dwarves would never have considered themselves to be short, because they are pretty much an isolated nation. They live underground, they grow up underground, so they don’t consider themselves short — it’s the rest of the world that’s tall. I’m actually mentally thinking of them as being very, very big and very powerful. So I’m kind of letting Peter really work magic with the height thing. Although, it is quite nice for me, as a tall person, to play everything up to Gandalf and Elrond, because I’m usually above the conversation looking down. It’s a real novelty.
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