Richard Armitage is a lucky boy; or so he says. I think those of us who had the chance to hear what he had to say at interviews this week were the lucky ones; there are few interviewees who are as erudite and as interesting as this thoughtful actor. I already posted my ‘one on one’ interview with him, which you can read here; below is the longer, ‘round table’ group interview which took place later that afternoon. Once again, Armitage was charm itself, giving each questioner his undivided attention, and each comment his full consideration. The half hour chat was filled with fascinating insights – revealing more about how he works; what it’s like to act with Sir Ian McKellen; how they came up with the design of the oakenshield; where we might see a glimpse of Guillermo del Toro’s influence in The Hobbit movie; and even when Armitage himself thinks he looks his best!
I’ve indicated the questions your TORn interviewer asked with ‘GD’ – the rest were asked by my colleagues at the session. The interview contains a minor spoiler. Enjoy!
Q. What did you like most about playing Thorin in the film?
RA: I really liked learning to fight in a specific way. I liked using that sword. Because it’s shaped in the way that it is, it has a motion of it’s own, and it’s very hard to control, and once you’ve got it moving it does its own thing; so that was interesting.
Q. What was it like going from a BBC miniseries to one of the biggest movie trilogies ever?
RA: A hell of a lot more money! But not in my paycheque… [laughs] Do you know what? I suppose, the amount of people who work on it, it feels bigger; but Peter makes it feel incredibly intimate. I guess the money that I’m talking about, jokingly, actually just buys you more time – so there was much more time to experiment with the character, which I think is why many actors crave working in film – because you get time to develop your character further. And there is time to push yourself further with the character – and I really felt that Peter allowed me to do that.
Q. Your first day on The Hobbit set – how overwhelming was it?
RA: My first day on the set, I wasn’t actually filming. I had to stand up in front of the entire company, cast, and crew, and speak Maori to a line of Maori! – who were giving us a Pōwhiri, which is like a welcoming ceremony to bless the soundstage. So I was more terrified of that than actually the filming. But you know – you get on set and there are 200 people, and then behind the curtain there are another 200 people on computers – so it’s bloody terrifying, but as I was saying, you know, when you actually get to the nucleus of Pete’s film set, it’s just you and him and another actor; and he keeps it so intimate and personal that you get through the fear. And then once you’re inside of the character – especially if you’re playing a character of relatively high status as I was – then you’re just inside the character. But it was important to me to walk on set … that the crew believed that this character was potentially a king, so I tried to protect that as much as I could.
Q. You play both the younger version and the older version of Thorin. How did you approach each age differently?
RA: I obviously started with older Thorin because we were going to see more of him; and also the younger Thorin didn’t appear till much later in the shoot, even though he’s first up in the movie. I always build a biography for the character, so I wrote a kind of story for Thorin, of where he’d come from as a young man and the experiences that he’d had at Erebor. But in terms of literally playing him, I wanted him to just move faster, and fight in a more inefficient way – I think as he’s grown older his fight style has become much more efficient, he knows what he’s doing on a battlefield. And I wanted his voice to sound lighter – and actually I wanted him to smile, because as an old man his burdens are so heavy, he doesn’t really crack a smile too often – so yeah, they were the things that I wanted.
GD: I read you were a fan of the Lord of the Rings movies before this; so when you found yourself on the Bag End set with Gandalf, was that a ‘fanboy’ kind of thrill for you?
RA: Yeah – I did actually have to walk on set before I was filming because I knew that I would be slightly mesmerised by everything. So I had a good sniff around for a couple of days, just picking up pens and looking at handcrafted paper and handwritten letters, because I’d be like, ‘I can’t be thinking this when I’m filming!’ But yeah, when that door opens and you step onto that set and you look at Ian McKellen, there is a moment of going, ‘OK cut, can we just do this again – coz that’s Gandalf and I’m walking into Middle-earth!’ But it’s so stimulating to the imagination, that you’re given your character; because, stepping into that world, it’s like you’re walking into the movie!
Q. Coming on to a set like this as the central focus, how did that compare with arriving on set at The Phantom Menace, as a much smaller cog in another big, also computer generated movie?
RA: The same fear! I remember on Phantom Menace having to attempt to cut Ewan Macgregor in half with a lightsaber … I didn’t understand what I was doing or what was happening. I was looking around going, ‘Where is the rest of the set? Have they not finished building it yet??’ So years later, I pretty much understood the filming process more clearly! But you know, going back to that idea – I really needed the crew to believe in my character. Sometimes we were called to set half way through the process of getting ready – so sometimes I was asked to go to set without the wig on – and I remember hating it, and wearing a hoodie – because I just didn’t want Thorin humiliated in front of the crew. I wanted them to believe that when the King walked onto the set, that they felt a change in the atmosphere. It’s like I didn’t want anyone seeing the dwarf suit underneath, coz that’s like Thorin being half naked – so I know it sounds stupid, but I was really protective of that. I could always gauge it because a lot of the time, leaving the set through the gates – I used to cycle to the studio – most of the crew didn’t speak to me because they didn’t recognise me. So it took a long time for them to go, ‘Ah! That’s the guy that comes in on a bike! That’s Thorin!’ Which I always took as a compliment.
Q. The original Lord of the Rings film set has been described by those who worked on it as a family environment. As a new person joining that group, was that family environment still there? What was it like walking into that situation?
RA: Absolutely, in every respect, from the very beginning. Even from when we met for the very first time, and they hadn’t given me the role – I was just auditioning. Part of that process of talking through the role was ‘You realise you’re going to have to come to NZ for two years?’ – and I remember saying to him, ‘What an awful offer that would be! How could I possibly do that?!’ [laughs] … But you know, from the beginning every family member that came – my family were invited to set, everyone’s family was there – if possible, Pete would dress them up in costume and put them on the set, so they were taking part in the film. People that came back from the Rings trilogy … it was like connecting blood vessels to those other films, so it was giving oxygen to our film. All I can say is, it fed us in every way that you can possibly think of. So yeah, there are people that I haven’t worked with that I feel that I have worked with, people like Cate Blanchett – I never, sadly, had a scene with her. I’m begging them to give me a scene with Galadriel! … But yeah, it was just incredible to have all of those people. And I think there was something in Peter, in the way that he draws in that loyalty, the way that those people come back to him again and again and again, that I just took a little bit of that and kept it for Thorin.
Q. I’m wondering if the timing of this film coming up is why you gave up MI:5 [Spooks]?
RA: No, I’d decided to leave the show to nothing. Three for me is the magic number and I’d done three series – and I thought, ‘You know what? If I stay I’ll be too comfortable.’ You know, I was enjoying the character … I said, “OK stop, let’s finish it there.” There was another series that I was involved with called Strike Back, which was sort of beginning another franchise which unfortunately I had to walk away from … But the prospect of sitting in a cinema and watching another actor play Thorin, when I’d been offered the role … sometimes that happens, sometimes you do have to walk away from roles and sometimes you can’t make it work with dates … but I couldn’t have lived with myself seeing someone else play it. I’d rather have given up my career for that. And actually I said to Pete when I got down there, “If this is the last piece of work I ever do, I’ll be a happy man; I’ll be a happy actor.” And I still feel that – if I never work again, I have had the most fulfilling experience any actor could ever have, with this role.
Q. It seems, from previous interviews, that you hate being regarded as a heartthrob – so I wondered if you were happy to accept a role where you got to be scraggly and bearded, with messy dreadlocks, and have this be your big, international debut?
RA: Do you know what? I’ve always said of myself, I look better in the dark and I look better dirty.
[Editorial: I’ll allow a pause here for those readers who need to recover from that sudden thought of a dirty Richard Armitage in the dark… OK, going on…]
And I think it’s true. It’s not about what you look like – it’s just the atmosphere that that creates. I think I’ve got a face that suits a half shadow, rather than full daylight! [laughs] And you know, whenever I play characters that are a bit grubby and grunty, it just feels better. Maybe it’s because I’m a Northerner, and I’m always meant to have my hands dirty! But part of the thrill of playing Thorin was this transformation that he was going to go through. There are scenes where his face is beaten up… I love that. There was a story actually – I was working on second unit with Andy Serkis, and we rehearsed a fight with twelve orcs … You rehearse it at the right level, and then they elevate everybody because we’re supposed to be shorter … and I ended up smashing myself in the face with a shield and putting my bottom tooth through my lip. My face swelled up and the blood was pouring down my face, and they were sort of trying to mop it up and put ice on it … and Andy came in with a mirror and went, ‘Look at this!’ And I was like, ‘Oh my god that looks brilliant!’ He said, ‘Do you want to carry on?’ and I was like, ‘Absolutely!’ It looked so good! And they ended up kind of taking close ups because it would have taken the makeup department a long time to create this – coz the blood was sort of moving down my face – so I was like, ‘Yeah, shoot it.’ I was like [puts tongue in lip, affects muffled voice], ‘Yuh sfhood id, cawwy on…’ So yeah, I love it – I like being grungy and dirty.
Q. Your relationship with Gandalf in the film is almost antagonistic. What was it like working with Ian Mckellen, and getting to explore that?
RA: Ian McKellen is just such a delightful man, whenever I had to be antagonistic or aggressive to him, there was always a pang of guilt inside me – that’s like ‘don’t be too rough on Gandalf!’ But that’s part of the thrill of acting – you have to push those buttons in him, in other characters. It’s fascinating how Ian works – because every take that he does is nuanced in a different way, that you can’t quite detect what he’s doing differently – there’s just something in his eyes. I really found that inspiring. He did something on the first day which I’ve never forgotten – and it’s all about status, and it’s something that every actor learns in drama school but noone ever applies, because it means being selfless – and Ian is a very selfless actor … When I walked in the door of Bag End, Gandalf – this monumental figure, for me – bowed his head to me, in reverence to Thorin Oakenshield, the legendary warrior. And I remember thinking, ‘God, he’s giving me my status’ – and from that point on, I thought, well if Gandalf’s given it to me then everyone else has to give it to me as well – and you don’t have to therefore play any kind of false weight or status, because he’s given it to you … and he completely understood that. And he looks after everyone he’s in a scene with, he absolutely looks after them. So it’s such a privilege to say that I’ve worked with him!
Q: The first of Peter Jackson’s production diaries showed the pōwhiri. Did other aspects of the Maori culture touch the production?
RA: Do you know, it took me about a week to learn that Maori, but that speech actually became part of my vocal work. Because I wanted to pitch my voice lower and create a resonance for the character, I built a program – I had a vocal warm up every morning. I used Shakespearean speeches to find certain things, but I also used that Maori speech every day, because I felt that there was something in that culture which was essential to the feeling of Middle-earth, the warrior. You know that thing that those Maori warriors do – there’s something that they use to ground them, you see it on the rugby field, what they do – and I wanted an essence of that in the character. So every morning – or I used to do it in the evenings before work the next day, because we were up at three o’clock, half three in the morning, so doing vocal work at half three in the morning is just not much fun – so I used to do it before I’d go to bed … but yeah, I used that speech.
[Having made it once round the circle, there was a pause whilst we all wondered if our time was up. We all looked round the clothing store where the interviews took place, to see if the PR folks were about to wrap things up.]
RA: [laughing] They’ve just gone. They’ve gone shopping – they’re at the check out!
[So we went round again…]
Q. You’ve played so many diverse roles, which part has been your favourite?
RA: Without a shadow of a doubt, this one. [Points at one of the many Hobbit displays around the place, showing Thorin.] I don’t think I’ve ever been challenged in a way that this role has challenged me. And I was saying earlier on, it’s like every job I’ve ever done has led to this moment; because I’ve been able to take something from every piece of work that I’ve done that has been useful for this role. So, I couldn’t surpass that. And every expectation that I’ve had, about myself, my own work, other people’s work, of working with the director, has been surpassed.
Q. Could you talk about your working relationship with Peter Jackson, and realising his vision for Thorin?
RA: Peter is a very, very gentle director. He’s very succinct and you don’t really know how he’s directing you. You don’t really know that you’re being directed, because he doesn’t point and shout and tell you where to stand; he kind of guides you down a certain road, and he often uses other actors to do it … so he’ll have a quiet conversation with somebody who then walks into the scene and does something to you, but you don’t know you’re being worked upon – and it’s actually Peter that’s just using his characters to draw you down the line. As a visionary, the way that he describes the world that you’re about to enter is like a child getting excited about something they’ve just seen or imagined, and then of course he has his concept artists, who show you pictures – so I don’t ever remember really seeing a greenscreen, because my head was filled with Pete’s dragon bursting through the door, that he’d just described to me – and so for some reason you see it. It’s crazy – his imagination is so vivid that you see it!
Q. Who is your favourite Lord of the Rings character?
RA: Grima Wormtongue. That’s my kind of role. Yeah – I think that slimy, grizzly little … you know, I love it. If I was in Rings, I’d want to play that role.
Q. What kind of physical training did you have to go through for your action scenes?
RA: We trained physically with a Canadian actually, called Terry Notary, who taught us to move and walk like a dwarf, run like a dwarf … but in terms of fighting we all carried very specific weapons, hammers, axes … so the fighting was very styled around whatever weapon you were using. I talked about Orcrist earlier on … but I worked very closely with my stunt double. We trained with each other. We did circuit training with the stunt team pretty much every day … not necessarily when we got into filming; but it was intense. We worked out what our strengths and weaknesses were. The weight we were carrying meant that I had to work hard to strengthen my back and my arms, to wield the weapons.
GD: When you were creating the backstory for Thorin, did you find a way to translate dwarf years into human years? It seems hard to relate his dwarf age and the point he has reached in his life to human terms…
RA: I did try to do that, but it’s sort of like trying to convert cash in a country that is prohibitively expensive. I stopped trying, because I just couldn’t imagine … he’s sort of about sixty in human years, but it doesn’t really make sense. The thing that I was really interested in is that dwarves get harder with age. The best warriors on the battlefield will be the oldest men, which is kind of at odds with how human beings are. We see our younger men as fitter. But I remember, when we designed the oakenshield, it was something that I had in my head before I went down to New Zealand … I remember being a bit nervous about it and saying to Pete, “Look, I’ve got this idea for literally having an oakenshield.” He said, “Well go and sketch it for me” – so I drew it for him and he said, “OK, I’ll send that to WETA and see what they do.” And they came up with this design … but I remember saying to him, “I think it’s the same piece of branch that he used at Azanulbizar to defend himself, and he’s kept it and it’s hardened with age. It’s become like iron.” And I think that represents dwarves – I think they just get tougher with age. They slow down, but they become more efficient, they become more stoical. So that was my way of dealing with the fact that I’m not a sixty year old guy … that actually it would be possible for this character to fight on the battlefield, and still have the potential to be a King. And I think that’s maybe why they cast a 40 year old … I know it was controversial, that people thought that I was too young to do it, but that was the way it was…
Q. Could you talk about the dynamic of working with Andy Serkis in second unit? And was there any residue of Guillermo del Toro’s touch on the project by the time you joined?
RA: Having Andy as Second Unit director was possibly one of Pete’s best decisions, because normally a second unit is about mopping up odd shots where people pick things up from tables; but Andy’s unit, it was as exciting to go and work on his unit as it was on Peter’s unit. It was as creative; and I think there are some incredible shots that remain in the film that are all Andy’s work. Also, his understanding of Middle-earth and being an actor only ever benefitted what we did – and he’s as relentless and ruthless as Peter is. He pushes actors – and actually he has no sympathy for when you’re tired – and that’s what you want, you want a director who’s like, ‘I don’t care how tired you are, we’ll do three more takes.’
I don’t know about the residue from del Toro because I never saw what was his and what wasn’t, and I think that’s right. I do suspect that there is a certain creature left in the film which is all del Toro – and I’ll leave that for you to decide – but I think it’s very, very evident. But it’s seamless, because you know, they have similar tastes.
Q. Working within a fantasy realm, you have so many choices about what you can do with a character; but at the same time, you’re playing a character who is very well known culturally, so you have to stay true to that. How do you balance that myriad of choices with keeping the fans and scholars happy?
RA: By always staying with the novel. I am one of those readers that read that book as a child, read it as an adult … I’m one of the fans that doesn’t want to see this character ruined by some idiot actor that thinks he knows better than Tolkien, so I always went back to Tolkien. I had the book with me throughout filming … if ever I got lost, I was always back in the book, so that’s the only way I could honour the character.
Q. Are you ready for the huge international awareness there is about to be of you, as an actor?
RA: Um – how do I get ready…? Tell me! I don’t know! It’s not something I’ve ever thought about. I just do the work that I do and I try to do it well. I still hope that I can ride a subway – I think I will. I don’t think I look particularly much like the guy in that picture … seriously, I don’t. I just hope that people enjoy the film, and maybe if I get recognised in the street, fingers crossed they might come up and say, ‘You did a good job!’ – that’s all I hope. If they start throwing tomatoes at me, then I’ll be in trouble.
[GD interjects – ‘You’re a lot taller in person!’]
RA: [laughing] I’m taller – exactly! Yeah they won’t even notice me…
Q. You’ve played soldiers before. How did the warfare in Middle-earth compare, and what’s it like to represent that kind of epic battle?
RA: Again, it goes back to Tolkien. Tolkien wrote this in 1937. He’d experienced World War I – he’d lost very, very close friends at the Somme … I think that his experience of war is what he writes about; his fear of stepping out of his door and facing extreme danger. I don’t know … I think that you just look at what’s happening with troops [now] and you’ve just got to … you can’t represent what’s happening now, but there’s a universal understanding of ordinary man being called upon to do that, and that’s what Tolkien writes about; and you just have to connect with it and understand it.
Q. How does it feel to be finally sharing this film with fans and audiences?
RA: Martin and I talked about this … because we both forgot that there’s actually going to be a film at the end of it! The experience was so epic, and so fulfilling, I don’t even think about the end product. The experience of making it was enough. And then, come Wellington and the premiere, it was like, ‘Oh yeah! We’ve got a film to watch! And look at all these hundreds of thousands of people who are going to watch it with us!’ It was a surprise! [laughs] So … but I’m really looking forward to 12th December when everyone gets to share it – because they’ll start to understand what we went through.
Q. Was there any prop or costume piece which you wanted to keep?
RA: Do you know, on the last day of shooting I was given Orcrist [pauses] … and the Oakenshield [pauses] … AND the key to the door [pauses, laughs] … AND the map. So yeah – I pretty much got the entire kit. I can go on that journey and … yeah. I got it all. I’m a lucky boy.