Richard Armitage and The Hobbit: "It’s mind blowing the things we did"
Indeed, Armitage speaks about his character – exiled dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield – with the vim and verve of a lifelong Tolkien fan. And a bookish one at that, as the actor delves into his love of research, and the copious notes he writes for himself; notes that extend to the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima. No wonder he hasn’t tired of talking about Thorin! In fact, he’s itching to say more, but we’ll have to wait for the next two installments of The Hobbit.
And in the meantime, unsurprisingly, he’d like you to go and read the book.
Ed. Note: During our chat with Richard, the charming fellow was delighted to hear that some of his fans had sent through some questions on Twitter. Unrestrained by 140 characters, here's our impromptu Twitter Q&A with fans.
So welcome back to Sydney! Will you organise a Star Wars reunion while you’re here?God I don’t know. They shot one of the Star Wars [films] here didn’t they? I think there would be about a million people at that reunion.
But hang on, didn’t you have an uncredited role on The Phantom Menace?
I did. I did. I did two weeks on [The Phantom Menace] and I still can’t find myself in the film. I’ve hunted, [but] I think I ended up as a computer graphic.
I know. But yeah I’d like to come and work here.
The last time we chatted was on the 500 meter long red carpet in Wellington for the world premiere of The Hobbit.
Oh you were on the red carpet as well? Awesome! Were you in a big long dress?
I was fortunately not in a big long dress. I would have melted!
[Laughs] It was so hot, wasn’t it!
So how has the world changed for you since that auspicious day?
Well it hasn’t really, which is great. There’s been a great response to the film, [but] what’s been really interesting is [Wellington] was the first leg of our press tour. And then going out to Tokyo and all of the other great places – we went to New York, London – just seeing the reception from the fans and seeing the excitement, and realising that it’s the beginning of a three year tour really, for the three films. It’s such a great global reach. It’s one of fifteen films to make a billion [dollars] at the box office, and for me it’s not about the dollar sign in front of it, it’s about how many people have gone to see it, and how many languages it’s been translated into. Which is to me exciting because that book [The Hobbit] was translated into as many languages. And I hope people go and pick up the book after seeing the film. I really do.
Yes, go enjoy the source material.
What’s the most exciting language you’ve heard Thorin speak?
I haven’t seen it in any other language, yet, but I’d love to see a Russian Thorin. Because actually when I was doing all my research and I was looking for a voice to sort of get me into the mood for the Misty Mountain Song, I listened to a lot of Russian Orthodox Church music – the basses. So I’d love to hear Thorin in Russian, I think he’d be…fierce.
I understand you have a musical theatre background. Did that also help you in that singing scene?
Yeah it did. But when I came in I didn’t realise I’d be singing. I knew that Tolkien had written a lot of songs in the book. And I did The Hobbit on stage when I was a kid, and it was sort of a musical, so I was really pleased that they managed to keep some of that great spirit of Tolkien in the movie, I think it was really important.There’s adulation around the film, but what do you say to the naysayers? What about those who baulk at the (high frame rate) 48 frames per second?
Well…go see it in 24 frames per second! [Laughs] That’s the thing I loved about [the film], Pete’s trying to push the boundaries of cinemas: he wants an event that people are going to see in the cinema, but at the same time he is offering – and Warner Bros are offering – so many different ways to see this film, [there’s] choice. And now it’s on DVD, so you’re not going to see it 48 frames on DVD, but you can see it in 3D if you want, if you have a 3D TV. And I think that choice is great.
I personally don’t like 3D in general for anything – I don’t like wearing glasses – but I went to see it in IMAX and it didn’t have the 48 frames, and I wanted it back! It was like ‘the clarity of this image’ [is lacking] – particularly for the fight scenes. But yeah it’s just about choice and taste, so if you don’t like it, go and see it in a different form.
And what about those too say the film takes too long to get off the ground? That the first act drags?
You know, I think because [Peter Jackson] is playing the long game with his storytelling, and the third movie is called There and Back Again, I think you need to invest in the story of those dwarves. Because, come the third movie, you need to understand who these guys are, and that they’re on they’re way home, and that the losses that are sustained – having read the book! Not talking about the third or second films!
No we shan’t spoil the films.
Yes in the book there are losses; they sustain huge losses. You know Tolkien wrote these books based on his experiences of World War I, and he lost a lot of his friends in those wars. I think taking time to really understand his characters in Bag End was really important. And of course finding humour, which throughout the course of this story – the story gets so much darker as we go along – that it was important to give that time to breathe so you can enjoy those moments.
But I think we’ve become quite impatient in the cinema. Gone are the days when you’d sit through 3 ½ hours of Gone With the Wind, and it’s a shame because it’s the director’s prerogative to tell the story that he wants to tell. But I found myself engaged from beginning to end; I find all of the characters fascinating.
What I do love about Thorin is that epic hero shot that he gets…
I didn’t know [Peter] was shooting those! Because I don’t really go and watch playback; I was just sort of in the moment and he would talk to me about – I know the hero shot you’re talking about. Because they hadn’t finalised Azog; we didn’t really know what he looked like. He’d been through a number of manifestations, so Pete was like, “OK so you’re seeing your nemesis. It’s this pale Orc that has beheaded your father.” And I’d [already] shot that sequence. And [Peter] was just talking me through the psychology of what [Thorin] was seeing when he was facing him, because he believes that the creature is dead.
So I was kind of creating Azog in my head and just thinking it through, [but] I had no idea what he was shooting or how he was shooting. So it was quite a surprise for me in the cinema to see a big drum beat going on and the ritualistic sort of thing. It was almost as if Thorin’s heartbeat was speeding up.If you didn’t know what you were looking at, are you just like, “Bring it, Weta Workshop! Do your worst!”?
Well kind of. It’s one of those ‘hundred-mile-stares’ that they talk about. I suppose I was looking at nothing, but visualising something in my head, which is kind of hard to describe. It’s not really about seeing a being; it’s about remembering how it felt when you saw him. So all I was doing was remembering how I felt when I saw him holding my grandfather’s head. So it’s actually my grandfather’s head that I was visualising, rather than the being. But I think that the way Weta has created Azog is really interesting…it’s terrifying.
There was a fraternity built up on set, but I understand you stayed in character and therefore stayed a bit more aloof?
God. I hate to think that I was aloof! [Laughs]. You know the thing is the prosthetics and the costume were quite uncomfortable, and when you’re in a big group of people who are uncomfortable, it can turn into a ‘who’s the most uncomfortable’ competition. And when you’re in close proximity to other hot people, it can just get hotter. So I sort of did sit with my head down, in a corner, mainly to concentrate, but also to just get rid of the distraction of the costume and really think about what I was doing. Because I felt that I had a lot to do with regards to that character, and I didn’t want anything else to distract from it.
Speaking of Thorin’s costume, one often hears you described as ‘dapper’. Is it possible to remain dapper under all those layers of yak hair?
No. Thorin wasn’t dapper! Thorin’s elemental really. I remember doing my research into the dwarves: in The Silmarillion they talk about how the dwarves come into being; they’re borne of the rock, and they’re laid in rock in the end. And I remember thinking, “That’s the key to this character; he’s of the earth.” They live underground; he sort of is a kind of a cave man, but he’s also a member of the royal family. His prowess on the battlefield is extraordinary. So all of these elements, I guess I saw someone who didn’t really have any vanity.
So that would be the opposite of “dapper”…
[Laughs] The opposite of “dapper”, yeah. But he had to have a charisma, which has to do with his nobility, and the way that he commands his troops. I think that he commands through example rather through just instruction, which is something that was important to me.
You also go toe-to-goiter with Barry Humphries in this film…
Toe-to-goiter, yes! [Laughs]
Did you actually get to work on set with him?
I worked with his voice. He would sort of sit in a booth and the voice would be kind of beamed out. We were looking at a green stick with a head on it, which was a little bit skinnier, a bit slimmer than Barry. But I did spend a fair bit of social time with him. Which was really useful, because [laughs], I find him incredibly amusing. He is one of the funniest guys I’ve ever met.
Some of the wise cracks he came up with…I’ve got a great joke for you…oh that was it: he was talking about motion capture and he said, “I thought that was something that you give to the doctor when you’re offering him a sample.” [Laughs] I mean he is the funniest guy. So it was kind of hard to not laugh when he was the Goblin King.
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