Richard Armitage Interview
The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies Media Junket
Transcribed and edited by Amanda Aayusya
Published in: All Film #60
(This is an unabridged transcript of the talent interview that appeared in All Film #60, used for the main article and individual actor’s interview pages in the magazine. Please mention All Film if you’re going to post this transcript, and credit Amanda Aayusya for the transcription work.)
RICHARD ARMITAGE: Let’s see if I can get tickets to go and see Kate Bush! Ian McKellen’s going.
Are you a particular Kate Bush fan?
Yeah, kind of, I mean, it’s one of those… I had a sort of flash of, “God, I wonder if she’ll sing the theme song to the third movie…” It’s one of those things…
How do you feel now that everything’s coming to an end?
It was always coming to an end. It was coming to an end when we wrapped, coming to an end when we did the first film… I don’t know if this will ever end, really. We’ll always be talking about it, I guess. Tolkien will certainly never end… There’ll be generations of people who read Tolkien. I guess that’s one of the joys of playing a character like this; it’s that you know that… you know, probably when I’m in my 70s I’ll be talking to some kid that’s discovered The Hobbit and loves Thorin, so… that’s nice, that’s nice ‘cause it’ll probably never die and the road goes ever on, as they say.
How has it been to be in the same story for a long time?
It’s great. I mean, the thing is, I think the… releasing it over 3 years is interesting because you kind of come back a year later and try to talk about it. But it’s nice to have been able to play a character’s journey over – what is it – how long is each film about? Two and a half hours long? Something like that… so it’s a long period of… 2, 4, 6, 8 hours… to play a story over 8 hours is very, very rare. It happens in television but to put it on a big screen like this, to have that trajectory of this character portrayed like that, it’s a real gift.
Did you ever get fed up with it, playing the same character in the same universe?
Never. How could I get fed up with Thorin? No, never.
He’s a very complex character and has some very dark elements to him. Did you go through a process of working out how dark you can take Thorin before you just kind of let audiences go, “What the hell’s going on with Thorin?”
Do you know what – that’s the joy of working on a movie because that exact… what you just described to me is exactly what Peter and I were constantly talking about… and he would shoot it. So we’d go very, very dark and then you look back at the edit… I went in on Wednesday to do some final dubbing and I looked at the shots he’d chose and he has… he’s gone to the place we were scared to go to. We took a risk and we took him into a very dark place sort of around the middle of the third film, when he becomes consumed with the dragon sickness. We allowed the character’s psychology to become quite warped and inconsistent and psychotic. He doesn’t turn into Hannibal Lecter but he’s certainly become somebody you no longer trust and you think, “Whatever’s happening in that mountain is screwed because of the psychology of their leader.” Which is exactly, I think, what needs to happen. You need to feel that everything’s at stake because Thorin’s mind has left him and they’re in trouble.
So you played it as a kind of insanity rather than as a character flaw? How did you approach that?
Yeah. I took the lead from Tolkien, certainly. He described it as a sickness. A sickness of the mind is… it had had to feel like it was a temporary thing that he could recover from, because in order to leave the mountain and go to war, he did have to come back from a place he descended to. So, yeah, we definitely played it as a sickness, as a mental illness.
Well, what’s the best part of playing him? Is it the heroic parts or the suffering?
I quite like playing that sort of despot… some of the psychotic moments. They wrote so brilliantly for Thorin as well, Pete, Fran and Phil. They would come… we’d play a scene and then a few weeks later they’d come back with another scene. Like they wrote a scene between Thorin and Bilbo – it was really important for them to tighten up that relationship.
Thorin becomes very isolationist in the mountain and he becomes quite obsessed with Bilbo, that everyone is betraying him except him [Bilbo]. And it’s sort of leading us to the point where Tolkien has Thorin nearly throw Bilbo from the ramparts. For me it was such a big part of the book, that that nearly happened. It was really shocking at the time, when I was a kid and I read it. We were always driving toward that point so they were trying to tighten that story.
They wrote some incredible scenes between Thorin and Bilbo and you really get to see Thorin kind of weighed down by this cloud of doubt. There are glimmers when you see the old Thorin, you see him nearly come back, and then he just gets lost again. It was just a joy to play those scenes with someone that’s sort of fevered in the mind, but there are just moments of clarity. It’s just great to play that.
You’re probably the biggest book fan in the cast…
Well, some people think you are. Fans were quite upset about some changes to the book in the last movie. How do you feel about things like the dwarfs that get left behind and our lady elf and things?
You know, I think all those decisions get made to enable the story to have a more dramatic arc and I think that… Tolkien himself, I believe, wrote Lord Of The Rings because The Hobbit wasn’t quite enough of Middle-earth and he wanted to expand on that idea. I think Peter’s probably doing the same thing. He just explores parts that Tolkien shows us but doesn’t tread, you know. If you look at the Battle of the Five Armies, Tolkien does a Shakespearean thing. He talks about it in retrospect. He doesn’t really go there with the audience. I remember being a little bit disappointed with J. R. R. when I was a kid, thinking, “I want to know more about that battle.” And I think Peter does too. I don’t think he necessarily changed anything of the story. He added things…
Personally, I was disappointed he never showed the elf rings in the forest, how the Dwarfs were lured to Thranduil… you know, they see elves in the forest and they get drawn because they were starving and they were trapped. Now that was something I was looking forward to because I’d played it on stage when I was a kid! So everyone has something they’re looking forward to and that they missed, but ultimately Peter’s reimagining the story, using Tolkien as a blueprint.
Everyone reading the book probably identifies most with Bilbo. Were you the same? Did it surprise you that you ended up as Thorin instead?
The thing that had most impact to me when I read the book was Gollum. And you often forget that Gollum is in the story when you get to the end of it, because he’s such a contained character. I remember being… re-reading that scene in Gollum’s cave, I think that that’s one of the reasons why Tolkien wrote Lord OF The Rings because he too was obsessed with what happened in the cave and the ring… At the time, the ring was never… it didn’t have the same potency that it took on for Lord Of The Rings. It’s almost like Tolkien gave himself an idea by writing it and went back to it and went, “Actually, that’s a really great idea. Why am I obsessed with that scene?”
But, yeah, I guess re-reading the book as an adult, knowing that I was going to play Thorin, of course I connected with Thorin. And I disagreed with him, throughout most of the journey, of his choices. I was very angry with Thorin and at odds with the character, which is one of the reasons why I wanted to play him. There’s nothing better than disagreeing with everything your character chooses to do because you’ve got some great conflict going on there between actor and character. I disagree with him in many, many respects.
So how do you act something that you disagree with?
It’s a bit like playing a mass murderer. You kind of have to get… like I had to get into a position whereby if I were put on trial as Thorin, I would be able to absolutely get off scot-free with what I’d done. And I would defend him. I’d be like, “no, this is why he’s done that, this is why he’s reneging on the deal, this is why he has to do the things that he does”, even though I kind of disagree with him because I want him to be a peacemaker. I want him to placate and I want everything to be harmonious in Middle-earth. But Thorin has a bigger agenda and actually by asking those questions, you realize what the agenda is and why it’s so important to him. And of course he’s proud and stubborn and there’s a side of me, as Richard, that has the same kind of proud, stubborn pigheadedness that often gets me into deep shit as well. I work hard to not be that person but the opportunity to play someone who is absolutely pigheaded and stubborn was irresistible.
When you go into a new project, do you miss the help that hair and make-up gave you when you create a character? Like in Into The Storm, you’re just the way you are, which made me, in the audience, finally recognize you completely for the first time…
I did. The very last time they took the 297th piece of plastic off my face, I just went [sighing], “Never again!” And I say never again, but of course, God, if the character is compelling and interesting and it takes a creation like that to make it then, yeah, you dive in quite willingly. You know, I look back at the film now and, as much as I hated having the things stuck on my face, there would be no Thorin without that creation, And it was difficult blend of making it look invisible, making me not look human, but at the same time make me not look like I’ve got something stuck on my face, ‘cause you had to read that character emotionally throughout three films, in close-up. So anything with… if there’s a moment you kind of go, “What’s that he’s got stuck on his face?” Then, you know, we’ve lost. Which is why they’ve obsessively gone back through the film and every single make-up detail that isn’t right or is distracting, they fixed in post-production, so that you see the character and you don’t see the make-up and that’s a really big challenge considering the amount of make-up that there was. Did I answer your question or not really?
Well, just wondering, when you get into a new project now, do you miss that kind of transformation?
There’s always a transformation… there’s always a little transformation that happens, whether or not it’s a huge one. Even if it’s the kind of jumper that your character is wearing, you always sort of make… they’re just smaller, that’s all. They’re just slightly different but you always make some kind of transformation.
In the original writing of Tolkien, there wasn’t a battle at the end… a more pacifist ending. Do you feel, as an actor, that’s more interesting – to have a more diplomatic ending?
Well, there is, but he just described it in retrospect. He described it through Gandalf and Bilbo. And, as I was saying, as a reader, I felt slightly cheated.
In the early works. This is not in a published work. It was just this idea…
In the… when Thorin was called Gandalf? ‘Cause in the original book, Thorin’s name was Gandalf.
I read this in an interview published…
And how you would’ve dealt with this…
If there were no battle?
Yeah. This first idea would be a more peaceful ending…
Yeah, I feel that it probably would’ve been a little bit of a disappointing ending to a very long tale. I think it’s something about Peter Jackson’s storytelling capacity that… you know… it’s why he’s taken a bigger political view of Middle-earth and introduced the idea of Sauron as well. It’s very important that the dwarfs’ quest, which is primarily what The Hobbit is about, becomes a much bigger political landscape… so that when the battle of the five armies arrived, it’s more than just about a money-grab. It’s about a big political shift, which was happening in Tolkien’s world as he was writing it. But because he was writing a children’s book, he just took his hands off the wheel. He didn’t grab it quite so tight, I don’t think, which is again why he went back and wrote Lord Of The Rings because I think he wanted to describe a much darker political shift, you know.
He was living and writing this between two World Wars, so he was influenced by what happened to him in the first World War and he’s being… he’s feeling the rumbling earthquake of the second World War coming, you know, when he wrote The Hobbit. And I feel that’s what’s happening with regards to… it’s what Peter’s feeling in the story. It’s why the rise of Sauron and the greater shadow of evil that brings the five armies together is necessary for the story. We’re never going to watch these films and those bells ringing in our heads, but somewhere deep down, the rise of evil is just played out in a more potent way.
On a slightly less dark topic, you recently joined Twitter…
How are you enjoying social media?
I still don’t get it! [laughs] I sort of forget to do it and I think, “Why? Remind yourself why you’re supposed to do that.” And then you do it and you realize, what… Yeah, I guess I did it because I need to just diffuse some of the anxiety that was happening and just remind people it’s supposed to be fun – this whole thing – reminding myself as well – that it’s supposed to be fun. The whole going to the films, supporting the films, promoting the films… it’s supposed to be done with good humor. And with The Hobbit, you know, we have a big demographic and lots of kids bring and drag their parents who don’t want to come and see The Hobbit t the movie house… and Twitter’s a way of nagging their parents through their kids. Our demographic for Twitter is sort of 25 years and below, so… if we can get a few more people into the theaters because of it…
How do feel about working with green screen and the imaginary dragon? Is it a chance to go like “Right, let’s pretend!” or do you find it hard?
Depends on what kind of mood you’re in, actually. But in general I actually really, really enjoy that side of it. I know that some actors struggle. I know Ian [McKellen]… he didn’t struggle with it but he was less fond of it. Once you’ve let yourself go, and you’ve got Peter’s description, you’ve got Dan Hennah’s beautiful sketches and then of course you’ve got your own imagination… I can imagine whatever the hell I like! No one’s gonna know what’s going on in my head, as long as something’s going on in my head… and it can be immense fun. I’d get to the end of the take and I’d look over to Graham [McTavish] and went, “What were you imagining?” [He said,] “Oh it was a big blue three-headed thing” and I was like, “Oh wow. Mine was only this big. Gotta think better than that!” It was good fun. I enjoy it.
What is your treasure in life?
Equal to Thorin’s treasure? Ohh… I don’t know. That’s where I kind of disagree with Thorin, I think. I’m not… I don’t think I’m an accumulator. I am, you know, accidentally a consumer, but I don’t… it’s the one thing about the film that I… if you’re going to expand the theme of nations going to war over a stack of gold, I think it has a shameful resonance that you can’t look away from, so …or, you mean, for me?
I don’t have it. I don’t have any treasure…
Like family or something like that?
Oh, the thing that I would obsess over?
The most precious thing in your life.
It’s definitely not the Arkenstone. [laughs] I don’t know. I’d have to think about that one… my latte. [laughs]