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December 15, 2013

‘Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug': Richard Armitage on Thorin’s madness

Posted in: Movies

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Martin Freeman as Bilbo, from left, Jed Brophy as Nori and Richard Armitage as Thorin in a scene from "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Mark Pokorny / Warner Bros.)

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Ian McKellen as Gandalf, left, and Sylvester McCoy as Radagast in "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel and Orlando Bloom as Legolas in "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (James Fisher / Warner Bros.)

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Richard Armitage as Thorin, left, and Dean O'Gorman as Fili in a scene from "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Graham McTavish as Dwalin, left, Ken Stott as Balin, Martin Freeman as Bilbo, Richard Armitage as Thorin and William Kircher as Bifur in a scene from "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Martin Freeman, left, and John Callen in a scene from "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Mark Pokorny / Warner Bros.)

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Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Mark Pokorny / Warner Bros.)

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Ian McKellen as Gandalf, left, and Sylvester McCoy as Radagast in "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Azog, portrayed by Manu Bennett through motion-capture technology, in "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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William Kircher as Bifur, left, John Callen as Oin, Richard Armitage as Thorin and Ken Stott as Balin in a scene from "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Stephen Fry as the Master of Lake-town, left, and Ryan Gage as Alfrid in "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Peggy Nesbitt as Sigrid, Mary Nesbitt as Tilda and John Bell as Bain in a scene from "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Azog, portrayed by Manu Bennett through motion-capture technology, in "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel and Lee Pace as Thranduil in "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in a poster for "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel and Orlando Bloom as Legolas in a poster for "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Ian McKellen as Gandalf in a poster for "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield in a poster for "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in a poster for "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Ian McKellen as Gandalf in a poster for "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Orlando Bloom as Legolas in a poster for "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Lee Pace as Thranduil in a poster for "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Luke Evans as Bard in a poster for "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield in a poster for "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in a poster for "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

In “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” Peter Jackson’s latest fantasy adapted from the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, Richard Armitage’s dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield is as much the focus of the story as Martin Freeman’s Hobbit Bilbo Baggins.

The new film tracks the unlikely partners and the other members of their company as they continue their quest across Middle-earth to defeat the evil dragon Smaug and reclaim the treasure-filled city of Erebor beneath the Lonely Mountain. Meanwhile, Ian McKellen’s wizard Gandalf sets out on a mission of his own, hoping to determine the strength of a primal evil.

Critics have responded warmly to this, the second film in a planned trilogy that concludes with next year’s “The Hobbit: There and Back Again.” (The Times’ Betsy Sharkey writes, “In the wake of ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,’ last year’s dreary, dense, disappointing slough through Middle-earth, ‘The Desolation of Smaug’ comes as a relief. Peter Jackson’s newest installment of the Tolkien trilogy is set afire by the scorching roar of a dragon.”)

Armitage, too, was pleased to see the newest film after years spent in New Zealand shooting the three movies out of sequence. Hero Complex caught up with the English actor, 42, to discuss his approach to the character, what he’s learned from working with Jackson and why he relates Tolkien to the history plays and tragedies of William Shakespeare.

Be warned, mild spoilers lie ahead.

William Kircher as Bifur, left, John Callen as Oin, Richard Armitage as Thorin and Ken Stott as Balin in a scene from "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

William Kircher as Bifur, left, John Callen as Oin, Richard Armitage as Thorin and Ken Stott as Balin in a scene from “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.” (Warner Bros.)

Hero Complex: How was the experience for you seeing this portion of Thorin’s journey on the screen?

Richard Armitage: It’s amazing how you forget what’s in which movie. It’s a nice surprise when you see that section of his emotional and physical journey. It’s been a treat watching it. We were back this year for 12 weeks shooting some really crucial scenes that were needed to make sense of the story, so going back with more experience and understanding of the character was interesting. That’s really helped make sense of Thorin’s journey, certainly in [this] movie. But then we get to see the dragon … really seeing what they’ve done with him is just such a treat. If you think about it, the dwarfs have been talking about the dragon from the beginning of the story, Peter has been imagining this dragon for decades. Tolkien wrote this dragon in 1937. We’ve waited a long time to see Smaug, so to finally get him on the big screen is just so special. It’s everything that you could possibly want — it’s innovative, it’s beautiful, it’s terrifying. It looks a little bit like Tolkien’s early, early paintings. He’s a serpent, he’s a terrifying creature.

HC: It was great to see the scene between Thorin and Gandalf that opens the film — nice to see them meet up in the Prancing Pony.

RA: The very first scene in the film is sort of a little flashback to when Thorin and Gandalf met. I’m really pleased that they decided to use that scene because it is in one of the appendices and it’s something that I used when I didn’t know it was going to be in the films. Gandalf and Thorin really do have a history and an understanding of what the quest means. It means something different to both of them. It really sets up the idea that the Arkenstone means kingship and without it he cannot rule and he cannot command armies. I think that becomes apparent by the end of the film, when they really need the Arkenstone. But from Gandalf’s perspective, it’s the greater political dynamic of Middle-earth and the rise of evil and that evil controlling the dragon, which ultimately is going to slingshot into the Battle of the Five Armies in movie three. It’s a really crucial scene. A still scene and a talking heads scene, it’s kind of brave. It was an incredibly exciting set because, of course, the Prancing Pony in Bree appeared in “Lord of the Rings,” so I got to go and be in that set that I’d loved so much. We sat opposite each other for two days and played a very long scene, which you rarely get to do. it was like a little play. It was a real privilege to shoot that with Ian.

HC: How did it feel to play the character again when you put on the costume for the shoot this past summer?

RA: It took me a while to feel him again. It certainly took me a while to sound like him. I did the voice work but it’s not until you’re weighed down by the costume that it would take my voice down into the register that it needed to be. For the first day I felt like I had a face stuck on me and weird hair stuck on me, but then by day two, it was as if he’d always been there. For some reason you just get used to having something glued to your face.

HC: It seems like that costume must be incredibly warm and somewhat uncomfortable.

RA: Incredibly warm and, of course, in that scene there’s a lot of people in the room and there’s a blazing fire behind me. I’d forgotten how distracting that kind of heat can be, but it was really important that I was able to mentally overcome the distraction of that because I needed to play the scene. I felt that all the way through shooting. The discomfort was something to put aside and just deal with it, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to play the character.

HC: What strikes you as the most interesting elements of this portion of Thorin’s story?

RA: He hits an all time low and an all time high really. When he’s captured by Thranduil and thrown into the Elven cells, he’s stripped of all means possible to achieve the quest and it’s a real low point and very humiliating to him in front of that particular king. But then, of course, Bilbo rescues them and they find their way to the door [to the Lonely Mountain] and they open the door because of Bilbo’s assistance. I think Thorin recognizes the asset that Bilbo is proving himself to be and he’s questioning his own ability to trust. Seeing this little man find his courage to go into the mountain, Thorin finds some respect for him and goes in after him.

HC: You’ve said before that you based part of your approach to Thorin on the character of Macbeth. What’s the correlation between those characters for you?

RA:  There’s a bit of introspection on Thorin’s part. There were certain parts of “Macbeth” that I found interesting, not the act of killing but the sort of spiral of events that happen to him because he chooses to tread a certain path. Really, that’s what happens to Thorin when he enters the mountain. He knows the potential fall and he still goes there. He knows that he has the susceptibility to the dragon sickness but he still goes in through the door because the prize is greater than the demise, if you pardon the poetry. I feel that Macbeth makes the same choice. But I looked at “Henry V” as well because I think those rousing moments where he’s commanding his army were really important for Thorin. He had to be the kind of leader that would speak to 13 dwarfs around a table and get them to follow him but also stand on battlements and call to an army of 13,000 and they would follow him. I was really looking for those qualities.

VIDEO: IAN MCKELLEN QUOTES TOLKIEN

HC: It’s interesting the notion of relating Tolkien to Shakespeare.

RA: Do you think so? I think Tolkien wrote a lot of his material from his own experiences in the Great War, and it’s coming out of seeing something that no man should see. I don’t know, I think maybe the Hobbit is Tolkien himself. He felt like somebody that belonged in a comfortable home with a hearth and tea and was being asked to step out of his front door and go to war, and I think that’s what he’s writing about in the book.

Richard Armitage as Thorin, left, and Dean O'Gorman as Fili in a scene from "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

Richard Armitage as Thorin, left, and Dean O’Gorman as Fili in a scene from “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.” (Warner Bros.)

HC: What’s your relationship like with Peter Jackson, do you collaborate?

RA: More so than I could have possibly imagined. It was a slow burn. At the beginning I tried to be — well, I am — respectful of his vision over mine, but of course I’m asked to bring my vision to the table so I was tentatively feeding ideas through. But by the end of the shoot I found my courage to go to him and say, “Look, I’ve got an idea for this scene, can we go with it?” He learned to trust me. We found that place where we could do that efficiently without slowing the shoot down too much. I feel like we were always on the same page with the character. Very, very rarely did Peter tell me something I didn’t agree with, and if I didn’t agree with him, it was usually because I was wrong. I found it a really joyful process. He changed me as an actor because of the way he guided me as a director.

HC: In what ways did he change you?

RA: I feel like he gave me permission to experiment. I think there’s certain scenes, certainly in this film and in the third film where I was able to do things that I’ve never really done on camera before because he gave me the time to do it and gave me the guidance and the inspiration to do it. He made me fight like I’ve never fought before, nearly killed me.

Actor Richard Armitage attends the Los Angeles premiere of "The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug." (Mark Davis / Getty Images)

Actor Richard Armitage attends the Los Angeles premiere of “The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug.” (Mark Davis / Getty Images)

HC: How’s that exactly?

RA: I climbed out of a barrel while we were [shooting a scene] in the Pelorus River, and he was shouting over the loudspeaker, “Wade deeper, wade deeper, go up to your waist.” Then there was no river bed underneath my feet and I just kind of went under in all the costume. That’s not Pete killing me, that’s just me being irresponsible. I was dragged out of the water by two stunt guys. I was just being a little bit daring, and I always get tripped up. It’s like fate is just telling me not to be too cocky.

HC: What were the things that you’d not been able to do on camera previously that you did here?

RA: Without revealing anything about the third movie — which I can’t do — there’s a glimpse of it at the end of the second film. It’s to do with Thorin’s madness, and I think it’s do with his introspection. It’s quite hard to play because you can’t really show the inner workings of the mind. But I feel like in filmmaking we look for continuity and rationale in a character and actually being able to flip that on its head and look for things that are discontinuous and irrational was a way of portraying a breaking mind, so that’s what we tried to do end of the second film and into the third.

HC: What has the experience of playing Thorin meant to you?

RA: I think it’s really made me reengage with what I want from my career. It’s not fame and fortune certainly. It’s the ability to investigate a character in this way, but at the same time it’s going to be really difficult to surpass this experience. I’ve got to maybe give up the idea of finding another character like this. But I had said that before. I played another character where I said, I’ll never find another character like that and then this one came along. It was John Thornton in “North and South,” which is something I did maybe eight years ago. But it was a book I loved and a great writer and a great director, just a small BBC four-part series but it had a real impact on me and again changed me as an actor. So I found this one eight years later. I hope it doesn’t take eight years. I know I will find it somehow. We’ll see.

HC: Do you know what you’re doing next?

RA: I don’t at the moment, that’s part of the issue. There is a film coming out this summer which I shot straight after “The Hobbit” called “Into the Storm.” It’s about a tornado hitting a school in Oklahoma, and I play a school teacher who goes in search of his son. It’s an action piece, a special-effects piece, so we’ll see. I think it’s going to do quite well. I hope it does anyway.

HC: At this point, do you have an affinity for spectacle movies?

RA: I don’t know whether you ever feel that you’ve achieved something because you do hand so much of it over to the technicians afterwards. I suppose my instinct now is to go and do the opposite, to go and just work with no special effects, just two actors talking to each other. I’m hoping I can find something like that.

– Gina McIntyre | @LATHeroComplex

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