‘The Hobbit’: Richard Armitage finds Thorin Oakenshield in ‘Macbeth’

Dec. 12, 2012 | 7:00 a.m.
richardarmitage The Hobbit: Richard Armitage finds Thorin Oakenshield in Macbeth

Richard Armitage plays the dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (George Pimentel / Getty Images; New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Richard Armitage plays the dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Richard Armitage plays Thorin Oakenshield in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Dean O'Gorman as Fili, left, and Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Richard Armitage plays Thorin Oakenshield in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Dean O'Gorman as Fili, left, and Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Richard Armitage plays Thorin Oakenshield in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Richard Armitage plays Thorin Oakenshield in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Ian McKellen as Gandalf and Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (Warner Bros.)

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Richard Armitage plays Thorin Oakenshield in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Cast and crew on the set of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Richard Armitage arrives at the New Zealand premiere of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" on Nov. 28. (Hagen Hopkins / Getty Images)

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Peter Jackson, left, Richard Armitage, Martin Freeman, Elijah Wood and Andy Serkis pose for photographers at the Tokyo premiere of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" on Dec. 1. (Koji Sasahara / Associated Press)

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Richard Armitage signs autographs for fans at the Tokyo premiere of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" on Dec. 1. (Koji Sasahara / Associated Press)

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Martin Freeman, left, and Richard Armitage at the Tokyo premiere of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" on Dec. 1. (Toshifumi Kitamura / AFP / Getty Images)

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Richard Armitage arrives for the New York premiere of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" on Dec. 6. (Justin Lane / EPA)

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit,” Thorin Oakenshield, a mighty warrior and proud heir of a dwarf king, serves as a foil to the book’s unlikely hero Bilbo Baggins, a humble hobbit with a love for food, comfort and a simple life. While Bilbo achieves his own kind of courage, Thorin’s story is marked by tragedy.

For Richard Armitage, who plays Thorin in Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of Tolkien’s tale, inspiration for the character came from the story of a different tragic king by another famous English writer — William Shakespeare.

“I was in a production of ‘Macbeth,’” Armitage said. “So I went back to all my notes about ‘Macbeth,’ because I just felt there was something about that character unwinding that was relevant to Thorin unwinding in this story.”

PHOTOS: 60 images from ‘The Hobbit’

“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” the first installment in Jackson’s planned movie trilogy, opens Friday. In it, Armitage sets the stage for Thorin’s rise and fall. It’s not a role the 41-year-old actor expected to play.

“I never considered that I would be old enough or experienced enough to take on a role like Thorin,” Armitage said. “Then I met Peter and Fran [Walsh] and Philippa [Boyens], and I really did enjoy the scene they’d written for the casting. I felt that it encompassed a lot of Thorin’s characteristics, and I was interested in what they were going to do with the character.”

Richard Armitage plays the Thorin Oakenshield in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

Richard Armitage plays Thorin Oakenshield in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

In the audition scene — a version of which made it to the final film — Thorin talks with fellow dwarf Balin about the quest that he has inherited to reclaim Erebor, his grandfather’s kingdom, from the dragon Smaug.

“It was all about the burden that he had to take on, and the distress of that, and that he was the only one left,” Armitage said. “The thing that I really received from Peter and took further was this idea of this flawed character, somebody that had doubts and that had fears, and there was a gentle side to him and a very perhaps lonely side to him, which is less pompous than the character in the book…. In the book, Thorin can be sort of dour and bad-tempered, but [the scene] really showed an inner sensitivity to him, somebody that was terrified of failing and terrified of failing his bloodline and failing where his father and his grandfather had failed as well.”

The role suited Armitage, who says he sees similarities between himself and Thorin.

PHOTOS: Meet the dwarfs from ‘The Hobbit’

“I really related to what they were trying to do with the character,” he said. “There’s a seriousness in me that I was able to use for Thorin, because I do take myself seriously, and I see a career as a kind of quest. It’s a long quest, and I’ve been on this quest for 20 years now.”

Richard Armitage arrives at the New Zealand premiere of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" on Nov. 28, 2012. (Hagen Hopkins / Getty Images)

Richard Armitage arrives at the New Zealand premiere of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” on Nov. 28. (Hagen Hopkins / Getty Images)

Armitage began his career at the age of 17 when he joined the Budapest Circus to get his Actor’s Equity Assn. Card, which was required to work in theater at the time. He juggled, assisted a hula hoop artist and slept near the elephant truck. After getting his card, he left the circus and performed in several musicals, including “Cats” and “42nd Street,” before enrolling at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. He completed the three-year program and joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, acting in “Macbeth,” “Hamlet” and several other productions.

His big break in television came in 2002, when he was cast as a minor character in “Sparkhouse,” a BBC retelling of “Wuthering Heights.” The role led to many more, including the leading man in the BAFTA-nominated miniseries “North and South,” a role in the acclaimed thriller “Frozen” and the villainous Guy of Gisborne in the BBC series “Robin Hood,” where Armitage learned how to swing a broad sword.

“I actually think that every job I’ve done has been preparation for this character,” Armitage said. “It feels to me like it’s the right time, and I was able to apply all of the things that I’d picked up along the way and try to make it work.”

Making it work involved a lot of physical preparation, including “dwarf boot camp,” where Armitage and the other dwarf actors learned to handle their oversized costumes and prosthetics — necessary to keep the dwarfs from resembling children or hobbits once they were shrunken digitally.

“It was literally boot camp because part of it was learning to run in these incredibly heavy boots they had designed for us,” he said. “In order to make the dwarfs really heavy and warrior-like, they increased the size of our feet and our hands and our heads. It was a little bit like having concrete in your shoes and also wearing a diaper.”

But eventually, Armitage said, he got used to the discomfort, and the costume was more helpful than inhibiting.

“In the beginning when you put on all of the costume and the prosthetics and the hair, it did feel like somewhere deep, deep down inside of this creation, it was me,” he said. “But then slowly but surely, you start to emerge, and I couldn’t rehearse without the boots on. I couldn’t be Thorin without all of those things. You learn to absolutely depend on them to create the character.”

Dean O'Gorman as Fili, left, and Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

Dean O’Gorman as Fili, left, and Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

Armitage also worked closely with Martin Freeman, who plays protagonist Bilbo Baggins, during that preparation time.

“That relationship is key. It’s central to the story,” Armitage said. “The deteriorating relationship that Thorin and Bilbo share, and then the evolution of that relationship towards the end of the story, which you won’t see until 2014, is something that’s incredibly moving. You see these two people who are so far apart from each other in terms of where they come from and their culture and their stature, but you see them meeting in a place where they really shouldn’t meet and understanding each other.”

It’s a relationship that, in Tolkien’s book, underscores each character’s dramatic transformation. Though the results of that transformation won’t be seen on screen until the third film in the trilogy — 2014′s “The Hobbit: There and Back Again” — Armitage had to lay the groundwork for his character’s arc in the first film.

“You have to plant the seeds at the beginning for something that is potentially flawed,” he said. “You have to give that character something to achieve, but also he needs to walk a very sort of fine line, and you know, have the potential to fall on either side. It was about setting the character up as having a very precarious existence and a heavy burden to carry, that he may not be able to shoulder that burden. Part of that preparation is the antagonism that he feels towards Bilbo that we explore quite early on in the story, that Bilbo could possibly be a weak link in the dwarf team that are going on this quest, and if he falls behind, he puts the whole quest in jeopardy.”

Martin Freeman, left, and Richard Armitage at the Tokyo premiere of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" on Dec. 1, 2012. (Toshifumi Kitamura / AFP / Getty Images)

Martin Freeman, left, and Richard Armitage at the Tokyo premiere of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” on Dec. 1. (Toshifumi Kitamura / AFP / Getty Images)

Despite the on-screen friction, Armitage says friendship and camaraderie prevailed behind the scenes.

“The last day on set was actually a pickup we were doing to complete the end of the first film, so all of the dwarfs were gathered, and we were looking — I don’t know if I can say actually, because it might spoil the ending of the first film,” Armitage said. “But we were all together, and with such hope. And then it was brilliant, because on the last take, we had a little whisper around the company that we were all going to crash in and give Martin a big group hug. So on the very last take, we all kind of ran and put our arms around Martin, and then Pete ran up onto the set and put his arms around Martin. It was a great moment, and it was moving.”

– Noelene Clark
Twitter.com/@NoeleneClark

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Comments


6 Responses to ‘The Hobbit’: Richard Armitage finds Thorin Oakenshield in ‘Macbeth’

  1. Grace says:

    I have always liked Richard Armitage ever since I saw him in "North and South", and later in "MI-5" (called "Spooks" in UK). I think he is a wonderful actor with great potentials. Of course, his trademark deep voice is lovely to the ears in audio books and commercials as well. I'd love to see him more on the big screen or good British drama.

  2. Dee says:

    Armitage was BRILLIANT in the film ! Enjoyed his portrayal of Thorin & as a reader of all things Tolkien he nailed the character spot on !

  3. DIna says:

    Where the third was camp and how did Thorin & Company supply it?

  4. Amelia says:

    I only know him from Robin Hood which my son watched. I am truly haunted by his take on Thorin Oakenshield. There is a deep, brooding sadness that draws me in, and a quiet strength that his Thorin exudes. He was cast perfectly, I think. I'm going to be watching his other work, and will look out for work he does in the future. He's definitely someone to watch!

  5. Sophie says:

    I'm also familiar with him from North and South, and Robin Hood. He is a great actor, in the finest British tradition, and would love to see more of him. Agree with Grace about his wonderful voice. He is talented/blessed.

  6. Ruth says:

    I had never seen Richard Armitage before The Hobbit movies. But I thought he nailed it perfectly. After that I watched him in "Strike Back Origins" He was amazing in that as well. We also found on Netflix a modern day Sherlock Holmes series with Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch that is really good too. All the actors from these movies are amazing and a credit to the trade.

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