It’s hard to believe that the Middle Earth movies are all but done now, save for the extended edition of Five Armies. It’s been nearly fourteen years since The Fellowship of the Ring burst onto the big screen and gave the world the greatest cinematic fantasy it had ever seen, but now audiences can sit in the comfort of their own homes and set about watching an entire day’s worth of orc slaughter and bearded bonding throughout the two combined trilogies.
The Hobbit was always going to be a harder book to adapt, just by the very nature of its more child friendly tone and simpler narrative, but I suspect that had it been released before the Lord of the Rings trilogy, expectations would have been quite different. Regardless, Peter Jackson has made a good story into an a cinematic series of films that can (and should) now be judged as one complete work rather than separate entries, and at the heart of the tale is one Thorin Oakenshield, played by Mr Richard Armitage.
A quick glance at my review for Battle of the Five Armies will point to how much I loved Armitage’s work within the final chapter, but he’s remained the linchpin throughout the entire saga and a much more complex hero to root for than, say, the innocent fumblings of a hobbit. From the moment Thorin first appeared at Bilbo’s door Armitage managed to convey the power, charisma and leadership that set him apart from the rest of the pack, and it was that performance that helped to ground most of The Hobbit’s more over the top moments and keep audiences on side with the task at hand. Plus he had a most majestic beard and that carries a lot of weight around these parts.
Currently on location in Ireland filming Pilgrimage alongside The Walking Dead’s Jon Bernthal – a movie that seems to promise an action movie by way of 13th century monks on a road trip (sign me up), Richard Armitage took some time out first thing in the morning to chat to us about all things Thorin and we found him on fine form as we started the interview, quite logically, by discussing the end of all things Hobbit…
So this could be the last interview junket you do for The Hobbit after all these years!
[Laughs] Yeah I think it’s the last one!
You must be right near the end now surely?
Yeah I mean I feel like this last release is probably – possibly the last time we’ll talk about it officially, but I feel like I’ll be chatting about The Hobbit for quite a while.
There must be a slightly bittersweet sense of relief that it’s coming to an end, as I know junkets can be quite arduous and it must have been quite difficult to talk about the same character for so many years now?
Well it is, but there’s periods of time now where you stop talking about it and it’s been a while since the cinema release. But with the home entertainment release and also the extended edition there’s a whole bunch of stuff that I’ve forgotten about that is possibly going to be seen now and I was speaking to some of the guys yesterday and there’s a little rumour that they may do another cinema release of the extended edition, but who knows…
Oh wow, that would be something…
It would be cool wouldn’t it?
That would be pretty awesome.
There’s some great footage I think.
I was going to ask if you knew what scenes of yours will appear in the extended cut yet?
Well I know there’s a couple of scenes that never made it into the final film – like there’s a funeral scene and one of the things I’m excited about seeing is there’s a great chariot race, or a chariot chase should I say, that couldn’t make it into the film and also a performance by Antony Sher as Thrain which again got cut and I’m really looking forward to seeing.
It must be strange to have so much cut, but at least you had a precedent with the Lord of the Rings movies existing in two versions, so that you knew what to expect going in?
Yeah, I mean it’s one of the questions that always came up of people saying ‘well why has it been extended into three films’ and then when you look at what had to be lost – really, really valuable things that they take a lot of time choosing and making and writing and you think ‘well, actually, in a way three films wasn’t quite enough to tell the story in the way Pete wanted to tell it, so it’s just exciting to think that we can and we’re now going to be able to see all of that stuff that’s been missing.
I’ve always thought it was a strange criticism that people were so hard on why there were going to be three Hobbit movies, because for me certainly that was three Christmases that were automatically made better!
Exactly! [laughs] I never understood why people complained that the films were too long, because I think well you’re still paying whatever you’re paying for the ticket and you’re getting twice as many hours for your money, so you’re getting double the amount, so it’s very rare that you complain that you’re getting too much isn’t it?
I have to say that I loved your performance as Thorin throughout the trilogy…
…but was The Battle of the Five Armies the one you were most looking forward to seeing released because, from my point of view, it’s certainly the most emotive and powerful chapter for Thorin because of everything that he goes through?
Yeah, I mean it had all the real meat of the character and the other two films were very much building up to that point, so it was the zenith of the character’s story and his high point and his low point and you really got to see him fight as a warrior, redeem himself and of course the final scene that he has with Bilbo I was… it’s one of those scenes you know you’re going to have to play the minute you sign up because I’d read the book, so I was excited about playing that scene and nervous as well as you know you’ve got to get it right, you’ve got to honour the character. But yeah in terms of that final film all of the good stuff of Thorin’s journey is in there.
You mentioned the character’s final scene, but including all the additional filming after the primary wrap, what was your last ever scene on the shoot?
My last scene ever was actually the scene with Azog, when he has the blade in Thorin’s chest and Thorin has to make the decision to pull his blade away to kill Azog, but in doing so he sacrifices himself; that was my very, very last shot – a close up of that.
Which was kind of interesting that it just happened to be the last moment of his life – that moment, but Pete kind of lingered on it, there was something he was looking for which I think was a sense of relief in Thorin, that he could do that and let everything go, so that was my last shot.
Well it worked, as I cried on my wife’s head watching it again at the weekend!
And talking of that end scene, did you actually get to fight Manu Bennett at all for the final fight?
No, I never actually met Manu until one of the red carpets when we were promoting the film. I was fighting with a chap called Big Mike, who’s an ex-basketball player and he was in a green suit and he was absolutely brilliant as well at physicalizing the character. I think Manu went in to post-production to The Volume, which is the place where they do the performance capture and he basically created the voice and the expression and the physical version of Azog which wasn’t in the fight, so it was a combination of lots of different technologies, but yeah I had a stunt guy to fight with.
I was mostly curious as I know Manu Bennett’s such a physical performer…
Yeah, but scale wise he’s a little bit shorter than I am and we needed someone that was really tall and Big Mike is called that because he’s about seven and a half foot tall, which again still isn’t big enough for Azog but definitely in terms of where his shoulders sit, it was more useful for me to fight with him.
One of my favourite scenes was Thorin’s descent into the madness of dragon sickness, was that tricky to film as in the film it obviously looks spectacular as you’re on the lake of gold and there’s Smaug underneath, but that must have just been a lot of green around you?
Yeah and it was a bit of an experiment because Pete didn’t really know how to shoot that scene, and it was just a stage direction which said ‘Thorin looks at himself in a golden plate and sees his reflection as the dragon’. So nobody really knew what was going to be happening in that scene and I arrived on the day and Pete said “Well what do you think, what do you want to do?” and I said “I don’t know, what do you want to do?” so he kind of built a ramp and a green platform – it was entirely green – and put some music on and I tied some ropes around my ankles and had some stunt guys holding onto my legs and we sort of improvised the whole scene. So it was interesting, yeah, a bit of an experiment.
Well it was a good experiment…
But I had no idea what he was going to do with it in post-production; it wasn’t until I saw the film that it was actually a lot simpler than I’d imagined and a little bit more abstract, because of course what I hadn’t realised when we were filming it is where he goes to in the mountain – he doesn’t really go anywhere, it’s in his mind. You know the sea of gold, the lake of gold doesn’t exist, it’s only in his head, which was interesting.
Despite the films being called The Hobbit and the fact that it technically follows Bilbo’s journey, for me the trilogy was more about Thorin’s story in the end because of the complete arc of his character. Were you aware from the start that there was going to be such an incredible focus on him in the script, as it seemed even more powerful than in the book?
Well I knew that they were going to focus on the details of Thorin’s journey and introduce a lot of the flashbacks from the appendices, I knew they were going to touch on those, I didn’t really know how detailed it was going to get.
What became interesting is that in a way Thorin’s journey creates the spine of the story and really it’s Bilbo that takes the audience with him to look at the journey they’re going on, if you see what I’m saying. So it’s always from Bilbo’s perspective, but the history of the family of the dwarves and the journey of the dwarves is really what Bilbo’s buying into, so I sort of always knew that that was going to be there.
And going back a few years now, was it difficult starting the films, because Thorin’s first appearance very much conveys immediately that sense of leadership and slight detachment, that you have to project on set from day one?
Yeah, it was something I just wasn’t sure about and of course nobody… you can’t really enforce your leadership, it has to be given to you. It’s one of those things I believe that you can’t pull status and it would have weakened his character had he been a dictator, he had to be a kind of humble character that was given his authority by all of the dwarves and that takes time, that takes an actor building up trust with his colleagues and so I just had to take that step by step and earn the respect of my fellow actors, which is tricky, it’s difficult.
I wondered as well if there was a slight pressure, because of the precedent set by the Lord of the Rings shoot and how bonded they became over the course of such a long shoot, as to whether you felt that pressure, or did you all just fall into a friendship?
You know what yeah there was talk, there was always talk about the Fellowship and I think it was great, because it really informed us what kind of director Peter Jackson was, in that he wanted us for his team. So in the beginning we knew that we were all going to give a hundred percent commitment and there was a slight delay at the start of filming because Pete was sick, so we had a bit of extra time to train together and fight together and do what we called a ‘dwarf boot camp’, so I think that really helped us to consolidate.
And also the fact that the prosthetics and the make-up and the costumes were all quite uncomfortable and difficult to exist in for most of the dwarves, so in a way there was a kind of suffering that happened between the actors that we all acknowledged and we all supported each other about and it was good, I mean there were many great friendships that formed I think.
For my last question I’d like to ask about Captain America: The First Avenger, because it’s another film I love – you had a small but pivotal role in it, so I wondered what the experience was like in terms of filming and being a part of that universe, albeit briefly?
You know what? I keep forgetting I was in Captain America! Because at the time Marvel was just on my horizon and I forget to mention it when I talk to people, because Marvel is so huge and the Marvel Universe is so massive and so it’s probably good at the time that I didn’t acknowledge that, I just sort of got in there and played this role, but again a role I was very unsure about.
I found a great background for the character based on somebody real that had infiltrated the American system at the time as a spy, that had come over from Germany to try and glean information, so it was absorbed with that, but the most challenging thing for me was the underwater stuff; I’m not a great lover of water and of course there’s this whole sequence in his submarine. But it was great and Chris Evans is such a fantastic actor to play Captain America, he was such a good sport. I wish that character hadn’t died if I’m honest! [laughs]
Richard Armitage, thank you very much!
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is out now on home release.