Richard Armitage on The Hobbit, beards and barrels

To mark The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug’s release, we chat to Thorin himself, Richard Armitage...

The sheer scale of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy really is astonishing to think about. With filming taking place over just under one year of solid filming, the movies have required the construction of countless sets, costumes, weapons and props, while actors have had to endure long hours in make-up chairs and hanging around while shots are set up.

But far from seeming exhausted by the whole process, Thorin actor Richard Armitage seemed to relish the challenge. When discussion turned to the subject of an action sequence in The Desolation Of Smaug, his eyes light up as he talks about bobbing around in thousands of gallons of water with little more than a barrel for company.

So with the latest Hobbit film out in cinemas this week, here’s what Armitage had to say about playing one of the most famous Dwarves in fantasy literature and cinema, growing a beard and lots more.

This film feels markedly different from the first one, doesn’t it, just in terms of pace and tone?

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I think so, yes. I think because you literally start – apart from a little pre-scene – they’re on the run from the very beginning. That’s something to do with it – there’s a lot of momentum, which I think really helps.

Also, it’s the first film I’ve seen all year with an action scene involving a wheelbarrow.

[Laughs] Ha, I knew someone would pick up on that! At the time, I remember thinking, “He’s got me running around with a wheelbarrow… is he actually taking the piss?” [Laughs] It sort of looks like he’s going gardening. Emergency gardening in Erebor!

When it comes to acting beneath all that make-up, is it a case of having to project yourself, as though you’re playing to the back row in a theatre?

The performances were all slightly heightened to varying degrees anyway, so there’s an epic quality to it. In terms of the make-up and stuff, it was just a question of figuring out how animated that face could get without it looking too much like a caricature.

I’m actually the sort of person who underplays things anyway, but with the face on, it tends to read as blank, so there’s a bit of manipulation to do.

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It’s a common question to ask actors, whether putting on make-up helps them get into character. But is it also the case that being able to take all that make-up off helped to get back out of the character again when you wanted to have a break from it?

Yeah, although with this one, you never really leave the character alone. Because we were there for such a long time, I never really stopped thinking about him. Of course, I had the beard, which I grew and then had to live with throughout the whole shoot. So I could never really take the character off. 

Ah, that beard was yours. I didn’t realise that.

The beard was mine, yeah. And at the time it was frustrating, trying to live with that, but God, when everything else went on I was so glad to have my own facial hair. Because, you know, when you’ve got a thing glued to your face, any kind of movement makes it crack and pop. So it was kind of useful to have.

This immediately struck me as a darker film, since we have these themes coming through now of greed and corruption. Not just with Smaug, obviously, but also with Bilbo’s relationship with the ring and also your character’s desire to get hold of the Arkenstone.

It was important to separate those two things. That’s why the first scene’s important, and the reason it got used, because the Arkenstone’s more of a talisman. It offers the right to rule, and it means that [Thorin] can call on armies to gather to the Arkenstone.

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But you’re right about the greed and the corruption. It just starts to tip in. The gold starts to take effect.

Is it’s essentially an ensemble movie, isn’t it? Is that freeing, being one of several leading characters rather than the sole protagonist?

That’s what’s nice about the piece. Bilbo’s certainly the eyes and ears of the audience, and they’ve managed to craft enough of a personal journey, so we’re with him, but we have all these other characters at the same time. But it’s nice, because my character sits quite nicely in the story’s spine, in regards to the journey. It’s important that the journey feels strong, because Pete’s going to go off on tangents, but he’s going to keep coming back to the story. It feels very familiar, which is good.

What’s Peter Jackson like on set as a director, because his way of setting scenes up seems very playful. Is that his personality as you’re working with him?

It is. And the really smart thing about him is that he, aside from his playground – and the set is very much his place, and you enter his world, you get on board and you play – he’s a different director with every actor. He’s very sensitive to how actors work. Martin [Freeman] is a very experimental actor. Ian [McKellen], obviously, is classically trained. I tended to be quite private, and then when it comes to filming, we’d capture that. So he’d leave me alone, he wouldn’t disturb that too much, which I really liked. 

Given just how long you worked on these films – I think I read that it was 266 days, is that right?

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I think I ended up doing 274 including pick-ups. 

So did it almost feel like doing a TV show in a way – albeit a very big, expensive TV show – because you’re inhabiting that same character for so long?

I suppose in terms of playing a character for that amount of time, yes. But it never felt like TV, I have to say. I think because you don’t have the speed and immediacy of getting through it like you do on television. There was time. Like if there were issues, they could cut a scene and write another one. There was constant observance of that, and an attention to each character, which you don’t get in television. There, you shoot it and you air it. Here, you have time to dub it add digital painting and things like that.

Do you think the line’s become blurred in recent years, between cinema and TV? Because you have a film like The Hobbit and lots of others, where you have a story which carries on over multiple entries, while in TV you have film directors going into it, and the production values are getting better.

I think the days of that sort of episodic, drop-in television are probably in the past. People like continuity, and the good old cliffhanger every week is something they enjoy. I enjoy it – I don’t want to dip into just one episode when I turn on the TV.

I guess the challenge, with three movies like this, and I embraced it, is that they do want people who haven’t seen movie one to go and see the second film. And to get it without seeing the first one, which is interesting.

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Dwarves, obviously, are a different size from humans, which required a fair bit of camera trickery. How did that affect your performance?

I tended to not really think about it. I just let Peter deal with the technical side of scale, but occasionally my eyeline had to be higher. But because my character’s a fairly high status character, they don’t really dwell on that sense of scale too much – they tend to film him in a close-up or a mid-shot. They tried not to diminish him too much, which was good, so I was mostly face-to-face with my fellow actors. 

You once said something which I quite liked: the Dwarves don’t consider themselves to be small people.

I did quite a lot of research and reading about them. They don’t tend to venture out into the wider world very often, and they tend to stay in the domains they’ve created for themselves. You see in the film how massive Erabor is: they build these gigantic monuments to themselves. They built Mount Rushmore for Dwarves! Maybe that’s them compensating for the fact that they are quite small, but in their minds, they’re massive, and they have huge egos, I believe. So I guess they must emerge from their mountain and think, there are giants everywhere. We’d better steer clear of them.

Did it help that you were into Tolkien before getting the part?

I’d have described myself as a Tolkien reader before this, but now I’d describe myself as a Tolkien geek. In that I felt it was my obligation to know as much as I could. I mean, I get things wrong sometimes, because I’m not obsessive – I just find out what I need to know.

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It’s been a while since I’ve read The Hobbit, but the bit that always stuck in my head was the scene with the barrels. I like the way this film expands on that while staying true to the spirit of it.

Yeah, and that’s the epitome of Peter Jackson as a director. In the book, I think it says something like, “And then they escaped in some barrels.” And that was an invitation for Peter to pick up the baton and conduct this barrel escape in the way that I want. Even the way the barrels are jettisoned is imaginative. That’s the way his mind works: he always finds a moment you didn’t expect.

It seemed genuinely dangerous, which is a sign of good direction.

And it’s funny as well. It’s on the edge of silly, but it’s not. It makes you laugh, but it’s also spectacular.

So what percentage of that was actors, or stunt performers, or visual effects?

There were no stunt performers. Whenever you see us, it’s us. The only time it wasn’t us was in the very wide shots, where there were huge rapids. Everywhere else, it’s us. The most dangerous-looking stuff was shot in this special rig, a kind of water course which was actually quite a long loop. It was powered by two V8 engines, one at each end, so the water would continue all the way around, and they could speed it up and slow it down. Then they’d dump these skips of water on us so the barrels would go under the water, then they’d take the water in the other direction.

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We shot that for about two weeks, and it was a hell of a lot of fun – it was like getting on a ride every day. In the beginning, we were all a bit, “I don’t know how this works,” but by the end, we were able to tilt the barrel into the engine so that we could really power forward. It was brilliant. 

It sounds like it could become a sport.

Yeah, it was like a sport!

Did you ever talk on set about the new things added from the other books?

Because I was into the books, I’d try to figure out what moment they were trying to recreate and go and find it in the book. Sometimes, very, very occasionally, if there was a line that Tolkien was using, and [Philippa] Boyens wasn’t, I’d say, “Have you seen the line?” And she’d say, “Of course I’ve seen the line – there’s a reason we aren’t using that,” or they’d use it somewhere else. They’re very interesting, the way they write, because they’ll take ideas from other places, and put them in the mouth of different characters. It’s all from Tolkien, but they’ll share it out a bit more. But I like it, because it’s an original script based on Tolkien. They’ll sometimes take magnificent lines that are purely his, and sometimes they’ll create a completely new line which sounds like Tolkien.

One of my favourite lines in the film, which I was convinced was in the book was, “If this is to end in fire, then we shall all burn together”, which is now a lyric in a song as well. It’s nothing to do with Tolkien, Tolkien never wrote it, but for some reason I thought he had. But it’s just a good line.

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As I said earlier, there’s a real sense of momentum to this movie. Do you think that’s something that can be maintained in the next one?

I know what happens in the third movie, and I’m sure some people who’ve read the book will think, “What’s left to tell?” But there is a lot left to tell. It gets excruciating, I think, in terms of politics and jeopardy.

Richard Armitage, thank you very much. 

The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug is out now in the UK. Our review is here.

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