With the release of the first "Hobbit" film, Hollywood is finally set to showcase a man that fans of British television have known about for years - Richard Armitage. In fact, the distinguished 41-year-old English thespian has already unwittingly assembled his own rabid fan base of swooning admirers affectionately nicknamed 'The Armitage Army'.
It's not hard to see why - with sharp features, a great head of hair, icy blue eyes and other impressive assets, he looks very much a star. He first came to attention with his leading role in the BBC's 2004 version of "North and South". He also played Macduff to James McAvoy's Macbeth in the "ShakespeaRe-Told" limited series, and showed off a warmer side romancing Dawn French in the final episodes of beloved sitcom "The Vicar of Dibley".
I became aware of Armitage for his leather-clad role of Guy of Gisborne in the BBC's "Robin Hood," from which he segued into the role of Lucas North on one of my favorite shows "Spooks" (aka. "MI-5"). Decked out in tattoos (as pictured below) to showcase his character's seven years imprisoned in a Russian gulag, Armitage was a major cast member from the seventh to the ninth season of the long-running spy thriller. Demonstrating his best James Bond/Jack Bauer style skills before departing in dramatic fashion, he also slipped in a quick cameo on last year's "Captain America: The First Avenger".
All that running around and fighting on "Spooks" certainly prepared him for much of the action he would face in "The Hobbit" trilogy. Armitage says: "All of the fight skills have been really useful, but because I play the character younger as well … he fights in a completely different way to when he's older. He's much more crazy and berserk, and as he's got older it becomes more efficient, so he doesn't waste any energy. It's a very heavy, disciplined way of fighting [which] has been a big character-building thing."
In the books and films, the character of Thorin Oakenshield is the leader of this company of dwarves who sets out to reclaim their heritage from the dragon Smaug. Thorin is the oldest, toughest and most noble of the dwarves, Armitage himself compares him to "an old piece of wood that's grown hard with age". Thorin has also generally been portrayed as an older character than the version we're seeing in this adaptation, but Armitage says they needed the character to be heroic on the battlefield, "[he's] like a dying flame when you first meet him, but he still has to be a flame."
In 2010, Armitage scored the lead role opposite "The Walking Dead" star Andrew Lincoln in the original, pre-Cinemax, Sky1 mini-series version of the still running action series "Strike Back". When Cinemax came onboard and retooled the show for the second season, Armitage had to turn it down and only guest starred in the first episode. The reason? He was already committed to "The Hobbit".
Armitage was as surprised as anyone to have won the role of Thorin as he didn't pursue it. "It absolutely came to me," he says. "I didn't really-- I knew 'The Hobbit' was being made, but I would never have connected myself with a dwarf. I figured why would they want a six-foot-two guy to play a dwarf?." In fact, Armitage ended up wearing lifts in his shoes to ensure that he was the tallest of the group, even if visual effects wizardry will ultimately render him down to all of 5'2" tall on screen.
His early apprehension stuck with him during the first month of filming, the actor claiming "I didn't really unpack my bag for about three weeks, 'cause I thought that I was going to be on the plane going home. But yeah, it's worked out all right." He also channeled that nervousness into his performance - "Bag End was the first week of shooting for this character, for me and for the other dwarves as well, and it feels so different. But it was good that it felt awkward. It felt like they were out of place because they are in that environment. Dwarves don't belong in a cozy, domestic situation. They belong in giant halls and on a battlefield."
In person Armitage is a surprisingly demure man for his height and stature, soft-spoken and reserved, but in an honest and almost shy way that makes him endearing. Unlike the other dwarves on our visit, Armitage spoke to us out of make-up and revealed he is the only one of the cast whose beard is all natural. "Once we'd decided what the beard was going to be like, I realized I could probably grow it myself," he says. "When it comes to the action stuff, and especially water and any kind of battle cry, it [a fake beard] just starts to lift, and there's much less fuss with this. It looks better, I think."
He's also known for thoroughly researching his roles and coming up with all sorts of interesting takes on his characters. He says he used the devastation in Hiroshima at the end of WWII as an inspiration for the kind of devastation that drove the dwarves away from their homeland. His character isn't as concerned with the treasure that awaits so much as scoring retribution - "I think he's thinking less about the gold and more about his people and his own personal agenda with his grandfather, his father, and his nemesis Azog who slaughtered his grandfather … I think the burden of taking his people back to their homeland, which is so massive, makes him a lonely figure."
Thorin is a character who isn't too happy being forced to bring along Bilbo Baggins on this quest and that plays into an interesting relationship with Gandalf - "I think he needs Gandalf to go on the quest, and if Gandalf says they've got to take this Hobbit, then fair enough. He can't really do it without him because Gandalf has the map and the key, and he's kind of hoodwinked into doing it. But all the way along, there is this antagonistic relationship between Thorin and Gandalf. I think Thorin is trying to prove that Gandalf isn't correct, and most of his assumption is that he's trying to usurp his leadership. When Gandalf isn't there, Thorin really becomes a leader, and when he turns up, he has to be subservient, and it's not something that he likes at all."
Asked about the 48 frames-per-second issue, Armitage says: "In terms of the fantasy creatures, I think at forty-eight frames a second, they sit much more comfortably with real characters. So real actors and created characters, I think that gap between them is lessened, from what I can gather." He also admits he's not a fan of 3D, but says in this case its use here is justified as it's "about texture, and showing Middle Earth in a way that is tangible, so that you feel like you're really in there. There's so much of the world, like Mirkwood, where every opportunity there is to develop and enhance the natural world has been taken."
There's been a few pinch-yourself moments for Armitage while filming this. One was on his first week "standing in Bag End, looking into Ian's eyes and thinking, feeling like -- I haven't had that before, where you feel like you are in a film, well, not really in a film, but actually in the world of the Rings films." Others have been some of the astonishing places they've filmed in. "Most of the location shoot, you leap out of bed every morning and get to the top of a mountain. We had a few days where it just takes your breath away," he says.
One notable day was filming second unit with Andy Serkis directing and Peter Jackson monitoring. The scene in question saw the dwarves take the gates of Moria - "he had Orcs on this mound and he was rallying them to start this battle cry, and wind machines going, and blood everywhere … I think I put a shield through my lip and had a mouthful of blood and this big, huge broken lip, and he [Jackson] said, 'Okay, can you just try another one now?'. I'm like, 'Yeah, okay', with this big mouthful of blood. But it looks great on the shot because I've got these bleeding teeth and it's dripping out of my face."
Another wild day had him doing a "slow motion sprint through the forest which was on fire," and he seems game for whatever challenge Jackson can throw at him. "I think we did something the other day on a rig where I was in the mouth of a Warg, being shaken around. Pete always wants to push it further, so it got to the point where I was being severely shaken around, but you watch playback and it looks fantastic, so you think, 'Okay, get me back in there and do it again. Shake me harder'," he says with an adventurous smile.
Set Visit: "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"
From inception to production, a set report on the year's biggest fantasy epic.
Interview: Sir Peter Jackson
The filmmaker talks frame rates, filming techniques and development woes.
Interview: Sir Ian McKellen
Gandalf himself talks his initial frustrations and the joy of being a wizard.
Interview: Martin Freeman
The 'Sherlock' star on his the pressure of being Bilbo and fellow actors.