Poor Thorin Oakenshield — the would-be King under the mountain just can't get a break. In The Hobbit, Azog the Defiler kills his Granddad, then he steals the dwarf's favorite shield... and he's not done yet. In our interview with Richard Armitage, the man behind the warrior's hair and nose, we find out just how much further Thorin has to fall. Small spoilers ahead.
Thorin Oakenshield is a bit of a fallen Shakespearean King or a Greek Tragedy figure. Did you draw on any famous past characters for inspiration?
Richard Armitage: It's so nice to hear you say that because a fellow came in the other day and said, "Thorin's a bit of a jerk, isn't he?" I see him as more of a fallen character. And yes, I drew on a number of Shakespearean characters simply because they sprang to mind. MacBeth was one of them, also Henry V and Richard III. They were three characters where I thought, "I'll just steal a bit of them." I used some speeches from Shakespeare to do some voice work. Some of the battle-rousing speeches and some of the introspective speeches from MacBeth I started to use. It was a nice place to look.
Now that you mention the battle speeches, and talking to you now on the phone, I can see that Thorin has a much lower cadence than you have (as a human). Is it hard to go that low? Do you lose your voice or find yourself falling out of it on set?
I had to really just do vocal work all the time. You're just taking your voice down maybe a semitone or a tone, [and] it will find its way back into my normal speaking pitch. If I had any time away, it would take me a while to re-find the voice. I wanted him to sound like someone who could have a very quiet conversation in a corridor with Balin and you can hear the sensitivity in his voice. But also stand on a battlement and command an army to fight. An army of 13,000 dwarves, for example. It was that type of work.
You do get to yell the best lines. You're kind of the rabble-rouser in a lot of situations. Is there a particular line you've gotten to shout that you're fond of?
There's one line in this movie that really rocked my world and it found its way into the lyrics of Ed Sheeran's song in the end. And the line is, "If this is to end in fire, then we will all burn together." When you read that in a script you just think, "I can't wait to speak those lines."
Not looking for brownie points, but I listened to "I See Fire" right after the screening and that line totally struck me as well. I remembered that was your line, it was really powerful.
Isn't it brilliant? It's such a cool song. I just met him in the last couple of days. He's such an interesting guy, a true artist who took the movie... He told me that he imagined that he was Thorin and was watching The Desolation of Smaug. And he wrote the poem that then becomes the song with that in mind.
Did he give you any tips on singing? You got to sing in the last movie, will you sing again?
You know what, I wouldn't even dare to sing like Ed Sheeran. It's such a great piece of music. I really love it.
We touched on this a little earlier but lets come back. A lot of these characters from classic epic fantasy narratives are hard to root for. How you make Thorin Oakandshield someone you want the audience to root for?
Partly when you form the character, you have to form him as someone of nobility and with a certain amount of humility as well. And then take him down a path which is going to cause him to face his flaws, and maybe be corrupted. So as an audience we are hopefully trying to call him back from that destination that he's heading towards. But also I also think, no matter what happens to him or who he's becoming on the outside, when the audience knows who he truly is on the inside, they will possibly give him the benefit of the doubt. Although he's really going to go to a dark and unreasonable place in movie three. So I think it will be hard for the audience to root for him, I think.
So he still has further to fall?
Before he falls, he rises to quite a great height. He achieves everything that he could possibly wish for. And then he falls from that great height. That's going to be his journey in movie three.
Your character has also had a lot of stand offs with all sorts of beasts and bad guys. You've fought Azog the Defiler, this new huge Orc, a bunch of cave creatures, elves and now you've had a stand-off with a dragon. Which experience has been the most intense?
The first glimpse of the standoff with Azog in movie one, wasn't really a battle. He managed to get about two blows in and Azog just completely annihilated him. That storyline is going to continue in movie three. That fight will end at some point. And that fight has been going on for a long time. In this movie, when Thorin faces the dragon, there's no sense that he can engage in combat with the dragon, he has to outwit him. That's another side to Thorin's warrior skills that was really interesting to explore. When the beast in front of you is too big to comprehend, how do you solve that problem? And that's something that they deal with in the end of the second film.
As a dwarf, you're already smaller than most of the characters in the second film. So who are you fighting in these stand off scenes? Two people standing on each other's shoulders? A giant stick?
They found a stunt guy who was exceptionally tall. He was a basketball player we called him "Big Mike" actually because he was so tall. He was maybe 7-foot something and then they put a little extension on his head (for an eye line). But really when you're fighting at that different of a height level it's all about your reach and which parts of the body you try to attack. There's no point in trying to attack the head so you tend to go for the guts and the legs and chest. I fought him most of the time.
How much does the whole costume (with the makeup and the wig and the weapons) weigh?
There were two versions of the costume. One was called the hero costume, which was all of the materials made out of really authentic things, the chainmail was real metal. Everything was incredibly heavy. That weighed 40 to 50 kilos. They also do a light-weight version which is identical (you cannot tell the difference) that was still around 20 to 25 kilos. It's like wearing a backpack with about 6 bricks in it.
What kind of hell was filming that barrel scene? I know you still get to work with Peter Jackson, and he's amazing but...
The barrel sequence, I have to tell you, there was no hell involved. It was complete joy. We were on the Pelorus River shooting in barrels. And then we were on a water course that they created in a soundstage that was powered by V8 engines so they could speed up and slow down. It was so much fun. It was like being in a theme park for a week. It was an awful lot of fun. I don't think there was a single moment of it that I didn't enjoy.
Do you miss your long hair? Do you find yourself absentmindedly pulling at your missing braids?
I don't miss the long hair when I'm eating lunch. I quite liked Thorin when he was dirty and grungy. When he was cleaner I never really felt like that's who he was. I think he's a hardened traveler and warrior. When he has blood and dirt on his hands, that's when I enjoyed playing him.
Is it hard being in a company of fun-loving, seemingly good natured dwarves and constantly disappointing them?
That was the hardest part of playing it. But I think it's who Thorin is. He really wants to do the right thing, he wants to be a hero, he wants to be a great leader. But because of his stubbornness and his sort of, single-mindedness, his inability to change, he fails. He screws up. It's only because of the Hobbit that he's able to get out of those sticky situations. In the second film you see him changing, he begins to trust him. He wouldn't have entered the door without him, it's a team effort.
Do you ever feel like you're the dramatic relief among the dwarves since so many of them are played for laughs?
Yeah, I was always looking for a moment where I could make Thorin laugh or smile but they were so few. The moment when they open the door, I think, is Thorin at his best. But I was always a little bit envious of those who can play those comedy moments.
We've seen Thorin learn how to trust, we've watched him give up some of his past (be it a tiny bit). What's next for Thorin?
The biggest challenge facing him now is tackling the effect that the gold has on him. He's really going to change so dramatically. I'm kind of looking forward to seeing how that manifests itself.
The Desolation of Smaug will hit theaters on December 13th.