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Dreaming of Thorin – An Interview with Richard Armitage

Recently I had the opportunity to sit down with English actor, self proclaimed method actor, Richard Armitage at ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’ press junket in New York City where we discussed his role as “King Dwarf” Thorin Oakenshield.

Armitage is known for his roles in the BBC series ‘Robin Hood’ as Guy Gisborne, ‘North and South’, ‘ShakespeaRe-Told’ series as McDuff in Macbeth and other starring roles in film and television.

I was led by his assistant to the hotel day room where we were to interview. I entered to see a very relaxed Armitage sitting on a couch. As I was introduced to him by the assistant, he stood to greet me and shake my hand.

Richard Armitage: How long do you get?

Steve Fitch: Well, they told me at least an hour.

Richard Armitage: Okay, that’s cool.

Steve Fitch: (laughing) I’m just kidding.

Richard Armitage: (laughs) At least we can have a glass of wine at the end of it.

Steve Fitch: Oh, of course! For sure. No, just ten minutes.

Richard Armitage: You take as long as you want.

As we sat down from our introduction and pleasantries, the interview began.

Steve: Well, I’ll start by saying that this will be my first sit down interview ever.

Richard Armitage: Really?

Steve: Yes, you’re my first.

Richard Armitage: Am I? Well, I’m very proud to be.

Steve: I’ve done many interviews over the internet or through email, like recently with John Howe.

Richard Armitage: Oh, he’s such a nice man. My God, that man. What a talent.

Steve: He seems very quiet. I tried to get him to do a Hobbit reading on our network and he said, “I can’t talk well.”

Thorin by John Howe

Richard Armitage: Both of them—John and Alan—Are just incredible. You look at their work, and it bowls you over. And they come on set and they’re like, “Are you okay? We really like what you’re doing.” And I’m like, “You’re Alan Lee! You’ve made all these incredible sketches, so let me please say Thank You.”

They’re one of the reasons why I was able to take the role. I can never remember whether it was Alan…let me Google it. There’s a sketch of Thorin, a pencil sketch…oh, it’ll come to me… from one of them. Which one of the does them very fine pencil sketches? Because they paint differently, don’t they?

Steve: I think it’s John.

Richard Armitage: It’s John’s sketch of Thorin, then, and he’s got his hands crossed. That’s what convinced me I could play the role.

Steve: They are great artists.

Richard Armitage: Amazing. They have no idea how important their role was. Peter would come in with a picture and go, “This is what you’re looking at,” and it would be one of their sketches. So you would be looking at their work going, “Okay, that’s our world.”

Steve: And they always seem to downplay it.

Richard Armitage: Totally. They were embarrassed to go on set; they thought they’d be in the way. I’m like, “You designed this. This is your world. Come on in.” Amazing people.

Steve: You’re known for being a very detailed actor. You dedicate a lot of extensive time and research to your roles. What kind of prep did you do to get ready for the Thorin role?

Richard Armitage: Before I went to New Zealand, I did have quite a lot of time, so I obviously started with the book and looked at the Appendices in ‘The Lord of the Ring’s. I didn’t really read ‘[The] Lord of the Rings’ because I’d read it as a kid. But I just started looking at a lot of other Tolkien work. I looked at ‘The Silmarillion’, I looked at ‘The Book of Lost Tales’. I looked at a lot of biographies about Tolkien because I wanted to understand why he’d written ‘The Hobbit’ and what had influenced him to write ‘The Hobbit’. He wrote a lot about dwarves and the Nordic aspect of it and his fascination with language and etymology. So all of these things I was just interested in. I didn’t know whether I was going to be able to use it.

So that was the beginning. And then when we got to New Zealand, it was all physical. Learning how to move like a dwarf, sing like a dwarf, fight like a dwarf…s**t like a dwarf. Then you put aside the work and start filming. Also the work about dressing Thorin and making him look right. It wasn’t just somebody else; my opinion was always involved. I found incredibly it flattering that it was democratic. I was always asked, “What do you think of this?”

Actually, I had an idea for a weapon, and I remember going to Pete the very first week (we were having like a drinks thing in his garden), and I said to him, “I don’t want to talk shop when we’re being social, but I’ve got an idea for this thing. I think [Thorin] might have kept a piece of wood from the battle where it saves his life. And he’s honed it and he carries it around with him.” And he said, “Ok, well go and do a sketch.” So I did a really crude pencil sketch of this Oakenshield, and he said, “Okay, we’ll give it to Weta.” And they designed this amazing thing for me. It just became fascinating that it’s part of the character now, and I think, “How did that happen? He actually carries the Oakenshield around with him.” I don’t know how it came to me; I was like, “Oh, let’s have a go at that.”

Steve Fitch: When you were preparing before and when you finally got to set, going along with the democratic part of it, were there some realities or changes that you didn’t expect of how Peter wanted it to go?

Richard Armitage: The one thing I didn’t expect was the fact that we were going to be bigger. When we get into costume, we’re all massive. So these dwarves are huge. I was a bigger version of myself. I was taller and wider than I am (obviously, because Pete shrinks you on the computer). I always thought that I would be small, but I was big. But it was very useful, and I didn’t realize it at the time, but in retrospect, it’s become clear that the growth in size has really helped to form this subconscious ego that I think dwarves have.

When you look at the designs for Erebor, it looks like Mount Rushmore. They built massive monuments to themselves, they accumulate huge amounts of wealth, they think a lot of themselves because they are a forbidden race. They are secondary to elves in the Legendarium.

Without allegory (because Tolkien is just not interested in it), it’s possible that they are like the Jewish people of Nazi Germany. I don’t think Tolkien intended that at all, but that’s how they feel. There’s a pride to them that’s like, “We will not be defeated. We will go back to our homeland and we will reclaim what was taken from us.”

Steve Fitch: You talked in the press conference earlier about the influence Tolkien had with Catholicism. And it’s funny, because not many people really know the background. That’s what Tolkien had actually said himself, that he had written that for a Catholic audience.

Richard Armitage: Did he say that? See, I didn’t know that. I just knew that he had that faith. C.S. Lewis definitely wrote religious allegory, and they were close friends. I think they read each other’s work and were influenced by each other.

There are just themes that run through his work that you look at and you think, “Why does this resonate?” I’m not religious, but it feels like a sacred moment. And these amazing lines that—I don’t even know if it’s Tolkien anymore or if whether it’s [Philippa]Boyens—that amazing line that Gandalf says when he gives Bilbo Sting. He says, “True courage is learning when to spare a life rather than when to take one.” I mean, could that be more Catholic, Christian, whatever faith?

I think also his experience of World War I, whereby his very, very close friends lost their lives and he came back changed. And I think that’s what ‘The Hobbit’ is about.

Steve Fitch: You said in a previous interview that you live with the characters that you’re playing in your projects and that they become part of you while you’re working. Have you kept a little bit of Thorin?

Richard Armitage: I’ve had to because we’re not done yet. And actually, coming back to do all of the press stuff, I went back to my notes. I was like, “Yeah, you know what? Just go back to those details and things that you wrote down, the ideas that you had.” My brain is like a sieve; it just drains. I suppose just because I don’t that I’m good enough to just go, “I can do it now.” (snaps) I’ve got to keep it there in my head. I’ve got to concentrate on it.

But there was one period whereby I started to dream about going through the door. Through the course of a week, I remember having this constant dream of opening a door and walking down a corridor. I was kind of dreaming Thorin’s dream. It’s funny because it sort of got mixed up with another character where I used to start dreaming in the character. I suppose I was going to bed programming my mind to dream because I’d been reading stuff. I’d been reading about that moment where they open the door in the script, so whether or not it’s the character dreaming or me dreaming about the character…It’s nice to wake up in the morning, remember that dream and go, “Ah! I’m going to just jot some notes down of the things I saw in that dream, so that when we come to shoot it, I can use it,” because that’s the subconscious. It’s just brilliant when you can totally let go of control.

Steve Fitch: So do you have that kind of Thorin attitude when you’re out buying a coffee at Starbucks?

Richard Armitage: No. (laughs) God, I wish. Can you imagine Thorin trying to exist in the modern world? He wouldn’t get very far. You know, actually maybe he would. If he pulled that sword out, he’d probably get his coffee quicker, wouldn’t he? (laughs)

Steve Fitch: Oh, for sure. He wouldn’t have to wait.

A lot of media out there have referred to ‘The Hobbit’ as going to be bigger than ‘Avatar’.

Richard Armitage: Right.

Steve Fitch: Even [James] Cameron has stated that he’s watching to see how the 48fps goes. And if it goes well, then he’s going to jump in and do his other two ‘Avatar’ films with it. A lot of pressure and expectations. Being part of the project, how is this influencing you?

Richard Armitage: You know, it’s weird because the discussions happening amongst us are really interesting. There’s a part of me that is so proud to be in that first experiment whereby the cinema is being pushed forward—not just visually, but in terms of sound. But there’s also the anxiety that that will be the talking point, rather than characterization and story.

But I’m proud to be part of something that will divide people. It will. I do think people will say, “I hate it. I hate 48 frames. I hate 3D. I want old-fashioned cinema.” I can be a bit like that. I don’t need 3D. But then when you see that finished film, you’re like, “Well if you can do this, then why not? Why not have this as a choice?” You can go and see it in 2D on IMAX, if you want. You can go and see it at 48 frames if you want. There is no definitive perfect version of the film.

What is really interesting is that I remember seeing ‘Avatar’ in 3D at the cinema, and then when the DVDs were released, I was like, “I’m not interested. I don’t want to see it in 2D because now that I’ve seen it in 3D, I don’t ever want to see it in any other format.” So, I don’t know. I’m kind of proud to be part of that cutting-edge.

Steve Fitch: Peter [Jackson] said earlier in the first press conference…It was funny, because I was talking to a bunch of other media about it. About the day that cassette tapes stopped and CDs just started, and we had to deal with it.

Richard Armitage: I remember (laughs) very clearly. There’s a famous electrical store called Dixons, and they were like, “Today is the day when Dixons have declared that tape recorders will no longer be made, so anyone that has a cassette tape will never be able to buy again.” And it’s like, everything moves on.

I know that there’s a retro feel for vinyl. And there will always be film. There will always be black and white movies. But if you don’t push it forward…I admire Peter for wanting to get people into event cinema, because otherwise people will be watching it on that. (Points to phone) They’ll be watching it on an iPhone. And that’s no experience, is it? You want to sit in the cinema. And you want to sit in the cinema with an audience full of people.

I watched the film alone, well, in a room of about five people, and at the time I was like, “I want to sit in the cinema with other people and watch this together, not alone in my room watching it on television.”

Steve Fitch: It’s the whole movie experience.

Richard Armitage: And it’s also taking your family to see something, because there are so few things that you can do together as a family. There’s not very much at all that you can do. And the fact that this is a Christmas movie is great, and I really hope that Mom and Dad take the kids to see it, and then on Christmas day, they open a book of ‘The Hobbit’ and they go, “Oh look! This film I’ve just seen. Let me start reading it.” I really hope that they do, you know, and then go play with the LEGO set. (laughs) Whatever it takes to get that imagination going. And hopefully they’ll go back and see it again.

Steve Fitch: Peter had also said earlier—and I thought it was interesting, because he makes a good point—that Bilbo is a big part of the book, but arguably, it’s the story of Thorin.

Richard Armitage: Yeah, and I never had this conversation with Peter, because he has the conversation through the process. But he said something in the press conference which I was like, “Actually, that’s the nail on the head,” and that’s that Bilbo is absolutely the heart of the story. He’s the beating heart of the story that you want to protect and you want to make sure survives. Thorin is the soul, really. He’s the experience, he’s the spirit of the dwarves and their kingdom and this whole bowl that holds the heart in their hands. And that’s how I see it. And they sit in harmony with each other, I think, and are changed by each other.

It was then that the assistant had come in to let me know that my time had come to an end. Immediately we stood and shook hands.

Richard Armitage: Great first interview.

Steve Fitch: Thank you. You are being very kind.

Richard Armitage: (laughs) No, you were brilliant. I hope you do many more.

Richard Armitage brings a driven and dedicated passion to the role of the powerful, Thorin Oakenshield. ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’ opens in theaters December 14th.

About Steve "Rifflo" Fitch

Steve, also known as “Rifflo”, is a University MBA Administrator in Ontario Canada where he lives with his wife, Lisa and two young daughters, Alexa and Ava. Steve has an extensive background in corporate sales. Steve also worked for ISAF: International Security Assistance Force and the Canadian Military as a recruiter in Human Resources for the operations in Bosnia and Afghanistan. When not immersed in Tolkien works,sci-fi, and film, you can find him training in Muay Thai, and Italian rapier.
  • Michele

    Brilliant interview–original questions, original answers. Not the same old stuff we’ve been reading for the past two weeks. You got a lot done with your ten minutes, sir. Bravo.

  • L

    Great interview – 10 minutes very well spent!

  • Evie Bowman

    Wondeful interview, Steve. Very original and a good conversation rather than Q&A. I can just picture you two chatting. Brilliant 🙂

  • Absolutely brilliant interview and what an honour, really made up for you. Well done and may this be the first of many star interviews.

  • I am really intrigued by the part about the dream in the corridor, wish he would have said more. My friend and Tolkien artist Jay Johnstone has a recurring Tolkien themed dream. Dreams play an important part in Tolkien’s world… anyway I suspect some connection. But brilliant interview Steve – so glad this was your first. Richard Armitage really seems like such an honorable fellow who was genuinely into finding out more about the stories and Tolkien. LOVE the Oakenshield story. Cheers!

  • KiplingKat

    Actually, that is not the first time Armitage has talked about dreaming in character. He’s a method actor and he calles it “sitting in a marinade” of the character the entire time he is filming.

  • knowfere

    I was enchanted by every word Steve! Thanks for bringing us such a wonderful conversation! I loved the part he says about taking the family out to watch The Hobbit for Christmas, and then hope they’ll go home and read the book and then play with their LEGO Hobbit sets. I had to find a tissue that was so touching. Absolutely wonderful interview!

  • Great story Steve, you should be careful jotting stuff down from dreams – you never know where it will take you.

    Jay

  • theviking

    As the great Cheeshire said, you sir, are a rock star! Great work Steve (even for a Canadian 😉 )

  • I really appreciate all your kind feedback! It was truly a perfect first interview!

  • CMS

    A really, really great interview. I agree with others that it was pleasant to read something other than the same old interview. Poor Richard has retold his first experience in The Hobbit so many times that he must inwardly roll his eyes when other interviewers bring it up.

    I’m amazed this was only ten minutes! You seemed to have an instant ability to get Richard talking passionately about this experience. A conversation rather than a Q&A. Well done!

    I do want to say I hope you can correct some small typos. It was distracting to read with these. For example, I doubt Richard blundered his first sentence to you. Maybe he did say, “How long *to* you get?”

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  • mouthymerc

    Great job, buddy. Next ale is on me.

  • OOps! This sometimes happens when posting late at night on very little sleep. I will have to take another look at edits.

    The interview actually lasted 15 minutes and could have gone longer. 🙂

  • Awesome interview. Great work Steve!

  • Andang

    Great job Steve…can’t wait to hear more about your trip on Random Fandom tonight!

  • Felix

    “Did he say that?”

    Pretty sure he didn’t, actually. At least I remember a different remark where he said LotR was a very (or quintessentially etc.) Catholic work. But I strongly doubt he said he wrote it “for” Catholics. I think he wouldn’t like that, even. It would be too presumptious and probably conflict with his understanding of (his) art. It would also make his antipathy towards allegory implausible and pointless.

  • I had based that comment on something I read from Tolkien:

    J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.”

    This doesn’t mean that he didn’t write it for all. That said, perhaps it could have been worded differently at the time if I had thought of it, but…it was something thought of on the spot connected to what Armitage said earlier.

  • eelilac

    Brilliant interview. Truly. Fresh questions and engaging. I was well into it and didn’t want the interview to finish. Well done.

  • Meaghan

    Lovely interview. I was so disappointed when it ended. wish it could have gone on longer. Armitage seems like such a friendly guy.

  • theHouston

    Dude! 😉

    Great, great work!

  • Thanks Shawn!

  • Steve, since you joined the MeNews team, you have certainly done an amazing job in trying to track down some great content for the site. This is truly an amazing interview. Well done sir! Thoroughly enjoyed this!

  • Ian

    Great interview! It’s so cool you got to do that. Reading how Armitage researched the role makes me excited to see his performance. It’s great when an actor goes that mile to make sure he understands his part!

  • peppgrad

    Awesome interview! Not the same old questions or the same old answers. It appears you took some time to think about your opening questions. He seems like a very nice guy who truly enjoyed doing this role.

    So, here’s the 10 million dollar question: What type of wine was he drinking?

  • I was thinking the same thing about the dream. I wish he would have said more. I wish I could just dream great things into being like he seems to be able to! Great interview, Rifflo!

  • Patricia

    ditto to the brilliant comments. I found out several things I didn’t know about The Hobbit, which is almost incredible, since I’ve been reading all interviews and articles I possibly can. You asked some pointed questions and he seems to be a lovely subject to interview, very detailed and thoughtful in his answers. Love him. Great job!!

  • tricksy

    Excellent interview. How do you do it? I’d have probably fainted at the sight of him. 🙂

  • Lisa Quing

    What a great interview! I loved reading how Richard came up with the idea for the oakenshield. I’ve met Richard (very briefly) on the set of Black Sky and was very impressed. So jealous you got to spend 15 minutes chatting with him about Tolkien!

  • Ute

    Great first interview, very interesting question (not the usual ones you can find everywhere). For me it could have lasted much longer.

    Thank you very much…

  • He was such a pleasure to talk with

  • Fantastic interview! Also, I’m supremely jealous.

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  • Emily

    He didn’t say he wrote it “for Catholics,” but personally, I think that the fact that I’m Catholic helped me to understand and appreciate the story better. Not that people who aren’t Catholic can’t enjoy it, but there are things that they won’t “get,” if you know what I mean. Because I will see a passage in the book and go “OH! This is totally based off of this!”

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  • Amanda

    Richard guessed right about Tolkien basing the Dwarves on the Jewish people, having their ancestral homes taken from them, being forced to wonder to find a new home….

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  • Paul Martin

    This is a brilliant interview! Can’t believe it’s taken me this long to read it!

  • evangeline

    Richard is accommodating in dealing with social media.He had a few back tracks because he is human, generous and have a gentle sense of humor. I saw him on stage once, and I thought Ted Hughes came to life. I wish he can play Oedipus Rex on stage. It would be a great event in Richard’s body of work. I would travel to NY or Los Angeles if need be. Life with out a few enchanting thrills is devoutly not to be wished.