Standing well over 6' tall, with an athletic frame and impeccably coiffed hair, Richard Armitage the silhouette screams matinee idol, which makes it all the more impressive that Richard Armitage the person screams "Dwarf!"
But, then, this isn't your older brother's axe wielding, pipe smoking, occasionally tossed comic relief.
As Thorin Oakenshield, the leader of a band of not so merry dwarves looking to reclaim their ancestral homeland from the ravages of the dragon Smaug in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Armitage takes his first bold, steely-eyed, heroic steps into the world of Middle Earth, embodying with method exactness the badass anti-hero of J.R.R. Tolkien's original.
Before that, though… a little bit of fun. Armitage recently sat down with Movieline in New York City where he revealed the physicality of being a dwarf, his facility for speaking in tongues, his hard fought battle scars, and the number one reason you should always answer an interrupting telephone.
Movieline: Here's what we can do. We can do the entire interview in Khuzdul [the fictional language created by J.R.R. Tolkien for the dwarves of Middle Earth].
Do you speak dwarvish?
I speak some dwarvish.
Do you speak it fluently?
There isn't really that much [in The Hobbit].
Baruk Khazâd! Khazâd ai-mênu!
No. You can't fool me. That's from Lord of the Rings.*
Do you know dwarf sign language?
[Huge laughter from Armitage as he crosses one forearm perpendicularly over the other, giving an especially vigorous non-dwarf signal.]
Yes, any dwarf could understand that. But, no, this is a real thing. Tolkien made dwarf sign language because, you know, it's too loud to talk in the mines.
Actually, we did work with Terry Notary and we did work on a kind of sign language. That scene in Bag End where Dwalin head butts Balin as a dwarf greeting — it's a visceral, physical greeting. The language implies [physicality] as well. Physical sort of found its way into the vocal for me.
Physical as in changing your body? Is there a physical choreography to being a dwarf? A way to walk?
It's sort of informed by the skeleton of these creatures because they're not really human. Their center of gravity is much lower, their torsos longer — which was really tough for me because I'm the other way around. I've got really long legs and a short body. So all of my belts were down here on my hips, and slowly they work their way up to where your waist is. I was constantly having to pull them down.
There were other things we worked on — chewing up the ground as you walk. You know, when a dwarf starts running it takes a long time to stop. They're very heavy, very stooped trains. They can't stop immediately. Like, they'll crash through a wall. Their bone structure is heavy and solid. And those huge boots, which I think are going to be a big fashion statement next year.
Why not a trend following all these hot dwarves?
[Laughs] Oh yeah, we were baking!
Dwarves baking wasn't what I think these websites that listed 'hot dwarves' were thinking. Was there ever advice or conversation with John Rhys Davies [who played Gimli the dwarf in Lord of the Rings]?
Was there something in his performance that you ever looked at?
No. He came to visit and said hello. But we started from scratch.
With this dwarf physicality, were you able to escape unscathed from all these battle scenes?
I put my tooth through my lip when we were shooting the Battle of Azanulbizar. You see Thorin fighting six orcs. And we choreographed it on the ground and then filmed it on platforms so everything gets higher by about two feet. I actually smacked myself in the face with the shield and had this huge swollen lip that was bleeding down my neck. I was so angry at myself. You know when you hit yourself? I was so bloody angry. And then Andy [Serkis] came and showed me a mirror. I was like, 'Oh God.' He said, 'Do you want to carry on?' I said, 'Yeah, cause it looks good.' It looked really good. It looked really kind of real.
In the original film, both Elijah [Wood] and Andy [Serkis] were able to take props home. If I go to your house will I see Orcrist above the mantle?
You have Orcrist in the umbrella stand. Cause I want to be able to pick it up. You also have the shield in the kitchen drawer. And on the wall you have the map and key. I've got the full kit. The only thing I wanted was the key. But I was very kindly —
[Armitage is cut off when the phone in the hotel room where we are conducting the interview rings, interrupting us.]
Do you need to answer that?
Maybe I should. It's Sauron. You can tell by his ring.
Where were we? Orcrist!
But not the Arkenstone?
I don't think I ever even saw the Arkenstone. Yes I did! I saw it at a distance being held up to me mockingly. But because it's a special effect — it glows — there's nothing there.
Not even a physical prop?
Well, yes. It looks like a bath soap.
Not very romantic.
I almost thought at one point in the movie that Thorin was going to do the "We few, we happy few" speech from [Shakespeare's] Henry V—
Balin says that in the flashback — we few that survived! It's very Shakespearean isn't it? It's interesting because when I was doing preparation I was doing a lot of vocal work, and in order to do this workout I was picking out soliloquies to use. A little Henry V, a little Richard III, a little bit Macbeth. And then I thought, ok, why have I picked these speeches? It's like turning over tarot cards. There's a reason why I was instinctively drawn — I had like 5 pages I was working on every night — and it's almost like there's a little bit of everything in there. The Henry V is that sort of battle rallying idea, and there's a little bit of self-hatred in Richard III, and there's a good amount of taking the wrong path in Macbeth. I suddenly thought, 'All of this stuff is relevant.' I didn't deliberately weave it through the character but it was just there, like a tone.
In regards to Richard III and Macbeth, you could also say there's a lot of greed in Thorin.
Do you see that as his over-arching narrative throughout the film? [The renunciation of] greed? Or revenge?
It's more about — yes, he was bequeathed a revenge upon Azog for his grandfather's beheading. He also has to take his people back to the mountain to reclaim the gold that was taken from them in this horrific Holocaust whereby the dragon came and decimated his people. It's not altruistic. It has to be personal and he wants to be King Under the Mountain. That means taking back the gold. The greed aspect is something that — as he gets closer to the mountain, it's like the greed draws him and the gold corrupts him.
Certainly in the novel, as you speak of getting close to the mountain in physical distance, he also gets closer somehow to the character of Smaug.
I think he is probably corrupted by the gold as Smaug was fattened by it. But that's the aspect of Thorin's character that he's ashamed of. He knows it exists. It's like a line that runs through his family of greed. And when they come in contact with gold it corrupts them. It happened to his grandfather. I always imagined that Thorin was probably closer to [his grandfather] Thror than he was to [his father] Thrain. I think that Thror hid himself away when he got the dragon sickness, and Thorin kind of kept him behind closed doors and would nurse him through his sickness. Kept the door closed so no one ever saw the king. I think he witnessed the physical effects of that. So when we get into film III, you'll see the manifestation of what that is.
A physical sense. It's not just the desire for greed. I saw it as a physical ailment. If [director] Pete [Jackson] decides to use that.
Are you done filming?
No. We still have to shoot the Battle of the Five Armies.
Oh, so nothing big then.
Is there a scene you have shot that from movies II or III that you can't wait to show the world?
When they enter the mountain. That was a really special scene because of what it means. It's the monumental moment.
You've mentioned Christian themes as something that drew you to the project —
It wasn't important to me, no, but I can feel it bubbling through Tolkien's words. I don't think he ever intended that. You can just feel his beliefs underneath his work. He hated allegory. Unlike C.S. Lewis, he did not want a kind of allegorical story. He wasn't talking about the second world war. Sauron is not Hitler. He absolutely didn't want that. But the Christianity is just something I can sense. He's not giving a religious message.
* It means "Axes of the Dwarves! The Dwarves are upon you!" As Mr. Armitage correctly points out, it is in fact from The Two Towers.
Really great article! Read it if you can. But other than that...