Although it’s appropriate that Bilbo Baggins serves as the central figure in the three “The Hobbit” films that Peter Jackson created to adapt J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel of the same name, another character provides their narrative backbone: Thorin. Played by Richard Armitage, the would-be dwarf king seeks, against all odds, to restore his people’s kingdom, and that trek is the reason that Bilbo takes his “Unexpected Journey.” Meanwhile, Thorin struggles to come to terms with the significance of his birthright, even as he must fight again and again with increasingly fierce adversaries to reclaim it.
Armitage sat with The Playlist at the recent Los Angeles press day for the second installment in the series, “The Desolation of Smaug,” to discuss Thorin and his journey. In addition to talking about the character’s struggle to balance his ambition and obligation to his birthright, Armitage revealed his own expectations as each new chapter unfolds, and reflected on the fluid and challenging process of keeping track of the emotional trajectory of a character over the course of one story, broken into three massive films.
Because the production of the “Hobbit” trilogy is so different than typical ones, what are your expectations after watching the first installment and knowing that the next one is coming?
I think there’s quite a few levels. You’re always excited to see what happens in post-production in terms of the formation of that digital world that was never there when we were shooting. You’re also kind of anxious to see what’s left of your performance in terms of the edit, because there’s so much material cut, and some things have to go. Things that take weeks to shoot disappear, and it’s sad but important for the drive of the movie. But then with this film, I feel really privileged, because most of the things I shot are in there, and seeing that journey formed as one piece is really interesting because we shoot out of sequence.
How tough or easy is it to find a trajectory for a performance, because you are shooting three different movies simultaneously?
It’s partly in my hands, it’s partly in the hands of Pete and the continuity team. But you’ve also got the best guide you could possibly need, which is the novel, so if ever I felt a little bit lost, I’d find the place in the novel where we’re shooting and Tolkien would kind of guide me through it. Yeah, I didn’t have too much of a problem with that, I think. I mean, interestingly, when we come to the next movie, I was actually looking for inconsistency rather than consistency, but that’s for next year.
You wanted there to be inconsistency?
Yeah. I think you can see it just at the end [of “The Desolation of Smaug”] when Thorin goes into the mountain. He reacts to Bilbo in a way that feels irrational, which is often not what you look for in continuity of your character. You’re looking for rationality, so we were trying to flip that on its head a little.
How much of a motivation do you create for that? Or do you have to sort of ignore the motivations that you’ve created for his other behavior?
It’s partly both, and it’s kind of maybe a little bit early to talk about it, because there is only a glimmer of it in the second film. But it’s about when somebody loses themselves a little bit, which is what I think insanity is—when they lose track of who they are and they don’t know what they’re doing, but they’re becoming somebody else. And I think we just begin to see that in the end of the second part.
Thorin seems less angry in this film than he did in “An Unexpected Journey.” How did you view his journey in this particular installment?
I think when we start to really get into the body of the quest, which happens after Bilbo has really helped him out in terms of Azog at the end of the last movie—you know, he saved his life. That is something that you’re never going to forget, and it’s going to change you as a person. So as we go into the second film, we see him get into some sticky situations, and Bilbo is the one that seems to be solving that for them—he becomes a great asset. So I think Thorin’s really questioning his mistrust of him, and really looking at him in a different way—and looking at himself in a different way, at his own judgment.
The “Lord of the Rings” films had these pivotal moments, such as where Gandalf “dies,” that affect the characters in a major way. This series’ challenges are more steady—where do you see those pivotal moments in these films?
Well, you look at the events in hand and you really have to set down kind of an idea of what that means to him and where he is in the quest. So being stripped of all his possessions and being locked in Thranduil’s prison is one of those moments—it’s over, as far as he’s concerned, and it’s the biggest humiliation. Opening the door to Erebor and breathing the air of his childhood again is a very, very high moment in his life. It’s something that they’ve longed for and talked about and sang songs about for years. But it’s where he begins to change, when he enters the mountain, and it’s exhilarating and it’s quite an important moment. So you look at that and you say, “How is he going to be different after this moment?”
Speaking of that moment, they initially have some problems and they give up remarkably easily. How do you play a scene like that so it’s not one of almost comical resignation?
I think sometimes if you overthink things—I mean, what else could they do? But I think I remember one shot where I did have that conversation with Peter and I said, “I just don’t know if he could leave. I think he would sit here for days just to see if it appeared.” And obviously it’s about Bilbo finding the keyhole at that moment, and I think there was a shot where Thorin was sitting on the rocks with his head in his hands. So what I did for myself, for my own rationality, was to imagine that he went around the corner and sat with his head in his hands, waiting and seeing if something changes—which in fact he did. Because when the key goes over the edge of cliff, he’s there and he stops it from happening. So you fill out those gaps for yourself to make it work.
Since this film departs more strongly from Tolkien’s novel, where do you maintain a balance between taking ownership of the character and bringing him to the screen as Tolkien created him?
I feel lucky that Thorin is pretty much all Tolkien’s creation, apart from maybe his look that wasn’t Tolkien, and actually the path that Thorin treads is the backbone of the story and the spine of our tale as well. So my digressions weren’t particularly dramatic, but I actually really enjoyed some of the things that aren’t in the book as well. I think it’s important to know where Gandalf goes, and I didn’t realize it until recently, but until you see the emergence of Sauron from the Necromancer and the formation of that army of orcs, it really makes sense to me. Because when we get into the Battle of the Five Armies in movie three, when war breaks out, it’s not just about armies coming together to fight—and there’s real purpose behind it, and political purpose, I think.
How reluctant or eager do you feel like Thorin is ultimately to embrace his birthright?
I think it’s all-consuming for him. But these are the questions I ask the character—is it a selfish mission? Does he just want to sit on the throne and be king for his own glory? But I do feel that through what he says and through the inheritance, he really is fighting for his bloodline. If he fails and the line of Durin dies, there will never be a king under the mountain if he dies—and that would be his legacy. So it’s a mixture of personal glory and the need to bring his people home.
How much responsibility do you shoulder in helping create a group of characters that are both cohesive and distinctive? Do you pay attention to their character choices, or just your own?
That’s really the core of my belief in acting, that a character is really only the sum total of every other character that they interact with. So Thorin is nobody without all of the dwarves, without Bilbo, without Balin, without the dragon, without everything he faces. He isn’t anybody, and he’s only the person he is because of the past and because of his potential future, so I’m completely reliant on understanding all of the characters. Because I think that’s how we are as people—we become different people around whoever we’re with, and you see him kind of become a son with Balin. You see him become a brother to Dwalin. You see him become an uncle to Fili and Kili. And that’s why the relationship with Bilbo is very complicated, because he is his leader, but there is also a sense of paternal instinct towards him as well.
How would you distinguish Peter’s approach to each of the films, to make them different and yet cohesive?
Pete is one of those people that just doesn’t really repeat himself. There could have been a danger that he really did with these movies, just try to make another version of “Lord of the Rings.” I think there’s a lot of people out there that want another version of “Lord of the Rings,” and are dissatisfied because it doesn’t look the same. But he’s doing something new, he’s trying something different. It’s not the same—it feels like a new filmmaker. But what I love about the way he works is that he paints with big, broad brush strokes in terms of the scale of something he has to operate, but then when it comes to directing actors, his notes are so fine and succinct. And you think, how can you work on all of those different levels? But he does—he understand the psychology of my character probably better than I do, and all of the other characters in the movie as well. So he’s the master director.
In terms of the editing of these films, what has been the most surprising aspect of your character that emerged without you necessarily trying to emphasize?
I think that introspection that emerges in this second film. When he’s talking to Balin outside the door and he goes, “I’m not my father.” The feelings of, “I’m not my father, but I feel myself treading the same path, so am I going to suffer the same fate he suffered?” And it’s quite a scary notion—a grandparent that perhaps had a terminal illness and he’s beginning to notice the same symptoms in himself, and yet he still has to go down there. I think those are the things that surprised me most about the character. I didn’t know we were going to go that deep into him.
Is there any material that has been cut from either of the first two films—possibly restored or to be restored in an extended cut—that you think is vital to your character that you hope audiences would get to see?
Yes, and I’m not sure if it won’t end up in the third film so I won’t talk about it in too much detail. But Thrain, who is Thorin’s father, there’s a big sequence of Gandalf encountering Thrain, and a flashback to when Thorin and Thrain were fighting side by side on the battlefield and Thrain is lost, which is why Thorin goes out on the quest in the first place. So that may make it into an extended edition, but it also may appear somewhere in Movie Three.
What are you most eager to see realized in the third film—his arc? Some aspect of the special effects coming together?
Really, the dragon is the jewel in the crown of this movie, but I think in the third movie it will be the Battle of the Five Armies. It’s got to be one of the greatest battle scenes ever imagined. And Pete’s really interested in war, the first World War and planes, and this is a three-dimensional battle because it happens on the ground and in the air. So I think it’s going to be pretty spectacular.
“The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug” opens on December 13th.