Richard Armitage the warrior dwarf

THORIN OAKENSHIELD: Richard Armitage couldn't imagine watching another actor play this role.
THORIN OAKENSHIELD: Richard Armitage couldn't imagine watching another actor play this role.

With 13 dwarfs in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, audiences are expected by the film trilogy's end to easily distinguish and recognise each one.

But if there's one dwarf that will be easy to spot from the moment he appears on screen it will be Thorin Oakenshield, played by British actor Richard Armitage.

One reason is that Thorin is the leader and, going on a glimpse I got of the band of dwarfs on set during filming earlier this year, a heroic risk-taker. I couldn't help but think that Thorin could be to The Hobbit what Aragorn – played by Viggo Mortensen – was in The Lord of the Rings.

Armitage, 41, laughs. It isn't the first time he's performed in The Hobbit. He was cast in a school production but the part wasn't so heroic. "I was playing an elf. I was running around in circles being an elf in a forest and we had a papier mache dragon and a man off stage with a funny microphone for Gollum.

"So it was pretty much like the movie we've just made," he jokes.

Armitage, who is doing the interview while in New York at the height of Hurricane Sandy – "I haven't got any power or water but I've got a phone line" – is best known to Kiwis for his risk-taking heroic roles in television's Spooks and Strike Back. He's done a small number of movies, including a part in Captain America: The First Avenger.

But The Hobbit is likely to have Armitage exposed to the biggest audience of his career. As yet, he hasn't dwelled much on what life will be like after the first film is released.

But he says he's optimistic that he won't be recognised often when out in public, due to the prosthetics and makeup used to transform him into Thorin. "Because 60 per cent of Thorin's face belongs to Weta [Workshop], I might get away with it. People might recognise my chin.

"I haven't really thought about it. At the moment I just want people to really enjoy the film and enjoy the character. If that means they want to come up and say, 'Hi' then that's good. They might want to throw tomatoes at me in the street – but fair enough."

Armitage first heard about The Hobbit after Sir Peter Jackson contacted the actor's agent. Jackson asked if Armitage could read for the part of Thorin. "I thought, first of all, I'm six foot two [1.8 metres] and Thorin's an old guy. Maybe they want me to read it for a general audition.

"But then when I read what they'd done with the audition speech I realised that they were looking for something quite different. They needed someone who could play a warrior, who could play a young Thorin and old Thorin and also to bring the idea of somebody who could return to his full potential to become a king. That's when I sat down with Peter and we talked through the journey and the arc of the character – and then they offered it to me. I had to pick myself up off the floor."

Due to the long shoot, Armitage says he had to then juggle other acting projects so he could spend a long time in New Zealand. He was determined to do it, even when there were several months when The Hobbit was in limbo due to the machinations involving the studios. "I just couldn't watch somebody else playing this role that had nearly been mine. I had to play him. I had to do it– and at that point the film wasn't green lit.

"We couldn't drink the entire bottle of champagne, we could just sip the top of it. It was a painful few months but I have no concept of what Peter, Fran [Walsh] and Philippa [Boyens] must have been through, taking four or five years to get this film made.

"But for those few months it was on a knife edge and the day we had the powhiri [in Wellington] to kick off the shoot was an amazing moment, I have to tell you."

When Armitage arrived in New Zealand it was his first visit – he hadn't even visited Australia – and there were six weeks of dwarf "boot camp" before the cameras rolled. "But the weird thing about going to New Zealand is that I have never travelled so far from home and felt more at home. If felt so familiar to me.

"It was literally boot camp because we were wearing massive boots every day. We really got to know each other as actors first and then we started working on the characters. That was a real gift. If everyone is working away from home, even the Kiwis, you are thrown together and everything is invested in what you're doing. You don't go home at night to your life. You move your life to make the movie and that only benefited the story because that's exactly what these dwarfs had done."

In previous interviews about his career, Armitage has talked of being a "detailed actor". He once said: "You can spend a bit of yourself when you give yourself to a character. At the end of a job, you have to remind yourself who and what you are."

For Thorin it took time and it came after he was in costume and had his face transformed by prosthetics. "Initially, when you get all that gear on you it feels alien to you. Deep down somewhere you feel very small inside this big machine. But, actually, after a while you start to emerge through the costume and the prosthetics. I couldn't do Thorin without that gear on.

"Sometimes you'd be asked to rehearse without [a] costume in your trainers and I found it really difficult to do. Sometimes they'd say, 'You don't have to wear the boots because the shot is only from the waist up' and I'd be like, 'No, no, I need those boots now. I can't play him without them'.

"That's what's been great about a character like Thorin, which is such a transformation. As the different costumes emerge they represent a different part of Thorin. I kind of move slightly differently in each costume and towards the end of the third film the character's physical shape drastically changes from the beginning. But it's really interesting. It's been a great visual journey."

The Dominion Post