Richard Armitage came to the New Zealand set of Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” primed for combat.
The concluding installment of Jackson’s three-part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel features clashing tribes of warriors racing into conflict over an unimaginably vast treasure inside the mountain kingdom of Erebor. Armitage, the English actor who plays hirsute dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield, has been preparing for battle since his acting school days with some very talented classmates.
“One of the reasons I went to drama school was because I really wanted to learn stage fighting,” a clean-shaven Armitage explained recently. “Weirdly enough, David Oyelowo was my fight partner at drama school — Benedict was maybe two years behind me. …. We won so many competitions together. I’ve still got the trophy on my mantel. It’s a little helmet on a little wooden podium.”
There’s little doubt that 2014 has been a good year for London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art alumni — Oyelowo, who stars in “Selma” (opening in KC Jan. 9) and Benedict Cumberbatch of “The Imitation Game” (Christmas Day) have been widely tipped for Academy Award nominations. Now, with “Five Armies” roaring into theaters this week, Armitage is poised to reign at the box office, albeit in his extreme fantasy guise.
Perhaps it’s because the Thorin costume is so encompassing, or maybe it’s because the genre isn’t considered with the same weight as historical biography (the single exception being the 11-Oscar haul for “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”), but Jackson is among those who feel Armitage hasn’t quite been given his acting due for his contributions to the Middle-earth saga.
The filmmaker was optimistic that this final “Hobbit” chapter will help audiences look beyond the elaborate makeup and prosthetics of Thorin and see Armitage’s real gifts.
“It’s hard because he’s not a scene-stealer,” Jackson said in an interview earlier this year from his New Zealand home. “He’s just a quiet, strong, powerful presence who is the backbone of the story. This time around … he lets go a little bit, he’s able to really crank it up and dominate the movie in a way. His strengths are all on display here, that’s for sure.”
Armitage’s interest in acting dates to adolescent years in Leicester, England, though neither his parents nor his older brother had any history as performers: “Apparently, my grandmother on my mum’s side used to sing occasionally on stage in a music hall. But it was one of those things that we didn’t talk about.”
At 17, he briefly worked in a Budapest, Hungary, circus to get his union credentials, then performed on stage in London’s West End in musical theater productions before realizing he had begun to travel the wrong creative path.
“I was competent, and I could do many things, but I was never really happy with it,” Armitage said. “I was always told to smile and look like I was enjoying myself, and I figured I would be smiling if I was enjoying myself.”
After graduating from LAMDA in 1998, he took small roles in stage and television productions. But his breakthrough came in 2004 with the BBC miniseries “North & South,” in which he played stoic mill owner John Thornton and found himself, not unlike Colin Firth before him, a newly minted heartthrob among the period-costume drama set.
Turns on British television in series such as “Robin Hood” and “Strike Back” followed, before Jackson cast him to star as Thorin in “The Hobbit,” which Armitage had read as a child and had loved.
“I think I smell of melancholy and seriousness,” Armitage said. “I think it’s why I maybe got cast as Thorin. I’m not as heavyweight as people think. I do have a sense of humor.”
As much as “The Hobbit” is the story of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) venturing out of the Shire and finding unknown courage in the face of great adversity, it is also a cautionary tale about the mighty warrior Thorin, who loses his honor to arrogance and greed.
“Five Armies,” which picks up immediately where last year’s “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” concluded, tracks in detail Thorin’s descent into madness, which is brought on by his proximity to the nearly limitless underground riches that had been stolen from his people years earlier by the evil dragon Smaug (Cumberbatch).
It is his refusal to share the wealth of Erebor with either the denizens of Lake-town, whose village is decimated at the beginning of the film by the vengeful dragon, or to return lost treasure to Elven king Thranduil (Lee Pace) that leads directly to war.
Jackson said he considers the film to be more psychological thriller than Middle-earth war movie. To his point, one of the movie’s most arresting sequences involves Thorin standing in a cavernous chamber, with voices echoing across the open expanse cautioning the increasingly mad dwarf not to succumb to his darker impulses. At the same time, the shadow of a greedy dragon slithers across the golden floor.
During filming, however, that scene hadn’t quite taken shape for Jackson. “That was a stage direction in the script that said, ‘Thorin sees his own reflection and realizes what he’s become,’” Armitage recalled. “Peter said to me, ‘I don’t really know how to shoot this. Have you got any ideas?’”
They shot a more literal version with Thorin being physically dragged down into piles of treasure, but Armitage was pleased to see the more experimental version in the completed movie.
“He just went into the abstract and did something very, very stripped back,” the actor said. “I love it. It’s such a nice way to talk about Pete because he really is a collaborator.”
As a people, the British have a reputation as self-effacing to a fault, and Armitage certainly is not an actor given to outward displays of egoism. He possesses exactly the kind of reserved, contemplative charm you’d expect from someone who’s built a career playing quiet characters with stormy interior lives.
Even on Twitter, which he joined on his birthday in August, Armitage makes an effort to shift the focus away from himself. (The self-described “Moody Actor, Anti-Socialite” has amassed roughly 72,800 followers in a little more than three months.)
“I would never tweet a picture of myself and say, ‘Look at me!’ I’d always say, ‘Thank you’ to the photographer, ‘Thank you’ to the person that put the shirt on my back,” he said. “It just feels right to do that. And at the moment, there are a lot of people to thank for everything that’s happening.”
Earlier this year, Armitage portrayed another outwardly defiant, inwardly vexed figure, starring as the ill-fated John Proctor in director Yael Farber’s acclaimed revival of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” at London’s historic Old Vic Theatre. In his first time on stage in 12 years, Armitage earned raves and was named the best leading actor in a new production or play at the BroadwayWorld UK Awards 2014.
“The reason I went to television was because I wasn’t getting the roles I was hoping for in theater,” Armitage said. “My agent said, ‘We’ll get your face on screen and you might get cast on stage.’ I went off on a 13-year tangent, forgot that (theater) was my first love and refound it this year.”
At present, he has no plans to star in more Hollywood blockbusters; rather, the recent New York transplant is focusing on indie movies. He’s also hoping to mount another stage production with Farber, though the project is in its early days.
Still, he said, nothing is likely to entirely overshadow his years-long journey to Middle-earth.
“It’s very satisfying to have played this character, and I think people engaged with him,” Armitage said. “It’s never going to be as big as this, I don’t think, in terms of what I’m going to do.”
If you missed Monday’s ☆☆☆ “Hobbit” review, find it at KansasCity.com/entertainment.