TORONTO—It’s hard to believe, but it has been a decade since Peter Jackson’s instantly iconic Lord of the Rings trilogy made billions and changed fantasy filmmaking. To celebrate the 10th anniversary, Jackson and company went and did it again: J. R. R. Tolkien’s first written romp in Middle Earth, The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, will now be its own film trilogy. The first chapter, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey debuts for the drooling masses of Comic-Con faithful on Friday (December 14).
Recently, Richard Armitage—the man tasked to play Thorin, a disgraced dwarf leader seeking gold and redemption—travelled to Canada to launch the new series, and although the 6-2, classically trained British thespian doesn’t seem to embody a dwarf at first glance (there was no beard or flagon of ale in sight), his connection to The Hobbit runs deep.
“The Hobbit was actually my first professional stage production where I got paid any money, and I played an elf,” Armitage tells the Georgia Straight while tucked into the corner of a Roots outlet, surrounded by posters of his character. “Gollum was made out of paper, and we didn’t have the money for a dragon, so that was a puff of smoke, a red lamp, and a microphone. So pretty much the same budget, I’d say.”
The journey between Armitage’s first and most recent Hobbit projects was perhaps appropriately long and arduous, starting with the Royal Shakespeare Company and BBC productions before slipping into Hollywood as a Nazi spy in Marvel’s Captain America. During that time, the actor admits, his perspective on the source material has changed dramatically.
“When you read it as a child, it’s a completely different experience,” he explains. “The political landscape that we know from Lord of the Rings seemed to stick in my head more now. I was amazed by how funny the book was and also how sparse it was. I remembered more detail and description than was actually there, especially with the battle of the five armies. Tolkien really does a Shakespearean thing. He doesn’t talk about the battle much, but it’s interesting because I feel like I filled in the gaps myself with my imagination, and that’s the mark of great storytelling.”
Of course, that battle on film will hardly be left to the imagination. It becomes a cinematic spectacle so large that it was pushed out of the initial 266-day shooting schedule. Much like the first Tolkien film trilogy, the production team will return to New Zealand annually to complete each subsequent movie, with Armitage himself returning in a matter of weeks.
“We trained to do that battle at the end of the shoot, but when they realized there would be three movies, they decided to focus on what they needed for the first film,” the actor explains, before pausing with a laugh. “That means I need to start training again, and I don’t know how I’m even going to fit into the costume.”
On-screen, Armitage was able to find a relatable tragic hero within his mythical role, something as challenging as any of the physical demands. When asked about creating the character of Thorin, Armitage spins off into a discussion straight out of his formal training, about finding a balance between Shakespeare’s Henry V, Richard III, and Macbeth. The passion for the intricacies of his profession shows, and yet it’s when discussing that upcoming battle that a childish glee comes to his eyes, “Bats, that’s all I’m saying,” he claims. “Imagine a 3-D battle with one of the armies in the air. It’s going to be phenomenal.”
That combination of classic dramatic storytelling and childish fantasy spectacle was what made The Lord of the Rings a global success back at the crack of the millennium. It seems that the focus hasn’t changed. The holiday season is about to be marked by wizard quests and goblin decapitations once more, and that’s something to make all film lovers giggle like children.