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.