By Elle Morris
Photography by Leslie Hassler
For early October, the day was sweltering hot and humid–not my ideal conditions for any kind of face-to-face meeting let alone an interview. Richard Armitage, however, could hardly have looked more comfortable with his water at our nearly empty meeting spot. With the kitchen closing in 15 minutes by the time I sat down and the heat of the day beating around us, we decided quickly that a glass of white wine was the way to go instead of the Thorin tea that I’d brought along with me. We spoke a little about wine, beer, and cocktails.
“Here’s a little pitch for your piece, then. I think you should throw out there a little mini competition of ‘Make a Thorin cocktail’,” he offered. “What is it called, and what is in it? I’ll judge the competition. We’ll make the cocktail. … We’ll get it down to a short list and we’ll do a tasting session. But it has to have a title and it has to have some cool ingredients.” I did warn him that I would make his contest happen. (So get mixing!)
“It doesn’t have to be a short drink just because he’s a dwarf,” Richard added. A short drink wouldn’t fit Thorin’s character, anyway.
Richard Armitage sat down with me as part of his press rounds for the December 18th release of The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug. Despite having a very solid career under his belt, most people outside of the UK probably weren’t aware of him before he landed the role of Thorin (Dwarf prince and leader of a company of 12-Dwarves-plus-Hobbit-and-Wizard on a quest to regain the Dwarf homeland in the mountain Erebor), in the Peter Jackson-directed trilogy (The Hobbit: There and Back Again is due out in 2014).
Richard lives in New York, though not all the time, and New Yorkers can count him among those who reject the notion that we are anything less than friendly.
“I find New Yorkers incredibly engaging. They’re like Parisians …cool and confrontational, in a good way, in a good way, like they like a good debate. …you walk into a restaurant and it’s not full of people silently sitting in front of each other like it can be in England; it’s full of people pointing fingers in each other’s faces having a really good political debate, or whatever.”
In addition, “London and New York are sort of unique in that they are not really representative of the rest of the country that they exist in. London doesn’t really represent England–it’s so multicultural and cosmopolitan that it’s its own entity. [It’s the] same with New York; that’s why I’m able to live in New York.”
In those early days of October, the US was facing a government shutdown—the first it had seen in 20 years. The shutdown was four days old and Richard had been out of the country rather than enjoying it.
“I’ve only just returned yesterday, so I haven’t had a chance to enjoy it yet, but it is something I’m prepared to enjoy. I do feel saddened that it is thus, and also that the Republicans are trying to destabilize Obamacare–I think that’s a real shame. I think it’s something to really fight for and I don’t know why they’re doing it, really. But then I come from England where we’ve had a national health service since the Second World War and I think it’s so important. I take it for granted.”
With half of the government throwing a temper tantrum over the Affordable Care Act, it seemed unlikely that the US would ever have national health care to take for granted. From the moment Republicans won the House in 2010 they’d been pushing farther and farther to the right, trying to rescind everything from voting to women’s rights–often in the name of religion.
“I think it gets very, very complicated when religion and politics get tangled up together,” Richard acknowledged, nodding, “And I know for sure in England we do try to keep religion and politics very, very separate. I think it’s important when you’re campaigning on personalities that those personalities–for example, the President of the United States–has a faith. I think that’s important in terms of their character, but when it gets entwined into politics I think it gets very, very complicated. And it doesn’t function well.”
True enough, especially for the US. “You can’t [have religion in politics] because you’re talking about a multi-faith society.And that’s what the whole of the Constitution is built on–those differences.”
The UK has never had their government simply close in quite the same way as ours did, which Richard attributed to debate. “We elect a government, I mean, I don’t vote in the US but you elect a government to solve the differences. As much as we in England were opposed to a coalition government, or surprised by it, or shocked by it, in a way it sort of is functioning rather beautifully. There just is always debate, but there’s always a decision,“ Then Richard paused and his eyes widened, almost apologetically. “Oh God, how’ve we got onto politics? I’m an actor, nobody cares about what my politics are.”
I assured him that Moves Magazine cared about his politics and we considered the UK too civilized to have their own government follow American practice in shutting down. “You’d think that,” he said, “but you look at what happened with the Poll Tax riots back in the ‘80s …the closer it gets to our home, the closer it gets to the pound that’s in your pocket, the more uncivilized we become as a nation.”
The UK may not be perfect, but at least they debate which America doesn’t seem capable of anymore, given that even a mass shooting at the Washington, D.C. Navy Yard couldn’t get gun control law firmly on the agenda. Rather than debate, it seemed that government had got their hands over their ears to better shout over each other.
“When will it end?” Richard asks.
That was our question.
“Again, I come from a place whereby we’ve never had the right to own a gun. Illegal guns have always been part of the fabric of the subculture in the UK. We’ve had a knife problem with gangs.…The fact that [gun ownership] is in the constitution–that needs to be changed. It’s gonna be almost an impossible task unless it becomes absolutely illegal to own a weapon. Illegal. And I don’t think that’s gonna be possible, so I think it has to be illegal to own the ammunition. We’ll hear the government say ‘lessons must be learnt, we must not let this happen again’, but until you make it illegal–you can just spiel out that same clip line, but you have to make a change.”
Asked if he believes that violence in movies and other entertainment is partly to blame, Richard was firm in his reply. “Yes.”
“I’m always very, very conscious, whatever I do. I’ve done a couple of military shows myself. …I did a show called Strike Back, which is going to be aired by Cinemax in the fall this year, but the one thing I said to them in the beginning, before I signed the contract… I said, ‘I do not want to have a shot of me standing with a gun on a poster.’ I said, ‘I’ll give you anything else, but I don’t want to be holding a weapon’. I won’t deny that I got some kind of thrill from firing that weapon, as an actor, but in terms of telling the story… The Hobbit, for example… Peter Jackson always had this debate with his design team and the actors that you can’t undersell violence. It needs to be as shocking and violent as it really is, but you can’t glorify it, or make it look sexy or appealing.”
“To the end of keeping violence seem less mundane and domestic,” Richard said, “The Hobbit design team was careful to make sure the weapons used looked very different from every day objects that you’d have in your house. Although, doesn’t matter what it is,” he added, “My little 7-year-old nephew starts swinging a sword around and I see a kind of violence in his eyes.”
Richard himself admits to taking home the less agreeable traits of the characters he’s played: “I spent most of Robin Hood walking around as a miserable mother—and pretty much all of The Hobbit shoot because Thorin was so troubled. I take on those troubles.” But, he added, “That’s one of the things that attracted me a role like [Thorin], because you see him redeemed, you see him have his moment of salvation and you see his sacrifice.”
Characters of grey morals, it seems, are those that Richard likes best. “Everyone is so convinced that [Thorin] is who they think he is, and it’s my job to unwrap him a little bit and say ‘you’re right, he is all of those things, but this is why he’s all of those things’.”
“I’ve never played a psychotic mass-murderer,” Richard continued, “but if I did, I would still attempt to find a kind of empathy with him and an explanation as to why he turned out the way he did, and in a court of law I’d end up being able to stand up and say ‘look, this is why this guy shouldn’t be put to death, because of this’. In a way you have to fall in love with the character you’re playing and be able to defend him in that way.”
The role he’s just waiting to be offered? “A psychotic mass-murderer.”
(Why yes, Hollywood casting team, you are welcome.)
And for those waiting with baited breath for a hint at what’s to come this December, I have this one other tidbit to offer: “No one’s seen the dragon,” Richard told me. “We’ve seen bits of him–most of us have seen a green ball on a stick, but one of the digital artists at WETA who did my makeup used to show me the work that was being done on the dragon. He’d come in one day with an iPad screen of this incredible—what looked like a fossil, this iridescent red fossil with multi-facets and layers and colors and it was one of [the dragon’s] scales. And they zoomed out and [the dragon’s] covered in a million of these scales. That’s the detail that they’re working on the dragon. And I was like ‘okay so how long’s that taken you to do?’ and he was like ‘that’s taken about a week‘. To make this single scale.”
December is going to be awesome.