Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield
Warner Bros.

Richard Armitage has acted against some talented actors during his career. Most notably he played Harry, the handsome Londoner who moves next door to Dawn French’s character Geraldine on the British TV comedy The Vicar of Dibley, and, as assassin Heinz Kruger, he gunned down Stanley Tucci’s scientist Dr. Abraham Erskine in Captain Avenger: The First Avenger.

But the 41-year-old Brit found himself working with a vast array of veterans – Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, Ian McKellen, and director Peter Jackson amongst them – during the 278 days of filming he has so far completed on The Hobbit trilogy, the first installment of which, An Unexpected Journey, is about to hit theatres.

“I always think that the process of acting is not about what you do but about what you do to others,” Armitage says during a recent press stop in Toronto. “And I know that standing in a room with Ian McKellen makes me a better actor because he provokes me into a way of working that I don’t often experience, and I return the serve. It’s like a game of tennis.

“So when you’re playing with the best player in the business – and I think Ian McKellen is possibly one of the best actors there will ever be in our generation – you’re playing against Peter Sampras or one of those great players. I can’t match his serve, but I’m certainly going to have a crack at it. So it feels amazing to be in the same room as him.”

The Hobbit stars Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield, a dwarf warrior determined to reclaim the lost kingdom of Erebor, from which his people were driven years ago by the dragon Smaug. Now Thorin, alongside a troupe of just thirteen dwarves, the hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman, The Office) and the wizard Gandalf the Grey (McKellen), is embarking on a trek to reclaim Erebor (and its massive treasure of gold) for himself and his people. Along the way, this motley fellowship will encounter Orcs, Elves, giant spiders, and a twisted creature familiar to audiences who flocked to the Lord of the Rings films, Gollum (Andy Serkis).

The Hobbit marks director Peter Jackson’s return to the universe created by writer J.R.R. Tolkien. Having directed the epic and massively successful LoTR trilogy over a decade ago, Jackson initially signed on to The Hobbit – the events of which are set 60 years earlier – as a producer. He was persuaded to direct, however, after original helmer Guillermo Del Toro (Pacific Rim, Hellboy) left the project, allegedly due to financing problems.

While Armitage had read The Hobbit as a boy, he was eager to discuss his character with Jackson in advance of shooting.

“Peter is an interesting director because you never really sit down with him,” he says. “And I did try. I was always on the phone saying, ‘When’s Peter and I – when are we going to meet and talk about the character?’ And it never happened. And I realized it’s because he wants to have that conversation as the film camera is turning.

“It’s like he begins to understand how you understand the character by guiding you down the path. So it’s exactly as it should be. He never tells you; he never asks you for anything. He just guides you towards something and he persuades you towards something, and he usually uses the other actors to do it. So it’s everything you want because he gives you permission to go where you want to go. And just when you’re going in the wrong direction, he’ll just put up a wall and say, ‘Why don’t you walk this way?’ It’s brilliant.”

Turning the 6’2” Armitage into the 5’2” Thorin Oakenshield was part CG trickery and part makeup and costuming. The actor’s extensive prosthetics originally took 4½ hours to apply, although that time got compressed to 2½ hours as the eighteen-month shoot went on. But while many actors complain about spending hours in a makeup chair, Armitage saw it way of getting into character.

“When you look back and you don’t recognize yourself, it’s great,” he says. “And we were sometimes asked to go to set and rehearse halfway through the process, and I couldn’t play the character without any of it. And there were some scenes where they would say, ‘You don’t have to wear the boots for this scene because we’re only seeing you from here’ [indicating his chest], but I needed to wear them. I needed everything I was given.

With our time coming to an end and the next journalist waiting in the wings, I ask Armitage, who figures he was around eleven-years-old when he first read The Hobbit, what he feels is the appeal of the universe created by Tolkien.

“I think that my imagination was crafted by reading Tolkien,” he says. “And I think the appeal of Tolkien’s universe – Tolkien doesn’t write fantasy; he writes legend. He makes it feel like history. He’s obsessive with doors, passageways, keys, codes, secret words that open doors. Forests, getting lost in the forest… It’s like every child’s fantasy is sort of locked into that idea.

“And also the chivalric idea of nobility which is expressed through kindness and mercy. That’s a universal goal, isn’t it?”