Monday 19 February 2018

Fear of drowning? Richard Armitage is in deep water

Richard Armitage
Richard Armitage

Will Lawrence

For somebody with an acute fear of deep water, The Hobbit star Richard Armitage has spent an awful lot of time getting wet.

The 42-year-old Englishman, who plays the battle-hungry dwarf warrior Thorin Oakenshield in director Peter Jackson's most recent J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy, always surveys his scripts with care to ensure there is little in the way of water work.

"I have a thing with water," he begins. "I have a fear of drowning and I read each script and think, 'Great, no nudity, no water, phew!'

"But then, more often than not, in the rewrite the director will suddenly go, 'I have a great scene where you dive to the bottom of a swimming pool!'"

This very thing happened on Armitage's first big blockbuster, 2011's Captain America, while two of the most notable TV shows in which he starred have required him to suffer on-screen waterboarding.

"Waterboarding is an exact replication of drowning," he says. "It's all of my fears realised and I've had to do it in Spooks and in Strike Back. No matter what, most things I've done have ended up having some sort of water sequence in them."

His most recent film, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, which stands as the middle piece in Jackson's trilogy, is no exception. One of the three set pieces in the film sees Thorin, the hobbit Bilbo Baggins, and the company of dwarves with whom they journey, escape from the elves of Mirkwood by cascading down a river in barrels.

It is a high-energy scene, as a gang of orcs and some angry elves are in hot pursuit. "A lot of the mid-shots for that sequence we did on a watercourse that they built at the studio, which was powered by V8 engines so it could speed up or slow down," the actor explains.

"Then the faster it became, the more it would look like rapids. Then they would dump water on us from these huge hoppers, so that it would push the barrels under the water.

"That was as dangerous as it got," he continues. "It was fast and we were being dunked in the water but they tested it relentlessly so they knew it was possible.

"Every crewmember was watching us filming and you could tell that they all wanted to get in there and give it a ride. You got soaked."

The company of dwarves survive their barrel run and go on to continue their adventure up to the Lonely Mountain where resides Smaug the dragon. In contrast to the scene with the barrels, the film's finale was shot entirely on green screen and all the backgrounds, and the dragon, were added by the digital effects team.

"Not a single set was built for the fight with Smaug," says Armitage. "I rehearsed with a tennis ball [on a stick, to give a sense of eyeline] but then asked them to take it away. I didn't want my mind registering a tennis ball when I was trying to imagine a dragon!

"Pete [Jackson] would describe what was happening and you'd feel as though you had seen it, by using your imagination.

"You create things in your mind from stimulus; you are always pulling from somewhere. The ones I really enjoyed were Tolkien's own sketches."

Armitage is a serious-minded actor. He elected to pursue acting as his career when finishing up his English A-level at school, having already thrived in drama class.

In fact, as a teenager he appeared in a stage version of The Hobbit, where he played a wood elf. "I was 13 or 14 and I still have a very strong sense of what it smelled like because they used so much smoke," he recalls.

"The dragon was made of papier-mâché; it was just a head, which came out of a hole and went back in again. I was an elf in a knitted dress that was sprayed silver to look like chainmail."

As a young man he also joined a circus in Budapest, in a bid to win his equity card. "It was not romantic," he remembers. "I remember being a little bit underfed. It was just at the end of the '90s and Hungary was still coming out of Communism and there wasn't much food to be had.

"It was messy and a bit subversive, but I kind of liked it," he adds. "You slept in the accommodation in the circus, which was next to the elephants. I could smell the elephants; there was a zoo at the back of the circus."

His epiphany moment with acting came when he saw an RSC production of The Taming of the Shrew in his late teens. "And I thought, 'They're having a lot of fun doing that. That is what I want to do.' It had an intellectual aspect to it that appeals to me, so I went to drama school and decided to study classical theatre."

Armitage enrolled at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. "I realised you have to be brave," he says.

"There were many times I thought this isn't going to happen for me and that feeling never goes away. You always feel as though the carpet is going to be pulled from underneath you. Coming out of drama school I had a couple of good opportunities and then a long period of nothing.

"You sit down with your agent and have a conversation when he says, 'Well, let's give it a year.' That's an ultimatum! I've always said that the best thing to do is go and book a holiday, pay for it and then a job will come along."

His performance in The Hobbit films has been widely praised but Armitage says that it is difficult to gauge the impact that these phenomenally popular movies will have on his wider career.

"It is hard to gauge. Because I look so different from that character it's a process of introducing people to me," he says. The beard, hair and bushy eyebrows that he wears in the film are not his own.

"I can't play that character forever and he is so different from me. At the after-party in LA, I was going round talking to people and I think 90 per cent of people were talking to me without realising I had been in the film!

"I have had a few scripts recently where it says that the character has a big beard! That is quite narrow-minded, but I don't mind. They must've gone, 'He looks good in a beard, let's cast him.'

"I guess that going forward it will be a process of convincing people that I am not a dwarf and I am not all that hairy!"

He managed to convince the producers of the tornado movie Into the Storm, which is directed by Steven Quale (who was the first assistant director on Jim Cameron's Avatar).

It will be released in the summer of 2014.

"In the movie, a tornado hits a Midwestern town," he says.

"I play a school teacher who goes out in search of his son. It's a SFX film but there's a good journey for the character -- he has a little catharsis in the middle of a giant tornado.

"The funny thing was, even though it is a tornado movie," he chuckles, "they added a water sequence! I really can't get away from those."

Irish Independent

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