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Armitage doesn't let 'Hobbit' end without a fight

Gina Mcintyre,
Los Angeles Times

Richard Armitage came to the New Zealand set of Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies" primed for combat.

The concluding installment of Jackson's three-part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's novel features clashing tribes of warriors racing into conflict over an unimaginably vast treasure inside the mountain kingdom of Erebor. Armitage, the English actor who plays hirsute dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield, has been preparing for battle since his acting school days with some very talented classmates.

"One of the reasons I went to drama school was because I really wanted to learn stage fighting," a clean-shaven Armitage explained recently. "Weirdly enough, David Oyelowo was my fight partner at drama school — Benedict was maybe two years behind me.... We won so many competitions together. I've still got the trophy on my mantel. It's a little helmet on a little wooden podium."

There's little doubt that 2014 has been a good year for London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art alumni — "Selma" star Oyelowo and "The Imitation Game's" Benedict Cumberbatch have been widely tipped for Academy Award nominations. Now, with "Five Armies" roaring into theaters Wednesday, Armitage is poised to reign at the box office, albeit in his extreme fantasy guise.

Perhaps it's because the Thorin costume is so encompassing, or maybe it's because the genre isn't considered with the same weight as historical biography (the single exception being the 11-Oscar haul for "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King"), but Jackson is among those who feel Armitage hasn't quite been given his acting due for his contributions to the Middle-earth saga.

The filmmaker is optimistic that this final "Hobbit" chapter will help audiences look beyond the elaborate makeup and prosthetics of Thorin and see Armitage's real gifts.

"It's hard because he's not a scene-stealer," Jackson said in an interview earlier this year from his New Zealand home.

"He's just a quiet, strong, powerful presence who is the backbone of the story. This time around ... he lets go a little bit, he's able to really crank it up and dominate the movie in a way. His strengths are all on display here, that's for sure."

Armitage's interest in acting dates to adolescent years in Leicester, England, though neither his parents nor his older brother had any history as performers: "Apparently, my grandmother on my mum's side used to sing occasionally on stage in a music hall. But it was one of those things that we didn't talk about."

At 17, he briefly worked in a Budapest, Hungary, circus to get his union credentials, then performed on stage in London's West End in musical theater productions before realizing he had begun to travel the wrong creative path.

"I was competent, and I could do many things, but I was never really happy with it," Armitage said. "I was always told to smile and look like I was enjoying myself, and I figured I would be smiling if I was enjoying myself."

After graduating from LAMDA in 1998, he took small roles in stage and television productions. But his breakthrough came in 2004 with the BBC miniseries "North & South," in which he played stoic mill owner John Thornton and found himself, not unlike Colin Firth before him, a newly minted heartthrob among the period-costume drama set.

Turns on British television in series such as "Robin Hood" and "Strike Back" followed, before Jackson cast him to star as Thorin in "The Hobbit," which Armitage had read as a child and had loved.

"I think I smell of melancholy and seriousness," Armitage said. "I think it's why I maybe got cast as Thorin. I'm not as heavyweight as people think. I do have a sense of humor."

As much as "The Hobbit" is the story of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) venturing out of the Shire and finding unknown courage in the face of great adversity, it is also a cautionary tale about the mighty warrior Thorin, who loses his honor to arrogance and greed.

As a people, the British have a reputation as self-effacing to a fault, and Armitage certainly is not an actor given to outward displays of egoism. He possesses exactly the kind of reserved, contemplative charm you'd expect from someone who's built a career playing quiet characters with stormy interior lives.

Even on Twitter, which he joined on his birthday in August, Armitage makes an effort to shift the focus away from himself.

"I would never tweet a picture of myself and say, 'Look at me!' I'd always say, 'Thank you' to the photographer, 'Thank you' to the person that put the shirt on my back," he said. "It just feels right to do that. And at the moment, there are a lot of people to thank for everything that's happening."