NEW YORK -- Richard Armitage was 11 when he read "The Hobbit" and 13 when he got his first paid acting gig, where he played an elf in a Birmingham, England, stage production of J.R.R. Tolkien's book. The near future was a stint with the Budapest Circus, followed by the Royal Shakespeare Company and several high-profile BBC TV series.
Middle-earth would come calling again, but it would take the imagination of Peter Jackson and his creative team to see him as Thorin Oakenshield, the dwarf king who as we meet him in the novel is an aging warrior.
"There was a kind of 'Why me?' moment," said Mr. Armitage, sitting with one leg tucked under him in a quiet room last week in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel on New York's Park Avenue. "I'm 6 feet something and 40 years old, and I'd always read him as an older character. I had to kind of try and convince myself."
It's hard to connect that the dashing 6-foot-4 actor is the same fellow you've just seen on screen. Yet, through the wizardry of prosthetics and technology, he has filmed most of three movies, with the first -- "The Hobbit: The Unexpected Journey" -- opening at midnight tonight.
Thorin is nearly as front and center in the first installment of "The Hobbit" trilogy as Bilbo Baggins. The leader of a dozen Dwarves on a mission to reclaim a vast treasure, Thorin is aided by the wizard Gandalf, who enlists the gentle Hobbit to join the Dwarves' dangerous adventure.
"In a way, it's almost [Thorin's] story," co-writer/co-producer Philippa Boyens said at a media panel earlier in the day. "He's much older in the book, but it becomes very hard to invest in a character trying to reclaim a home and rebuild a city when he's in his 80s. So when we were looking to cast the movie, we were looking between 45 and 55, someone who had life left in him who could be that character, who could be a great fighter. ... Richard Armitage was the youngest actor to audition for that role and [casting him] had nothing to do with the fact that he's gorgeous. He did a phenomenal audition and ... he had that grittiness about him, which felt as Professor Tolkien had described the Dwarves."
Mr. Armitage credited the complex emotions of the audition scene he was given for helping him win the role. He later came upon an illustration by concept designer John Howe that further helped him cast off any doubts that he could play the warrior dwarf. "He'd done a pencil sketch of Thorin with his hands crossed and unlike any other picture of a dwarf I've ever seen," he said. "There's something about the gentleness of his hands and I was like, I can use that; I can do that if I believe in that picture."
"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" has undergone a long road of uncertainty to reach the screen. Guillermo del Toro originally was going to direct two "Hobbit" movies, with Mr. Jackson producing after piling on Oscars for "The Return of the King," the last of his "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.
Long delays brought on by the financial woes of MGM forced Mr. del Toro to step aside and Mr. Jackson decided to step back into the director's chair, lured by the humor that had been missing from the other films.
The media gathering that brought Mr. Armitage to New York on Dec. 5 included the film's hierarchy, Mr. Jackson, Ms. Boyens and Weta Digital senior visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri, and another panel with actors Elijah Wood (Frodo), Sir Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Andy Serkis (Gollum/second unit director) and newcomers Martin Freeman as the title character, Bilbo, and Mr. Armitage.
Back in that sitting room for a one-on-one interview, Mr. Armitage recalled that actors weren't given scripts until they arrived in New Zealand ("and as soon as you leave, they take it away," he said with a laugh). Mr. Freeman, among the first to arrive, gave Mr. Armitage his first clue that Thorin would shoulder a heavy burden in the first movie.
"I hadn't read the script and we went out to dinner, and Martin went, 'You've got a lot to do.' And I was like, 'Have I?' And I saw it in his face and I was like, God, I'd better go read this," Mr. Armitage said. "But of course, I'm like, give me a journey; give me a character to develop. What actor wouldn't want that? So I was really happy to take that on."
Joe Letteri's job is to take fantasy and make it as real as possible.
"Anything that Peter can't get in camera, we create," he says.
The "we" are the thousand people who create visual effects for Weta Digital. As senior supervisor, Mr. Letteri has taken home four Oscars and been nominated for seven. Working with producer-director Mr. Jackson has meant more than a decade of innovation and living in New Zealand for the native of Aliquippa,
While "The Hobbit's" journey to the screen was in doubt, Mr. Letteri and his Weta team were working on "Avatar" with James Cameron, and he had to oversee the finishing touches on Steven Spielberg's "The Adventures of Tintin" part way through "The Hobbit," Also on his plate were Weta's contributions to "The Avengers" and "Prometheus" and, more recently, the return of Superman in "The Man of Steel."
For a man with so much on his mind, including the uproar over the newfangled format for "The Hobbit" movies, Mr. Letteri is a pretty laid-back guy.
There will be four options for moviegoers to see the three "Hobbit" movies: 2-D, 3-D, 3-D IMAX and 3D HFR -- the last referring to "high frame rate," or double the usual 24 frames per second, and creating a heightened clarity that has had the Internet abuzz since it was first announced.
What it meant for shooting scenes that made it possible for actors such as Mr. Armitage to transform into diminutive Middle-earth Dwarves was that the forced-perspective tricks used in "The Lord of the Rings" could not be duplicated.
"As far as which actors are cast, they are really cast for what they can bring dramatically to the role," Mr. Letteri said. "Then we have to deal with how do you photograph the sets of actors together so they look they are the right scale?"
An example is a scene in which Gandalf is in Bilbo's Bag End home with a houseful of mischief-making Dwarves, one of the most technically difficult to film. It also was among the movie's most intricately choreographed scenes, with actions synchronized for the Dwarves on the Bag End set and Mr. McKellen on a separate green-screen soundstage.
"I think it had to be really hard on the actors, especially Sir Ian, because he had to keep the action of these other 12 Dwarves all in his head and know where to be on this green stage at any point in time," Mr. Letteri said. "The path they follow is important because in stereo, you could easily get two people in the same space at the same time, which obviously doesn't work."
Just as filming in 48 frames per second seems revolutionary today, the idea of motion capture was unheard of when actor Andy Serkis and the Weta team made visual effects history with the character of Gollum.
The tormented creature with a split personality seems more realistic than ever with the advances made in the past 12 years since Gollum first intoned, "My precious."
"Andy got brought in as a voice actor and basically took over the character of Gollum," Mr. Letteri said. "At the time, it was like a cartoon animation with a recorded voice. When we saw what Andy did as an actor we thought, how do we bring that energy to the screen? We got the idea of trying motion capture, which at the time was basically a science experiment. Until we did Gollum, no one knew you could actually use this successfully to create a character for film. Having really refined the process over the years, the idea was now to take it out of the realm of an experiment and just make it part of the production."
It's not surprising that Gollum's scene with Bilbo is among Mr. Letteri's favorites. He explained that all of the technological advances of the past 12 years come into play with two creatures of Middle-earth, as opposed to a scene in which the Dwarves encounter thousands of goblins.
"It's all very detailed and nuanced, but it's all there," he said. "You could say there's more because there's thousands of goblins and there's terrain we have to create, probably more different aspects than in creating the Gollum scene. Still, doing a character like that -- Gollum or Azog [a vengeful orc] or the Goblin King -- and [making] it believable is still one of the trickier things to do."
During the Q&A session, Sir Ian McKellen said children often ask him to say Gandalf's big, booming line from "The Fellowship of the Ring," and he obliges. He demonstrated by lifting his hands above his head as if lifting a staff and proclaimed, "You shall not pass!" -- just as he did when confronting the monster Balrog in the movie.
It's to be determined if such a line exists for Thorin, but Mr. Armitage suspects he knows what will resonate for "Hobbit" fans.
"It's the song, isn't it?" he said of Thorin's solo of a Tolkien verse. "It was a cradle song that Thorin may have sung to his young nephews to say, look, we must never forget what happened."
Mr. Letteri had been answering questions in a room with a wall adjoining the one where we were sitting, but until his name came up, Mr. Armitage was unaware he was even in the hotel. It was that kind of week for all of the folks promoting "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." "It was LA, then here [New York], then London, but I'll be back in Pittsburgh to see my family over Christmas," Mr. Letteri said.
With one major scene yet to be shot (the battle of the Five Armies, for those of you who know your Hobbit lore), Mr. Armitage wasn't ready to leave the sword and sorcery and fellowship behind.
"I don't think I'll be saying goodbye to Middle-earth for a loooong time," he said. "Who wants to, though? I want to live in Middle-earth, actually. If there was a door in this room I could go through, I'd live there."
Sharon Eberson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1960. Read more about "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" in Friday's Mag & Movies section and in the POPi blog at blogs.sites.post-gazette.com. First Published December 13, 2012 5:00 AM