Richard Armitage, Thorin Oakenshield, and the chin, or: Dwarf vs wizard status games

Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield and Ian McKellen as Gandalf in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey


One of the most frequent questions reporters put to Richard Armitage in the runup to the premiere of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and after concerned the scaling of height between different beings and tricks used to give the viewer a sense of space differential between characters of different “races.” In these discussions, reporters seemed most interested in the special effects aspect. In his responses, however, Armitage also referred consistently to the task of making the dwarves bigger before making them smaller. He noted that a dwarf doesn’t think he’s small. Rather, a dwarf is convinced that he’s big and, according to Armitage, naturally knows how to take up a space bigger than his relative physical stature might immediately allot to him. The creation of a dwarf physique and the features of the dwarf costumes in the film worked to enhance viewer impressions of dwarf dignity. This technique functions quite effectively — who thinks, for instance, that Dwalin is small, until we see him up against an elf?

In these interview, Richard Armitage defined self-perception of status as an element of creating the dwarves as a group. I’ve written about status as an element of acting before (re-read for the definition as necessary). In particular, I want to reference my identification of Richard Armitage as a “status expert” — someone for whom “status … is something one does, not something one has. It is performed … as a defense mechanism — not necessarily to exercise power over others.”

This definition describes perfectly what Richard Armitage does as Thorin because it corresponds perfectly to Thorin’s chief problem. The dispossessed king no longer possesses automatic status. He is therefore compelled to display it by performance at every turn, to thrust it in the faces of those who question. Perhaps someday I’ll look at this question — how Armitage deals with Thorin’s status problems — from the very beginning of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, but today, I want to look at it in a particular context: Thorin’s status dilemmas with regard to Gandalf.

About McKellen’s contribution to this interaction, Armitage has been quoted as saying:

[Ian McKellen] did something on the first day, which I’ve never forgotten. You know, it’s all about status. It’s something every actor learns at drama school, but no one ever applies, because it means being selfless. Ian is a very selfless actor. When I walked in the door at Ba[g] End, Gandalf, this monumental figure for me, bowed his head to me in reverence to Thorin Oakenshield, the legendary warrior. And I remember thinking, “God, he’s giving me my status!” And from that point on I figured if Gandalf was giving it to me, then everyone else has to give it to me, and you don’t therefore have to play any false weight of status because it’s given to you. He completely understood that.

This quote points to an intriguing feature of Thorin and Gandalf’s relationship — that Gandalf belongs to a small group of characters (the other members of the Company included, at least as far as we’ve seen) for whom Thorin doesn’t necessarily have to perform his regal status aggressively. This contrast in status perception differentiates Thorin’s interactions with Gandalf from those with all of the other high-status characters of the piece (such as Elrond, or the Goblin King). At the same time, as Armitage has mentioned, the film as a piece traces the arc of a deteriorating relationship between the dwarf king and the wizard. And viewers who know the story of Tolkien’s epic realize as well that Gandalf has ulterior motives in his support for the dwarves’ quest.

So now to the scene in question, which I inserted at the beginning of the post. I suspect that when viewers see it, Guy of Gisborne will be the Armitage role most frequently called to mind, because Armitage pronounces a particularly percussive “not.” When I heard that in the theater, I immediately thought of the scene below.


Michael Elwyn as Sir Edward and Richard Armitage as Guy of Gisborne in Robin Hood 1.13


But what interests me upon further examination of the scene is the indication of a struggle with status going on internally to Thorin and played out in Gandalf’s presence, a struggle that –as I argue below — is signaled heavily by Armitage’s positioning of Thorin’s chin.

This conclusion may come as no surprise, given Armitage’s statements about the potential emotionality of the jaw as a tool for the actor, and how he felt restricted in exploiting it because of Thorin’s beard. It may be that he’s transferring some of that emotionality to his chin. But he has done this with characters other than Thorin, it seems. When I searched the blog for previous mentions of his use of the chin, I discover — this surprised me a bit — that the main previous role in which Armitage uses his chin as a status tool is: Mr. Thornton! Another interesting point — in a subsidiary post I made on Armitage’s subtle jaw moves as assertion of comfort and authority, Joanna called it: “IMO, plenty of THIS will be in the [repertoire] of Thorin.” You were right, Joanna.

As you watch the clip, you may ask yourself, wait, she says it’s the chin — but he’s not moving his chin all that much. One of the obvious conclusions after watching The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey a few times is that Armitage compressed his repertoire of facial expression for Thorin even more than he had for Lucas North. It’s all in the eyes, as Armitage has reported himself. Still, I think there’s a quite a bit to be seen here from watching the chin and specifically, noting when it moves. We are looking more here at long phrases of movement in Thorin than we are that the shortish, impatient reactions that Armitage often used to characterize Mr. Thornton.

All caps included are mine, from the video excerpt above.

The scene begins as the dwarves approach the ruined farmstead and Thorin orders them to prepare to camp there that night. Gandalf objects, as Thorin enters our view, with his head slightly tilted (this is an Armitage tic, one suspects, the result of having frequently been the tallest).


As Thorin moves toward Gandalf, he keeps his head level and his glance even with Gandalf, right until the point comes when he’ll have to pass Gandalf — and his glance slides away.


And then, when he responds with frustration to Gandalf’s suggest that the company move to the Hidden Valley, the chin is down and Thorin is looking up from under his eyebrows.


Stating that he will not go near “that place,” and passing Gandalf as he does it, Thorin manages to avoid a direct, even status glance until he reaches the other end of the ruined structure. Gandalf attempts to persuade him, but even as Thorin responds to this persuasion, he utters his opening sentences facing away from Gandalf. And as he whirls around to complete it, we see:


A Thorin snarl, with chin slightly up. Here, in an interesting contrast to Mr. Thornton, Armitage is using the chin up defiance as an indication of perceived low status and refusal to take it on.

After Gandalf’s remonstrances, Thorin seems to have his fury under control again, responding to Gandalf’s suggestion that Elrond could help them, first with a recounting of the sins of the elves so weary as to sound dispirited:

vlcsnap-2013-10-13-21h46m38s198and then with an appeal to Gandalf, raised chin, that combines both pride and pleading, noting that the elves have not helped in the past:


At this point, Thorin moves on to the theme of betrayals, speaking from a place of pride and strength. Because Thorin’s expressing his discomfort via these very long phrases of movement, rather than sudden, more fitful gestures, the way Armitage jerks Thorin’s chin around here becomes particularly noticeable to the viewer.

“They betrayed my grandfather” — pride in heritage — and emotion — Thorin associates something great with his grandfather:


but before he makes any more statements, we are meant to notice the chin down motion indicating a more ambiguous reflection here to influence our processing of the coming line:


The chin down allows us to see the emotiveness of Thorin’s eyes more clearly, and thus pull the audience into Thorin’s more introspective look here, as he apparently remembers the unresolved past.

Again, somewhat defiantly, he raises his chin and his eyes, to say “and my father”:


but then closes the viewer, and Gandalf, off from his emotion with the rightward jerk of his chin, as if again to assert that he still has status, despite all these events, even if it’s simply a status that allows him to refuse something he emphatically does not want or to avoid someone that he cannot bring himself to trust.


Gandalf responds to this defensive assertion of identity with the statement that Thorin is neither his father nor grandfather, to which Thorin makes the definitive low status statement — a moment of eye contact, and then the total rightward jerk of the chin, a more submissive version of the previous refusal — and a total removal of his face from the conversation.


Gandalf becomes frustrated, indicating that he didn’t give Thorin the map and key for this reason, and again, Thorin’s status response is submissive — he doesn’t get his chin or indeed his head very high as he says they were not Gandalf’s to keep:


His entire face seems a bit scrunched together as he forces the words out, but then look at his head, eye and chin position as he finishes the line:


As this piece of the scene ends, and Gandalf moves away in frustration, Thorin has managed, with this last little burst of rage (rage = anger + shame), to have reproduced his status, and he looks back at Gandalf while standing and gazing with full stature.

vlcsnap-2013-10-14-00h43m52s56Although when we see him more closely, as he urges Bombur to rush the meal, he looks almost weary.


Or perhaps — weary and nonetheless estimating.

Turning to the resolution of this difficulty, after Gandalf rescues the dwarves from the trolls, it’s again interesting to watch Thorin’s chin position. His equal status glance at Gandalf suggests that, out of whatever motivation, he’s been able to abandon the rage of the previous encounter. Perhaps he’s acting from gratitude. The only point at which Thorin significantly lowers his chin in this scene occurs when Gandalf points out the dwarves’ lack of cleverness.


Thorin seems to be lowering his chin to concede this point. But as the scene ends, with Thorin surmising the presence of a cave nearby, look again at his chin:


I would argue: status restored. Gandalf seems a bit bemused.

Theses, on the basis of this evidence — Mr. Thornton uses his chin to assert his status when he’s winning the argument; Thorin often uses his chin to assert show a rebellion against a sort of low status that not assigned to him by this scene, but which he assigned to himself as a consequence of his family’s history and the consequences of the loss of Erebor. Thorin’s status issues (as Gandalf’s lines to him point out) are ones that he is, in these scenes creating for himself — and Armitage’s facial gestures for Thorin, especially the chin, indicate Thorin’s struggle with his own status.

~ by Servetus on October 14, 2013.

28 Responses to “Richard Armitage, Thorin Oakenshield, and the chin, or: Dwarf vs wizard status games”

  1. I love when you do it,Serv! Thanks 🙂 I just can’t wait for Thorin in a full swing, he will be more frightening and thrilling than Shmaug;)


  2. I agree, brilliant analysis Servetus. Based on the second trailer, there should be a lot of ‘chin status’ movements/gestures in DoS.


  3. These analytic posts of yours are so illuminating. As a viewer who, as a rule, gets the message the actor is giving with his full performance, but is never sure how or why exactly that message is coming across, I’ve learned to watch differently as a result of these close looks of yours.
    So now I wonder whether Richard Armitage uses the same tools in his interviews and other public appearances, and I’ll be watching for those as well – because I’m pretty sure he does.


    • there was a lot of discussion after the Feb 11, 2011 news conference — striking, for Armitage up to that point, atypical use of chin when he was “playing” himself — about whether Armitage was “channeling” Thorin there. I didn’t agree with it, I thought something else was going on, but his use of his chin when he is being Richard Armitage in public is also something that’s gone through stages since the beginning of his career. I wrote at least a couple posts toward the beginning of the blog about his body language in early interviews. It’s changed a lot.


  4. Interesting. I frequently use his turned head, looking through his eyelashes as his “enthralling” look in my stories. It gets me every time I see it on screen. Now I know why. Very cool, Serv, very cool. (Now if I could just learn to keep my clothes on.)


    • what’s interesting here is that it’s not the seductive look up through the eyelashes (though Armitage has that one mastered, too).


  5. What an intriguing post! I’m so floored by what I miss but what totally works on me. I love how you can interpret it frame by frame.


    • this isn’t quite frame by frame — this was a 24 fps version of the film, so I was probably looking at something like every 9th or 10th frame at the very closest. 🙂 But thanks.


  6. Fantastic post. You (and RA!) give such studied attention to these little details that mean so much. It’s no wonder that he has a hard time coming out of character. I would think you would have to “be” Thorin or Thornton to exercise such details so effectively.


    • Yes, the details come out of the character (it’s possible to put yourself in a mood by undertaking certain mannerisms, too, but that’s not what I’m arguing here). He is Thorin, and Thorin has assembled these mannerisms. It’s fascinating to me how each character has different ones — I know that some of those can be planned / practiced, like Guy’s walk, for example, but something like “how often I move my chin and where” is totally unconscious and comes from a mood he creates within himself.


  7. Interesting analysis! I did notice him do that frequently in the movie but your intrpretation of it actually made sense. Thanks for the great read! 🙂


    • Thanks, I am a sucker for a close description / analysis of *anything*. I like knowing what the smallest piece of anything is and I’m delighted when others enjoy seeing that, too.


  8. Well in a sense even an interview is a performance. He has to decide how much he is going to say and reveal. When talking about the movie and work itself well that may not need to be so rehearsed but he knows there will be some questions about his own personal life so that needs to be handled in a different way and so a different Richard may be turned on. It is interesting that when LOTR came out we spent many an hour analyzing the scenes and clothes and expressions as well but not in the same way as we are doing here generally on one person. Still these movies have generated a different reaction in audiences. We see the films over and over to the point that we do begin to look closer and closer at the actual performances and analyze how they are being done. With Richard and Thorin we are looking at how he makes his character into a real person nd we see that it relates to all his previous performances. Excellent observations Serv.


    • I’ve been looking at Armitage like this since the third time I saw N&S. He in particular repays close attention, not least because of his own statement that he’s a “detailed” actor.


  9. Great analysis, Serv. I appreciate how you have broken down the elements of his performance into physical components like his chin. I never gave it much thought, just enjoying the whole (don’t we all?). But you take the viewer’s observation to a new level. Thanks for a job well done, as usual.


  10. Funny, thinking about this has reminded me of when I took acting lessons. One of the things we were taught was to internalize the character to the point where your gestures were completely in keeping with the character. That you weren’t even consciously thinking about making the gesture – it just happened as a result of being IN the character. I think that is what you are describing here. Not that Armitage is thinking, Oh, I’ll lift my chin here or I’ll look away here. Just that BEING Thorin naturally leads him to use his chin in certain ways. I love that about him. Thanks for the analysis!


    • Yes, and no. Some of what happens in this scene is very consciously planned — blocking. They have to know more or less where the actors will walk if the cameras will be in the right place to start (although they can improvise). But yes, in terms of gestures, those come from moods internal to the character, although the director also influences this by asking for more of one emotion (let’s say) or less of another. But no, I wasn’t saying that Armitage was thinking, okay, I’m saying this line, I need to move my jaw to the right. Sorry if I implied that somehow, but I don’t think I did.


  11. I am just in awe of your interpretations. I will be watching for this in his work now. His choices as an actor make him such a powerful force. Thanks for sharing.


  12. It is in keeping too with what Richard has said about needing to wear the boots or other parts of the costume in order to be in sync with the character even when it wasn’t needed. He needed it for Thorin to emerge fully and then I think everything else just fell in place.


  13. […] body language and facial exchanges in the Bag End scene in AUJ, but also echoes of the dwarf / wizard status games question, although they are eye to eye in this scene so the height differential doesn’t get exploited […]


  14. […] this over and over again, as with Mr. Thornton, with Guy of Gisborne, with John Porter, with Thorin Oakenshield. So I submit — one reason that Armitagemania happened to me was to help me address and […]


  15. […] shame or abasement. A series on how he used this move with Porter starts here; or here’s a discussion of Thorin in one scene from An Unexpected Journey; I’ve written about it with regard to Mr. Thornton and Guy of Gisborne as well. But I, at […]


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