TORONTO - It won't be long before it becomes difficult to separate actor Richard Armitage from the character Thorin Oakenshield.
Armitage himself is already there.
The British actor is a familiar face in the U.K. for roles in the BBC dramas "North & South", "Robin Hood" and "Spooks." He's more anonymous in North America, perhaps best known for a small part in the recent hit "Captain America: The First Avenger."
But he'll no doubt soon be synonymous with the dwarf king he plays in the new Peter Jackson epic "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey."
Having spent some 18 months living as Thorin — after learning to talk like him, walk like him and looking in the mirror and seeing the face of a dwarf — Armitage said he lost himself in the character.
So much so that even his sleep was overrun with J. R. R. Tolkien's fantasy world.
"I started to dream in character," says Armitage during a recent interview in Toronto to promote the film, which opens Friday.
"I started to have Thorin's dreams, I had dreams of entering Erebor for the first time because that's what he dreams about — so I had dreams of that."
You might say Armitage began the preparation for his life-changing role as a child, when he had "The Hobbit" read to him in class and became a Tolkien fan.
"I read the book when I was 11 ... I remember picking it up for myself and sitting under the bedsheets with a torch and I really feel like it inspired my imagination. And if I really think back, it's probably one of the reasons why I became an actor, because my imagination was fired and those things that Tolkien really taps into — the secret doors, the keys, the code words, the scary threat of the darkness — I think those are the things that really appealed to me as a kid," he recalls.
Fast forward some 30 years later and Armitage again found himself lost in Tolkien's books, after winning the role of Thorin.
"I read as much Tolkien as you can get your hands on because he talks about these creatures extensively across his works," he says.
"Then when we got to New Zealand it was all about creating this physical experience of a dwarf, what it felt like to be a dwarf."
That process required plenty of makeup, which Armitage says helped him embody his character.
"Initially you feel like yourself with loads of stuff put on top of you but then eventually, and very quickly, it just starts to feel very normal and I couldn't actually work without it," he says.
"While I was working it was important to stay in character as much as I could because Thorin was far away from myself, he has a different voice and a different way of walking, and I needed to concentrate."
The actors didn't know "The Hobbit" was destined to be a trilogy when they initially joined the production, but eventually clued in that the volume of material they were creating was far too much for a single movie.
"There was a point in filming when most of us realized (Jackson) was shooting enough for three films and we were all debating whether it was (just) going to be an extended edition or (a full trilogy)," Armitage says.
"It's absolutely packed with action and there's almost not enough time in three films, so I think that (decision) is really thrilling."
Armitage was just as excited as any Tolkien fan to finally see "The Hobbit" play out on the big screen.
Being on set gave him just a hint of how the film would eventually look and unravel.
"The reality of seeing it finally finished in that movie house was just incredible," says Armitage.
"What I'm going to be really interested to see now is how they climax movie two, because nobody knows how he's going to do that."