‘Hobbit’: Stephen Hunter on Bombur’s blubber, dwarf boot camp

One of the most memorable dwarfs in “The Hobbit” is Bombur, described by J.R.R. Tolkien as “immensely fat and heavy.” The role was big in more ways than one for Stephen Hunter, the Sydney-based actor who brings the character to life in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” The Peter Jackson-directed trilogy is the first major feature film for Hunter, whose previous work includes parts in Australian television series. Hero Complex spoke with Hunter about landing the role, working with the brotherhood of dwarfs and grappling with his character’s enormous girth.

HC: Can you tell us a little bit about auditioning? How did you get the role?

SH: I actually auditioned for “The Lord of the Rings” right at the very start. … I just did a general audition a long time ago, and it was really when I’d just started out acting. I followed the films, and I was sitting on my computer in Sydney on the blog when they won all of the awards for “The Return of the King,” and I saw all of the special features, so I was a really big follower. So then when I knew they were doing “The Hobbit,” I got in touch with my old New Zealand agent — I live in Australia now — and I said, “Look, I think we should hook up again. They’re doing ‘The Hobbit,’ you know, and obviously I was a bit early last time with ‘Lord of the Rings,’ but I really want to do this.” And this was 2 1/2 years out from auditions. … And then suddenly an audition came up, and I did a lot of preparation and then did the audition.

HC: What was that like?

SH: I auditioned with Liz Mullane, she was casting it, and I auditioned with Miranda Rivers. A friend of mine told me I should do some exercise before and just pump myself up, because it’s quite a high-energy sort of style, and I remember almost getting out of breath before I went in. I think I did two takes and that was it. She did make the comment that I did look like a dwarf. There was a commercial on at the time where I sort of take my shirt off, and I’m screaming down this big flying fox, and it actually did really well. It won a couple of awards in New Zealand, and it was quite comical as well. She did make the comment that she saw that and thought I’d make a good dwarf. I kind of figured if I couldn’t get a job as a dwarf looking as I do, I should just give up acting.

HC: Did you have to wait a long time before you found out if you had the part?

SH: I then heard nothing for close to three months, and we were expecting Rosie, our little girl, and my wife Laura was 6 1/2 months pregnant, and suddenly I got the phone call. “You’ve been offered the role of Bombur.” I’ll never forget the moment. It was pretty incredible. And of course Laura was excited, but then it suddenly dawned on her that we’re about to have our first child, and she’s going to be whisked away to another country.

HC: That must have been difficult.

SH: I think it was obviously a lot more difficult for her having to leave her family and friends and bring up a child somewhere she’d never lived before. For me, it was coming home, especially to Wellington. I was born in Wellington. That’s my hometown. My brother and my mum and dad, they were all born in Wellington, so we’re all pretty much born-and-bred Wellingtonians, so it was great coming home. As it turned out, we were there for like a year and half, and my girls really miss the place. They loved Wellington. It was such a great place to have a family.

HC: One of Bombur’s most distinguishing characteristics in Tolkien’s book is his size and appetite. Did you have to gain weight for the role?

SH: I didn’t have to gain weight. I had a fat suit. Pretty much the fat suit and the prosthetics took care of the look. Everyone told me when I had the fittings, “Oh, you’ll lose so much weight wearing this, because of the heat, and when you’re on location down in the South Island, it’s summertime. You’ll lose weight.” But they didn’t tell me about the catering. Billie [Lusk] was the caterer, and the food was just ridiculous, it was so good. … I had to carry the suit, and I had the costume, and then sometimes we were carrying big packs of stuff, and there might be armor or whatever we were carrying. And there was a lot of weight training every day, so I actually did bulk up a little bit and got a lot stronger probably than when I started the job. A couple of times I had a few comments indirectly told to me, like “Make sure he doesn’t lose too much weight.” I’d say no to a piece of cheese, and people would say, “No, no, no, you go ahead.” They weren’t trying to fatten me up, but that was all part of the fun. Because I was feeling a bit big and a bit overweight, it probably helped with the character as well, because he was quite cumbersome. Being that size as a dwarf is a lot different than in real life. It’s probably quite a cool thing.

HC: Did you find the prosthetics limiting?

SH: It takes getting used to. If anything, I had to be more theatrical, a little bit more over the top to get through the prosthetics. So I could be having these great moments on camera, looking at this or thinking or doing whatever, and then I’d look at the playback and it’d just be blank. And Peter was obviously very aware. He’d say, “Make sure you get some movement in your face.” You have to sort of play it a bit bigger than you usually would for film to work through the prosthetics.

HC: In the book, Bombur’s a bit clumsy, always falling over and that sort of thing. Did you try to play that up in your performance?

SH: I sort of go the other way. Because he’s got such a great physical presence, I don’t really have to do very much with him. It could have been very easy to overplay that and to try and do too much. Even with the other guys, we’d been there almost a year, I’d walk out, and they’d still shake their head. It’s just such a great look, from the costume with the prosthetics and the hair, and they just did such a great job. I really had a gift with him because he’s so much bigger than the other guys in girth. Peter was really keen to make each of the dwarfs very unique and quite memorable in their own right, and so I was really lucky that I had that to use. Bombur, he’s reasonably confident, but he’s one of the younger dwarfs, so a lot of the time I’d just sit and listen and take it all in. Bombur was quite interested and quite naive in a way.

HC: Where did you find inspiration for your character?

SH: I really love Tolkien’s writing … I found it fascinating reading more about dwarfs and Dwarvish and where my kin could possibly have come from. For me, I need to know why I’m doing what I’m doing. And a lot of it we sort of make up, because in the book, there’s not a huge profile of all the things that we do, and our character breakdown. So Peter and Fran [Walsh] really left it to us to add our own personalities to the character, and I’m sure that was on purpose. … I think everyone has been so well cast. And while it’s obviously magnified, there’s certainly quite a bit of each actor’s personality in these dwarfs, and then you sort of magnify it.

HC: How is your own personality like Bombur’s?

SH: I love food. I’m a complete foodie. I love to cook. I find it very hard to say no to food. I get grumpy if I don’t get food. I’ve really had an affinity with that. He’s also got a sense of adventure. And I think something that I brought, too, was like a respect. For me, I knew that as an actor who hadn’t really done anything like this before, I was coming in here, and there were a lot of very accomplished actors. So as much as I tried to fit in, and I’m a bit of a joker, there was a lot of sitting back and watching how the other guys do it. I think there’s a lot of that with Bombur as well. He’s a dwarf, and it means a lot to get the kingdom back, but there’s also a hierarchy. ‘Cause me and Bofur and Bifur aren’t from the royal line of Durin. We’re sort of the country folk and the scrappers, really. So there are others that this means a lot more to. I think he was really respectful of that as well. … Just seeing where we fit into it all. Like why did I go into the battle? For me, Bombur, I basically followed Bofur, who’s my brother, and the more I got to know Jimmy [Nesbitt] … he’s someone I really look up to, and we got pretty friendly, so it was easy for me to follow him.

HC: How did you go about building a brotherhood as dwarfs?

SH: It started really when we first arrived, and there were a few delays. We got there in mid-January, and we didn’t start filming until March or April, so we got to spend a lot of time with all the other guys. We did our dwarf boot camp, which was all our movement training and our fight training, and they’d send us to the gym for our fitness. For me, the way I related to all the dwarfs was almost identical to how I related to the other actors. I remember in Bag End sitting down, and a lot of that was just taking in what people say and how they say it, because at the start of the story at Bag End, there are all these dwarfs. Some of them have met each other, quite a lot of them haven’t really spent much time with each other, and now they’re starting this massive journey. And that was exactly what we were doing as actors. So it was perfect that as the characters got to know each other within the story, we got to know each other a lot better as actors.

HC: What was your favorite scene to film?

SH: I think the first one in Bag End. That was our first day of shooting. Sir Ian McKellen walks out dressed as Gandalf, and it’s like, “Wow, I’m actually in this.” And I’m in there sitting next to Adam Brown, because he was in a similar boat to me — we really hadn’t done any big movies or anything. And we were just pinching ourselves and sort of waiting for someone to tap us on the shoulder and say, “Sorry, we’ve actually got the wrong person.” But Bag End was special. It was just so familiar from the last movies, and meeting some of the guys who had been there before — like Orlando [Bloom] and Elijah [Wood] and Andy [Serkis]. In Bag End, there was a lot of eating going on, and that was some of the funniest stuff we did. I think I must have consumed at least a dozen boiled eggs during that shoot, and it will probably take about 15 seconds of the film.

HC: What was your reaction when you found out “The Hobbit” would be three movies instead of two?

SH: I was stoked. I mean, I think it was hard for some of the guys, because it meant there’d be a bit more time away from home. People always go back to how small “The Hobbit” is, the book, but I guess what a lot of people don’t understand is that there was so much written. When Tolkien wrote “The Lord of the Rings,” he filled in all of the gaps. There’s just so much story. So I was glad from an actor’s perspective. There were these great things that my character goes through that I know now [with three movies] probably will get saved from being cut out. It meant we were able to really flesh stuff out.

HC: What’s next for you and your career?

SH: I’d like to do a bit of comedy. … I think I have to be open to the fact that nothing will ever top this, which is fine. We’ve still got two more movies, we still have to go and do pickups for movies 2 and 3. There’s still quite a bit to go. And we have these conventions lined up, and I know this will never end, which is kind of cool. But the exciting thing is, hopefully I’ll get opportunities to do work that I wouldn’t have otherwise got the opportunity to do if I hadn’t worked on this film. For me, as an actor, just to keep acting and to keep being able to work and to do different roles and challenging roles, that’s something I’d love to do. And the guys that we met and we worked with, the other dwarfs, a lot of those guys will be friends for life

I loved Stephen HUnter he was brilliant as Bombur. I hope yall catched Bombur with a tray of food in the background feeding Bifur during the scene where Balin and Thorin are talking. It cracked me up along with the poor guy hustling during the running scenes even though he was dead last. Much love to Bombur.