How A Geography Teacher Came To Star In The Hobbit

Shaolin Master, stuntman, geography teacher and full-time hardman; life's interesting when you're Peter Dillon...
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Shaolin Master, stuntman, geography teacher and full-time hardman; life's interesting when you're Peter Dillon...

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It’s four days before St Patrick’s Day and I’m waiting for a call from Greystones in Ireland, twenty minutes south of Dublin’s Blackrock College. In 1990 one of its teacher’s Peter Dillon decided to give up the blackboard and to Kung Fu his way into professional stunt performing or what he describes as “the dysfunctional world of film-making”. With 25 years’ worth of experience in Chinese martial arts Dillon travelled during the summer months around Asia, training as a Shaolin Master. This Irish Bond had his lucky charms as he broke into the industry with ease.

Armed with credentials that could make Indiana Jones blush, he decided to take a career break. “Three months just didn’t seem long enough anymore”, he says. “The other thing was I always wanted to go to the Himalayas it was just one of those things”.  After completing his dream of walking the Annapurna circuit, he split from teaching and continued to travel around Asia, then across the water to New Zealand.

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With only a backpack, $600 and a tourist visa Dillon’s big industry break came from a conversation over lunch. “It was with someone who was involved with the pick-ups for The Lord of the Rings”. Dillon was asked to work on the film to add another interesting story to his travels. “I had no idea what the film was going to be like, the only things I had heard of being made in New Zealand prior to that I guess were Xena: Warrior Princess. So I thought it was going to be more of the same.”

Stunt coordinators Paul Shapcott, Augie Davis and Kirk Maxwell introduced him into one of the industries tougher jobs. “I knew nothing about film when I went on to set. It was a case of eyes open, ears open, mouth shut, and learn as fast as I could from the people around you”. Ever the professional, Dillon kept his cool as he started a career in the biggest cinematic franchise of the decade. “I was asked to do a high fall that was on pick-ups for The Two Towers I think. The coordinator went to walk away and he turned back and said “You’ve done that before haven’t you”, and I just said “Yep”. He hadn’t. “Doing stunts isn’t about being crazy or throwing your-self off heights. It’s about having the skill to do it over and over again for different camera angles and repeated shots performing safely every single time”.

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Performing stunts was the least of his problems, when character animation came into play. This geography teacher was a novice on the acting front, especially when wearing, what he says looked like a grey Spiderman costume. “The Uruk-Hai stuff was interesting, that was largely done through motion capture on my part, motion capture as you probably know is a different kind of acting environment”. Surprisingly Dillon believed his career in teaching helped him with character acting, “It’s funny because that was a fantastic background for an awful lot of things”, he says laughing, “definitely in terms of standing in front of a crowd of people who may or may not want you there in the first place”. His moment of glory came while shooting pick-ups for The Two Towers during the battle for Helms Deep. “There’s an Uruk-Hai who comes charging through with a lit torch to set off the explosives at the base of the wall: the long shots of the Uruk-Hai running through with the lit torch is me”.

After being thrown from iron clad ladders onto the spikes of an Uruk-Hai army, Dillon went on to perform in a number of TV series such as Inspector George Gently and Vikings. He was also cast in the first and second Narnia films, Becoming Jane and Avatar. Dillon’s career is impressive however for the majority of his work he is un-credited for. So how does it feel to be overshadowed in this industry? “I just think it’s simply not fair, anybody whose confident in their own abilities and the character they produce will have no problem in giving credit where credits due. Most productions I’ve worked on have been good that way and some haven’t. I enjoy doing the job and it definitely does not stop me in getting the next job”.

Dillon has since returned to Middle-earth for Peter Jackson’s next trilogy The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, and was hired to be the stunt double role for Balin. He recalls how working with Ken Stott helped him develop the wise Dwarf. “It was great fun I worked great with Ken, a lovely guy and a great actor and a great presence on set, you should never be able to tell that it’s me doing any particular action”. Dillon shows immeasurable praise for Andy Serkis, best known for his portrayal of the conflicted creature Gollum, in his new role as second unit director. “As a performer and as a Second unit director as well, Andy works incredibly hard he’s really dedicated to what he is doing, but he has a real mindfulness of his performers and he is very caring of us as we go through the rigorous demands”.

Dillon was also the archery coach on the Hobbit, so who was good and who wasn’t. “Aidan Turner the actor who played Kili he was good, Richard Armitage ‘Thorin’ was great, Graham McTavish was great. Pretty much everybody got some good shooting in and who was the worst…no one I don’t know.” Damn!

Dillon wrapped on The Hobbit after 266 days of running across mountains and wearing fantastically wispy brows. I eventually asked Dillon the ultimate question. How did he cope with the costume and beard? “My costume weighed between 25- 30 kilos, and the size of design is all about a particular look that fits that particular race”, he chuckles. “It wasn’t hugely user friendly in terms of the way you move”. His admirable career shows how some of the most hard working and overshadowed people in this industry are the stunt men and women who bring action and adventure to life. “I’m a bit of a jack of all trades” the luck of the Irish.