Interview: Richard Armitage

Simon Button 12 January 2022

From bursting onto the musical theatre stage, the prolific actor has gone on to star in Hollywood blockbusters and hit TV shows—all while being “shy”

He’s been in The Hobbit franchise, featured in the Marvel universe and has a string of acclaimed TV performances under his belt. But having got his start in musical theatre, Richard Armitage never envisioned a career beyond the stage. 

“I wasn’t sure somebody like me had a place in film or television,” the now very much in-demand actor admits to thinking when he was growing up in Leicestershire. “I thought I might be able to do something on stage but I never dreamed about working on screen and it was only later in life when people started giving me chances that I thought, Maybe I can do this.”

I ask him what he means by “somebody like me” and Richard elaborates: “Somebody who’s a bit shy and not necessarily a show-off.

I felt like you had to have this supreme confidence to be an actor in film and TV, but having met a lot more people in the business who are like me I’ve realised there are two kinds of actors—people who have big personalities and enjoy putting them on film, then other people who use character as a skin to hide in or escape to. I fall under the latter category and it’s provided me with the most incredible adventures.”

"I felt like you had to have this supreme confidence to be an actor in film and TV"

Those adventures include playing an assassin in the huge-budget Captain America: The First Avenger, filming the Hobbit trilogy in New Zealand and being directed by Tim Burton in Alice Through the Looking Glass on the big screen, while also starring in Spooks, The Vicar of Dibley, Robin Hood and Hannibal on the small one.

And when we catch up via Zoom, 50-year-old Armitage is dialling in from Seville, where he’s currently filming crime drama The Man From Rome. 

The subject at hand, though, is the new eight-part Netflix thriller Stay Close, which is based on the Harlan Coben book of the same name and centres around three people— working mum Megan (Cush Jumbo), former documentary photographer Ray (Richard) and detective Broome (James Nesbitt)—whose pasts come back to haunt them.

Having previously been in another Coben adaptation, last year’s The Stranger, he was drawn to Stay Close because it meant being reunited with the same team. Plus, he saw Ray as a fascinating, dishevelled, heavily tattooed, and ultimately down-on-his-luck character.

Richard’s hair is shorter and tidier when we chat and his arms aren’t covered in tattoos, but the actor says there is some common ground between him and Ray. 

“There’s a slight solitude to him, although that’s through circumstance rather than choice, but I understand that side of him because I have a tendency to be a recluse or an introvert. Ray also has quite an artistic brain and an artistic mind, which I related to and enjoyed.” 

Born in the village of Huncote, near Leicester, Armitage mastered the cello and played in local orchestras before studying drama and dance at Pattinson College boarding school, recalling: “It was quite strict but that served me well because it gave me discipline and it made me a very hard-worker.”

Playing a Nazi agent in Captain America First Avenger,  2011

Having worked in Budapest for six months to gain his Equity Card (Equity is a UK trade union for actors), he then returned to the UK and did lots of musical theatre, appearing in the likes of 42nd Street, Annie Get Your Gun and Cats. “Then I started thinking about what the rest of my life might shape up to be and I didn’t want to just move around the various musicals in the West End before ending up teaching somewhere—not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I felt there was something else in me, another facet to my personality that wasn’t being fulfilled. I felt I needed a career with more longevity.”

So he enrolled at LAMDA and after graduation worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company before slowly inching his way into television, eventually landing the role of John Thornton in the BBC’s 2004 North & South (notably his first and so far only period drama). 

Two years later he was Guy of Gisborne in Robin Hood and also got to romance Dawn French in The Vicar of Dibley, saying: “That was like a little diamond in a field of coal. When they asked me, I was like ‘Really? Have they seen what I usually do? That’s not my bag’. But it was great fun and it was my first experience of a live studio audience, seeing the marriage of theatre and TV together and how brilliant Dawn was at bringing the audience in.”

After a regular gig as MI5 protege Lucas North in Spooks he then found himself playing dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield under the direction of Peter Jackson. “I was obsessed with his Lord of the Rings films and wished I’d been in them. Then I managed to get in a room with him and by some bolt of lightning he decided I was right for the role. That was one of those life-changing moments where I had to pick myself up off the floor.”

In The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, 2012

Also in the Hobbit trilogy was Richard’s Stay Close co-star James Nesbitt. “So we reminisced a lot about being in New Zealand for nearly two years, having this extraordinary experience.” He laughs. “Most of my memories are about surviving the costume and the make-up because it was so hot and heavy. Most of the time you were sitting in a chair wheezing and trying not to collapse.”

Stay Close was filmed in Manchester, Blackpool and the west of Lancashire. “And it was a really interesting period,” Armitage says of getting back to work after lockdown. “Productions had started up again and we came in at a time when COVID was feeling a little bit more controlled. The world was slowly opening up but we were still in this strict bubble, getting tested twice a week, with masks everywhere. That was an asset having worked with this crew before because meeting people from behind a mask is a bit of a challenge but it was like meeting up with old friends.”

"If people know less about me and more about the character then I’m doing my job well"

He’s been labelled a Method actor but doesn’t really know what that means, although he does a lot of preparation for a role and writes character diaries to fill in their backstories.

“Maybe some people just learn the lines and turn up but when you’re given a role you start working and you have a plan. That’s my method, I suppose, to read as much as I can, find as many influences as I can and try to get the work done before shooting so when you’re on set your brain can be completely focused on the scene.”

When it comes to his private life, he keeps it very private indeed, not because he’s a guarded interviewee but because of actors he admires like Gary Oldman, noting: “The thing that’s great about actors like him is that you only really know them for their characters and you don’t know much about their lives. Likewise I don’t want my life to get in the way of the thing I’m trying to create. If people know less about me and more about the character then I’m doing my job well.”

Richard smiles. “A painter doesn’t paint a portrait, put it on the wall and stand in front of it. They get out of the way.”

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