The Scotsman Magazine, 23rd July 2011
So bad, he's good
By Alice Wyllie
A smouldering lead with an army of fans, Richard Armitage has gone from a Budapest circus to Hollywood success. But did he find fame and fortune by giving in to the dark side?
"We do kind of like a bad guy, don't we?" says Richard Armitage with a distinctly villainous cackle, trying to get to the bottom of why film and television audiences love rooting for baddies, and indeed, why the 39-year-old actor is so often cast as one.
From MI5 agent Lucas North in Spooks to Guy of Gisborne in the BBC's adaptation of Robin Hood, his roles have always been distinctly dark, a theme which has only been strengthened by his latest forays into film, with roles including bad guy Heinz Kruger in Captain America: The First Avenger and the rather troubled king of the dwarves, Thorin Oakenshield, in Peter Jackson's still-shooting film versions of The Hobbit.
"Sometimes you know your villain is doing really terrible deeds but you want him to succeed because he's doing it with such finesse," he says.
"You want to see him get his comeuppance but you also want to see him pull it off. It's a real paradox. Perhaps we like it because we're not allowed to be bad in real life."
In "real life", Richard Armitage is one of the good guys. Atop Soho House in London on the hottest day of the year so far, on a break from filming The Hobbit in New Zealand, he's looking distinctly relaxed in jeans, wraparound shades and a rather Hobbitesque beard.
He's finding his time off enjoyable, if a little disconcerting. "It's a weird period," he says. "Not quite long enough to take other work but long enough to have a bit of a break. I'm deep into the second film and what's nice is there's time to actually take it apart. I'm kind of indulging myself at the moment, doing loads of research, finding stuff that isn't necessarily relevant, but it's a luxury. This question people ask actors - 'are you resting?'. It's such a weird expression. I don't think an actor can ever rest."
Regardless, he looks fairly rested today. The sun is shining, he's got some colour in his cheeks, he's been using his time off to visit the gym more frequently and looks in great shape.
Richard Armitage's appearance is interesting. On one hand, he's leading-man handsome. Tall, dark and, well, handsome, his looks helped land him roles including the brooding John Thornton in the 2004 BBC period drama North and South (not since Colin Firth emerged dripping from that lake were period drama fans treated to such a smouldering lead) and he has an online following of female fans, known as the Armitage Army.
But there's something about the arrangement of his features - the long, sloping nose, the sharp cheekbones, slim lips, pale blue eyes and fair skin - that's identifiably villainous. The casting director for Captain America only had to see his face on a billboard for this year's Sky One drama Strike Back to know that she wanted to give him the role of Nazi agent Heinz Kruger.
His characters always seems to be engaged in inflicting violence, being tortured, or dying ("someone said to me the other day that I've really got to stop dying on screen," he says with a laugh). As an actor who is always keen to immerse himself in those characters, repeatedly taking on such dark roles must surely be draining.
"I didn't make that many friends on Robin Hood," he says. "I'm convinced it was because I walked about with a face like a slapped arse all the time, because I was that character. He was such a troubled person and I did feel like I had this black cloud around my head the whole time. With my character in The Hobbit there's this emotional explosion and suppressed anger, and I'm trying to work out whether I have that in me or whether I'm going to have to imagine it. I guess there's a dangerous place, my own darkness, that I don't access in life but have the ability to go 'alright, just for this role, I'll just open this door and have a peek'."
In wholly occupying a role throughout filming, however, Armitage is throwing that door wide open. He admits to dreaming in character. He is currently, he says, dreaming as Thorin Oakenshield, but it happened most acutely when he was filming a prison break sequence for Strike Back and found himself dreaming each night that he was escaping through underground tunnels.
A musical child who loved to read, he showed creativity from an early age. Growing up in Coventry, he persuaded his parents to send him to stage school at 14, focusing on musical theatre. There was no performance background in his family, no pushy stage mother, but his parents were supportive. After graduating he joined a circus in Budapest (yes, it's true) in order to gain his Equity card, before retraining at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, focusing on acting.
He is characteristically positive about his time under the big top. "I was part of a mime troop, I threw batons to acrobats, held the ladders for the guys juggling," he says. "And I did a bit of acrobatics, a bit of clowning. But you know all of it, all of it has been invaluable.
"The stamina! The clowning is always useful for that ability to think spontaneously. Oh, and playing to empty houses with three people at the back, that's useful. But most of all working as part of an ensemble. Because when you're responsible for a ladder when there's somebody standing at the top of it, you can't be distracted and walk away because there's no safety net."
He has taken this lesson to every set he has worked on. His expression is one of incredulity when he recounts that some actors will wait in their trailers and send stand-ins for the lighting tests. Rather, he insists on embracing the more pedestrian, practical elements of the job, and repeatedly refers to creating a drama as being a team effort, enthusiastically lauding the rarely credited sound and lighting teams, as well as the many other members of a film crew who help to make the magic happen.
As for other performers, he rather likes a no-actor-is-an-island approach, suggesting that often actors tease the best performances out of one other. "There's a type of acting where you produce the work yourself which is great and it's skilful," he says. "But I believe in the kind of acting where you make somebody else act. There's a brilliant scene in Rabbit Hole with Nicole Kidman and a completely unknown actor, just sitting on a bench, and he makes her act better than I've ever seen her act before. I think I can make another actor act better, and hopefully someone else can make me produce something that I've never produced before."
When it comes to his own performances, he likes to push the limits of his comfort zone - then push a little further - and hates to rest on his laurels. Indeed, he was quietly contented when he realised that Peter Jackson was barely familiar with his back catalogue, and had cast him in The Hobbit entirely on his audition.
"The more I talk to him, the more I realise that he's not as familiar with my work as I thought he was," he says. "That pleases me. Sometimes when you're cast because of what you've done before, you're cast to do the same thing again. The Hobbit for me is stepping outside the box."
The Hobbit - alongside Captain America - also means stepping further into the limelight. It wasn't a conscious decision. Fame, recognition, and working in LA have never been goals Armitage has pursued. In fact, he had arrived at a point in his career where he was comfortable with the steady stream of television roles he was being offered. He was satisfied.
Then Hollywood came knocking. The news will surely be welcomed by the Armitage Army, I suggest. He looks a little bashful. He used to read their comments online, but doesn't any more, worrying that he might find himself too influenced by them, trying to please them in his choice of roles. Still, he seems flattered, if somewhat amused, by their attentions.
When pushed further on the subject, he is philosophical about the possible reasons he proves so magnetic to them, but is too modest to consider, at least out loud, that his smouldering looks might have anything to do with it.
"North and South was that kind of romantic period drama where love blossoms among so many social restrictions," he says slowly. "It's what you don't see, what you don't say, that make it incredibly electric. I think that's possibly where all that comes from; a lot of characters I've played have had elements of that idea of love or romance that the character isn't allowed to express."
That, and we all love a bad boy. And so does Armitage, whose bad boys always, by his insistence, have smatterings of light among the shade.
"I enjoy playing the bad guys, probably more so than the floppy-haired would-be heroes," he says with a chuckle. "And I'm not desperate to play a good guy. My 'thing' that I've always really enjoyed doing is when you do get cast as the hero you look for all the flaws, for the dark side to the hero. And then with the bad guy you look for the good side of the bad guy."
In other words, his characters tend to be more complicated than they initially appear. He has gone looking for the lighter side to Heinz Kruger and is relishing getting his teeth into the complex character of Oakenshield, a role which he has researched extensively.
"My interest in acting came from reading and books, and my most satisfying parts have always been those that have come from novels," he says. "Some people like working from a completely blank page so they can create something. That's exciting as well but I'm less confident with that than if I'm given a really good starting point. I love working on a character who comes from a novel because not only have you got what's in that text to work with but you can also look into the writer, and the more you find about that author the more you understand what it is you're working on."
Anyone familiar with the epic Lord of the Rings trilogy will know that The Hobbit is a gargantuan undertaking. Split into two films being shot back to back, it's dominating Armitage's schedule for the next 18 months. That's a long time to immerse oneself in the character of an angry dwarf. Thorin Oakenshield may be something of an unlikely hero, but like all of Armitage's characters, he's got his fair share of darkness in him. Isn't he a little fed up of so much nasty?
"I've got this theory," he says. "Actors who portray a certain type of nastiness too well, you kind of think 'hmm, do you have that in you?'
"So that's why I quite like the broad dramatic strokes of evil rather than anything too domestic because if it's too domestic you think, 'actually do I have the potential to be like that in life?'"
Does he? He laughs. "Well, you do start to think 'hang on, why are they bringing me in for these darker parts?' Actually, I think I'm quite a nice guy, really …"
Captain America: The First Avenger is on general release from Friday.
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