Richard Armitage is a man of the people. While most know him from The Hobbit Trilogy, he has amassed a fandom from all over. He is loved by the theatre crowd, specifically for his brilliant turns in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. He is also known for his roles in television, starring in Berlin Station and also having notable roles in Hannibal, and recently Castlevania.
Pilgrimage features different spoken languages throughout the film including French, which your character spoke most often. There are different dialects of French, so was it hard to learn to speak French in a certain way?
What interested me was the fact that this language (French), an ancient language, had traveled around the world and come back in a modern way. I kept asking myself; “How would the Normans have spoken French?” and sadly there were no recordings of it. So we had to come up with an idea and having a hybrid of accents was one of the ideas (laughs).
I think that came through in the movie. But when you were speaking English was it hard to keep up the French accent?
Yes, I was really careful to not get into parody. One of the interesting things with Stanley Weber, who was playing the Cistercian (Frère Geraldus), was that I listened to his accent a lot because he spoke really great English (Stanley Weber is French) but occasionally you could hear things come through. So rather than doing a French accent I was trying to speak English as if a Frenchman was trying to speak really good English. I had really good people around me to listen to.
About this role. It’s a very dark, gritty and bloody movie and you played the “villain” of the movie. Did you see your character as the villain?
I guess his acts are quite violent but I never really saw him as the villain. I saw him as a kind of warrior who was pursuing his agenda in a very kind of male way. Also he’s the representative of a family and a culture which is forcing its way into the British Isles and Ireland. The Norman occupation of Southern Ireland. He (Raymond De Merville) is ramping up for another crusade so I saw him as somebody who is apart of a big war machine. I guess that makes him a villain.
Do you think that Raymond’s quest for the relic was to gain favour in the eyes of the king so he could escape his father’s command. Might that have been his motivation?
Absolutely. One of the things I really enjoyed was this idea, that when he’s torturing the monk and he talks about how much his father is in decline and how he’s also a coward. The idea of the legacy you receive from the reputation of your parents affects your entire future, so he needs to carve a legacy for himself as someone who is ruthless, determined and ambitious. That was the mantra that he was trying to establish for himself.
On the subject of the torture scene I wanted to say it was absolutely brutal. It felt very medieval didn’t it?
(Laughs) At the time I didn’t feel it was very violent. I guess I was so much in the head of the character that I just felt like; “oh it’s just a little surgical alteration”. A lot of people said that to me and I can see it now. But I guess that’s what happens when you’re inside the head of a character. It’s just another day at the office for him.
One thing I noticed when talking about this movie is that you have a big fandom. Do you like choosing different roles each time so that fans can see many different sides of you?
I really love to do things that I’ve never done before or a role that throws me in a new environment, sometimes a new time. I was really interested in Pilgrimage because it was such a medieval story and I’ve never played that period of time, other than Robin Hood, which was probably a little later. I’m playing something right now that’s politically current and of course what’s happening inside me now is that I’m looking for my next project and thinking I’d really like to do a science fiction project. So my taste is formed by what can be the most challenging or the biggest contrast to what I’ve been doing.
Pilgrimage is quite different from anything you’ve done but people will make that comparison with your character in The Hobbit just because you’re both carrying a sword. Do you notice that?
Yeah it’s weird because Tolkien’s world and fantasy in general doesn’t quite have the relevance, in terms of the level of violence. Obviously I know there was great violence inflicted in The Hobbit Trilogy, a lot of it off-screen. But Raymond felt much more real to me than Thorin did.
The Hobbit always seemed like more of an escape from reality while Pilgrimage was much more grounded in reality. Was it the same sort of feeling on the sets as well or was Pilgrimage a fun set to be on as well?
You know I love Tolkien, I love legends because you can really create the universe. Tolkien did that. With Pilgrimage it is rooted in a history that cannot be changed, unless you live in America where they change history a lot (laughs). It’s set in stone according to what the biographers wrote. But I also agree with what you said because in Pilgrimage the level of violence needed to be truthful. If it had been glossed over or glorified it would have been an indulgence. I think people needed to flinch at the sort of extremity of the violence because that’s the truth. I think it’s a dangerous place to go when you start to soften the violence on film. It needs to be shown for what it is.
Yeah and that’s a debate that many people have. I usually mention Saving Private Ryan and the World War II veterans who watched it and said it felt like they were back there. But then Dunkirk came out and wasn’t as gory as Saving Private Ryan but veterans still felt like they were back there as well. So it’s just based on how you make the film right?
Yeah and I also think that as you take a viewer through this world there’s a debate to be had about when we’re faced with that extreme violence do we really see it. Or does our natural instinct make us look away. How much do we really face? In Dunkirk some of those shots where the bodies are exploding right in front of us, it’s almost blurred in the foreground. The brain and eye can only take so much, which I believe. The brain and the eye are very clever as they shield us from a lot of things.
So I’m guessing you did like Dunkirk then?
I loved it. It’s my film of the decade. The thing I loved so much about Dunkirk was the sound design. The sound design is extraordinary and I’m guessing it’s going to win a lot of awards.
Couldn’t agree more! One final question that I think a lot of people were wondering about was when you’re going to get back into theatre?
Yes! I’m going to be back on stage at the end of 2018, probably in London. Directed by Yaël Farber, who directed The Crucible. I think we’re going to be tackling Shakespeare but I won’t tell you which one (laughs).
Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed.