Back when we last spoke to Mr Armitage in 2015, he was over in Ireland filming Pilgrimage, alongside Jon Bernthal and, at that point, the relatively unknown Tom Holland, who you’ve probably heard of by now due to his current web swinging antics across cinema screens.
It’s been a two year wait for Pilgrimage to hit these shores since then, but it’s finally out on disc and digital download and adds another fine villain to Richard Armitage’s roster, while providing an exhilaratingly violent and gritty quest across 13th century Ireland, when a group of monks try to keep a sacred relic safe from various undesirables.
The film’s strengths come from the stellar cast, suitably grim atmosphere and sporadic carnage; it also has the emotional power that always comes from seeing blood spilt in the name of religion, when the reality is that people are dying over a rock which may, or may not contain divine powers of retribution.
As Raymond De Merville, Armitage shows a penchant for torturing anyone that stands between him and the holy artifact via a disemboweling arrow, ratcheting up the tension as he closes in on his prey, but our conversation was considerably more pleasant as he was out in Berlin (the setting for his latest TV series, Berlin Station) enjoying a sunny morning…
Congratulations firstly on the film and on your performance.
Last time I spoke to you, strangely enough, was for the last Hobbit promotion, when The Battle Of The Five Armies was coming out on disc and you were filming Pilgrimage at the time. How did you first get involved with the film?
It’s a good question. I think I was sent a script quite a long time before it was setup with any of the other actors and it was a direct offer. I have an agent based in LA who is Irish and has a strong affinity towards all things Irish. It’s connected me to the Irish film board and work that’s coming out of Ireland and Irish directors. So this kind of fell into my lap and I really enjoyed the possibility of playing a character who was French and also somebody who was largely focused on war in occupied territory and a period piece. Yeah, it was interesting to me. I really liked the world that Jamie Hannigan was writing about.
You mention playing a French character – do you enjoy the challenge of playing with a different accent?
Yeah I think that was one of the main things that attracted me to it, because it was something I’d never done before and it’s a huge challenge to work in a foreign language. You know I’ve done a medical drama in my past, and to be honest doing a medical drama is like speaking a foreign language. I’m working on a spy show at the moment and it’s like speaking a foreign language, because the jargon is so alien to what we do every day. You know one of my main goals was – because my character in Pilgrimage was going to be immersed amongst other actors who were coming out of France and Belgium, that I could somehow stand up against two French speakers and not standout as being incompetent! [laughs] I just really enjoyed the challenge of it and I have always enjoyed French cinema as well.
Yeah it’s the funny thing anyway isn’t it? One of my wife’s lecturers at University said once that Kevin Costner’s American accent in Robin Hood was actually closer to how he would have sounded back then, than people would expect.
I’m sure that wasn’t his line of study, but it’s a good review isn’t it? [both laugh!]
Yeah, it’s a good excuse isn’t it?
I’ve got the impression from you that before that a character’s backstory is very important to you. Do you prefer having a lot of existing written material, as when playing a literary character like Thorin or Francis Dolarhyde, or do you prefer the creative freedom from playing a fictional, historic character where you have a bit more freedom?
You know I like both. I really love having book to read where your character is imagined by an author because it’s like the source material and I really enjoy that, but I also like to expand on that and interpret what the author wanted and then go find things that will help seed the garden.
But also, when you start with nothing at all you can really go anywhere. The difficulty with that, is that you sort of have to be very much in contact with the writers and collaboratively with the show’s creator, or the movie’s creator, because you know I could spend hours going off on a tangent by myself, in my own research bubble and if it’s not being translated into real words on the page in the writers room, or with a writer, it’s just interesting to me, but worthless to the piece.
That’s why more and more as I get older I’m kind of co-producing things and I’m working on something with the Irish film board at the moment, where I have found a piece which has come from source material and I’m very much involved with putting it together, as a construction, so a bit of both I think is the answer to your question.
The piece you are working on at the moment, is it historic too?
It is. It’s set at the turn of the century and it’s based on a true story and there was a documentary and a book written about it. So it roots in the truth, but we are going to try and take it in a bit more of a genre direction.
Raymond was a bastard, for want of a better word, so do you look for sympathy within the villainous characters you’ve played, to help find empathy?
I think so, yeah. I mean really empathy is the word you sort of go into it with, you somehow have to put yourself within the shoes of a character and try to understand why they are behaving and why they are thinking and feeling the way that they do. To an extent, with someone like Raymond, there’s such an ambition in him and he’s been raised in a paternal society where war is the only reason to exist. War and dominance and occupation has been, from the cradle, everything he’s known and his father is now in decline. He calls his own father a coward. So he see’s the relic as something that’s going to elevate him and give him like a golden ticket to gain favour with his king and I think that’s all he sees, he doesn’t see a life beyond that.
It’s really interesting to see me as well, that there are no female characters within the story, because often the female characters can kind of balance the aggressive thrusting kind of paternal mind. But finding empathy with that – it was a challenge and at some point you give up because the overwhelming kind of darkness takes over, but I also feel like the character gives up. The character – you can either fight it, or yield to the darkness inside of you and I think that’s what happens with Raymond, he becomes so obsessed with his personal destructive quest that he just yields to it and is like ‘ Well if I can’t be good, then I’m going to be really bad!’
Did you have a name for his torturous, gut twisting arrow?
I didn’t actually, but I should have thought of something! There were a couple of them. We snapped a few of them, because… um… I was practicing a little bit too hard into the stomach of the monk that I was torturing! [laughs] I should have named them, but I didn’t.
Maybe it says something wrong about me that I wondered it in the first place!
What would you name it?
Do you know what? I don’t know… I can’t think of anything clever, other than The Interrogator or something.
The Interrogator! There you go. That’s a good one!
Where I’ve been writing over the last decade about homegrown historic, brutal films such as Centurion, Iron Clad and Black Death, they’re all great films and ones that I’ve loved, but I always wonder why they never get the recognition they deserve. I do wonder if the brutality of the past is too much for some people, but wondered if you had any thoughts on that?
Yeah, I feel that with period drama it does fall into a number of categories I think and I have been a part of a few of them. You know I guess the three that come to mind are North & South, which I see as – well they call it a bodice ripper, because it’s very flowery and romantic and it attracts a certain audience. Then there was Robin Hood and The Hobbit to a certain degree as well, which were based on legend and almost into the realm of fantasy, again, a slightly Victorian rose coloured view of what our roots were, and then you’ve got Pilgrimage, which is probably a little bit more of a truthful representation of where we’ve come from.
Especially as a sort of British nation who is at the moment kind of facing a huge dilemma of fracture in the United Kingdom. Pieces like this, when you think this is how it really started – Ireland was occupied by the French Normans and we were a very rural Island dominated by war and really pawns in a much bigger game. I feel like the society of the time was more brutal than what we’d probably like to admit, but it is interesting to see it up there as a reference point for that part of history. I’m fascinated with it. I’d rather look at that, than the rose coloured version.
It wasn’t lost on me that a film set all that time ago still resonates with everything that’s happening at the moment.
There’s a line in the film I think where I say there will always be another war, there will always be a reason to claim salvation, or atonement and you know it’s just a reason to go to war and to create dominance through this idea of a relic, which actually when the box is opened, it’s just a rock and you can’t believe what you are seeing and they’ve endowed it with all this power and I think we do that a lot in our society. Probably Bitcoin is the current version of a relic, you know?
Have you finished Ocean’s 8? Is that next out of the gate for you?
That’s all finished. That was a huge amount of fun to do. I think from what I can gather that it’s not going to be released until next summer – I think there is a bit of work to do and also Warner Brothers wanted to slate the release of the film, so I don’t think we are going to see it this year.
What an incredible cast. There was one night when we were sat – we were doing a night shoot at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and we were all sat in a holding room and there was Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham Carter, Rihanna, Anne Hathaway, just sat down singing songs. You sort of pinch yourself!
I didn’t quite realise that the film was as far along as it was, then having a look at the full cast I was in awe.
Yeah, it’s jaw dropping really, that cast. And they got incredible guest artists to come and join for that one event in the Metropolitan Museum part. There were incredible celebrities who showed up to play themselves.
Completely tangentially, I spotted that you’re an ambassador for Cybersmile (an anti-cyberbullying non-profit organization, committed to tackling all forms of digital abuse and bullying online) which is especially important to me, because I have young son and I’ve taught E-Safety before and know how important it is. How did you get involved with that campaign?
I think at the time I had just joined Twitter and a lot of my fan base were joining social media with me. I don’t have a massive teenage following, although The Hobbit did bring me a lot of younger audience. There were a couple of problems with people getting abuse, or attacked and arguments happening through fan forums and I felt really responsible for it, because people go there to just celebrate somebody’s work and express their opinion.
And then there is this faction of people that are addicted to this negative stance to anything anyone says, they’ll comment in a negative way and you can’t control what people say on the internet, but you can control what you read and you can be responsible for what you put out and I did feel very passionately about that. I wanted to protect people, but at the same time I didn’t just want people to only say nice things. As an actor you get very used to constructive criticism and sometimes brutal – just getting savaged by the critics! I’ve got a thick skin, but I can’t expect everyone that follows me to have the same thick skin, but it’s just a learning experience for everybody.
It can be endlessly frustrating, because even if you write an interview, or an article trying to look for the positive in something, there is often somebody who comments saying ‘I hate this show’, or ‘I hate this film’. So why spend time being negative, when you can find something that you did like?
Yeah, I think people have become – it’s interesting that people will stay in an argument with somebody and talk about how they despise the thing. You know, The Hobbit movies for example, how much they hated it yet they’ll watch every single one of them and continue to tell you how much they hated it! [laughs] I feel like that if you hate this so much, then just go and watch something else. I think there is also a need to sway people to hate it too and that’s the thing I can’t deal with.
Talking of The Hobbit, I have also spotted that you are back with Graham McTavish as they just announced last week that you are doing Castlevania with him.
Yeah, so much fun! I didn’t really know what the Castlevania series was and we didn’t work in the same room together, but they’d record us in different studios. We were working to no picture, so it was really just a script and they’ve animated around the voices, but I really liked it. I thought it was so much fun and a little but anarchic. It’s brilliant and the animation is amazing.
So just a happy accident that the two of you ended up on the same production?
Completely a happy accident, but they were kind of coming to me and saying “Oh Graham’s going to do it” and I think they were going to Graham saying “Oh Richard’s going to do it” and of course we both enjoy each other’s work. So, I was like “Great if Graham’s going to do it, I’ll do it!”
Richard Armitage, thank you very much!
Pilgrimage is out now on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital Download.