A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
In the latest in our occasional series “In Conversation with …” we’re delighted to welcome actor Richard Armitage to Vulpes Libris.
After working steadily for many years as an actor – both in the theatre and on television – most notably in Sparkhouse and Cold Feet – Richard came to sudden prominence in 2004 with the breakthrough role of Victorian cotton mill owner John Thornton in the BBC’s highly-regarded dramatization of Elizabeth Gaskell’s classic North and South.
He recently very kindly took some time out of an insanely busy schedule to answer a few questions for us:
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VL: First of all, welcome to Vulpes Libris and thank you very much for making time to talk to us. Straight on with the first question – what, if anything, did you read as a child?
RA: Tolkien – Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit; Roald Dahl – Danny the Champion of the World, James and the Giant Peach; Steven King – IT; CS Lewis.
VL: What do you enjoy reading now – for pleasure, rather than in connection with your work? And what are you reading now?
RA: Most reading time is tied into work related research so for Spooks, lots of Frederick Forsyth, John Le Carré, and Robert Ludlum.
VL: I’m interested in how an actor reads. Do you find you can detach yourself from what you are reading, or is your professional self ticking over, wondering what an adaptation would look like, or how you would play the protagonist? Is there any sort of writing that you can lose yourself in, and forget you are an actor?
RA: I would never try to ‘detach’ from what I am reading, the goal would always be to engage and relate. ‘Forgetting I am an actor?’ I always try to forget I am an actor especially when acting. I have a visual brain so any stimulus will charge my ‘acting batteries’. The best writing is when one gets lost firstly in a character and then in that character’s journey through a gripping plot. That’s my kind of book. My story-hungry brain does go for ‘plot’ but if a character is detailed and layered then the plot can take a back seat. I look for inspiration when reading characters for research – details, thoughts and actions but mainly ‘sensation’, which is unique to each reader and changes according the reading environment. I prefer to read fiction for research rather than a factual textbook even if the latter is more accurate. I am a story lover.
VL: The great Question of the Age – Spoilers: Where do you stand? Do you want to inflict a lingering death on the person who tells you whodunnit, or are you a final-paragraph-peeker?
RA: Spoilers are the bane of my world. I just don’t get why one would want to spoil the ending. It’s like hunting for Christmas presents and then having to feign surprise on Christmas day. The reader is setting himself up for disappointment. Also one makes a judgement on what the ending may be and without ‘the journey’ that judgement is clouded, but worse than that, once you have decided, through ‘reading a spoiler’, that the ending is not what you wanted, then it’s almost impossible for the unfolding of the story to actually change the judgment you have made. It’s like a jury member privately deciding in advance a guilty verdict, despite overwhelming evidence. I say ‘don’t do it’. Do not seek out your Christmas presents, they may not even be for you, then how disappointed will you be! However, some people believe the frenzy of expectation, prompted by being fed little crumbs of spoiler, can have a good effect. I am dubious. Incidentally, I was part of the ‘Don’t show the Sheriff’s finger Twitching’ campaign on the Robin Hood shoot … we lost!
VL: Now, you were born on August the 22nd and your given name is Richard. I believe those two facts are not completely disconnected – and that there are plans afoot for a bit of Richard III rehabilitation. Can you tell us a little more about it?
RA: I was named Richard being born on the anniversary of Richard III’s demise at Bosworth; one of my father’s favourite novels is The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman, and I read this many years ago. In recent years it has lead to a tentative interest and line of research into the rehabilitation of this story. As an actor, it’s a project I would love to achieve. I believe it is a great story, a socio-political thriller, a love story and a dynastic tragedy. My challenge is to convince commercial producers to see beyond ‘history lesson’, but I strongly suspect that this will be a long way off, probably outside of my ability to play the role, but I wouldn’t rule out playing another role, I may even be producing by the time someone wakes up and realizes the potential for this project.
VL: Did you know that your portrayal of John Thornton launched several writing careers? I’m thinking specifically here of Phillipa Ashley, Rosy Thornton and Elizabeth Hanbury – because they’ve all had books reviewed on Vulpes – but I’m sure there are others. They started writing fan-fiction inspired by ‘North and South’, then went on to become published authors. That must feel a little odd. Good – but odd?
RA: I certainly don’t feel odd; many contemporary writers have been inspired to write novels based on ‘Classics’. The inspiration you are talking of, which launched these writing careers is the same inspiration that gave Sandy Welch the desire to adapt Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel, and it was both Gaskell and Welch that facilitated my interpretation of John Thornton. Much as I would love to take credit for ‘launching writing careers’ the credit is Gaskell’s.
VL: I think you may have had a just a little to do with it, but never mind … we’ll move swiftly on to the next question. One of the interesting aspects of your acting is your insistence on the importance of a back-story for your characters. You seem to take delight in creating this background and exercising your imagination on where your character has come from and what makes him tick. Inside the actor, might there be a writer waiting to come out?
RA: Possibly. Although, I work backwards from someone else’s framework. When I write my character biography, it takes the form of a diary/novel, which moves between first and third person, sometimes second. Its good to talk ‘to’ your character, as well as ‘for’ and ‘about’. But this is all research, and the moment when it comes alive is when that research turns into the character, and that character goes out into the big wide world and collides with other characters (often the facets created in the biography are designed to cause chaos when this happens, like planting a few explosions inside the character).
I think writing is solitary; I like the interaction of a scene with another character. That’s why you will never see me in a one-man show.
VL: Can I take you back to Sparkhouse for a few minutes? (For those who don’t know, Sparkhouse was a grim but fascinating three-part series written by Sally Wainwright, and loosely inspired by Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights – but with the two lead roles reversed … the ‘Heathcliff’ role was played by Sarah Smart and the ‘Cathy’ role by Joe McFadden.) Your character – John Standring – was a sort of amalgam of Isabella and Hareton. Did you read Wuthering Heights beforehand, and if you did – was it a help or a hindrance?
RA: I did read the novel, in fact I had read it many times before, and listened to Kate Bush!! The derivation of the character was less interesting in this instance, what was more useful was Brontë’s vision of that landscape, literal and metaphorical, the major themes in the novel, the wilderness and the madness. I didn’t try to locate John in Brontë’s novel and Sally was keen that there were no exact parallels. There was an elemental feeling from the novel, which had most impact on me.
VL: Casting a quick eye down your CV, I have to say there’s a bit of a lack of jolly, cheery characters. John Standring, John Thornton, Guy of Gisborne, Lucas North … not exactly little sunbeams, any of them. The only recent exception was Harry Kennedy – who married the Vicar of Dibley. Now, I believe that in life you’re actually quite a cheerful soul – more like Harry than Lucas – so, are you drawn to darker characters because they’re more interesting to play … or are you just not offered happy chappies?
RA: I think I am drawn to darker characters because I am quite a cheerful person; there are more questions to ask of these characters. Having said that I think even when playing Harry Kennedy, my biography was quite dark, he was running away from something, from the dark to the light, and he found Geraldine! I think once an actor has been relatively successful in a genre, they are asked to repeat it. I try not to do this, but if the character is appealing then it’s worth exploring. I always look for good within bad and vice versa. That’s what appeals to me about Richard III. The villain, the hunchback, child murdering, usurping monster – I want to try and find the man who loved Anne Neville, passionately, from childhood until death, who was inconsolable at the loss of his only son and who put in place the ‘even handed’ judicial system, which we enjoy today; and then have him ‘slaughter’ the Princes in the Tower. It’s all about contradictions.
VL: Can we talk about Guy of Gisborne for a minute? After waiting two years for him to do something with that extremely large sword, he went and ran Marian through with it, which was a bit startling, to say the least. You said at the time that after that, he more or less had to die … and he did. Were you satisfied with his departure – and will you miss him?
RA: I always maintained that Gisborne was only interesting when he wasn’t getting what he wanted. Give him what he needs and it’s over. In simple terms, as one of the baddies of the piece, which was essentially aimed at youngsters, he really did have to suffer for the suffering he had caused. I am glad he was able to free himself from the burden of his actions and to die a noble death. I will miss him but that’s why it had to end, I would have hated to grow tired of that character, he was hard work to play and needed a lot of ‘concessions’. Much has been said critically about contradictions within this character, but it is my belief that much of our expectations of dramatic characters especially written for TV are paradoxically unrealistic. We expect them to be perfectly formed, that they are for example ‘always bad’, somehow linear. I believe that this is what leads to a stereotypical realization of that character, for if we look honestly to ‘life’, for realism, then we have to accept that is its possible for a man to kill the woman he loves, in a crime of passion, regret this till the day he dies, despise the man she truly loved, and yet still find a way to friendship with him. As I have said before, I don’t think it is unrealistic to believe that a serial killer can return home to his wife, who he loves dearly, tenderly kiss his newborn daughter good night, it’s just hard for us to accept. One of my great mantras is that ‘characters are at their most interesting when they are behaving out of character’, so when actors say: “my character just wouldn’t do that”, I always say ‘well see what happens when you ‘make’ them do that!’ I had to instruct myself like this quite frequently with Guy of Gisborne, which is why he became interesting to me. He helped me to develop as an actor, for this reason.
VL: Whither Richard Armitage? Can you tell us what you have lined up next?
RA: A new 6-part TV series, a film, and a stage play based on a novel, which became a 60’s film classic. (Answers on a postcard please!) Hopefully, Spooks 9.
VL: “A stage play, based on a novel which became a 60’s screen classic” … well, that’s nothing if not intriguing … If – just for the sake of argument – the bubble burst tomorrow and your ‘phone stopped ringing … do you have any second or third strings to your bow? You’re a musician, I think?
RA: I am totally prepared for the phone to stop ringing; in fact I am probably going to disconnect that phone before it has a chance to ‘not ring’. I have a strong need to direct, but I would also like to produce. If I could turn back the clock, I would certainly be behind the camera.
VL: It’s become a custom on Vulpes for us to ask our guests to name their five favourite books – and give reasons. The floor is yours. Just be sure to give it back …
RA: The Lord of the Rings: the best adventure novel for a 12-year-old boy. A ‘road movie’. I was playing one of the Elves in a school play at the time (researching even back then).
Danny The Champion of the World: the first book where I realized I wasn’t reading words to make sense, just imagining the story in my mind.
The Sunne in Splendour: Slightly over blown but much needed antithesis of Shakespeare’s villain,
North and South: I don’t think I need to say why with this one.
Crime and Punishment: Intellectually aspirational read, which turned into a fascination with dark characters, (read this whilst prepping to play Macbeth at drama school, researching the nature of the guilty mind and the unraveling of a good man who does a bad deed, which then escalates into the creation of a full blown violent criminal).
VL: Good choices and interesting reasons … thank you very much indeed. And good luck with Richard III.
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Richard may be contacted via United Agents. Our thanks to them for their help with this interview.
(Much as I’d like to take full credit for all of the above questions, the intelligent ones were actually supplied by my fellow Book Fox Hilary … M.)