Marlise Boland interviews Richard Armitage for AnglophileChannel, part 2
When I started to write this, I thought what I’d be saying is that one thing about these interviews I’ve appreciated so far is the combination of playful and adult Armitage. The thing that’s hardest to hang onto, watching Armitage (or, I suspect, watching any crush) is the notion that the person being watched is also a foible-rich human and that the matters he’s being asked about in any interview setting are one piece, not just of who he is in general, but even of who he is at that particular moment, who he has decided to be for that occasion, on that day, in the whole confluence of factors that make up an identity at any given time.
Sometimes I think that what I need to complete my picture of this man is something ridiculously quotidian. Richard Armitage doing his laundry, trying on a jacket in a store, booking a flight, letting the cable guy into his apartment for repairs, ordering in a restaurant, getting on or off a ski lift. I just need to see him as an adult, a normal adult, reacting to normal situations. But I’m not ever going to get that. One luxury of this interview, however, is that it’s plausible as an in between moment. Even though it’s an oddly constructed situation and he’s being asked to remember things about his career, because he’s not pitching a particular performance to press, as viewers we can at least get infinitesimally closer to what he might be like in a conversation. To some extent, yes, he’s giving her what she wants, but (apart from some rather noticeable fight / flight mannerisms when the topics get more suggestive than they would in a press interview — wet t-shirt?) this is mostly adult Armitage talking about his life and career, and it’s a nice grounding episode precisely for that reason.
So it’s interesting to observe Armitage talking about Mr. Thornton after 10:48. She’s just given him a huge dose of direct, intense, fan-squeee “wet t-shirt enthusiasm” and he’s drawn an arrow at the ridiculousness of the situation by pointing at her — against his fidgeting in the seat, ducking his head, pulling on his coat, swallowing, and posture reductions (although I don’t want to discount the possibility that the stooping relates to some interpersonal status issues about getting down to her height to speak to her more directly). When she asks — after underlining all the period drama / romantic hero enthusiasm of fans who made him a heartthrob overnight — how he felt about it, he says,
It’s so interesting, how, how it was received to how it felt from the inside, ’cause I actually saw the guy as somebody, who was ah, kind of terrible in what he did, until the end of the, of the piece, he was so kind of, stifled and restricted in, in his world and blinkered in, in his views, but I suppose the unraveling of that character is something that was appealing, but em, but I remember, em, hearing about the casting for that, and driving down to my local bookshop, very late, just before it closed, and grabbing the last copy, and reading, just reading the little blurb on the back, and just knowing that I had to play it, I hadn’t even read the book, and I just read the little, thing, and I just thought, I can do this, I can totally do this, but convincing them to cast me was really quite a challenge.
I’m not how conscious a deflection this was — it may be an answer that’s become automatic in the meantime, because it recapitulates material from much older interviews from 2005 in which he said he didn’t see himself as attractive, it was Thornton, and Thornton was attractive because he was so repressed. But Armitage totally skips the question of his feelings about being a heartthrob himself and moves toward a statement about his response to his casting. That’s either masterful evasion of an uncomfortable moment in a situation where he’s already been pushed to embarrassment once — or an incredibly revealing move. Which is it?
I’m asking because I see adult Armitage here doing something that one of his characters does. Because my response to his statement about Mr. Thornton’s blinkered qualities (a point I strongly agree with, incidentally — Mr. Thornton’s inflexibility and insistence that he’s right and knows best were major sympathy points in the character for me when I started watching North & South so intensely) — is that it’s not ever quite as simple as that for this character. He’s not just unraveling toward the end of the piece, but indeed he’s aware of his repression repression before that. Yes, Mr. Thornton is terrible in his opening scene, and certainly, he’s arrogant when he encounters Margaret the second time in her father’s study, and indeed, he demonstrates over and over again that his worldview is obdurate and absolute, but that’s not the whole story. Because Mr. Thornton is also peeking out from behind those blinkers he has placed so firmly before his eyes, and we see it episode 1 — it’s one of the reasons the tea scene is so poignant.
One of the key tensions in that scene occurs in the character of Mr. Thornton: Between his mood as a serious man of business who’s had to take up his father’s (shirked) burden and the vibe of true excitement he reveals over the mechanical aspects of what he does; and similarly, between the shame or disregard of a man who knows that he’s barely socially acceptable to the Hales and that a marriage to Margaret would be a misalliance based on any criterion he would normally apply to a prospective partner, and the man who nonetheless looks at her with interest even as he veils his glance after a very pregnant moment. In other words, Mr. Thornton is certainly blinkered. But every now and then in episodes 1, 2, and even in 3 (where his obstinacy about principle reaches a thundering, almost self-destructive, height), we see him trying to see out from around his self-imposed blindfold.
So back to my question — how does it work out, to deflect an unwanted question about heartthrob status into an answer about the appeal of a character and then segue immediately into a reflection about one’s own memories of insecurity about the casting? And what does it mean, the accompaniment of that answer with a lot of down-status body language (head down, introspective looks, shoulders crouched)? If Armitage’s own blinkers here involve an unwillingness to consider, respond to, exemplify, live out, feel anything other than embarrassed by, “heartthrob status” for which he has almost certainly “taken the piss” many times — Richard Armitage the adult who has to be here and tolerate this gushing, but finds it all absurd — it’s fascinating after hearing about Mr. Thornton’s blinkers and the things he won’t see past, to see this self-recollection of a decade-younger Richard Armitage, one who drove late at night to a bookstore and got the last copy (like there wouldn’t have been another one the next morning in a bookstore somewhere else in London?) and needed to read only a line on the back cover to know it was a role for him. Armitage unraveled?
Richard Armitage the adult, the one I want to somehow “see,” takes it all in stride and manages the questions with a hefty (occasionally too hefty) dose of British self-deprecation. But behind him, Armitage the unknown peeks out and by undermining the adult, makes the man we see all the more intriguing. His statement here that his way into a personality as an actor lies first through physicality makes it all the more compelling to observe what his body does when he tells a very dramatic version of a pedestrian, but oh-so-decisive moment from his past. We might be tempted to conclude he places the “difference” between his construction of the (to him unappealing) character and the audience reception of the finished Mr. Thornton as “romantic” hero in analogy to the difference between the younger, distant Armitage, the one who drove to the bookstore, grabbed the book in a rush, and thought for a long time that he would not get cast even though it was a role he knew to lie in his artistic grasp, and Armitage, the actor who so succeeded in convincing in that “romantic” role that a website crashed and a career aborning for years finally took its next step.
It’s entirely impossible for me to say here what Armitage intended to achieve with this answer — I would guess, on some level, the point of this answer was very much to say, joke all you like about Darcy and wet t-shirts, humorously or suggestively, but I nonetheless reject the label of heartthrob, the character was not a heartthrob but rather a stifled man who experienced an epiphany, and most of all, when I was trying to get cast I was certainly not heartthrob material, but rather nobody with very little chance of success and not much more than conviction.
At the same time, however, I know how it strikes me — and that it strikes me in the same way that Armitage’s characters often do — that there’s something in or behind their eyes that’s searching for a way to express itself. I thought I wanted to see Armitage the adult — but just at the point at which I am seeing that persona most clearly, beginning to grasp who that adult is, I see Armitage the struggling actor of ten years ago peeking out from behind him. It’s a paradox that we see repeated countless times in Armitage’s work, these conflicting impulses that make his characters seem so real, the fact that we don’t always know how they will react under certain circumstances — but it also eludes or even defies attempts at putting things down descriptively, at establishing who Richard Armitage is. Somehow, he manages to continue to tease us as to his identity, even as he appears to be telling us a deeply personal anecdote. As a performance of self this kind of evasion, one that seems simultaneously mature and naive, is masterful, a kind of hiding in plain sight. As a subsidiary matter — it practically guarantees that I’ll keep looking.