Detailed acting with chin, North & South

Screencap from an interview with Richard Armitage at the Strike Back premiere, London, April 15, 2010. Source: RAFrenzy. Note the chin in profile. Quite a tool. It’s looking unusually pronounced here not only because of the profile shot, but because Armitage seems to be slightly under his normal weight here.

Dear Friend and I had a long conversation yesterday afternoon about everything in our world that we can’t change, but not before we enjoyed a nice long discourse on the topic of Richard Armitage. We talk a lot about Mr. Armitage, not so much about how hot he is, although we talk about that too — and I sent her a pretty picture this afternoon to cheer her up — but about the ways he uses his body in different roles to draw the viewer in. As a film critic she watches a lot more actors than I do, and she thinks that some things about the ways he uses his body, especially the intensity with which he achieves them, are entirely unique in her experience.

Richard Armitage as Guy of Gisborne in a series of publicity stills from Robin Hood for Czech TV that I downloaded from Richard Armitage Net at some point in the last year. This is the picture I sent my friend. Looking pretty intense here, isn’t he? I’ve written a number of posts on Armitage’s processing of status issues in the role of Guy of Gisborne beginning here (and then follow the pingbacks to other posts on the topic).

She’s given me some great ideas of things to look for and comment on in posts. A lot of them relate to something that’s fascinated me since my first semester of college, when two of my best friends took Acting I as an elective. One of the interesting things they were discussing that semester was: status. I remember a lot of what my friends were doing in Acting I related to the resolution of conflicts in high vs. low status in improv, and I remember conversations where we’d be sitting out on the lawn, observing interactions we couldn’t hear from far away, and discussing the status issues involved. There’s a great discussion of this issue as a problem in acting and teaching here. (For reference I think that when I started teaching I alternately insisted upon and rejected my own authority, and that I have slowly become what he calls the “status expert.” I’ve gotten there mostly by realizing how little control I actually have in most classroom situations. The classroom is like a wave that I have to surf every day: I’ve got to have my equipment together and I’ve got be in shape, i.e., read, be prepared in the subject matter, and I’ve got to be disciplined in responding to circumstances, but the wave itself? Beyond my control. If what I’m doing works, by the fourth week or so I can anticipate where the wave might be going on a particular day a bit better, but I can never plan how it’s going to work out. Bye the bye.) Anyway, re: status, summarizing the content of the book he’s reading, the author of the blog notes the centrality of status to drama, but its simultaneous constant presence in life. Characters do not possess status, but instead, their actors in turn must perform status for them. As the blogger writes: “Breaking eye contact, keeping one’s head still, a nervous chuckle, a flap of the hand — all of these non-verbal gestures, even, are expressions of status wishes and status disavowals.”

In short, Dear Friend and I think that Richard Armitage as an actor is what Johnstone calls a “status expert”; quoting the blog author again: “But status, for Johnstone, is something one does, not something one has. It is performed, he implies, as a defense mechanism — not necessarily to exercise power over others.” I was reminded of this point while looking for a cap for the Armitage morass post. This is a topic that could be covered in encyclopedic detail, but right now I want to talk about a particularly subtle status transaction I noticed while capping a few posts back. This twenty-six seconds comes from episode 2 of North & South; it’s the conversation in the millyard between Mr. Thornton and Mr. Slickson that Margaret observes from the window while waiting for Mrs. Thornton to come into her drawing room, and Stevens observes at close range.

What I’m interested in here is the mood of tension and suppressed anger in Thornton that Armitage creates, mostly with the posture of his head and heavily with that jaw. He’s got a quite prominent chin, as I’m sure you’ve noticed and as we can see above, in the photo at the beginning of the post, so Mr. Armitage probably has to work fairly hard to keep from moving it too much. A little goes a long way and a jerking around of the chin could signal open hostility, which would be too much.

OK, so the relative high status character here is Mr. Slickson — he’s older, he’s dressed a bit more formally, and seems, from the perspective of the script, to belong a bit more firmly to the fraternity of manufacturers than Thornton, who’s younger, dressed a bit more soberly, and who’s told us in the previous episode that he’s had a great deal to recover from socially (suicide of a parent, social disgrace, pulling himself up by his bootstraps). At the same time, Slickson has apparently compromised some aspect of his status over against Thornton because of his dealings with the workers — so he has the social and interactive high ground potentially, but no longer the moral / ethical high ground. And then there’s the zero status character, Boucher, from whose perspective we observe the status transaction of Slickson and Thornton.

From the beginning of the scene, Thornton is walking away with but also away from Slickson rather briskly. Right away, it’s clear that status is at issue, as Thornton is criticizing Slickson’s behavior but with his face away from Slickson, as if what he’s saying is too vehement to be expressed frente a frente. At 0:06, note the whirl of the body, led by the jaw, to establish a firm position of the body in retort to Slickson at 0:07. This is a frequent Armitage move, the raising of the jaw and resettling of the feet, in a dancelike move that somehow manages to convey both self-assertion — pushing forward — and a slight feeling of unsettledness at the same time. We see, in order: whirl with a sudden check of the body, then slight pull back of the head and raising of the chin, planting of the feet and moving forward of the head, almost as if Thornton is expressing an aggression he has to keep in check, and then — preceded by a slight grinding of the right side of the jaw, the pull down of the chin.

The final down position of the chin is what’s so ambiguous in terms of the signals it sends and makes the acting here so intriguing to watch, over and over and over again. In itself the lowering of the head is an expression of a lower status, defensive gesture. At the same time, the lowered chin and aggression of Thornton’s tone here make us think of a bull just holding itself back from a charge — a low status creature that is about to take the high status, but then pulls back from it. Armitage delivers Thornton’s line just at the point that he holds Thornton’s head most immobile and furthest down: “I wouldn’t ha’ pretended I were thinking about it and told them to come back on payday so I could turn them down flat and provoke them.” (The way that the northern accent shortens the long vowels in “payday” and the clear enunciation on the end of the consonant in “flat” enhances for me the threatening mood of Thornton’s line — it’s “flat” that’s really the end of the sentence, as Thornton is turning away from Slickson for the last three words, as if his energy won’t allow him to control his jaw in that position any longer.)

It’s also the movement of his lips on the “fl” sound in flat that reveals the height of his scorn for Slickson, as we see above. (Guy also sneers his f consonants from time to time — interestingly, we don’t see Lucas do it nearly so often).

Then an interesting expression on Thornton’s face, as he turns to walk away from Slickson: several frames of fatigue / closed down face / as if the encounter is ennervating for him.

These expressions are what tends to make me see the status transaction as a defense mechanism on Thornton’s part, even though he’s got the moral high ground — he believes what he is doing is right, and yet he resents having to defend his status, particularly in a situation where he feels like he’s being forced into accepting a strike. We see this ambivalence between high and low, between sincerity (he’d like to accuse Slickson) and sarcasm — a traditional “weapon of the weak” (he knows he daren’t) — underlined with the cast of his jaw and position of his lips when he begins the turn back to reply to Slickson:

There’s a sort of coolness in the position of his features, that suggests he’s preparing himself for a cool but cutting reply, particularly in the way he’s holding the upper lip here, that ends, as we see shortly, in further resentment.

At that point, Slickson is asking whether Thornton’s accusing him of trying to encourage a strike, and Thornton whirls back toward Slickson to reply, “it’s only that it wouldn’t have suited you.” We can’t see Armitage’s face at this point, but there is a slight shrug of the shoulders and move of the chin, again, at 0:18. We see a very brief, compressed recapitulation of the posture we saw in extenso above as Thornton says, “it’s their lives and our livelihood you’re playing with.” Thornton turns away again, apparently catching a glimpse of Boucher, who’s watching. Armitage underlines this with the grinding motion on the right side of his jaw timed with “lives” (0:20):

At this point we see Boucher more clearly, and then the end of the scene, where Thornton is now far enough ahead of Slickson to be winning the status contest, forcing Slickson to walk faster to keep up and eventually dismissing him with a “good day” that we hear only from Margaret’s perspective at the window.

What we see here, through the combination of facial and head postures, is the beleaguered mill owner who has to assert his own status not only with his workers, but also with his fellow manufacturers, and who’s caught in the dilemma between what he sees as his ethical position and his social standing. Masterful work, Mr. Armitage. It’s amazing how, again and again, you manage to display for us through these gestures the fundamental problems of Thornton’s status in Milton society. As an actor, you are a true “status expert.”

~ by Servetus on February 1, 2011.

56 Responses to “Detailed acting with chin, North & South”

  1. @servetus…thoughtful and intriguing post..
    one correction, that’s Boucher not Stevens.

    Slickson’s attire was appropriate for a businessman out conducting business and it seemed to me that Thornton’s was appropriate for a working mill owner during a busy work day.

    I think that, especially having seen Thornton’s temper at full flare in the scene with Stevens when Margaret first meets him, that Thornton has status here because, despite the moral high ground, and Slickson’s lack of moral integrity and his placing Thornton in a spot of discussing something publicly that he wants kept private, Thornton, although barely, keeps his temper in check. His jaw is clenched in jaw at the end and it keeps him from shouting.

    I find it interesting that his disdain for Slickson is so obvious, Thornton is clearly not a political animal.

    Alot to think about…can I say I will watch that handsome jaw anywhere…


    • Fixed the Boucher / Stevens confusion, thanks loads for that!! Will comment more as further comments emerge.


    • There is the issue that we never really see Mr. Slickson in a situation where he’s working. The implication of the mise-en-scene of the whole series is that Thornton actually works in his factory (vs the others).

      I agree that Thornton maintains whatever status he has throughout the encounter — he doesn’t shred it by losing his temper. He stays on the high moral ground. But I would argue that the body language suggests a certain amount of defensiveness.


  2. I think your shot by shot analysis posts are interesting but it highlights the lens through which you observe such scenes. As an historian you would be very conscious of the status issue prevalent in England, than me as a lay person who would be superficially aware. In my mind, certain facial expression and head inclinations convey certain emotions. Since RA is very much a method actor, if he feels restrained anger, then his movements will naturally reflect that. Also the fact that this sequence was set up as a brisk action shot with him walking through it, must be taken into account. So I’m unsure whether his movements are motivated by emotion or by deliberate mannerisms in this scene.

    Also I think his chin looks prominent in that picture because it’s an odd angle profile and his mouth is open. I’ve always liked his chin and jawline because they are nicely defined without being heavy. Artistically speaking, the more symmetrical and proportionate features are, the more they are considered “beautiful.” His chin is quite proportionate. Actually the man has beautiful bone structure. And I can’t believe I said all that; you are a bad influence. ๐Ÿ˜‰


    • @judiang, see how much fun it is over here on the dark side? ๐Ÿ™‚ We have cookies…and according to Angie Cheez-Its!


    • Apologies ๐Ÿ™‚

      Great comment, though!

      I leave out the question of what he’s doing intentionally vs unintentionally — I lay this out somewhat earlier in the blog in the early discussions of microexpressions. Microexpressions can’t be controlled; obviously as an actor he embodies certain states of mind that are then reflected in his posture — that’s the job; the point of the shot by shot analysis is to see how it works (and potentially how it influences the viewer — how do we respond to his body language).

      I disagree slightly about the symmetry question — I’d argue that his face is just enough out of symmetry that it’s intriguing. Someone asked me to write about this a long time ago and I’ve got notes. Maybe I’ll get to it again soon.

      As to emotions vs status — I don’t think they can entirely be separated. Emotion in a particular situation reflects among other things one’s self-perception of status, particularly in situations where one is asking oneself what it’s safe to say. I’m not saying there’s no emotion here — just analyzing the motion of the chin as reflection of status as observed as a defense mechanism (as opposed to as an assertion of something, anything).


    • I’m lovin’ it, Judi. ๐Ÿ˜€


  3. Re: the first screencap – isn’t there shadow on the poster behind, which adds a slight false enhancement of the chin?

    Acting, teaching and status. Fascinating. And with teaching, perhaps include delivering a presentation, or training staff. Is there an unconscious requirement, even among the less normally assertive or extravert, to project personality (acting). Which might suggest the need to demonstrate status (power?) in order to introduce some control of the situation. I know, retrospectively, that I’ve been “acting” in these situations – going to an extent outside myself. Which leads to other avenues of speculation….

    Mr. Armitage can assert in interviews, as much as he likes, that he is a “considered actor”, carefully crafting each role. Which, again, from interviews is very clear. At the same time, he is also highly intuitive, beyond the technicalities of crafting. No matter the role – John Standring or John Thornton, the character has it’s dominance, effortless to the audience.


    • A teacher must project a bigger personality than she has if she is to fill the requirements of custodial care and teaching her subject to a large class of young children with differing abilities. As a teacher of English to Norwegian children, I deliberately make use of a whole range of gestures, body language and facial expressions and exaggerate the melody of the language in ways that could perhaps be classed as pantomimic, but which are extremely effective in achieving my language goals. It’s a role; playful, friendly, commanding, tragic according to what the situation dictates. The audience is so often appreciative, which makes it all the more worthwhile!


    • yeah, there’s a dark patch behind his chin that makes it look like he has a goatee or something.

      There’s a lot of acting involved in teaching. (Particularly on days when you’re less enthused about it than you should be … and of course, depending on the audience.) As Milly notes the projection of the personality always changes it in some way.

      I think there’s a sense in which you think, and prepare, and practice — and then you are in the performance situation and you just have to let go. He has made remarks about this, too.


      • Absolutely agree teaching requires a performance. One of my students teased me about being “animated.” Just trying to get and keep their attention. The first year I taught at FDA, I was floating from elementary class to class in the mornings, playing the Pied Piper of Art and Music. In the afternoons, I shifted gears to teach high school French. Definitely had to tailor the performance to the varying audience.


  4. He’s really, really good. (Sorry, guys, long day, tackled really slick, muddy roads to and from work and methinks I need to read a little Austen and try to get to sleep. Hey, a short post from Angie for a change!!)


  5. Oh darn – only caught up to the comments before blathering on. Sorry! Please excuse me while I retire to consider other input, mutate my thoughts. Could take a while…exchange of perceptions is the pleasure of these blogs.


  6. Angie, the Mid West storm is scheduled to hit here mid-week – countless inches of snow. I blame you! ๐Ÿ™‚ (Not)

    Still, it’s been a mild season for Ontario, but I just like complaining.


    • It’s coming here. I’m so excited and no I don’t drive. ๐Ÿ˜‰


    • It’s 2:43 a.m. and I am awake with my Weather Body is screaming at me. Used to just have a Weather Knee, but I’ve upgraded (or is that downgraded?!)

      We are facing a nasty day here for Tuesday–no snow, but rain, high winds and thunderstorms, which of course means the possibility of tornadic activity. I’ve got four Faces of the Future to shoot with Ashley, which means he’ll have us doing strange things with giant reflectors and gels. But it will be fun if we don’t get blown away!! Yikes!

      I have reached a point in my life where I really hate driving on our road when it is muddy and slick. I’ve been dealing with this sort of thing off and on since I learned to drive 35 years ago, and I’ve combatted snow, slush, ice, mud, dust, you name it. I CAN cope with it; I just don’t want to anymore. *sigh*

      Of course, this has nothing to be with Mr. Armitage’s extraordinary acting abilities, forgive me, I just needed to kvetch. LIke Fitzg, just needed to complain!


      • Hang in there.


        • Thank you. Never did get back to sleep, so it was a very long day.

          The winds did almost blow us off the tennis court this morning, where we spent an hour shooting a budding tennis star and poor Austin managed to drop a bench on his foot and nearly smash a toe (boy is more accident-prone than I am). We also shot a future aerospace engineer, a phenomenally talented young folk artist and a tiger–well, a girl in a tiger costume who has been the high school mascot for four years. Fun but tiring. The kids feel quite glamourous. Austin and I just got cricks in our necks and backs from holding all the apparatus.

          The bottom fell out this afternoon and the rains, thunder and lightning all joined the wind. Spouse was kind enough to offer to drive me down to my evening meeting in the south end of the county. Still had to navigate that muddy, nasty road on the Jeep to get home. Headlights went out. Twice.

          It’s very dark at night out in the boonies.

          I was really, really glad to get home, be it ever so humble!! Hoping to sleep more than three hours tonight or I will be gaga tomorrow.


  7. I think I’m lucid enough to comment now. Great post!

    BTW, I’ve read Johnstone, but it was a different book. Status is covered in one of the chapters of the book I read, but the whole book is fascinating.

    It’s scary what I’ve ended up reading. LOL!

    Here’s the one I read. I’ll be talking about it eventually but not in highlighting what you have at all.

    Love the breakdown of that scene!


  8. And cool blog — for a lot of reasons.


  9. I cannot claim to be an acacdemic I’m not and certainly what I am going to say cannot be backed up by any academic work. It is why on a lot of blogs I am too intimadiated to comment. (Not this one though strangely but I think that is because servetus you engange with people who commnet.)

    I feel able to commet on this train of thought because I have written stories about several of the characters this man has played. Before commiting to a story I spend a long time re watching RA’s performances. I have read that some people find him wooden and I think that is bcause he does not chew the scenery. As actor he is quite contained all ow the smallest detail to be the centre of the characterisation. Looking at Thornton I do think that the director made sure that no other man was taller than RA but RA seemed to take it further. Most of the time in N&S his posture is ranrod straight and his head or angled to show that this is a man who is aware of his standing in the community. He alows subtle flickering changes in his eyes to show his contempt for the other mill owners. Thornton would never sneer to show contempt how Guy does, it would be wrong for the character. It makes the change when we see Thorntons vulnerability all the more acute. The roles where this is most obvious are the two which should be the ones which are similar Lucas and John Porter. On paper these two characters must have looked similiar but RA gave us something ompletely different in both. I think this is highlighted well in scenes where Dean and Joseph are killed. Both similiar set up just RA and the actor who is going to die. Both killed from a distance by a snipper/assassin RA’s facial expression and body language is completely different.

    I’m unusual in that I have written several stories all with a different character and all are very different and I think that is because of RA’s ability to be completely different in all his roles.


    • Khandy,

      Excellent point about how RA deliniates each and every character so well.
      While they may each feel the same sorts of emotions–fear, contempt, disdain, concern, these are all universal–because of the difference in personalities and backgrounds, etc. each character expresses himself in his own unique way through body language, facial expression and gestures.

      As I have said before, with other actors, I tend to think, oh, it’s Mr. X playing a military officer, playing a spy, playing a family man. With Richard, he truly becomes that character before my eyes. That’s why I can work up enthusiasm for any character I know he is going to play because I know he will take me on a journey with that character that will be something new and different, thanks to his incredible skills.

      He definitely does not chew the scenery, thank heavens.
      If you appreciate a subtle, nuanced performance, however, you can never lose with Mr. A. For you, it’s allowed writing about all these characters in separate stories and doing it well; for me, it’s given me a chance to bring several of them together for fun in Sloth Fiction and feel like they are all individuals in their own right. The man is endlessly inspiring for us if we have even the slightest drop of creativity in our veins.


    • I’m glad you feel comfortable here, khandy. Because I love your smart comments. Academic=someone who’s had a lot of school, that’s all. Not someone who’s necessarily brilliant or even intelligent.

      One thing I notice in your fanfics is how the Armitage characters are the characters and not Armitage — this suggests to me that just as you say, he’s adjusting his status with the various characters.


  10. Ha! We did that status exercise in my acting class last week!


  11. In fact, Mr. Armitage every part of his body became Mr. Thornton. They say that the English are restrained in showing affection but looking at Mr. Thornton, it is so the depth of feelings that can be read like a book. Difficult not to fall in love with him. ๐Ÿ™‚ I am deeply convinced that the merit of RA. I love his body language is often minimal traffic (even eyebrows) can do so much to express, which means that I feel the emotions of his character


  12. I love these types of posts. I really do. I have found that really great actors are able to be present for the actors even when they aren’t speaking or the star of the scene so to speak. There is a hulmilty that they are there to serve the scene and are able to “give” to the other actors. I think he does that in the scenes with his mother.


    • Totally — and his affection for his mother is so clear in those scenes. Another thing that endears Mr Thornton to me.


  13. Judiang, I drive. Hoarding cat/dog food, toilet paper, and emergency taxi money in November…because I’m NOT driving in a snowstorm any more!

    Millyme, you caught what I was trying to say but wasn’t quite there: the responsibility to to the students. The element of pantomime/body language in a benign way. This is hugely important in teaching ESL.

    Screen caps have been so illuminating in analysing the elements of an actor’s charisma.


    • I live on a bus line and within walking distance of a grocery store and a gas station, so if stuff is open I’m good. The issue in this city is that they don’t salt when the roads are slick — they expect everyone to stay home. I’ve got lots of bad weather driving experience, but the other people who live here don’t.


  14. Servetus, what a great piece of writing. And you’ve nailed it exactly. I’m just fascinated by Armitage’s ability to convey with his entire body how uncomfortable he can be in certain situations; his physical presence can scream fury, awkwardness, or high-minded contrarianism. That scene with Slickson makes his relative comfort — and surprising ease in talking about his past — all the more striking when he’s in the Hales’ parlor, even though he uses his chin to great effect in that scene too. Terrific!


  15. The ability to appear awkward in some roles is a bit of a reminder of the apparently pigeon-toed child, the far too-tall adolscent, and the self-confessed requirement to stoop to hear conversation. The latter contributing to what I (perhaps wrongly) perceive as slightly round shoulders.

    Which contrasts with the intensely upright carriage of Thornton and of Gisborne on horseback. And with Red Carpet vids, in which the actor moves with supreme elegance through crowds, and on the dreaded? carpet. As blog commenters have mentioned, with the grace of “old-time” actors (Gregory Peck?).

    Waxing too euphoric for comfort. Blame it on the relentless snow and self-imposed hibernation today, with Strike Back and MI5 S8 for distraction. Is everyone else “weathering” the weather all right? Thinking of Mulubimba and Skully and the latest weather threat south of Capricorn. That is probably Cancer. I should get the facts straight. Just, being a Capricorn (which is about equivalent to Boring Accountant, except I can’t do numbers) Capricorn looms over a winter outlook….


    • @fitzg I find him extremely graceful and have noticed it in quite diverse situations. For example in SB when he does that little double step during one or two of his action scenes and in Spooks 9 Ep 4 (dare I mention that series?) when he finds the glass door open and goes out to investigate. The way his body moves with such control and how he stepped out there in his bare feet was beautiful and made me think of a dancer. I have to say that I’m always intrigued by the way he moves in each role he plays. Subtle little differences to body movements and expressions that he seems to use quite often and perhaps naturally, but which by changing, sometimes quite minutely, adds a whole different dimension to the character he is portraying at the time.


  16. Small comment re his chin in the first picture. There IS a “dark shadow” on the poster behind him which I believe is one of the black fingerless “gloves” he is wearing there and it does distort the size of his chin.
    I think you also realize that his features are not symmetrical (a good thing in my opinion as I think it makes him more beautiful) if you see a picture of him printed the wrong way round. I wonder if this is why he said he thought he had an odd face as this would be how he sees himself in a mirror. Sorry! A much longer comment than I initially intended.


  17. […] and interpersonal negotiations around it make up one aspect of status transactions in our society, and I think that one factor in Armitage’s choice to play Guy of Gisborne so […]


  18. […] To be fair, his interlocutors mostly lack the inclination to understand. His fellow bourgeois, for instance, won’t hold to any ethics, even a utilitarian one of collective interest. Their rapacity is demonstrated again at the beginning of the episode, in case we’ve forgotten it after the end of the previous segment, at another point where Armitage makes Thornton’s constant status conflicts highly visible. […]


  19. […] closure and thus to moral judgment, because he so often seems to change status within a scene that the status transactions involved mean that as viewers we often can’t tell if he’s triumphing or giving in or if he even […]


  20. […] of status negotiation may be the most striking feature of his work. Armitage is what one calls, as I’ve mentioned before, a status expert. At the time I broached that topic, there was some suspicion of what I was saying, […]


  21. […] me a bit — that the main previous role in which Armitage uses his chin as a status tool is: Mr. Thornton! Another interesting point — in a subsidiary post I made on Armitage’s subtle jaw moves […]


  22. […] work that I’ve been most interested in just recently — particularly the question of status and how an actor plays with […]


  23. […] plays in Armitage’s work, how skillfully he accomplishes this over and over again, as with Mr. Thornton, with Guy of Gisborne, with John Porter, with Thorin Oakenshield. So I submit — one reason […]


  24. […] back; he uses his character’s status as a defense mechanism rather than a tool of aggression (as we’ve discussed before, for Mr. Thornton); at least initially, he virtually always lets us feel rather than see the entire depth of his […]


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