Armitage anatomy: or, masseter and friends

I’ve been close to this topic for a while, so today seems like a good day to talk about it. Mr. Armitage was quoted today as saying, in regard to Thorin Oakenshield, “I think because my character does spend a lot of time onscreen and you really have to understand what he’s going through emotionally, it became clear that if we started make the prosthetic as close to my features as possible but still make him a dwarf, it would be much easier to read the character. He has to go on such a journey, it was really important to do that. I grew my own beard after the first block because I felt that it was restricting my face. The jaw is so connected to emotion that I wanted to have that free. It made such a huge difference.”

Wow, what a statement — a lot to parse there, and now I feel I need to get back to those beard discussions that I was drafting in August very soon. So much to write, so little time. But for today, since the last post was relatively serious, let’s get back to the superficial: discussions around the jaw.

First, let’s develop some vocabulary so we can talk about how bones in the face are moved:

John Porter (Richard Armitage) looks out the window at the people tracking him in Strike Back 1.4. Source:

Got all that? It makes sense that the jaw would be significant for showing emotion, as movement of the jaw allows us to open our mouths, and a lot of emotion can be found in the mouth. Like when you want to scream, for example — that’s a big emotion, and you need to open your mouth. Here’s a nice example:

John Bateman (Richard Armitage) tries to locate Denise Ortíz in Spooks 9.6. My cap.

Now, in order to open your mouth, you use a muscle called the internal pterygoid, which you can’t see on the surface of the face. Trust me, it’s there. What it does is move the condyle out of its connection in the temperomandibular joint, so that the jaw can extend. There’s some evidence that Richard Armitage has been using this particular muscle actively for a long time. To wit:

A crop of Richard Armitage among the cast of 42nd Street (early 1990s). Source: RAFrenzy

And, as we already know, this will be an important technique in his next role:

Full extension of pterygoideus internus, again: Richard Armitage rehearsing for the role of Thorin Oakenshield, from the 3rd pre-production vlog for The Hobbit. Source:

So, yeah, we know he can open his mouth. And close it again, too! (Other muscles do that. Too complicated to go into at this moment.) These are crucial job techniques for an actor, so it’s great that he mastered them so early on in his career.

But anyway — back to the question of the jaw in relationship to emotion. The main muscle we see in the human jaw is the superficial masseter (it also has a deep component, so the part we can see on the surface is called “superficial”). It’s one of the muscles that adduces (pulls toward the body) the mandible, and it’s the main muscle that we see when someone is clenching his jaw. It’s a relatively long muscle that attaches at the lower border of the zygomatic arch and reaches down to the lower side of the ramus.

Lucas North or John Bateman (but definitely Richard Armitage) driving Denise Ortíz around in Spooks 9.6. Source:

I was thinking, when I read this interview, that Armitage is by no means solely dependent on his jaw to express emotion, and I’ve spent a lot of time on the muscles in the upper half of his face because they seem so expressive. However, taking his comment more seriously, in reference to the use of the jaw in expressing emotion, it seems to me that this capacity is particular central to men, who are in the West supposed to try to suppress open emotion on their faces. The harder the man, the more important the jaw becomes, then, and correspondingly, we see the jaw doing the most in the “hardest” roles — I think it’s why so much of what I have to say relates to John Porter, who’s the “hardest” man Armitage has played in an extensive, leading role. Controlled use of the jaw can indicate suppressed emotion, for example, allowing a character to appear masculine or even very masculine, but still indicating his reactions to things; in contrast, uncontrolled use of the jaw can indicate either extreme emotion or some element of unmanliness. I can also imagine that it will be really important to Thorin, who has to indicate pride and regality — and the lifted jaw can be a central indicator of pride, as it allows the character to appear to be condescending to his interlocutor.

Technically, of course, lifting the jaw along with the head is a function of muscles on the neck, which brings up a caveat for reading what follows. Talking about the jaw is hard because it never acts alone — it’s always moving in concert with the neck (which I haven’t gotten to discuss yet) and the chin (which I’ve done a little on with regard to mentalis: see here and here on potentially emotional or emotionalizing uses of mentalis) and the lower cheeks and corners of the mouth (see: depressor anguli oris). But Armitage isn’t wrong that positioning and repositioning his jaw is central to his portrayal of very subtle reactions and emotions. We see it constantly in his work.

In what follows, I’ve clipped a very small selection of instances from Armitage’s career in which he uses the jaw to express something. These were chosen arbitrarily, just because they popped into mind — I still have a PowerPoint to prepare for tomorrow’s lecture, so I can’t do a comprehensive reading tonight.

Starting with the question of the stationary jaw as indicator of masculinity and / or shame, we can look at perhaps the key early career role on Armitage’s vita: John Standring in Sparkhouse. Once he’s shaved and sheared, Standring’s jaw becomes a central index of his reactions to events — yes, he has anguished eyes, and even (someday I will write about this) an almost crude forehead mobilization in terms of what Armitage would later be able to do with his forehead (see frontalis) and eyebrows (see corrugator supercilii), but it’s often Standring’s mouth and jaw that we focus on.

For instance, in the scene immediately following John and Carol’s registry office wedding in episode 3 of Sparkhouse:

Note the softness and motility of Armitage’s lower jaw around 0:04-5, as well as the way the lower jaw quivers after 0:24.

Again, regarding Standring, he has an interesting way of combining both tension on the left side of the jaw (remember: emotion usually moves across Armitage’s face from left to right) with the quivering mandible and lips. Witness the scene after John has been accused of taking Carol as a prostitute, again from episode 3:

You can see it really clearly at 0:30, as if Standring’s so upset that he has to let his lips go, and the only way he has of controlling it all and maintaining his stance before Carol is by clenching his left jaw, which ends up moving his lips so that he speaks out of the right side of his mouth — making it look like he can’t speak to her straight on (this impression is enhanced by the repeated averted motion of the head). See, indeed, how after 0:50 he’s basically clenched the entire left side of his face — as if he knows that’s where his emotion will show first — in response wrinkling the entire right side of his face. After 1:04 he tries two or three times to close down the remaining emotion on his face via a muscle motion from the left jaw — unsuccessfully. Standring is in control neither of his life, his emotions — nor his jaw.

In contrast, hard men have their jaws under better control, but that means that they use it very heavily as they are limiting their other communicative gestures. I tend to read Lucas North as harder than Standring (say) but not quite so hard as Porter. Perhaps Lucas’s status results from the consequence of his career: a spy, he also has to act, and you can see him leaving important signals with that jaw in one of my favorite scenes from Armitage’s entire career: the scene in Spooks 7.5 when Ros’s boyfriend “Pete” shows up to meet her at the entrance to Meynell’s office.


The jaw says so much in this scene. Note the “hard” look at the beginning of the scene, signaled by the stare and the jaw positioned down. When Lucas begins telling Ros what’s up (0:12) we see the forced stillness of the jaw in contrast to the frenzied movement of the lips — indicating urgency and control. At 0:40 we see the forward extension of the chin toward Meynell: friendliness but aggression. At 0:46, again perhaps from the beginning of Armitagemania, one of my favorite subtle moments in Armitage’s entire oeuvre: the subtle lifting of the jaw to indicate pride of possession. At 1:02, we start to be able to judge the quality of this performance within a performance, as Lucas has to consider how to indicate his response to an invitation he never received. He initially uses the open mouth and slightly slack jaw to indicate hesitance — giving the viewer the clue that Lucas is under pressure here, whether or not Meynell sees it. Especially at 1:05 we see a sort of jerk of the left jaw, again pointing toward a difficulty Lucas experiences. But after 1:15 Lucas has pulled his demeanor back together, the jaw is back firmly in place, and he takes Meynell’s invitation to the reception on with forcefulness, once again the spy who’s pulled a successful trick.

The theme of jaw as indicative of lying or at least obfuscation is an ongoing motif of Armitage’s work as Lucas North, even when North becomes Bateman, or perhaps even more so, because one of the fantastic things about this performance is that even though it’s North that is the liar persona — the absolute fake — it’s as Bateman that we see most clearly the gestural indications of deception and untruth — some of which emerge even as Bateman seems to trying to convince himself that he is telling the whole truth. Consider, for example, the use of the jaw to motion Maya into his apartment in Spooks 9.3, at 0:10 below:

She starts the conversation off as one that implies that he will lie to her — and when his most visible physical response to this accusation is to use his jaw to motion her into the apartment, we don’t know if he’s trying to be tough (hide emotion), or if that motion is itself — given Lucas’s gestural repertoire — the potential implication of a lie, especially read in combination with his quick acquiescence to her demand, and his failure to protest or react emotionally.

Thinking about this some more, we can see an interesting connection between this particular sort of chin motion and the theme of lying throughout Bateman’s appearances. See here, for example, the point at which Lucas / John’s conversation with Maya in the same episode starts to gain intensity.

Not that in response to her questions, when get close enough to see his face clearly, it’s the extension of the jaw downward at 0:08, followed by the quick hand to face that covers only the jaw that seems to indicate both his extreme emotion and the fact that we know he at least isn’t telling her the whole truth (because he’s responded so vaguely to her previous questions about prison). Hand to face is classic Armitage gestural repertoire for distress, but here the hand to jaw seems not only an attempt to cope with what Lucas / John feeling, but also an attempt to cover it up or even erase it.

We observe a sort of similar expressional combination in Spooks 9.6, as Lucas / John departs from his attempt to obtain Albany from Malcolm.

There’s a lot of false in this scene, and it’s not limited to the jaw, but the jaw is key. At 0:12, the lowered jaw along with the lowered tone as an indication of sincerity; the clench of the jaw in combination with the smirk at 0:18-0:20. The jaw is too active, in comparison with Lucas’s normal features, not to indicate that something’s really foul here. One thing that interests me in this scene, though, is the immediate motion of hand to jaw at 0:27. This gesture complicates our understanding of the scene insofar as it’s Armitage’s classic distress signal — but it’s not clear if the distress is relief after obtaining what he sought — sadness over having lied to an old friend — or, as seems so clear from the larger context, almost an attempt to wipe the whole incident from his face and his emotions, a sort of self-reassuring gesture to harden himself up.

Finally, I want to turn quickly to Porter (I’m about to lose my internet connection). Porter, being able to say the least, I suppose, does the most of almost any Armitage character with his jaw, and it’s present as an index of his manliness right from the beginning. For instance, in the scene where the mission is arming itself in preparation, both at 0:02 and 0:08, the forward positioned jaw is clearly supposed to indicate masculine confidence, security — and an almost fatherly quality, as Porter replaces Collinson’s weapon with his own:

The jaw indicates anguish and defeat — and in this scene don’t let yourself get distracted by the movement of the head, but look more closely at the way at which Armitage opens Porter’s mouth at 0:09 and 0:11, when he’s responding to his commanding officer’s reproaches for not shooting the young suicide bomber:

It can jut to indicate pain, wounded pride, and self-protectiveness, as it does in the scene in which Porter is collecting his stuff to leave the ship, at 0:11. It can be used to ask a question, as at 0:22 — and afterwards to respond to the question. I can’t resist:  note also at 0:06 the almost unnoticed way that Armitage moves Porter’s head for an instant against the bunk, to show how much he doesn’t want to have the conversation with Collinson:

It can be an index of pain or surprise (0:01), tension over nagging (0:16), or of pleasure and cheeky happiness and reassurance (0:20):

It can show insecurity, as at 0:14:

And maybe, I’ll ask, as the quiz question, since I can’t write a full analysis of the rest of this in seventeen minutes: what do you see Armitage doing with his job below:

at 0:14?

at 0:24?

at 0:34?

at 0:46?

at 0:55?

at 0:58?

I would argue that a slightly different thing is happening at each of these moments of jaw movement.

Yes, Mr. Armitage, we can agree that the jaw is connected to your capacity to play emotion in absolutely essential ways.

[Sorry this is so sloppy. Perhaps I’ll pursue this again later, but it’s already 2500 words!]

~ by Servetus on January 12, 2012.

21 Responses to “Armitage anatomy: or, masseter and friends”

  1. How good it is, that you exist,Servetus!:) Your thoughts are alvays so beautyfull dressed in words. My mind is lead by intuition,unfortunately, and I alvays felt that Richard’s characters are true. Lucas was more problematic for me,but now all is clear,thanks to you,Servetus!
    Your previous post is very though-provoking.


    • There’s some crazy epistemological maze that you have to work yourself through as a viewer of series 9 — and this is something I’d really have liked to interview Richard Armitage about at the time (now, I assume / hope, he’s put this well behind him): do you play Bateman as if he’s a lying Lucas? How do you deal with the fact that Lucas has now been lying for the whole time? How do you signal the difference between Lucas / John, or what exactly is that difference?


  2. So much to take in here, servetus, I think I’ll need to read through this a couple of times, so that I can complete your “quiz”! 🙂

    I was fascinated by what Richard had to say about reading a character’s face and the use of the jaw. We have seen the end result of his attention to detail, but this interview gives us an insight into just how deeply he understands and works towards what is needed to give his character life.
    Thank goodness for intelligent questions which allowed Richard the opportunity to answer equally intelligently.


    • You don’ t have to take the quiz — as jazzbaby says, I am such a professor and I have a hard time leaving it behind.

      Yeah, he’s drawing better interviewers, thank G-d.


  3. Great job, Servet.
    There is much here to reflect!


  4. Ahhhhhh…. I really love how you were able to include the “early career evidence” photo so appropriately! Actually, even the John Bateman photo was a little unusual. Nice job with the selective eye, Serv!

    I don’t know about everyone else- but just 2 weeks into work again, and I am simply floored by the enormity of the work pile-on. It’s almost as if this project I’m on wants everyone to “pay” for taking time off in December…

    Love and hugs to everyone!


  5. Mezz, how well said! Armitage is a master craftsman, isn’t he?
    There is often such a restrained use of the jaw muscles as Lucas and Porter. I think it was Miranda Raison who commented that Richard could be a ventriloquist.:)


  6. Bah, Servetus, you absolutely got me. The article was brilliant and absolutely addictive. I followed it step by step, though I should be working. I even went so far, like a good pupil, and immediately took out my notepad and answered your question ;o)


    • Thanks, that’s flattering. That’s what a good analysis should do — lead you step by step through a topic and answer all the questions that occur to you *as* they occur to you.


  7. I’m really glad you paid attention in Anatomy class, lol! And I still think he looks about 12 in that 42nd street picture.


    • A few years ago I was having a drink with someone I went to high school with, back in my hometown, and he was asking me whether I thought we got a good education (he said he didn’t think so). I said, I thought we got a pretty good education, but then again, I was paying attention most of the time 🙂

      Agree re 42nd street. In all the admittedly few pictures we’ve seen of him as a late adolescent / early post adolescent, he looks about five years younger than he actually is.


  8. Another wonderful essay, Servetus. I wish I could hear you lecture. I’d been noticing how RA works with his jaw and facial muscles so well, he makes it look so completely natural that we read the language subconsciously and believe. Your analysis is excellent, a joy to read.


  9. […] Again, after 0:45, you see the emotional strong / weak, proud / humiliated move, but in the other direction. At this point Bratton is telling Porter that he only employs university grads at home in England. At 0:46 he’s almost tucked his chin down into his chest (and we’ve considered before how essential the jaw position is to the emotionality of the Porter character): […]


  10. […] jaw edged out by the beard: John Porter (Richard Armitage) cranes his jaw (and mobilizes mentalis, as well) to relax himself before his interview with Kenneth Bratton in […]


  11. […] is where we left him off, contemplating his imminent death. During the writing of this post,  Servetus’ article came to my mind several times. This scene is a perfect example of the importance of the jaw in […]


  12. […] I’ve talked about his capacity to open his mouth and his own self-recognition of how important…. Obviously, a manifestation of that is clear in this photo. I also think (and I think someone has already said this, but I can’t remember where I read it, so apologies — let me know and I will link to you) that it’s clear at the very latest from this photo that we’re going to see plenty of Armitage’s actual jaw and face in this production. The makeup enhances, rather than hides, its particularities. If clarity of expression draws us to Armitage’s work, we’re going to see that here. The architecture of his nose and forehead are built up rather than hidden by Thorin’s prosthetics. […]


  13. […] Porter skypes with his daughter about her mother’s death. Armitage’s use of Porter’s jaw in this scene is extremely complex (and underlines his remark in the first round of the Hobbit publicity that so much emotion is […]


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