Richard Armitage acting vs Richard Armitage explaining

I hope I’ve set the vid to begin where I’d like it to, but if not, I’m interested in the passage around 1:22. Marlise Boland interviews Richard Armitage, part 2.


I thought this moment of discussion of social media was a bit disjointed; the interviewer seemed to be talking about social media as a way for fans to feel connected to the admired celebrity (and a potential for life intrusion), whereas Richard Armitage seemed to be considering social media as a means of talking about a piece of art in way that he sees as giving rise to a barrier between the viewer and the artwork (or at least an additional layer that he isn’t interested in creating, either because he doesn’t want to, or because he thinks others wouldn’t want to see it because he says that he doesn’t). She seemed to be considering social media as a source of intrusion into the life of the user, whereas he seemed to be discussing it as a mechanism for influencing the viewer’s reception of the art in ways he would prefer not to. (So when she agrees with him, she’s agreeing on the point that she’s making — too much proximity –, rather than the one that he’s making — he doesn’t want to have to argue for the virtue of his work or point out its main features.)

Communicative glitches aside, as an insight into Armitage it’s interesting because at various points, I think, it’s been clear that he’s suffering through publicity interviews, although with good cheer and an acceptance that press is part of the business. He’s gotten markedly better at it since 2011, but left to his own devices, he’d prefer, he seems to suggest here, as he has elsewhere, to let the art speak for itself.

Back in the days before he moved to LA to try his fortunes as a cinematographer, the Professor Barista (who was amused by me and the project behind this blog) and I would talk about Armitage from time to time. PB broadcast a podcast in which he interviewed famous cinematographers about their work, and I always said I wondered whether Armitage would be an interesting interviewee if queried in that much length and detail about his artistic choices. PB said he probably would be, unless he’s an idiot savant, and when I asked him what he meant, PB said that he felt some artists work so unconsciously that they can’t really explain what they are doing in terms detailed enough to be helpful or meaningful to outsiders. Essentially, their flow is such that it’s not susceptible to analysis or description from their own perspectives. PB felt that a skilled interviewer might be able to ask the right question that unlocked the key to describing or explaining the flow, but only possibly.

If I’d been asked to address that specific issue, I’d have to say that I tend to look at this question from two directions. The first is that, as a teacher, I’m constantly engaged in breaking down various processes into component parts and instructing students to replicate those processes. So on some level I am quite committed to the notion of the person who stands in front of the artwork, explaining what is going on, how it works, and how it was put together. “What was going through my mind when I …” is a question I’d love to hear him address more. I find that interesting both to do and to write about. On the other hand, I can sympathize with the possibility that one’s own creative processes are on some level opaque to one, so that the result of art in which one engages is not easily explicable. I can quite easily explain what runs through my head and the component pieces of the process when I’m writing an analytical essay, and thus explain to students how it works and coach them effectively on how to replicate it. I’m also very confident as an analytical writer. In contrast, I am entirely unconfident that I could do that about writing the other kind of text that appears here, the autobiographical text that functions emotionally. I write those texts and some readers seem to enjoy reading them, but I couldn’t really tell you how I put them together or where they come from, apart from my own experiences, and I can never tell whether or not they’re any good. “Why” something moves one is hard question to answer. I believe there’s always a “because,” but I would agree one hundred percent that it’s not always possible to put one’s finger on it easily, and perhaps I would agree, too, albeit with greater hesitation, that trying to that answer that question clouds the visceral level of one’s appreciation of art.

Armitage seems to suggest that revealing the cluster of reflections and perceptions and emotions and above all, of decisions — to the extent that he is aware of them — as they feed into the flow of his actual performances distracts from the viewer from the performance itself. Too, if PB is speculating plausibly, it’s possibly the case that Armitage may not ever the best explicator of his own output, and he’s not required to be. (I’m on notorious record as thinking his approach to his work is non-intellectual and that may also make it harder to speak about his work verbally.) What I mostly want to suggest, though, is that in understanding art, both components are necessary. It’s essential to perceive artwork on its own, apart from any scaffolding information about it insofar as that’s what makes it move us — the art fully on its own, without any justification. I hypothesize that this sort of highly emotional, indeed almost sublime connection with art has become his stated preference because it’s the source of Armitage’s own inspiration — his remarks earlier in the interview about being interested in movement and in texts and reading point in that direction. Not telling an audience ahead of time what art should mean gives the audience a great deal more freedom in both interpretation and enjoyment. We know that entertainment in art is one of Armitage’s values. And art that needs a great deal of justification or explanation, I would agree, falls flat on some sort of aesthetic grounds in the normal case of enjoyment. (Though I’d reserve the possibility that there’s art that’s “worth it” if you’re educated to appreciate it, simply because some art is so remote that we have little easy interface with it anymore.) If you’re an actor, I suppose the existence of a fandom presents a rhetorical problem in that light because you want your work to be loved for how great it is — not because a crowd of people already love you. You may not want to feel as if you must feed the machine of the personality cult, and that is entirely reasonable. Armitage has said before both that if you don’t have to work for something, it’s not worth it — and that he wants audiences to embrace his work, not necessarily embrace him.

So as a developing writer, I’m sympathetic to what I understand Armitage to be saying here. And yet, speaking as a teacher, I think it’s still worth asking those questions because their answers do tell the rest of us something. It’s not just my curiosity about Richard Armitage the person that I want to have stilled by watching these interviews, although I am curious, I do want to know more about him, and I do believe that knowing something about the artist illuminates the art, though never in one-to-one relationship. (Though I may be mistaken, it’s hard to imagine that Armitage would have thought he could play Monet without delving into at least some aspects of his life, for instance.) However, I also write my own lengthy performance analyses of Armitage’s work because his works moves me and I want to understand how and why. I know that my analytical approach has no bearing on or necessary relationship to how he puts those performances together, and that equally, my reaction to his performance has no necessary relationship to his motives or actions in putting it together. But knowing how the pieces fit together in his mind — insofar as he could talk about that intelligibly — would add to my understanding not just of his performances (as we noted, the person who creates the art doesn’t always understand it best) but also of how flow works in the life of the artist.

So yes, Mr. Armitage — I do want to see you explaining your work. I want to see your work first, insofar as I can, I want to consider on its own merits and without your apology for it, and I reserve the right to differ from you in my interpretation of it. But I also want to know what you think. You don’t have to do that on Twitter. But I am appreciative — and find it illuminating — every time you do explain yourself and your work.

~ by Servetus on March 6, 2014.

18 Responses to “Richard Armitage acting vs Richard Armitage explaining”

  1. Having had this discussion (which inevitably devolved into argument) a number of times before about art and authorial intent and how much of a right an artist has to make canon decrees after a work has already been published and set free into the world, I took his comments on this subject to mean not so much that he *can’t* talk about his process, or the work, but rather that he really doesn’t think it’s the proper place of an artist to stand there while people are taking in the finished product and tell them how they should be receiving it or what the intent was behind its creation.

    To quote Mikal Gilmore in his introduction to The Sandman Volume 10, “When you create characters and a storyscape that occupy someone else’s imagination, you lose the sole authority to determine how that work resounds in others’ dreams.” I felt like that was the idea Richard was standing behind. As a fan of the person as much as of the characters he creates, yeah, I’d be interested in hearing what he thinks about the work he does and how he does it. I like hearing how he thinks. But I can very much understand (and share) the desire to stand back and let the work germinate organically in the public imagination.


    • I don’t disagree with your statements, or his, really. I just think that in fact some of us do want to know what the “creator” would say in that instance. And in fact, he does it in press interviews to great appreciation, so in fact, some people do want to know. I’m unenthused about the possibility that he would go onto social media — and so, of course, if he doesn’t want to do it in his spare time “just because,” I’m hardly going to object.

      This interview is sort of a rhetorical hot mess, and part of the problem here is that he uses the second person plural (“you don’t want”) to make his assertions.


  2. talking about his process in general vs his approach to a particular character may actually hinder his performance in that he’s being forced to analyze himself, and so now he’s aware, instead of just letting whatever force moves him to work naturally. I’ve never really considered why someone might not want to talk about that side of things before, apart from the comfort factor 😕 I’m insanely interested in how artists work but if asked to explain *my* process, there would be cricket sounds aplenty! “it just happens” isn’t what others want to hear.


    • I think Armitage made a comment about admiring Freeman’s capacity to expose his process which could well be taken as evidence for what you’re saying here. I’m not criticizing his desire to maintain control over his own capacity to speak about what he does. Presumably, however, he’s speaking after the fact, when the picture is already painted?

      My point is mostly that we really do benefit from having both if we can get them. Artists are not always the most insightful interpreters of their own work, but it’s IMO not the case that having an artist explaining his work interferes with my enjoyment of it. It enhances it. And he makes his comment from the perspective of the viewer in that case.


  3. I could also add — that explaining something well is in itself an art. I was thinking this yesterday when we handed back paper 2 in my introductory class; I was sitting with TA and she was explaining grades she’d given to students according to a rubric that we use. She understood the rubric well enough to use it to grade but when it came to explanations, they were surprisingly hard for her. In other words she could see the problem but not explain to the student, without some struggle, what the solution was. That’s just inexperience — in two more years she’ll have it under control. But if you’re not in the habit of explaining things, doing it can also be a struggle. I’m sympathetic to that. I just still want to hear the explanations insofar as he has them.


  4. So, when he is reluctant to do it..or he can not (too much music and poetry was involved in the process 😉 )… I’m still couting on you, Servetus 🙂


    • LOL. Though I’m not him.

      I think he’s right insofar as there’s a real difference between listening to a piece of music because it provokes a particular response in you that in turn evokes a performance or elements of a performance — and tracking that response consciously and explaining it to other people.


  5. XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX Maybe too much focus on the “how” and “why” takes some of the magic out of the performance or piece of art. I agree if you have to stand there and explain how you did it or what you did in depth to create the character it may affect how you perform. After the work is done and you are asked about it I think there is a point where you state your piece and stop short of making it too much. As Servetus says the artist may not be the best person to explain the mechanism. For me though I liked hearing some of his preparation I really don’t need to go too far with it or it hinders watching the performance. Does that make sense?
    You notice that he still tends to pick at his nails during the interview. As Servetus says he really isn’t comfortable in interviews. It is just something that he has to do as an actor. Note that he also mentioned a couple of times that the fans were going to be on her about asking the same old questions. To me that is also an indication that he really is tired of the same old questions and again he stated that no one wanted to hear his opinion on general stuff like politics.


  6. Thanks for this thoughtful post. I thought his comment was really strange on two levels. First, yes of course people are interested in how artists paint their paintings (or create their sculptures etc). Indeed I watch a weekly TV show that is devoted to exactly that topic. Surely he knows this too? If so, is this simply a bad attempt to deflect a question. Or perhaps he really isn’t very aware of this kind of critical commentary on art, and instead enjoys art and literature on a more instinctive/visceral level. I think class partly plays into this. I grew up in a very working class home where it was okay to talk about visceral reactions to art but definitely not acceptable to watch or enjoy critical commentary on art. Even though I went on to receive a BA/MA/PhD I still find it uncomfortable to talk freely to others (aside from co-workers/colleagues) on an analytical level. Second, actors don’t generally tweet about their reflections on their craft. Instead they tweet about awards, upcoming projects, and then a few things about charities they support, or a nice place they have visited. Okay, now I think he really doesn’t get twitter!!


    • I agree, I think he doesn’t get twitter and she was clearly talking about something different than he was. There’s a fairly strong continuity there all the way back to the beginning of his career, I think of the radio interview about The Impressionists and his interest in talking about how the artwork makes one feel and experience the world. Which is cool. In terms of his processing of information about culture, I tend to read him as a magpie — if we think of the research he reported doing for Heinz Kruger, for instance. Which is also fine.

      I love that you mentioned the class issue (I’m sympathetic because I have similar issues with my family every time I stray away from the Bible as a topic). I think this is spot on. And he didn’t pursue the university degree.


  7. Yes, I don’t know much about the kind of training that LAMDA provides but I imagine that it is more ‘craft’ focused. With my family it is less that certain topics are off limits than certain ‘ways’ of talking about topics. For example, my parents and siblings are all interested in politics and current affairs, and they read popular non-fiction on these topics. We tend to have similar political views but where I get into trouble is my approach. Invariably the conversation ends with them defensively responding to my analysis with ‘well it’s just my opinion/feeling/etc. It’s a very working class way to approach the world. In contrast my in-laws actively encourage this kind of analytical conversation.
    ps. I don’t know the radio interview but would be interested in listening to it.


    • yes, and indeed, if you stick around this blog you’ll see exactly this problem emerge sooner or later.

      I don’t have the link offhand but look on Richard Armitage Online in the area of the publicity around The Impressionists (under articles). Should be easy to find.


  8. I listened to the interview and what me struck me more than his analysis was the emails he received. No sensible questions just “you’re great!”


  9. […] Theatre has on offer, you can do so here. This video offers a classic example, for me, about why Armitage explaining as a piece of his social media presence was and remains important. Yes, Mr. Armitage, we don’t just want to see you do it; we also want to know about how you […]


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