Playing evil: What did Richard Armitage seek — artistically — from Francis Dolarhyde?

[Contents: No problematic pictures; discussion of the problem of evil and portraying an evil character; abstract references to violence and blood but no specific discussions of either.]

Thanks to MargotMat for raising this question for me in this particular form. I wonder if that weibo post today indicates that he’s finished filming Hannibal? Supposedly the production filming in Toronto continues till April 2nd. Which is ten days off. Anyway. He’ll be out of the cold soon.

Richard Armitage conceded in 2011 that he was more likely to be cast in hard-man roles (whether villains or heroes) due to the shape of his face, which was not that of a “good guy.” So cue the villain roles for Armitage, apparently (although I think that the realization of Thorin Oakenshield on screen in the interval might have played havoc with this prediction.)

Since Guy of Gisborne, at least, it’s been an explicit and repeated theme of Richard Armitage’s discussion of his construction of characters he plays that he looks for good within bad, so much so that he was concerned that he made Guy of Gisborne too likeable for audiences to understand why he had to have his comeuppance. He has repeated this discussion about the complexity of villains more recently in his discussion of what he would try to do if he played a psychotic serial killer. Indeed, he said in that interview that he was “just waiting” to be offered a serial killer role (although who knows whether he winked when he said it). He’s also indicated a periodic struggle with the demand to be beautiful over the years. We’ve noted before that this kind of role was thus likely to be of high desirability to him. And his tweet earlier this year really put a point on his desire not to be at least conventionally attractive — Glamour material — in this role.

Richard Armitage tweets in response to his location on GlamourUK's 100 sexiest list, February 6, 2015. Source.

Richard Armitage tweets in response to his location on GlamourUK’s 100 sexiest list, February 6, 2015. Source.

To me, what Armitage has said on the question of abandoning beauty has customarily been organized against the axis of our traditional association of “beautiful” with “good” in the West, as when he cited a desire for an “elephant man” phase and stated he wanted to play “ugly, damaged” people. If he plays Dolarhyde, whether or not he achieves his goal of being creepy, Dolarhyde is unlikely to be truly ugly, so the axis of the show’s value orientation may try to raise the tempting and problematic association of “beautiful” with “evil.” If, indeed, Dolarhyde is evil at all (in the sense I’m thinking about, à la the self-description of Goethe’s Mephistopheles [my translation]: “a part of that force / that always wills evil … the spirit that always negates … so that everything that you call sin, destruction, or briefly, evil, is my actual element”).

I just wonder how Armitage has been thinking about this problem over the years. The Elephant Man was ugly and damaged, but the way the trope has usually been emplotted in theater, his goodness was misunderstood because people could not see beyond his deformities. He was damaged, in other words, but not evil; his ugliness served a mirror for the meanness and superficiality of people who thought he was a freak and thus forced him to earn his living by exploiting (or being exploited by) their disgust with his appearance. I wonder, too, whether serial killers are evil in the sense that they will the bad in the way that Mephistopheles did; they seem (from what I understand based on what I read about the extremely rare cases) not so much to rejoice in committing evil acts as to feel compulsion to pursue their desires, which they know are evil, but cannot avoid fulfilling. They are thus driven more by a damaged psychology or a failure to control their base desires rather than by a conscious malevolence per se. Hannibal Lecter, of course, seems to be an exception to that rule, in that laying aside his pursuit of his own psychological needs, he seems to relish planning to be bad. But at least as the Francis Dolarhyde character is constructed in the novel, he seems to be killing as a means of constructing a stronger self, one that cannot be harmed in the way his childhood self had been. This can be said to be egocentric, I suppose, but not truly evil. Lecter, in contrast, is more Mephistophelian than Dolarhyde, that’s certain. As his behavior demonstrates, Lecter wills the destruction or negation of all (good) ends, while Dolarhyde still knows, recognizes, and can be attracted by the good.

It strikes me in thinking about this problem that just as Armitage struggled with his construction of Gisborne, conflicts may arise between what I understand his priorities around these issues to be — that is to say, to play ugly, damaged people; to make villains sympathetic or at least comprehensible; but at the same time to escape the burden of attractiveness. A character we like, for most of us, is at least somewhat attractive on a deeper level than the physical. Most of us do not want to find ourselves attracted to evil, and as the reaction to many fans to the violence and gore involved in Hannibal suggests, some of us are simply not capable of taking, or have good reasons for refusing to take, that step — or even risking the possibility. In order for us to be able to find the character truly evil, however, at least at an initial level, the character will have to have very little appealing about him. A too-evil Dolarhyde makes the character unrelatable; a too-relatable Dolarhyde risks damaging the story line. Yet, as MargotMat says, it’s hard to want to watch anything if one cannot empathize at least somewhat with a character, and it’s hard to see Armitage playing any character without making him somehow empathy-capable. Associating “beautiful” with “evil,” if the show does that, raises the possibility that it will create an effect of alienation by means of which we are drawn in because of some ground for empathy or sympathy, but then realize that we have been attracted to something that is thoroughly evil, with self-disgust as the result for us. The disgust is not so much at the character, but at our own failure to recognize what is happening and reliably reject something evil. No matter how you slice it philosophically, then, the actor who plays this role is dancing on a tight-rope.

However we approach it, insofar as evil in drama traditionally throws up this mirror against the self by which we measure our own virtue, the way that we view characters who are evil definitely shows us something about our own internal capacities not just for empathy or revulsion, but also for identifying and understanding evil as an element in our own identities. I wonder where Armitage will eventually locate his own resolution of these competing priorities — and whether, and where, his viewers will do the same.

~ by Servetus on March 22, 2015.

30 Responses to “Playing evil: What did Richard Armitage seek — artistically — from Francis Dolarhyde?”

  1. This is a very interesting question, although it will be difficult to fully answer until we see Richard in this role.

    This show, and the Hannibal character in particular, are a bit at odds with some of what you have written. Hannibal is not easily characterized — his murders are seemingly a form of creative expression, scientific exploration, and occasionally, manipulation or self-preservation. Not necessarily motivated by evil intentions, but more that he places his own needs above the value of human life, and his needs are very bizarre. He is charming and attractive. I think this makes the show more disturbing than it otherwise would be if he seemed like a malicious killer.

    It seems based on what people have reported on the books and previous movies, as well as that they cast a child actor and a love interest, that Francis Dolarhyde will be a sympathetic character at times. So as you say it will be difficult for Richard to find the right balance, and that may be exactly what appeals to him artistically.

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    • Maybe my reaction to Mikkelsen’s Lecter will change (I have only watched four episodes), but so far, I find the character neither charming nor attractive. To me, calling up the actual serial murderer in whichever episode to tell him he’s been found out, and consciously participating in a criminal investigation while aware that he wants to confound it, are classic demonstrates of the Mephistophelian self description, as is interfering in the therapy of the young woman whose father killed the girls in Minnesota — Lecter is to me clearly a force of disorder or destruction that wills evil. Again, perhaps later I will see how that is artistic or creative but right now the only evidence I see of creative expression is Hannibal’s cooking, and I just find that downright gross. I have to avert my face from the screen during those scenes. I concede that this may be a failure of imagination on my part. 🙂

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      • I’m jumping in on this conversation, but I think for where you are at in the season your perceptions about Hannibal are similar to mine were. Over the first season, Hannibal gets more terrifying and compelling. For me he started to get the “smartest guy in the room” smugness, but once Gillian Anderson and other characters came in and started interacting with him, he became much more interesting to watch. He became more than an evil looming menace. I liked the whole first season but “Fromage” is where (for me) it really got cooking, so to speak. The force of disorder is a pretty good assessment though!

        Weirdly the food scenes don’t freak me out too much. During the really gory bits I hide my eyes, but the sounds are just as bad!

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        • I’m going to watch more this weekend; however the fact that he is more interesting (or charming or creative) does not make him less evil. It simply adds facets to the evil.

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  2. I feel just because I can’t/won’t watch the show doesn’t make me automatically virtuous either.

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    • I agree, though I think you’re average to above average in the virtue department nonetheless 🙂 I really think it’s a matter of taste and capacity to watch certain things (or not)

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  3. I don’t think Richard objects to being considered beautiful — I think it’s that he doesn’t want to be trivialized because of it. Unfortunately, beautiful people are viewed as objects in our society and I don’t think he wants that. Didn’t he say in that interview for The Battle of the Five Armies that what he wanted most of all was respect?
    I can’t blame him for wanting to play flawed characters instead of heroes. Heroes can be kind of dull.
    Richard does seem to be interested in the nature of good and evil — I recall his mentioning Doestoevsky’s Crime and Punishment in some early interview. Maybe that indicates that he isn’t as interested in portraying an evil character, as he might be in portraying a character who starts as neutral and then has evil things happen to him. Sort of in answer to the question, what would happen to this person if you did X or Y to them? Like that quote about the same boiling water that softens the potato hardens the egg.
    Well, his role in Hannibal does make for interesting discussions, even though I’m still not tempted to watch it! I’m looking forward to your reports on it.

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    • That was the tenor of many of his interviews in the wake of The Vicar of Dibley, where the question was phrased in the spirit of “what do you think of being the totty on these shows?” — and his answers at that point changed from the earlier trend, in response to questions about “do you think it’s cool that all these women think you’re hot?” which was for him to state that he didn’t understand why people found him attractive. I found the former much more plausible than the latter. Since all people in our society are viewed as objects, I have a limited amount of sympathy with him on that point. Probably many of us would like not to be judged on the basis of our bodies, although all of us are.

      re: evil vs neutral to evil — I don’t know that they are mutually exclusive categories. I suppose it depends how seriously you take his statement in 2013 about wanting to play a psychotic serial killer. There were repeated statements in the 2006-10 period about enjoying being able to live out impulses that one has but is not able to express under normal circumstances.

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      • Interesting that his answer changed wrt being admired for his physical appearance. Yes, it’s true that all people are judged on the basis of our bodies. But perhaps his changing attitude could be viewed as a sign of his desire to fight back against people’s efforts to stuff him into a box of their own choosing.
        Most people just accept the labels that others pin on them: You’re the cute one, you’re the smart one, you’re the one with the personality. Those labels stick, and they’re very hard to change, so most people don’t even try. I watched Monica Lewinsky’s TED talk yesterday, and was made uncomfortably aware of how, back in the day, I’d allowed my own opinion of her to be formed by others.
        A person in the public eye probably gets to the point where they refuse to let those “others” define them. So the real issue is, not whether one is judged on the basis of their body, but whether one must accept that judgment of themselves.

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      • We consider him as an object too ( nipple)

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  4. I tend to oversimplify things, but I think that most actors who are attractive and considered leading men want to play flawed, evil or challenged characters to demonstrate their “acting chops”and be taken seriously in their profession. I think if you took a survey, a majority of hunky actors would want to play Lex Luthor rather than Superman, for example. But they never get the chance, poor things. We know respect is important to RA, and he certainly earned it from his peers and audiences in TC. So in addition to the obvious reasons to take the role (American exposure, paycheck, etc.) he chose something opposite from a hero and accepted the difficult challenge of making a “monster” at least partially sympathetic to an audience. Can’t wait to see what he does with Mr. D. it should be interesting, to say the least.

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    • I don’t disagree with the observation that actors like more challenging roles and that there are fewer challenging roles than might be desired — my question is about how to resolve the conflict between the different priorities that Armitage has articulated over the years with regard to this question. Is it more important, for instance, to be ugly than to be (more) fully evil? What wins out in the end, in the conflict between creating empathy and creating believability? In other words, I’m not questioning that he took the role — I’m questioning what he wants to achieve in embodying that role and how he resolves these potential quandaries.

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    • oh, and i was factoring the professional reasons to take the role out. We talked about that quite a while back.

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      • Unless he tells us, is there anyway to know what he wants to achieve in embodying the role and how he resolves the quandaries that arise? I suppose we may form an opinion when we see it. I really liked your question regarding the conflict in creating empathy and believability. No matter how horrific his childhood was, at what point does the audience turn on the character and judge his acts as a serial killer? At what point does empathy for the victims overcome the empathy for his character? If he is too empathetic, then is believability sacrificed? Do they have to be in balance? How do you humanize a serial killer and make him believable? Will he be more Ted Bundy or Night-stalker? He also has to work within the constraints of the script and director. I am asking myself these questions, I don’t expect an answer. Your post got me thinking. Always dangerous. Could you post a warning? This post might be thought provoking. 🙂 Never mind, that would be most of them.

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        • We can’t know what he thinks or thought or intended; however, we can see how the resolution works or what it seems to be and ask ourselves if that effect was something he intended. My point here is to raise the kind of questions that will influence the perspective from which I am likely to look at the show based on what he’s said in the past about similar questions.

          Sorry 🙂

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  5. Considering that Satan was the most beautiful angel in Heaven and is now evil itself, it may be a misnomer to equate physical ugliness with evil. We are tempted more by things that seem attractive perhaps because they look good we expect good within them, and if someone looks ugly we expect ugliness from them. Also there was the real-life case of Ted Bundy, who lured unsuspecting victims with sympathy, a pleasant demeanor, and attractiveness. Ah, the old “don’t judge a book by its cover.” And I play the role of “ugly and damaged” everyday.

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    • I didn’t mean to imply that ugly = damaged = evil, just to point out that that has been in a theme in things Armitage has said, I assume because of the matter of being cast in certain types of roles because he has a certain “look.”

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  6. Pourquoi ne pas ouvrir le débat sur le rôle du monstre dans le cinéma, la littérature , la mythologie?

    Je prends un exemple d’accès facile.

    Il y a les contes de fées souvent destinés aux enfants .
    Où le méchant peut être parfois horrible à voir ( il y a alors aucune ambiguité le physique reflète l’état d’âme : moche= méchant),

    mais il peut aussi être d’un abord quelconque ,voire avenant , la personne sympathique peut s’avérer un tyran, un agresseur (il y a là une ambiguîié totale , pire méprise).
    La leçon reste ” l’habit ne fait pas le moine “, attention les enfants !

    Le monstre comme le Dracula représente
    les humains en général :
    +Il y a le bon et le méchant qui est en chacun d’entre nous . +Mais aussi l’autre , dont la beauté peut cacher un monstre .

    la nature hostile ,
    la société qui dégrade la nature , l’homme cf: Rousseau
    la science destructrice, …

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    • +J’ai oublié les contre-exemples de “La Belle et la Bête” de Jean Cocteau , de ” Eléphant Man “ces victimes de leur apparence physique dont le fond est bon .

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    • I take your point but if the way the story is told in the book is any indication, Dolarhyde is not meant to be this kind of monster. He is not transformed into a hero or a kind man who’s simply been misunderstood.

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  7. Attention au syndrome de Stockholm , la victime peut trouver de l’empathie pour son ravisseur.
    Par extension ne peut-il pas y avoir aussi un danger, à rendre un tueur en série trop sympathique , par le jeux de l’acteur qui l’incarne ,ou l’ aspect physique qu’il dégage naturellement ?

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    • My understand is that Stockholm syndrome develops over a period of time. The way Dolarhyde conducts his activities (and the immediate brutality with which he does so) in the book suggests that there isn’t going to be time for anything but fear.

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  8. Je respecte et approuve entièrement la manière dont vous abordez et protégez le refus de certains fans à lire, regarder l’horreur , le gore .
    Cela peut venir d’une réelle volonté de la personne : conviction religieuse ,refus délibéré, mais aussi d’incapacité , de blocage psychologique dans le domaine de l’affectif , du vécu personnel . Il ne faut pas y voir de la sensiblerie, de l’immaturité.
    De plus c’est un devoir de prévenir le lecteur de la nature du récit , car il peut tomber dessus par hazard , ne pas y être préparé et devoir être protégé en amont.
    Existe t-il des codes équivalents des T K M pour l’horreur ?

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    • I have a certain level of mixed feeling about this, in that there may eventually be something graphic I want to discuss — but I always want to keep my online friends who can’t stand this kind of thing welcome here. I don’t know if that’s manageable but I am going to try very hard simply by warning people aggressively not to read certain posts.

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  9. I read this earlier this morning, thought about it a lot as the day progressed, and still can’t come up with a coherent reply. I’m amazed at the conundrum he has before him in playing this character. ..I’m sure he relishes this challenge. I have read all the interviews over the years stating all the points you delineated here, and can’t wait to hear how he brings the role to screen; he has so wanted this type of opportunity to delve into. It will be amazing to see how he makes Dolarhyde someone we empathize with, while not making him relatable -keeping the storyline intact (I am confident enough that he will find a way…).
    It’s the “mirror by which we measure our virtue” that I’m stuck on. I think (if I were going to watch)that I’d be able to enjoy his portrayal of a “damaged” character and appreciate his nuances as an actor, however he chooses to play them. Just because I might be horrified by his character’s behavior, doesn’t mean I’m horrified by my enjoyment of watching or liking the character he presents. There are other characters, played by other actors I have enjoyed watching who have had “ugly/damaged” issues that I could watch, not having to worry about whether I see those tendencies in myself. Whether I find the character revolting or empathize with one who is doesn’t say anything about me, I think. It says more about me worrying about what others think of me. More of a fear of being judged by others because of my viewing choices. After all, this is a TV performance. I’m not measuring my virtue in this manner. This is not about worrying about myself watching / enjoying a character who is a killer because I would enjoy that behavior or find myself doing that behavior. Likewise, finding myself attracted to a killer in a tv show wouldn’t make me worry about being attracted to one in real life (Which, I have to say has happened before in many women’s cases, and how they wrestle through their social conscience in relation to their feelings is a fascinating and heart-wrenching struggle).
    I’ve stated before that there are actors who have portrayed characters that were evil and that I had a hard time seeing them portray another, lighter kind of character in a different film. Their performance being so realistic that it was hard to separate from their other work. I must say, I was never in a “well-wisher” relationship (hahaha )with those actors. I do think that would be an interesting challenge for me, but not interesting enough for me to watch Hannibal. Could Richard’s performance be so realistic that I could actually no longer watch his future work?
    See what I mean? This post makes me ramble and meander everywhere in my mind, and I still don’t think I’ve managed to say anything coherent! My apologies for such a sloppily organized dumping of my thoughts.

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    • These are good points and I apologize that it took me so long to respond to them (LOOOOOONG week).

      I stand by my point that one reason there are so many villains in drama / literature / mythology is that they serve as some kind of moral index — however, I certainly agree that the way we measure that can be different. It’s a nice point that we often worry about what others think of us and I think this is a particularly pronounced problem in fandom (and one reason fans are so eager to police each other — because we are afraid that someone will see a behavior we find distasteful and associate that with us). I don’t think, though, that we have to find evil attractive (or say, murderers in general or one murderer in particular) in order to experience the effect I’m talking about. E.g., when Armitage said (assuming he is speaking sincerely) in reference to playing Guy of Gisborne that there’s something attractive about playing a baddie because one gets to live out impulses one suppresses in real life, I don’t think he was saying he really wishes he could murder women who haven’t responded to his advances. It’s a more generalized point about the attractiveness of transgressions. I agree that on that level, Dolarhyde is unlikely to call out much desire among most of its audience to do literally what Dolarhyde does. But the desire for revenge, for instance, seems to be a theme of this show — Dolarhyde’s murders are committed in part as a response to / reaction against how his grandmother treated him. Taking the point very generally, I think I am maybe, 40 years later, just barely past the point of wanting to “show” the kids who picked on me on the playground when I was a primary schooler “what it’s like.” Barely.

      re: realism — so little about this show, from what I’ve seen of it, is realistic that I don’t think you’re at a huge risk for suffering the problem you’re describing, but I understand what you mean.

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  10. If you can understand French , please listen to ” La figure du serial killer”- by Frédéric Bas – ( http://www.forumdesimages.fr/cours-de-cinema) – Video Daily motion for example .
    But be careful some pictures are hard , not for every body !

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  11. Many interesting questions in your post Servetus, I’m not sure I can answer all those you are rising.
    Re: what was RA seeking in taking the role and how he is going to blend the contradictions of this character. Since FD’s violence takes roots from his terrible childhood, I agree he isn’t entirely “evil”, but then would it be enough to explain what he became and make the audience for him, since his acts are truly awful. In that respect, I wonder how much the show is going to emphasise the gory visuals like in the first seasons, or accentuate the psychological aspect.
    Re: empathizing with FD questioning my moral ground, I don’t know, I may end disconnecting myself emotionally from the show, something I already do – but only partly. Something I will hate – as a RA’s fan. Also I wonder how I’ll manage to empathize more with Will Graham than with Francis Dolharyde. It will bother me not to favourite a RA’s character. Maybe I will end to “understand” them both, as I did in Spooks S08Ep4 for Lucas and Darshavin. But then Lucas remained my main focus, he was not the villain.
    I think I go in circles, and repeat more or less what other commenters have said, so I’ll stop here. 🙂

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  12. …and make the audience “feel” for him, sorry.

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