Some portrayals of historical and literary characters stand the test of time and become the yardstick for those portrayals: Colin Firth’s Darcy, Michael Sheen’s David Frost, Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone, Richard Armitage’s John Thornton. Nothing can quite prepare you for your first glimpse of Richard Armitage in his seminal portrayal of John Thornton in the BBC’s production of the Elizabeth Gaskell novel, North & South. He stands on the overseer’s platform in a mill, the room enveloped in a blizzard of flying cotton. He spots a man walking back from a smoke break, emptying the smouldering tobacco from his pipe. He points at the man and yells, ‘Stephens!’. From that first glimpse of his proud visage overseeing his empire and the fierce anger at the man placing so many lives at risk, we know we are at the start of a journey that is going to grab our attention and not let go, even beyond the end of the drama. That’s not to take anything away from any other actor who has played those roles, it’s that some actors are just born to possess a character to such an extent there is no room for anyone else.
Like a lot of actors who seemingly come out of nowhere Richard had a hard slog to reach his perfect role. He was 34 when he played John Thornton and had started acting professionally at the age of 17. Between the ages of 17 and 34 he gained a whole lifetime of experience; gaining his Equity card by working as a performance artist at a circus in Hungary. He danced in the West End in such high profile musicals as 42nd Street, Cats and Showboat. He played increasingly bigger bit parts in established dramas like Boon. Richard even found time to go back to college and study for an acting qualification at LAMDA. He found himself one of the best agents in the business and worked hard to raise his profile as well as hone his craft. He gained regular roles in popular British dramas such as Cold Feet and Ultimate Force.
Then, in 2004, he achieved the role that would be the turning point for him – John Thornton. In a 2005 interview he recalled how in the minutes before he was due to audition at the BBC, he found himself in a bar ordering a large glass of red wine to steady his nerves.
Richard Crispin Armitage was born on Sunday 22nd August 1971, in Leicester, UK, to Margaret and John Armitage. Richard is the younger of their two boys. The family grew up in a normal house, in a normal village. The difference between Richard and any other 14 year old boy is that he managed to persuade his parents to send him to Pattison’s Dancing Academy, now known as Pattison College. Pattison’s, an independent school which specialised in performing arts, was the start of Richard’s training for his career as an actor. His interest in acting was born here. He has been quoted as saying that it was while he was at Pattison’s, during a school theatre trip, that he first realised that maybe this was the direction in which he wanted to take his life.
On leaving school Richard joined a physical theatre group based in Budapest, Hungary, for a short run. It enabled him to obtain his Equity card, which at that time in the UK was a requirement for a career as an actor. His Equity card acquired, he returned to the UK and started working on the London stage. During these early years he appeared in a number of musicals including Cats, Annie Get Your Gun and 42nd Street.
Richard spent the following couple of years gaining theatre experience. His next step was to enrol in an acting course at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, LAMDA. He continued to gain experience acting in student productions. During his final year at LAMDA he spotted an advert on the college noticeboard that led to his brief but shining (and difficult to spot) role in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Even Richard himself missed it when watching the film – he dropped his popcorn. That blink and you miss it role was a slow but steady start to a very successful career. To some die-hard Star Wars fans in Japan he was the number one attraction on a tour with the RSC.
Leaving LAMDA and finding himself alone in the big bad world of acting with only his talent and an Equity card meant a series of roles in rep all over the country and a few jobs that weren’t acting related. One of the jobs that was acting related turned into an 18 month stint as a member of the RSC, the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon. Seasons in Stratford, tours in both the UK and abroad followed with his tour of duty culminating in the RSC’s acclaimed film of Macbeth.
It was shortly after this that his career direction changed away from theatre towards roles on TV. Richard had already appeared on TV during his time in musical theatre. He continued on his journey with small guest spots on popular dramas such as Casualty and Doctors as well as a very brief first glimpse of him in Spooks as an armed police officer. His next role was more substantial and one cited by many fans as their favourite, that of John Standring in Sparkhouse, Sally Wainwright’s modern re-working of Wuthering Heights.
Next came the role of Lee, the flirty lifeguard in the final series of ITV’s popular comedy drama Cold Feet, swiftly followed by another role in another popular drama. The role was Captain Ian McAlwaine in Ross Kemp’s SAS drama, Ultimate Force. His next role as Paul Andrews in Kay Mellors’ Between the Sheets would be another step in his steady growth. It was a significant role and one that gave us the opportunity as fans to see the type of multi-layered, subtly nuanced performance that has since become Richard’s trademark style.
2004 was the start of better things. From spring of that year the BBC started filming their adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. It is the story of a genteel, ex-parson’s daughter’s move from their privileged village life in the rural south to the harsh climate of the industrial north after her father resigns on a matter of conscience. He starred as John Thornton to Daniela Denby Ashes’ Margaret Hale. As is usually the case the BBC excelled themselves in their adaptation, exceeding their own expectations of how popular the drama would be with audiences. Richard’s portrayal as John Thornton showed us the vulnerable inner workings of an outwardly strong northern mill owner and won him an army of fans. Overnight Richard seemed to become the sole topic of conversation on the internet, or so it seemed at the time.
His next couple of appearances on TV were as part ensemble casts. The first in the popular British drama, The Inspector Lynley Mysteries, the second in a two part drama shown on ITV, Malice Aforethought. Next to come was the lead role in The Golden Hour. Richard played the head of a team of doctors who responded to emergencies by helicopter, in the hope that getting to and treating their patient within that important ‘golden hour’ would improve their chances of survival. There was only one series of the drama made. 2005 turned out to be quite a busy year for Richard and he ended it in the role of Macduff in the second tranché of Shakespeare Retold stories from the BBC. In the spring of 2006 he appeared on our screens again, this time as the young Claude Monet in the BBC’s docu-drama, The Impressionists.
Adventures in a Hungarian Forest and Beyond
Autumn 2006 brought his highest profile role to date, that of Guy of Gisborne in the BBC’s flagship autumn family drama, Robin Hood. It entered its third and final series in 2009. We saw a new Guy, filled with angst and anger a plenty after the murder of Marion, something for Richard to get his dramatic teeth into!
Between the start of Robin Hood and now there was a lot to keep Richard occupied and keep his fans happy. Six audiobooks for Robin Hood, a couple of voiceovers for Channel Four and ITV in the form of The Great Sperm Race and Homes from Hell, respectively. There has also been a wildly successful audiobook adaptation of Bernard Cornwell’s Lords of the North. An appearance as the Handsome Stranger who gets the girl in the last ever two episodes of Richard Curtis’ Vicar of Dibley was Richard’s first foray into comedy. There was also a role as the leader of a gang of bikers in the 60’s detective drama, George Gently. 2006 also saw him star as the first husband of tragic music hall star Marie Lloyd. As well as the above he also starred in a Miss Marple mystery based on her novel Ordeal by Innocence. There was another voiceover for a series called Empire’s Children for Channel 4. However, the highlight of the past couple of years has to be a lead role in Spooks, as the spy who came in from the cold, Lucas North.
2009 brought us Richard’s chocolatey tones as the narrator of New Homes from Hell 2009, a documentary about the disasters that can be faced by new home owners; and an audiobook of the Georgette Heyer Regency romance, Sylvester. That year also brought us two more Robin Hood audiobooks, The Siege and Witchfinders, based on the final series. We saw the excellent drama called Drowning, Not Waving, part of a series of daytime dramas produced by The Street’s Jimmy McGovern; and, sadly, bid farewell to Sir Guy and saw the last series of Robin Hood.
2010 proved a very busy year. It saw Richard create a new, highly successful action character, John Porter, a “killing machine and a husband and father”, an SAS operative drawn from Chris Ryan’s novel, Strike Back and produced for Sky. John Porter returned for one episode of the second series, now co-produced by US cable channel, Cinemax. Lucas North, our favourite spy, was back for his final series (9) of Spooks and, towards the end of the year Richard filmed another baddie, Heinz Kruger, a Nazi spy and key early antagonist in the Marvel movie, Captain America: The First Avenger, scheduled for release in July, 2011. To top that he has been cast as the second lead, Thorin Oakenshield in Peter Jackson’s movie The Hobbit, with Martin Freeman (Dr John Watson in Sherlock) as Bilbo Baggins. The Hobbit will be released in 3 parts in December 2012, 2013 and 2014; filming began in March 2011 and continued through with pickups in 2013 and 2014. Then, early in the second half of 2012, it was announced that he would have a role in a new tornado disaster thriller, Into The Storm (originally titled, Black Sky), as Gary Morris, a father looking for his son.
Adding to his growing audio repertoire Richard, as the villain Robert Lovelace, led a stellar cast in the BBC 1 radioplay, Clarissa, based on the Richardson novel. As well as two further Georgette Heyer audiobooks, Venetia and The Convenient Marriage, Richard performed with Emilia Fox in BBC Radio 4’s Words and Music series in the episode, Symphony of the City. The episode combines music, prose and poetry bringing the experience of the city vividly to life. Venetia was nominated for an Audie award as best adaptation, however, did not win. He voiced the narration for a second series of New Homes From Hell; a new series, Surgery School, following the lives of young surgeons as they work towards life as a consultant; Rumbles in the Jungle, a documentary about forest elephants; and Too Poor for Posh School about recipients of the Peter Beckwith Scholarship to Harrow as well as the voiceover for several advertising campaigns including the British involvement in Canada’s Olympics. He also narrated the 3-part BBC documentary, Lost Land of the Tiger which was nominated for a Royal Television Society award in the Science and Natural History category but, unfortunately was not successful.
After 9 years in television and film, Richard capped 2010 with a return to live theatre. During 2010, Richard spent his ‘spare time’ preparing for his role in Aphra Behn’s Restoration comedy, The Rover. The first read-through was in November, a week after he appeared at the Old Vic, to very good reviews, in the first of 6 plays produced for the annual charity event “24-Hour plays”. This was his first performance in live theatre since his role as Antonio in The Duchess of Malfi at the Barbicon in 2001. The date and venue for The Rover have yet to be announced.
Between 2012 and 2014, Richard was heavily engaged in publicity generated by the release of the Hobbit movies giving over 140 interviews in 2012 and 2013 alone, as well as thrilling fans by taking part, with other cast members, in several Q&As – in London at the Applestore in 2012 and Waterstone’s in 2013, a world-wide fan event where he was filmed from New York in 2013, and on his own in Sydney in 2013.
2014 began propitiously. In January, Richard again looked back to his roots, performing several roles, including Swann, in a theatrical reading of Harold Pinter’s screenplay of the Proust novels, Remembrance of Things Past for 92Y in New York City. Produced by Di Trevis, long time directing partner of Pinter’s, Richard had also performed in the play as a drama student when it was also produced by Di Trevis. Then, late in February, AJ Hartley confirmed that Richard had just finished reading a novelised adaption of Hamlet – Hamlet, the Novel, co-written by AJ Hartley and David Hewson.
What with Into the Storm due for release in August, the final Hobbit movie, The Battle of the Five Armies (originally titled, There And Back Again), to be released in December and the promise of an audiobook, Richard’s fans had a lot to look forward to in 2014.
Having made the journey back to his theatrical roots with Proust, Richard then went on to perform as John Proctor in Yael Farber’s production of Henry Miller’s play, The Crucible for The Old Vic for 13 weeks from July until September. The production – and Richard’s performance – won rave reviews and an unprecedented 10, five star reviews. The production was filmed by Digital Theatre and released worldwide (except, very sadly, for US and Canada) by CinemaLive from December 2014 through to March, 2015. The film is expected to be available for download some time in 2015. Dovetailing nicely in the middle of the year, was the release of Into the Storm – a tornado disaster movie seeing Richard playing a mid-western school-teacher searching for his son, lost during the world’s biggest tornado. The release of the final movie in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy – The Battle of the Five Armies, capped off a year that will go down as one where he marked each branch of his career with success – film, theatre and voice.
At the end of performing in The Crucible, Richard filmed a cameo for the forthcoming sequel to Alice in Wonderland – Through the Looking Glass, to be released in 2016. Then he stepped back from blockbusters to take film two independent productions. In May, he took on the role of Chop, an ex social worker trying to help a young boy at risk in Urban and the Shed Crew, based on a true story by Bernard Hare and directed by Candida Brady. Then, through October he filmed Sleepwalker, directed by Elliot Lester, in which he plays a sleep researcher, Dr Scott White, trying to help a young woman with a hidden past.
He won’t be idle in 2015, either. As this is written, he is in Toronto to film season 3 of Hannibal for NBC where he will take on the role of Thomas Harris’s serial killer, Francis Dolarhyde (aka The Toothfairy), based on the novel, Red Dragon. He is heading to Ireland in April and Belgium to film Brendan Muldowney’s new film, Pilgrimage, the story of a band of 13th century monks as they make the dangerous journey to Rome with their holiest relic. There’s no information, yet, on his role – other than he will be speaking French. He has also told us he will be working on his own project set in Ireland in the late 18th century and based on a true story.
But wait, there’s more. His fans were stunned and delighted when, on his birthday, he did what he said he wouldn’t ever do – he joined Twitter. Since then he has become the master of the selfie, teasing us and bringing us along with him during filming and on promotional tours to Brazil, France and China for The Hobbit.
And, so we’ve come to the end of 2015 and another packed and successful year for Richard, and his fans. It’s been a year of projects completed and aired and projects projected, of award nominations and wins and ‘better luck next times’.
It began on a romantic note when Audible released Richard reading a compilation of ‘Classic Love Poems’ for Valentine’s Day. It is still listed as one of Audible’s most popular recordings. Fans had barely recovered from their collective swoon when we witnessed his menacing, heart-breaking performance as Francis Dolarhyde in Hannibal. It won him Collider TV’s ‘Best Guest Actor’ award and a Critics’ Choice Awards nomination for Best Guest Actor in a Drama (Hannibal). As soon as filming for Hannibal was completed, he was off to Ireland to film his part in the forthcoming historical drama, Pilgrimage; we finally found out a bit more about his character – Raymond de Merville, a knight who accompanies a group of monks on their dangerous journey to take a holy relic to Rome. From medieval Europe he time-travelled to modern day America to play Tom Calahan, the father of a young woman suffering the trauma of an almost undiagnosed brain disease in Susanna Calahan’s true story of her battle, ‘Brain on Fire’. Within about a month of ‘Brain on Fire’s’ completion, we learned Richard has the lead role of Daniel Miller (originally Daniel Meyer) in the Epix television spy drama series, ‘Berlin Station’. At around the same time, he recorded one of Charles Dickens’ most loved novels, ‘David Copperfield’, for Audible, due for release in February, 2016. Filming began on Berlin Station in Germany in November and will continue through to April 2016 with the production due to air in Autumn 2016. Somehow, while filming Berlin Station, Richard managed to fit in a recording of Charles Dickens’ short story, ‘The Chimes’, as his and Audible’s Christmas present to his fans.
The film of Bernard Hare’s novel, Urban and the Shed Crew, in which Richard plays the ex-social worker involved with street children in modern day Leeds, filmed in 2014, was finally released to critical approval at the Leeds International Film Festival in November.
In amongst his filming commitments, Richard has managed public appearances for Hannibal at San Diego Comic Con and attended the showing and took part in a Q&A panel for ‘Urban and the Shed Crew’ at the Leeds International Film Festival, and took part in a Twitter Q&A for Audible’s ‘David Copperfield’, as well as continuing his online support for his charities. He was named an Ambassador for the online anti-cyberbullying site, Cybersmile and, with the release of Urban and the Shed Crew, promoted the charity Action for Children.
There have also been some bittersweet notes. In June, fans were delighted and not at all surprised but Richard was shocked when he received a Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actor for Thorin Oakenshield in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, for which the film also won Best Fantasy Film. In March, we were absolutely thrilled to learn he had been nominated for a Best Actor Award for his performance as John Proctor in Yael Farber’s The Crucible, which itself was nominated for the award for Best Revival, at the Olivier Awards, the most prestigious award in English theatre. Sadly, though, neither was a win – that must wait for another performance but we know it will happen. In February, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, a Novel, won Audiofile Magazine’s Earphone Award. However, there has to be balance in all things and it missed out on the Audie Award for Best Male Solo Narrator and Best Original Work.
2016 looks to be another very full year for Richard with projects to be filmed and some announced for release. We learned that production had finished on ‘Sleepwalker’, in which Richard plays a sleep researcher, Dr Scott White, filmed in 2014, and is waiting for a release date. ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’, the sequel to the immensely popular Anne Hathaway and Johnny Depp movie, ‘Alice in Wonderland’, in which Richard announced his cameo role in 2014, is due to be released in the middle of the year. There’s no news on his role – although, rumour has it, it could be one of the Red Queen’s guards. Projects to come were also announced during 2015 – ‘The Burning of Bridget Cleary’, based on the true story of the murder of a young woman for witchcraft by her village in late 19th century Ireland, Richard’s character has yet to be named and we think this might be the historical Irish project Richard referred to in 2014; ‘Summer’, based on a short story by Edith Wharton in which Richard would play Lawyer Royall; and ‘Clearance’, where Richard’s will play a mine clearance expert who, with his pregnant partner, must escape from kidnappers in South Sudan through a vast minefield.
2016 is certainly another year to look forward to filled with plenty of projects and, no doubt, surprises.