Alex Moreland chats with Richard Armitage about his new film Pilgrimage…
What drew you to this project initially?
I was interested in the period; I’ve always been fascinated with that part of history. I remember in primary school, looking at Richard the Lionheart, and being interested in the Norman Conquest. In this particular version of the story, I was kind of fascinated with what the relevance was between a boy raised in the occupation in rural Ireland, and the conflict between a kind of peace loving group of monks versus this family, particular with Raymond De Merville as the young prince who had been raised with the traits of war hanging over him.
Thematically, the movie deals with ideas of faith and of strength of conviction and so on. How did you connect with those ideas, and does that play a part in your own life?
I think the thing that really caught my eye when we were filming it is when the relic is finally revealed as this lump of rock; everyone’s kind of rested all their hope on it, and endowed this object with so much reverence and power, and it becomes like a perpetuating myth. I was interested in – I mean, in a way the character’s reaction in the story is to sort of scoff, and we kind of do the same in contemporary society. We endow things with so much importance, whatever our kind of gods are, it’s all about projecting something onto something which has no value. That’s a theme that runs through the film.
Do you think the film is critical of that perspective?
I think towards the end of the film, you start to realise that the author Jamie [Hannigan, the screenwriter] and the filmmaker [Brendan Muldowney, the director] are really studying the camaraderie and comradeship, and really celebrating life at the very moment when carnage is happening on that beach. He’s sort of suggesting that we shouldn’t place too much emphasis on these relics – is it really worth dying for?
When you’re watching the film back, is it strange to see yourself and your performance?
Yeah, it’s always a bit strange, and you know one of the things that I had to do was work on the French language. I was working in Canada when I first took on the role and started working on language, and I was being encouraged by Canadians, so I turned up in Ireland and the teacher there said “oh, you sound like you’ve got a Canadian French accent”. So, she started to show me it in an Irish accent – and when I went to the next place, they said I was speaking French in an Irish accent! The teacher there was Belgian, so I ended up speaking French in a Belgian accent! In a way, that was kind of the fun part of preparing the role; my ear was very much tuned to how the character sounded, so he fits truthfully in that world. I did enjoy playing him, he’s very dark, but I tried to find some of the springboards and the triggers to why he had become that way.
On that note, then – something you’ve spoken about before, that I find quite interesting, was this idea of looking for a certain dualism within your characters. Could you tell us a little about what you mean by that? Did you find that same quality in your character here?
Yeah. I mean, with this character, it was quite difficult to find, but what I did – whenever you have the action of a character, which in Raymond’s case is to pursue the relic at all costs, even if his life is the cost of that, that’s quite a dark narrative, a dark agenda to pursue. You have to understand what’s driving him; even in the darkest moments, he’s still a human being, he has catalysts. One of those catalysts with Raymond is very much the sense that his father is fading and failing – he calls him a coward – and that somehow the family is going to collapse. It’s left in his hands to keep that family alive, and that by taking the relic and currying favour with his king he’ll somehow beat that. So, ambition is really at the centre of Raymond – and, to be honest, as an actor I’m able to relate to how ambition can be all-consuming at the expense of your life. It’s about finding a balance, and unfortunately Raymond didn’t find that balance.
Do you think the character is a straightforward villain, or does that ambition lend a certain ambiguity to it?
You know, I never saw him as a villain to be honest. I saw him as a kind of carrier of war; from a modern perspective, warmongering people are considered villainous, but I think in the brutality of the period we’re talking about, he would have been hailed as a hero or a champion, because he’s pursuing his agenda. But yeah, it was an incredibly kind of metallic taste in the mouth to work at that level.
Just to return to what you were saying about the different languages, something I found interesting about Pilgrimage is the way it uses language, often switching between them, and of course Jon Bernthal’s character had very little dialogue when you were acting alongside him. How does something like that influence and affect your performance?
Well, I think everybody at some point was speaking not really in their native tongue, and it does help with the sense of being completely in another time, in the form of another character. I think it sort of forced the text into a bit more of a poetic narrative, that I think Jamie Hannigan really handled beautifully. But also, as you said, Jon Bernthal’s character doesn’t speak throughout the piece, but I could sense in him, in every moment, any interaction I had with him, that he did have lines of dialogue in his mind and he just wasn’t saying them. It’s something that I’ve always been fascinated by with characters; most of the time, you’re really not speaking the truth, you do have a lot of things that you want to say but you choose not to say. Silences are as important as the language itself – but yeah, again, I’m fascinated with language, so I found the whole thing interesting.
What you were saying there about that silence, that interiority – how much of the inner thought process and backstory to your character had you worked out internally?
Well, the writer gave me a number of goalposts – he came from Roeun [in France], and he had largely grown up in Ireland. The occupation had happened when he was quite a young man, probably when he was a teenager – so I just looked at the roots of his family, I looked at the lack of a present mother in his current situation. I think something that glared out in the film was the lack of any kind of female character or feminine energy – I think it really informs the style and the tone of the piece. I sort of built it from there, and I drew from some music and images to stand the character on. But really, because it’s so much of a kind of linear road movie, the background of the character was mostly decorative – it had to be about the here and the now and the next, which was really quite a nice place to be with this character, who’s so much of a driven, forward looking and ambitious character.
What sort of music and images did you use for this character?
There’s an artist, a kitsch artist called Odd Nerdrum, who I used a lot for this period. In fact, I found a huge book of his art and actually sent it to Brendan before we began shooting, because I felt like it really represented the world. There’s also an album by Joselyn Pook I used, which had a kind of spiritual sounding music, but at the same time it was very contemporary and electronic; I used to listen to that in the car on the way to the set every morning.
Is that something you do with all of your roles?
Yeah, I mean it’s a way of concentrating. Because there’s so much mental distraction when you’re working on a film, to have a piece of music that you can plug into can really focus your mind, and get yourself into the place you need to be quite quickly. So I do tend to use that, yeah.
When you’re working alongside an actor like Tom Holland – he’s roughly the same age now as you were when you first began acting, I believe – does that prompt you to reflect back on your career? Did you have any advice for him?
It does actually, yeah. You know, when I think about myself at his age, and he’s such a bold, brave and inspirational actor, I don’t think I had a fraction of the talent that he has at the age that I was. So I have a lot of admiration for him. He was so committed, and to see that commitment in such a young actor was amazing, and I think he’s going to have an incredible career ahead of him.
You’ve done a lot of theatre, film and television – how do you find the different mediums influence your approach?
It really depends on what’s going to be the requirements. So, when you’re working for theatre, I do tend to – it’s much more of a regime that you have to tend to settle into. You have to perform eight times a week for twelve weeks, so you have to build up stamina. It’s similar for film, but because you do it piece by piece you can kind of set your energy and spend your energy in a different way. But essentially preparing the role is pretty much the same; with the time that you have, you try to get as much detail as you can into the role. I write a lot, and again I listen to music, gather images for myself, and you try to transport your imagination to the place you need to be.
Do you have a preference as to which medium you’re working in?
I never saw myself as a film actor; I was always headed for the stage. But I seem to have worked more on film than anywhere else, and when you get to work on a piece of film I seem to feel that you have a certain amount of time, moreso than on television, and particularly with an independent feature, I feel like there’s much more broad experimentation. So, at the moment, I’m really enjoying working in relatively low budget independent features, because it’s the place where I get to stretch myself as an actor, and there isn’t a studio frightened about the risk you might be taking. So, at the moment, that’s the place where I’m the most excited to be.
How do you feel about the place of independent films within the industry at the moment? Do you feel they’re being given enough support?
I think it’s always a big fight, but I also believe that the multimedia platforms that are available now have opened up a much broader scale to get a feature made and seen. A cinema release is no longer the holy grail; Netflix or Amazon get involved, and they have a great platform to deliver a feature. I think people are watching the material in such different ways – watching a movie on a huge screen at home is no longer seen as a compromise. That’s good, because ultimately we just all want to be working, and making great movies. It matters less if it gets a cinema release or not, as long as something gets made.
Are there any roles you’d like to play, but haven’t been able to yet? Specific ones, perhaps, or different genres?
Do you know, I don’t really know. In a broad way, there’s a lot of historic figures that I’d love to play but I’m not quite old enough. There’s a character that I’m working on in a movie that I’m trying to produce with the Irish Film Board, based on a true story, that I’m really hoping I’ll be able to play at some point. I’d also love to do a science fiction piece; science fiction is something I studied for my English A-Level, and I’ve always been fascinated with it. The next project that I’m about to do dips its toe into science fiction a little bit, so that’s going to be interesting.
Well, that leads on nicely to my next question – is there anything you can tell us about any upcoming projects you might be working on at the minute?
Yeah. Well, the next piece that Julie Delpy has written, and she’s going to direct and produce it, and it’s called My Zoe. It’s a passion project of hers, and she’s been working on it for about ten years. It’s about a marriage, and what happens with a little girl; it begins as an interesting, quite tragic, family story, and then it just dips its toe into a little bit of science fiction.
Finally, then, what would you hope that audience members take away from Pilgrimage, and indeed your work in general?
You know, I hope that they are transported into a world and a time that feels very very alien to how we live now, but at the same time they can relate to the passions of these people centuries before, who are ultimately the same as we are now – full of ambition and full of rage and full of devout belief. I hope that we let our audiences relate to it. In terms of my own career, my work, I hope that the audiences don’t necessarily recognise me in the character, but that they see the character before they see me. That was the ultimate goal of playing him.
Richard Armitage, thank you very much!
Pilgrimage is out now on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital Download, courtesy of StudioCanal.