After my whining and moaning yesterday – good to get if off my chest, lads, and thank you for entertaining my whingeing – I’ve decided to give candidness a little try. As I said, I’ve been chewing over my approach to my
self-censoring blogging, and what brought it to the fore this time was actually the Empire Podcast with Richard that dropped over the weekend. I had the impression that the conversation has been received enthusiastically by all fans. Yet I had a couple of less than enthusiastic responses to Richard’s statements. Before I get into that, though, here’s the transcript of the conversation. I transcribed it for the RAnet archives, but thought that it might be of interest for others here, too.
Chris Hewitt: Delighted to be joined on the Empire podcast in lockdown of course, because we are socially responsible, by Richard Armitage. How are you, sir?
Richard Armitage: I’m very good, I’m in a little fort. A little cupboard.
You are, I mean, this is… we’re recording visually, so I’ll describe. Richard is not lying. He is in… where… you are in your wardrobe at the moment? You’ve got blankets around you?
Well, I was in a wardrobe, but I have shifted locations now, so I’m actually in a hallway with a clothes rail and some packing blankets that I have stapled to the wall and cushions everywhere to sort of stop the reflection and a little plug-in LED lamp so that I can see [chuckles]. But it’s great, it’s working really well, I’m enjoying it.
And so this is your fort that you constructed yourself.
Yes, yes. It is.
So that you can continue to work whilst on lockdown.
Ya. With a little bit of help from my friends Shaun Dooley and Jacob Dudman who really helped me figure out what equipment to buy and sent me videos of how to set up Pro Tools [Music Recording Software] and so, yeah, lots of actors helping out, helping each other out to keep working.
This is amazing, because I have interviewed a number of actors over the last… I’ve also got Rosamund Pike on this week’s podcast as well, and I asked her exactly the same question, you know, as an actor you have this impulse to create, and that has been taken away from you. You can’t go on stage, you can’t shoot a film, you can’t shoot a TV show. So some people, some actors, I can imagine, might be lost. You have come up with this perfect remedy by recording this audio book, this collection of Chekhov short stories and creating your little fort, which is fantastic.
Yeah, it’s something that I have… I’ve been doing it for quite a while now. And I think, um, it’s always a little bit underestimated, you know, audio books are sort of seen as this thing that actors do in between jobs to fill in the time, but I’ve really enjoyed doing them over the years, and actually this was a perfect opportunity to really understand the technology and be able to work from home. And even when the studios go back, I’m probably going to continue working from home. I’m actually getting a slightly more permanent set-up of a studio because I love working in my own time, and being able to get up at… you know if I can’t sleep in the middle of the night, I can go into the studio and just keep reading. It’s been a real lifeline during lockdown, I have to say.
I guess that speaks to the idea … with this collection in particular… because you have said you have recorded audio books before, and you have been in it for a number of years now, but with this collection in particular, you seem to be the driving force. It was your choice to do this, your choice, your selection of the stories, as well.
Yeah, well, I was working on Uncle Vanya, directed by Ian Rickson, in the Westend, and during the preparation for the show I had read a lot of the Chekhov short stories, as a way to kind of understand the playwright. And during the run I suddenly thought, ‘this could be a really good idea to try and incorporate some stories for Audible in connection with the play’ because I was in a world sort of of Chekhov and I felt, it’s another way for people that maybe couldn’t get to see the play that they could kind of hear some of Chekhov’s writing. And then of course lockdown happened, and the theatre closed down. And it became even more important because we… we’re still looking for ways to try and rejuvenate that production. But in the meantime, I felt that it was a good idea to sort of push this through, almost as a little sweetener for people that had maybe had their ticket cancelled or something, just to try and, you know, keep the stories alive, and, you know, I love Chekhov and these stories are great. So, so it happened.
And a lot of these stories you were discovering for the first time as you were preparing for Uncle Vanya, is that correct?
Some of them yes, some of them I was familiar with, like “The Kiss”, for example, that was a, is a little favourite of mine. But certainly for Vanya I was… I had looked at “Ward 6”, which actually was Audible’s choice, and I completely understand why they chose it, but the idea of, eh, of a kind of insane asylum and a doctor and a patient, I just felt was not only relevant for the character I was playing but it feels relevant for the times we are living in.
Mh, yes, very much so.
I feel like we’re living, we’re living in an insane asylum where we have all become… We all thought we were the doctors, and suddenly we are the patients, we’re the in-patients. It’s strange, isn’t it?
We are, we are, we’re living in a short story.
Or actually a story that seems without end at the moment.
You never know.
Please say, please say the end.
[laughs heartily] Are you sa… ya, I usually don’t get that in an interview until at least ten minutes in, so… “Please stop this.”
‘Please release me from my misery.’ But I am fascinated by how you do this and your technique and your approach to audio books, which are becoming huge these days, as well. You see these as full-blown, well maybe not full-blown, but you see these as performances, this is a real chance for the actor in you to play a multitude of characters?
Yeah, it’s true, I never saw it that way, really. I just started reading and… I mean one of the first audio books I ever did was… was Robin Hood when I was working on Robin Hood and obviously I had access to all of the characters’ voices because I was working with them every day. And I thought, well, you know, why not just go there with every character. And it just evolved from there. It’s not really… it doesn’t quite really impact if you just read the words. You sort of have to get into the world of the story, and I … I’m not sure how any other actor approaches it but as the reader you become the director, so you set the scene, you get to play all the characters, so you can kind of direct the characters to how you would like them to sound and you are relying on the author to give you a good description of them but, em, it’s something I just really enjoy, and every time I read something, my imagination is triggered. So I just go into my own little world and perform the characters. And actually it has given rise to some interesting developments for me personally because I have optioned a couple of titles that I have read and I am developing them now as television shows.
So these are the Joy Ellis books, is that it?
The Joy Ellis books, and also The Taking of Annie Thorne by CJ Tudor. They’re both books that I was very passionate about and I have taken them into… into early production development, ya.
Oh fantastic, well, I wish you all the best on that.
And in terms of… in terms of that performance, in terms of playing multiple characters in the Chekhov short stories, or indeed in the novels that you have read as well, how do you do it? Because, full disclosure here, occasionally I will read a book out loud to my wife, just as a way of, you know, keeping ourselves entertained. And sometimes a few days will elapse between reading one chapter and then going back to it and I can never remember the voices I do, so they… they vary wildly. So, do you have a chart, is it instinct, how does it work, how does it, how do you keep track?
Ya, I… I… I suffer from the same thing especially if, for example, with Joy Ellis, there is seven books that I have read and sometimes there is a year or six months that passes between the reading. So I do rely on the producer to say ‘I can’t quite remember what that character sounded like’. And also I’ve sort of moved now from… you know, it… to me it’s not an exercise in sort of showing off how many different dialects I can do. It becomes much more kind of tonal or you know, pitch-oriented, so sometimes too many accents can just distract the listeners. So, the performances have become slightly more subtle over the years and that’s tricky as well, because… I mean, I usually put myself as a… as one of the voices, so the character that feels like the base narrator, I usually use a version of myself. Because you are usually narrating and commenting. You are also the author’s voice, so you kind of have to live in that area. But, you know, when you use Pro Tools, I make a note of the first reference for the character, so… Before I learnt how to do that I would make notes in a book to just give the quality of the voice and then the subtle accent that I chose. So yeah, you do, you do have to make notes.
Ah, that’s interesting. I thought maybe you had a tape, a series of tapes, you would just listen to one of them very, very quickly, get a refresher course, that’s how that guy sounds and then go for it.
Yeah, I mean, to be honest as well, I… I… You can usually remember because the books that you read are usually quite high quality. You can usually remember what voices you’ve done because… Especially if they are not too planned, if they come out of an instinctive response to the reading, that instinct comes back again when you… when you go back in there to read it. I mean, with the Charles Dickens… I mean, Dickens is a perfect example that… He… His descriptions of the characters are so succinct that, that the voices… I didn’t have to plan or think of any of the voices, they just came through reading his descriptions, and…
And that’s brilliant.
And so talk me through the… the Chekhov short stories that you have chosen. So there is six in this collection?
There are… six [chuckles] and I’m just pulling up my notes here because I will get this wrong.
Have you forgotten already, Richard, what’s going on?
There is always one that I miss out. So, “Ward 6”, there is “Ward 6”, “The Kiss”, “Betrothed”, “The Black Monk”, “Neighbours” – not to be confused with the Australian soap, and “The Student”. Em, all of which were chosen by myself and actually Ian Rickson who directed Chekhov, because I was putting together a short-list of our favourite stories and I just said to him, you know, ‘which stories do you like?’ Cause I thought it would be nice to have his opinion on it. So he, he gave me his list, and actually there were a couple that crossed over, so there were some that I didn’t know and some that I was very familiar with and so I’ve… that’s how I came upon the list.
And for philistines like myself who may only know things like Chekhov’s gun, the notion of Chekhov’s gun in terms of how it pertains to the cinema, and of course that Chekov was in Star Trek – different Chekov, but we can deal with that… Em, what is it about Chekhov that… that has connected with you in such a way?
I mean, I was introduced to him when I was at drama school. We did the Cherry Orchard in my third year and, em… You know, when you are studying acting, Chekhov comes up because really the root of our work that we do as modern actors came through… that school of theatre, which was Stanislavsky and Chekhov working together to create a new form of drama which was rooted in a kind of naturalism that wasn’t particularly plot-driven, that was more about characters and how they… how they existed. And it’s… the thing that I love about Chekhov is that he… He doesn’t intervene too much and manipulate the character to try and give you a message. He creates a character and then lets them live on the page, and he does the same thing in the stories. He’s observing life, rather than pushing an agenda or having a political stance. And actually he was criticised in his life because other writers felt that he was never, you know, pushing forward his views on anything which is sort of the whole point of him. And, you know, he was a doctor for half… most of his time and life, and in his spare time, his hobby, he was a writer. I mean, he famously descri… He said, you know… ‘Medicine is my wife, and writing is my mistress’, you know, that he saw it as a sort of flirtation with something. But, but… and actually his plays are fewer than his stories, but he gives us something… He was writing over 120 years ago but he gives us something, an insight into our own lives by looking backwards into a historic writer like Chekhov, but his observations of the human condition and the human spirit, is so… brilliant. They’re humorous and they’re tragic and they are uplifting. So, yeah, I’m deeply moved by them and I find myself laughing at them because they are sort of removed from modern society, yet totally relevant. – That’s a very long answer to a very short question. Sorry.
No, it’s good, it’s fine. You think… you covered everything. But, eh, when people here the word, the name Chekhov, I think sometimes they can feel that it is gonna be heavy-going, it’s gonna be heavy duty, it’s gonna be hard-hitting, quite bleak.
I think that’s… Well, that is the traditional receipt of what we think we know about Chekhov, and actually… the revelation of dip… of performing in Uncle Vanya was that the minute we put it in front of an audience, primarily because we had Toby Jones playing Uncle Vanya, so, you know, it was all ready, starting to, sort of, fizz, that it was an absolute undoubted comedy. From the minute the play started, and none of us quite realised what it… what the play was, and I think, em, finding that slightly cynical humour and, you know, enjoyment of human foible in Chekhov, is, I think that is the essence that I was looking for, rather than the misery. Because he is writing at a time which was, which was hard on his, his class, and, you know, he was upwardly mobile, coming from very little and so his observations of the bourgeoisie were, were quite acid. And he was criticised for that. And he was, you know he was highly critical of his own profession as a doctor, so, em… I don’t know, he… It feels like a human being writing about human beings, rather than an intellectual making some kind of, you know, clever statement about it. Well, I think that’s why it feels so fresh to me.
And, eh, on the complete opposite end of the scale, going from Chekhov to more… You mentioned Toby Jones, obviously you were both in the first Captain America film. But you were never on screen together.
[chuckles] We weren’t.
So did you share experiences in the, in rehearsals, in the dressing rooms?
We didn’t actually. I mean, I… it’s a shame we never met but that’s the nature of filming, is that you’re, you’re often kept apart. The thing that I was most [chuckles] em, surprised at, because the weird thing about doing theatre is… You know, after the play often go out of the stage door and you greet some fans if you are lucky, and you know, so I was having a lot of Thorin Oakenshield pictures thrust at me, and I realised Toby standing next to me, signing pictures of Dobby the house-el… house-elf. And I was like, ‘I didn’t… I didn’t realise that you’ve played this character’. And it suddenly made sense to me, and I rea… and I started to see the animation and see him and then you know on stage at night, I’d often look over and sort of see Dobby the house-elf playing Uncle Vanya, and it just… it just cracked me up, and you know, it it… He’s a great guy, he is a such a brilliant person to work with that, you know, just doesn’t take himself seriously. He’d take the work seriously but we had a great time there, eh, it was… It’s a shame we didn’t meet on Capt. America, but…
Ah you were too busy being bumped off very early on.
I was… too busy chewing on a cyanide tooth.
Precisely. That was at a time when it was still a huge gamble, it was still… I remember interviewing Chris Evans and he had these hobbit-like things on his feet and there was this feeling that it would… just no one knew if it was gonna turn out.
You mean that… that Capt… that… the Capt. America movie?
Yeah, and in fact everything has sprung from that since.
That’s true. I mean, I guess there was Ironman, which everyone was… I mean that wasn’t… that was that many years before Capt America, was it?
No, a couple of years…
I remember seeing the first Ironman film and thinking, ‘this is, this is something brand-new.”
His performance. And I think everything sprung from that. But yeah, I mean, it was my first experience with really working on a lot of green screen and working on a huge, huge set with 200 cast and crew. You know, where the crew of like hundreds and hundreds of people, so then, when I kind of got to New Zealand and started working on The Hobbit, it didn’t freak me out. In a way that it probably would have done if I hadn’t been part of Capt America because that was a really good training ground for me but… gosh, can’t believe that it’s 10 years ago.
[laughs] So I feel old, do you feel old now, as a…
I feel very old, I think. 2021 I’m gonna be 50, and that I just can’t believe – or accept, actually. Completely deny that.
How was 40 for you? How was turning 40?
40 was good. I think I might have been in New Zealand, or going down there. But yeah, 40 was good. This decade for me has been great. I mean, I gotta say I don’t like 2020 very much, but…
No, it’s terrible.
It’s been a great time for me, I’ve gotta… If there are any actors out there, kind of up and coming, or, you know, trying to graduate this year, that have doubts, you know, it… Your 20s feel good but it can get better. So, I’d say my 40s have been creatively the best years of my life. You know, I’m actually starting to look forward to my 50s cause I feel like you can just get fat and go grey and be like, “I… it doesn’t matter now because I am 50”. You know, you can just… just… “go away and let me be 50”.
In my little, in my little cupboard here, recording…
Recording by myself.
Ya, eating donuts.
But here’s the thing, Richard, you can skip 2020, I think we can officially strike 2020 from the record now, so technically speaking you won’t turn 50 until 2022, so you got another year.
That’s true. I’ve got, yeah, I’m gonna give myself another year. – It’s an interesting period, though, lockdown, you know, I think. It was almost a choice to make sure you deal with it well and, em, as a sort of semi-introverted slightly anti-social person anyway, the social distancing wasn’t that tricky for me and actually I have used the time as well as I could and you know, tried to stay off social media too much and be… kind of just be quiet for a while and you know, I’ve done a lot of work developing these stories and done a lot of reading, and it’s, it’s actually not been as bad as I thought it was gonna be. I’ve, I’ve learnt something about myself. Time, time to come out of hiding now, though, I think.
Precisely. And just a couple of last things before we’ll let you go, em. Talking about reflecting on your career and this idea that you had in your 20s, that it can be a struggle, and and I presume it was a struggle for you, in in, in some ways. And looking back, I was looking at your IMDb earlier on and in This Year’s Love you are credited as “smug man at party”
“Smug man at party”. That’s who I am. I’m a smug man, at a party. That is the definition of where my career started – and will probably end.
But smug man at party did get punched quite, quite… you know, full on in the face by, by Dougie Henshall, so, yeah.
Yeah, that’s right. So, but how do you…
So what was the question? [chuckles]
How do you prepare for playing smug man at a party? And, at the time, what were your feelings about that? ‘I am playing smug man at party but I’d rather be playing a, rather be doing Uncle Vanya.’
I just… how I prepared for it, by just being myself. As I said, I’m smug man at party.
You know what, this is something again… I am sort of starting… taking steps to mentor students and do some work with this year’s graduates who have had their careers… you know, their career launches stunted, and this is something that I would say to any, any actor breaking in or starting life in the profession, is, I always prepared every role as if it was a leading character. Because I hoped, and some, somewhere deep down knew that I would be playing the leading character one day, and I just needed to keep practicing how I was gonna play it and how I would do the preparation. So, I have got ridiculous notes – maybe not for smug man at party – but for, you know, two lines in Casualty. I’ve got, like, lots of notes of who the character is, where he was born, where he came from, how he was educated, what he likes, what music he listens to, because I just felt like, create a whole person there so that when you do get the chance to play something more in-depth you have got tools to do it. So… And that is the advi… and it’s the same with, um, with auditioning for things. I always say, imagine that the audition they, they’ve said to you ‘actually, someone has dropped out, you’re gonna have to go on and play this role tomorrow, either on stage or on film, just give us a taste of what, of how you would play it. The role is yours, but just give us a shot at it.’ So you are fully… fully commit to, to whatever it is you are doing, and it’s the same with, with… Everything that I try to apply myself to now. I, I throw myself all in, and equally with audio books, you know. You say, some people are a bit nervous about reading and, but you gotta be fully committed and I think that was… maybe that should be my, my tombstone is that ‘he was fully committed’. Cause that’s how I feel.
Richard Armitage, it has been an absolute pleasure, enjoy the rest of the day in your fort.
Thank you, Chris Hewitt.
Thank you, cheers.
So, my comments
I thought it was really interesting that Richard confirmed his commitment to audio recording in this chat. And especially as a medium of art in its own right (rather than a filler in between jobs). With a permanent studio set-up in planning for him, it sounds as if we have more audio material in our future. He really is becoming a one-man show, recording on his own, dealing with some of the technology, I presume. I wonder how well that actually works out, though, because an essential part of recording is actually a producer on the other side of the window who is there for quality control, i.e. points out omitted words or tonal changes or other errors that make it necessary to re-record a line. Undoubtedly that can also be done once a complete recording is being post-produced – although my impression is that it is not ideal because it is very difficult to hit exactly the same tone and pitch of a sentence again when you have to re-record after a little while. (An issue that I noticed in the recording of Tattooist which had noticeable changes in recording quality/surrounding sound/pitch.) But I completely understand that it must be a great experience for him to actually be able to *work from home*. It’s something that an actor can never do. They always have to leave the fort (haha) to work on set or on location. It must make a lovely change for him to work creatively – but from his own home.
Insights into the actual technique of narrating an audio book, are always interesting. So when Richard mentions that he has shifted from accent-based characterisations to distinguishing between characters through tone/pitch, that almost felt like a light-bulb moment. Obviously this kind of characterisation depends on how many characters appear in a book. So Dickens and Ellis require quite a cast of voices. It’s different with the more recent audio books such as His & Hers and The Jane Austen Society. Particularly in the latter I had noticed that RA went easy on the accents, yet the voices were still distinct. Good call – and a clever one, too. I think he is absolutely right, in that different accents can definitely feel distracting, and especially so for non-native listeners like myself. (Having said that, I really do enjoy him putting on Scottish, Northern English, even Irish accents – it’s refreshing to hear the familiar voice sound so different.) I like that he is making these creative decisions himself – not the producers. It gives him ownership of the creative work, and if it works as instinctually as he says, it also makes for a more natural sound and end product. – I was a bit confused though, when Richard said he did not have to construct the various characters’ voices in Dickens but they came instinctively “because the descriptions are so succinct”. Succinct? Ah, as in “clear” rather than “brief”? Well, Dickens was certainly a book that benefitted from his talent for accent and tone, no matter whether they were prescribed by the author or came straight from Richard’s belly.
My personal highlight of the whole conversation was probably Richard’s hilarious quip about “smug man at party”. “Started my career as smug man at party – and will probably end there as well”. I like when he comes out with this kind of funny self-irony. Especially as I can’t quite see him as a smug b’tard (although he definitely comes across as much less unsure about his own worth than he used to. The wisdom – and equanimity – of age?) I am really curious what he will be – and look like – as an old man. I am sort of hoping that my interest in him lasts another while, or should I have moved on from all this, that I will at least look him up in 20 years’ time, to check up on his grey hair. I should put a reminder in my iPhone calendar. “15th June 2040: Google old man Richard Armitage”.
Speaking of “old man”, here is a neat segue to a part of the chat that I *wasn’t* quite so happy with. You know the way we all bring our own life experience to everything we hear and try to understand? Well, I turned 50 last year, much to my own disgust. Yep, I thoroughly hate being “not-young” anymore. And from that perspective I can understand a certain trepidation in actors who reach that milestone.
Although I think that female actors have it much worse than male. So it is actually refreshing to see Richard declare that he is looking forward to 50, (never mind that he is contradicting what he just said 10 seconds before, i.e. that he is not accepting that number but denying it). However, I have to say I felt a bit miffed over the image he evidently has of people over 50. Fat, grey, anti-social and stuffing themselves with crappy food. Hm. Ok, I concede that I am 50 and not slim but I’d like to see men deal with that horrible hormone shit going on in their bodies in those years of menopausal transition. But connecting this pivotal age with that body shape – and using the *other* F-word that is extremely hurtful to those who have dealt with weight issues – felt insensitive to me. Fat-shaming as well as ageist, I guess. Which just disappoints me, considering that a core group of his long-term fans are women of *that* generation (but in many different shapes and forms). I am more or less whistling in the dark when I say this, but I do not think that reaching 50 means we are useless and negligent bordering on dismissive. The meat market that is the entertainment business, probably makes it a tough time for actors, too, and RA has always had a problem with his age. I sympathise. But hey, Rich, there is yet life in these old bones, and while we may feel more comfortable and confident of our self-worth, that doesn’t mean we automatically let ourselves go. You’ll find out yourself, sooner rather than later!
While we are at it with the critical thoughts – sometimes I am wondering whether Richard has lost touch a little bit. While it was really interesting to hear the genesis of the Chekhov stories audio book, I almost choked on my tea when I heard him say that he ‘felt that it was a good idea to sort of push this through, almost as a little sweetener for people that had maybe had their ticket cancelled or something’. Um. I’m sorry that I am sounding like a broken record at this point, but what is “sweet” about a commercial offering? The Chekhov audio book is not exactly a gift, even if at 15 £ it is only a fraction of the price of a theatre ticket. No one forced me to buy the audio book, and I did so because a) I have an Audible subscription and b) I was curious about the stories, but I think Richard is deceiving himself if he thinks that this is anything other than a commercial product that has been created to generate revenue. (And I think *we* are deceiving ourselves if we believe that Richard is performing audio books with the primary goal of providing his audience with velvet ear candy. He knows what he is selling…) I’d prefer if that kind of thing would be acknowledged rather than concealed under a
rather opaque guise of sharing sublime pieces of art.
Good to know, though, that he got himself through lockdown happy and distracted and well. Recording and reading, staying off social media (no shit?!!), enjoying the quiet and working on the stories. That sounds like heaven for a semi-introvert, something I can identify with. It sounded as if the lockdown was almost a lucky chance for him in that sense, forcing him to explore technology and discover that it actually makes things better and easier for himself. I do wonder, though, what he learnt about himself… very curious! Also, I loved hearing that he is somehow involved in mentoring drama students and sharing his own experience and wisdom gained over a 20+ year career with the new generation. Would have loved to know whether he is doing that through his own alma mater (LAMDA) or since he is based in New York again, with a drama school in the US. Can you imagine Richard as a teacher? I’d actually say he’d be good at it. He does express himself carefully and clearly, and he has plenty of empathy for actors – and possibly also drive to pass on his knowledge to others. It’s certainly a rewarding thing to do, as teachers in *any* field would probably agree.
Overall, the interview didn’t necessarily touch on anything sensationally new, but there were some individual insights in his whole recording process that I appreciated. It did stay on the surface, though, and I wished the interviewer had used the conversation to dig a bit deeper rather than just banter. OTOH – a little light relief is what we all need at this time. I’ll go back in my box now and think of smug man at party 😂.