Richard Armitage on The Hobbit, Red Eye, and always returning to Harlan Coben

The actor reflects on his impressive career from The Phantom Menace to Spooks, The Vicar of Dibley and more.

Richard Armitage looks back at his impressive career for Role Recall. (New Line/Netflix/ITV)
Richard Armitage looks back at his impressive career for Role Recall. (New Line/Netflix/ITV)

Richard Armitage is one of the UK's greatest film and TV assets, having become a household name thanks to his star-turning role in The Hobbit franchise and his many collaborations with Harlan Coben.

He began by carving a path in British classics like Spooks, North & South, and The Vicar of Dibley his star rose to exponential heights when he landed the role of Thorin Oakenshield in The Hobbit trilogy from 2012 to 2014. He's continued to follow this up in big ways, becoming the actor for Harlan Coben, and now appearing in ITV's upcoming crime thriller Red Eye.

It's all coming up roses for Armitage, and he looks back at his impressive career with fondness. The actor sat down with Yahoo for Role Recall to share insight into what his previous work, and what's next.

Richard Armitage would like to clear the air about The Phantom Menace

The Phantom Menace (Credit: Fox/Lucasfilm)
The role came about by chance, he says, as he saw 'a piece of paper pinned to the wall at my drama school looking for background artists for the Phantom Menace'. (Lucasfilm)

The actor may have several hit credits to his name, but the beginning of his career is nothing to sniff at either because one of his first film credits is in the Star Wars prequel The Phantom Menace.

Armitage is credited as a Naboo Fighter Pilot in the film, and while he admits it's a struggle to think back to his experience on the film because of how long it's been. The role came about by chance, he says, as he saw "a piece of paper pinned to the wall at my drama school looking for background artists for the Phantom Menace", adding that he remembers "going along, applying and being given a line."

The scene itself went about in a perhaps unexciting way because he got "to set, not having a costume fitting and [was] put into this weird green suit". He didn't even have a chance to meet George Lucas when he filmed, that would only happen years later when Peter Jackson introduced them to each other.

But the actor is keen to clear up the air about his role: "[I remember] thinking, 'wait a second, oh I'm a Droid', and there's actually misconception online because there's a shot of somebody [but] my face was never in that movie. My voice was, my face wasn't. And I had to Lightsaber Ewan McGregor in half at a door somewhere."

"I remember sitting there talking to Keira Knightley, who was doubling Natalie Portman," he goes on. "She was Natalie Portman's stand-in, and I thought it was Natalie Portman so I was sitting there trying to have a conversation with her."

The impact of Spooks

**Image embargoed until Tuesday 21st October 2008**  Picture Shows: (l-r) HERMIONE NORRIS as Ros Myers, RICHARD ARMITAGE as Lucas North. Episode 1. TX: BBC ONE Monday 27th October 2008
Richard Armitage joined Spooks as a series regular from series 7 to 9, taking on the role of MI5 agent Lucas North. (BBC)

One series that had a huge cultural impact in the early 2000s was Spooks, the BBC espionage thriller that helped catapult the likes of Matthew Macfadyen, Keeley Hawes and David Oyelowo to new heights with its first few seasons. Armitage joined the show as a series regular from series 7 to 9, taking on the role of MI5 agent Lucas North.

The actor remembers the show fondly, saying it was "absolutely" a breakthrough moment in his career, adding: "I sort of resisted it at the time because I was unsure about taking over a character that had been in a position in a show that had been played by two other guys. But, it was one of the best things I ever did.

"I just loved the scripts. I loved every second of filming, all of the writers that went through Spooks, now as a producer I'm calling them and saying 'can we talk?' Because I've got a book that I need adapting and Spooks was a brilliant benchmark for high octane, high stakes drama."

Armitage shares that he "actually miss[es] Spooks" and wishes he'd "stayed longer" on it, and goes on to say: "What's really crazy is when you start looking on IMDb, all the actors that appeared in Spooks —not just the series regulars or the guest artists— it's jaw-dropping. I remember doing scenes with Tobias Menzies, who came in to play a politician over like a two-episode, three-episode arc.

"[There was] just this incredible cast because 10 years of a show of that quality attracted a lot of people."

He still remembers his SAS training from Ultimate Force

Richard Armitage ultimate force. (ITV)
Richard Armitage played an SAS officer opposite Roman Kemp in Ultimate Force before his big break. (ITV)

Before he starred as an MI5 agent in Spooks, Armitage played an SAS soldier opposite Ross Kemp in Ultimate Force in 2003. The actor admits that his "memory of that period is so vague", but there was one aspect of the show that has stuck with him over two decades later.

"I do remember cringing slightly when I watched it back, but the lingering memory of it are the professionals that we worked with from the SAS, who trained us on all the weaponry and the protocol," he explains.

"I still have weapons training recall from what they taught me —that and [2010 series] Strike Back which was the South African SAS. They're economic with how they talk, the spycraft and the special tactical training that they give you I've never forgotten.

"So I know how to come into a room and button hook with a gun so you don't get shot when you're surveilling a room. I can button hook through a door."

Without North & South his career wouldn't have been the same

Picture shows: DAVID CRELLIN as Slickson and  RICHARD ARMITAGE as Thornton  BBC ONE: SUNDAY NOVEMBER 21, 2004  As tensions in Milton rise between millowners and workers, Hannah Thornton (SINEAD CUSACK) worries that Margaret (DANIELA DENBY-ASHE) may have designs on her son's heart - but nothing could be further from the truth. 	The Thorntons host another lavish dinner party, this time Margaret is invited and Mr Thornton's feelings for Margaret start to shine through. The industrialists talk about the strike and Thornton tells his guests that he won't give in to his workers if they do strike. Margaret shocks all the millowners by telling them of her friendship with Higgins' (BRENDAN COYLE) daughter. Higgins has found notoriety as one of the union leaders. 	The following day, Margaret goes to Marlborough Mills to borrow a water mattress from Fanny (JO JOYNER), hoping it might provide relief to her mother. Thornton has brought in Irish workers to keep the mill running during the strike. Although Higgins urges peace, some of the maverick strikers come to the mill to protest; they break through the gates and into the courtyard. When they start to batter the door down, Thornton is forced to go and talk to them. Margaret sees someone about to hurl a stone at Thornton so she rushes out to try and save him. A stone hits her on the forehead and she faints into Thornton's arms, much to the horror of Hannah and Fanny who are watching from the window above. Hannah believes they will have to marry after this public display. Margaret quickly recovers and the strike is brought to an unsuccessful end after the outbreak of violence but now  Margaret is caught in a quandary, between Thornton and his poor workers  WARNING: Use of this image is subject to Terms of Use of Digital Picture Service.  In particular, this image may only be used during the publicity period for the purpose of publicising NORTH AND SOUTH and provided the BBC is credited.  Any use of this image on the internet or for any other purpose whatsoever, including advertising and other commercial uses, requires the prior written approval of the BBC.
Richard Armitage won the hearts of the nation with his role as John Thornton in North & South. (BBC)

Spooks may have been a big highlight, but Armitage is keen to point out that it was his 2004 BBC period drama North & South that truly changed the tide. The mini-series adapted Elizabeth Gaskell's novel of the same name, and in it Armitage took on the lead role of John Thornton.

The actor once called the part the "role of the lifetime", and he still looks back fondly on it: "I think had North and South not happened, I wouldn't have had any of the career that I had.

"It was such a chance moment, I was one of the very first people they interviewed and then they went off on a casting search for, I don't know, ten or 11 weeks and then they couldn't find the person they were looking for.

"Jill Trevellick, the casting director, went back to the tapes right from the beginning and brought me back in to read with Daniela [Denby-Ashe]. And then that just happened, but it was a chance that's just almost an accident."

Richard Armitage sometimes forgets he's in The Vicar of Dibley

Richard Armitage as Harry Jasper Kennedy in The Vicar of Dibley (2006-2007). (BBC)
Richard Armitage as Harry Kennedy in The Vicar of Dibley, in the show's special that sees his character marry Dawn French's Geraldine Granger. (BBC)

Another beloved romantic lead that Armitage took on in the past is Harry Kennedy in The Vicar of Dibley, Geraldine Granger's (Dawn French) love interest who was introduced in the show's 2006 Christmas special The Handsome Stranger.

Viewers watched as Geraldine and Harry's romance grew over the episode and resulted in them getting engaged, with the wedding taking place in 2007's special The Vicar in White. It was a big moment on the show but Armitage admits he sometimes forgets he's in the iconic sitcom.

"Literally, I forget that I was in it until it comes out every Christmas," he jokes. "It's like a Christmas staple now, isn't it? It was the Christmas special of that year and I think it's the only year where Vicar of Dibley beat Doctor Who on the overnights.

"I'm very proud to carry that. It was brilliant, I absolutely loved every second of it. Dawn was amazing, and actually we still do chat to each other on social media. I still think she's my wife, to be honest."

The actor went on to reflect on the show's legacy by saying: "It's in the same box as Only Fools and Horses, maybe Fawlty Towers. Vicar of Dibley was groundbreaking in its content, and, sadly, [there's] so few of the cast left so it's I think it will be cherished."

Emma Chambers, Gary Waldhorn, Liz Smith, Roger Lloyd-Pack, John Bluthal, and Trevor Peacock are amongst the beloved cast members to have passed away since the show's release. Thinking of them, Armitage admits he feels that a return for the show shouldn't happen even if "there's been talk of it" because he thinks "we could not possibly do that show now without that cast."

He didn't unpack his suitcase when filming The Hobbit out of fear he'd be recast

Richard Armitage played Thorin in all three parts of Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy. (New Line/Alamy)
Richard Armitage played Thorin in all three parts of Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy. (New Line/Alamy)

The role that most people are likely to recognise Armitage from, and helped catapult his career to the starry lights of Hollywood, was that of dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield in The Hobbit trilogy. The films —which consist of An Unexpected Journey, The Desolation of Smaug and The Battle of the Five Armies— also marked Peter Jackson's welcome return to the world of Tolkien.

Armitage has a lot of love for the trilogy, calling it "the role of a lifetime" now as he reflects: "Arriving in New Zealand having begged my agent to get me on audition for Lord of the Rings and completely missing the boat, missing the boat again because The Hobbit was already cast and Guillermo del Toro was directing, and they'd cast somebody else — and then this strange thing happened where the film dropped back and then reemerged.

"And then it wasn't green lit and then I had to audition and I had a back injury, not in a million years did I think that I would get cast. And that conversation —and I remember exactly where I was— when my agent, both agents actually, took me out for dinner and sat down, and I could tell there was something going on and they said 'they'd like to offer you this role' and it took so long for it to sink in.

"What it was, I suppose, is I'd read this book when I was seven years old, I was approaching 40 [and] I got to New Zealand and I still was pinching myself, like I can't believe that this has happened to somebody like me. I can still feel that, that strange notion, it's like an out of body experience almost."

Character(s): Thorin Oakenshield, Bilbo Baggins 
11 December 2013 
Allstar Collection/NEW LINE CINEMA 
**WARNING** This photograph can only be reproduced by publications in conjunction with the promotion of the above film. A Mandatory Credit To NEW LINE CINEMA is Required. For Printed Editorial Use Only, NO online or internet use.
Richard Armitage was in such shock that he managed to get the role of Thorin Oakenshield when the part was recast that he didn't unpack his suitcase. (New Line Cinema)

The actor was in such disbelief about getting the role that he was certain he'd be recast: "I didn't unpack my suitcase cause I thought I was gonna get turned home, I thought they were gonna be like, 'We made a mistake, we're getting somebody else in.' But yeah that changed my life, really."

Jackson's return to the franchise after del Toro's exit was a big thing, but his approach to the new trilogy was different to his groundbreaking original films — for one thing, he decided to use green-screen, sound stages and VFX rather than prosthetics and real-life locations like he did for The Lord of the Rings.

Armitage doesn't begrudge the director for doing that, remarking how Jackson "was so fascinated with technology and what was possible in a computer" that making The Hobbit trilogy in this way made sense. He admits: "I think he wanted this incredibly immersive experience, and he was experimenting.

"And actually there is a difference between the frame rate in the first movie and the second movie and it drops in and out of high frame rate according to where you're watching it, and all of this stuff that he's fascinated with. I was less fascinated with that, my job is to focus on performance.

The Middle Earth dwarves assembled for <i>The Hobbit</i> (WB)
Armitage has a lot of love for the trilogy, he says that he 'would define that as the role of a lifetime' now. (New Line Cinema)

"But what was really interesting was even when we were working [with] a completely green screen, walls, floor, ceiling, no props, he was able to come in and just describe exactly what you were seeing without even showing like a pre-vis. He would just say. 'OK, this is the scenario' and he's got a storyteller brain. So I saw everything that he was describing and actually those moments were pretty, pretty good."

While he looks back at the films fondly, his co-star John Callen —who played Oin— previously said that the cast playing the dwarves became the "world's highest paid extras" over the course of the making of them. Armitage admits he doesn't see the experience the same way, saying: "I think I probably had a different experience. I think I was really focusing on what was there rather than what wasn't there, that tends to be me anyway.

"I tend to look at what I've got, not what I had hoped for, but I think Thorin was very well served in both the book and the movie. It was a tall order for quite a short person."

He would love to see Hannibal return

Richard Armitage played Francis Dolarhyde in Hannibal, a show whose fanbase continue to call for its return more than ten years after its cancellation. (NBC)

Sometimes shows overstay their welcome, and then there are some shows that are taken away too soon. Hannibal is widely seen as one of those shows that falls into the latter category, with Bryan Fuller's gory, outlandish prequel to the iconic Thomas Harris story still being heralded by fans almost a decade after it was cancelled.

Lead stars Mads Mikkelsen and Hugh Dancy have often said they'd return to their roles as Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham, and Armitage feels "absolutely" the same following his appearance in season 3 as Francis Dolarhyde.

"Weirdly, I saw Bryan Fuller recently in in Los Angeles," he shares. "He's another one of those brilliant creative geniuses, and in a way I think the show he created for NBC was probably on the wrong platform. Had that been on a streaming platform it may have gone on and on.

"I don't think they have the rights to Clarice Starling, but that's possibly why it didn't go further. It was very provocative for NBC, but a work of art, [an] absolute work of art. Every detail that you're watching in that show has been curated and decided by Bryan, and I'd love to see it return."

Why he's Harlan Coben 'lucky' charm

Richard Armitage, Michelle Keegan in Fool Me Once (Netflix)
Since 2020 Richard Armitage has starred in Netflix's Harlan Coben's shows, the latest saw him star opposite Michelle Keegan in Fool Me Once. (Netflix)

Armitage has followed his success in The Hobbit with a number of interesting projects, the most notable is his regular collaboration with Harlan Coben. The author's crime novels are being adapted for Netflix, with three released thus far —The Stranger, Stay Close, and Fool Me Once— and a third on the way, titled Missing You.

The actor has appeared in every production, and will return again for Missing You, because he finds Coben a "prolific" auteur. He jokes that he has become the "lucky pants" of the Netflix franchise, so they can't make one without him.

"He really cares about the adaptation, but at the same time he's not precious about what it becomes away from the book," Armitage says of Coben.

mini serie TV creee par Harlan Coben
episode 5
Richard Armitage.
d'apres le roman de Harlan Coben
based on the novel
The actor has appeared in every production, and will return again for Missing You, He jokes that he has become the 'lucky pants' of the Netflix franchise. (Netflix)

"He's really good at storytelling and I love a hook. I love a hook and a twist, love what he does with technology. He's always suggesting that we have to be very careful of our digital fingerprints everywhere because it is the bread crumbs that leads to your downfall.

"I love the fact that the fourth time around and [I'm] playing a completely different character. So I feel like I'm part of a repertory ensemble, where I just get to play different people, and they're just friends now and brilliant, brilliant creatives."

Armitage jokes that every time he's returned to Coben's world he feels he needs to. "wear glasses, have a limp, do an accent" in order to differentiate his characters, but soon realised that wasn't needed: "I start with all of that and then just get rid of that idea of having to disguise yourself and just focus on who the character is, what they do and what their function is in the story.

THE STRANGER, Richard Armitage, (Season 1, aired January 30, 2020). photo: ©Netflix / Courtesy Everett Collection
Richard Armitage, pictured in The Stranger, said: 'I think if people are rolling their eyes and going 'oh God not him again', then then they'll stop hiring me'. (Netflix)

"It's the same face, it is the same voice, that's me. But I think if people are rolling their eyes and going 'oh God not him again', then then they'll stop hiring me but I would say to Nicola Schindler [an executive producer on all Coben's TV adaptations] that I'm the lucky pants.

"I feel like I'm their lucky underpants now, so they they won't do one without me."

Teasing what is to come in Missing You, Armitage shared: "I'm playing a DCI... it's a slightly more inverted character than the former ones because we're very, very unsure of his motives at the beginning.

"So the essence of him is nefarious but, actually, he's holding on to a secret which has a noble cause. That's not giving away too much."

Red Eye felt like a return to Spooks





Pictured:JING LUSI as DC Hana Li and RICHARD ARMITAGE as DR Matthew Nolan.

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Richard Armitage's next role is in ITV's crime thriller Red Eye. (ITV)

Armitage's newest series is Red Eye, an ITV thriller where he plays a doctor, Matthew Nolan, who is accused of murdering a woman in Beijing. Nolan professes his innocence even if his memory is hazy of the night of the murder, but is being extradited back to China to face justice with DC Hana Li (Jing Lusi) tasked with bringing him there — but the real question is will they even survive the flight?

Nolan is a difficult character to pin down, he's not easy to read and viewers will be querying whether he is innocent or guilty throughout the show, it proved an interesting challenge to Armitage who said it "reminded [him] of Spooks".

"I feel like most of the characters I've played, if they're not morally grey they'll find some grey area, because I think that's the most interesting part of the character," he says of Nolan. "When you're very unsure of 'should I trust them? Should I trust them by default?' We should trust Matthew Nolan because he's a doctor, he's taken the Hippocratic Oath, he's a person who saves lives he doesn't kill people and then run away from the scene of the crime.

"But there's this blackout on the night that it happened so, in himself, he's unsure of what really happened and starts to doubt himself. Through the course of the story, he even starts to doubt whether what they're saying about him is true and he doesn't know what his role is in this this political game."

Red Eye (ITV)
The actor stars opposite Jing Lusi in Red Eye, a thriller about a man who is being extradited to face justice for a crime he says he didn't commit. (ITV)

Armitage speaks fondly of his costar, Lusi, who he says has "a great energy" and love of "talking about the script, about the story", which he appreciated.

"She's got a really interesting sense of humour, she had to sort of put all of that away for the character but I knew it was there," he reflects. "So part of my enjoyment was seeing those cracks in her steely facade, and we had real fun doing it. She works really hard and she wanted it to be great."

What was most fun, though, was filming on the airplane, which was recreated in intricate detail to make the cast feel like they were actually in one. Rather than feel cabin fever in a closed environment like that the actors, Armitage included, couldn't get enough of it: "You can't get off, you can't shout, you can't run, any sort of physical fight had to be very contained.

"Matthew's in handcuffs, the moment those handcuffs were off there was this exhale from me and the character, and then the story escalates and gets tighter and hotter the further down the plane we got — into the undercarriage, into the cargo hold, into the cockpit. It's this whole circle and we shot in order so it was really exciting."

Red Eye premieres on ITV1 and ITVX on Sunday, 21 April at 9pm.

Watch the trailer for Red Eye: