Richard Armitage at the 2016 Television Critics Association press tour for “Berlin Station”
Armitage reminisces on his past thriller roles, details how he prepared to become Daniel Miller, and shares what it’s like to be working in Germany.
By Abbie Bernstein
Episode 101: Richard Armitage stars as Daniel Miller in the EPIX Original series Berlin Station. Photo Credit: Stephanie Kulbach for EPIX/Paramount.
Richard Armitage is an actor who has a lot of fans that have been looking forward to seeing his face. EPIX’s new espionage thriller BERLIN STATION, created by Olen Steinhauer, obliges them. Armitage stars in the series (the first season is ten episodes, which air on EPIX Sunday nights; it has been renewed for a second) as American CIA agent Daniel Miller, who is dealing with deadly intrigue both outside and inside the Agency’s German office.
Armitage, born in Leicester, England, has worked in the spy genre before, appearing in the BBC’s MI:5 and co-starring in the 2010 season of the action-oriented STRIKE BACK. Armitage also costarred as Guy of Gisborne in the BBC’s 2006-2009 ROBIN HOOD and played John Thornton in the British miniseries NORTH AND SOUTH (not to be confused with the American Civil War drama of the same name). He also plays Heinz Kruger in CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER.
However, Armitage is perhaps best known for playing the dwarf prince Thorin Oakenshield in the trilogy of THE HOBBIT films. Thorin goes from determined leader to maddened despot to repentant martyr. The three films together took two-and-a-half years to shoot in New Zealand; Armitage is covered in prosthetic makeup for the duration. The actor also wore prosthetics, albeit not such extensive ones for his half-season role as serial killer Francis Dolarhyde in HANNIBAL and again as King Oleron in ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS.
Catching up with Armitage at the summer 2016 Television Critics Association press tour at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, it seems reasonable to ask him if, when BERLIN STATION came along, he was looking for a character that didn’t require extensive facial appliances.
“That was my main criteria – ‘Will there be any silicone stuck to my face?’” Armitage jokes in response. “And the answer was, ‘No.’ No, it was interesting. As soon as I finished THE HOBBIT, we went in search of a television show, because it’s the chance to develop a character over ten episodes and potentially five seasons. And I’ve been in Fantasyland, robotics, whatever it is. I just wanted something that felt very now, very political, very socially conscious. This script [for the BERLIN STATION pilot] landed about two-and-a-half years ago. And I loved it. I love this genre, and these are fascinating characters. Every single character that Olen created, they’re almost in their own little movie. Every time a new character comes on screen, you want to know about them and you want to follow them on their path.”
Episode 101: Richard Jenkins stars in the EPIX Original series Berlin Station. Photo Credit: Stephanie Kulbach for EPIX/Paramount.
In the opening episode, something happens to Daniel that suggests he might not make it for five years, but Armitage says,
“The thing is, when you make this kind of show, you piece it together in story order, but actually, the cards really get shuffled and laid down on the table in a different way in the editing room, and that’s what makes it exciting. Of course, there’s a timeline, and there are character developments, but I think really what they’ve done is create a dilemma at the beginning of the story, and then you’re going to slowly unfold and find out how we got to that point.”
Espionage, Armitage notes, has long been a topic he finds engaging.
“I did a TV show in the U.K. called SPOOKS, it was MI:5 here [in the U.S.]. And I did a lot of study for that. But this was different. This was about the CIA. And also the choice of setting it in Berlin, which was really the sort of front line of historic espionage. It’s right on the edge of the Iron Curtain through most of the post-war period, so I was just interested to see how that institution operates in today’s world, with today’s climate. And we’re talking about a situation with a cyber-hacker or a whistleblower. So to me, it felt immediate and very current. I wanted to see how ordinary people function in this circus. We’re here experiencing it now. It’s frightening, it’s frustrating, it’s infuriating, and it really swings you left and right. You’re like, ‘I don’t know which side of the fence I sit on.’”
Episode 102: Michelle Forbes stars as Valerie Edwards in the EPIX Original series Berlin Station. Photo Credit: Stephanie Kulbach for EPIX/Paramount
Is that ambivalence part of Daniel’s character?
“Yeah. And what was interesting approaching it as a European playing an American, because Daniel grew up in Berlin, so really, he had a European-style education until he was a teenager, so he found his patriotism, rather than it being instilled in him from birth. And I think that through the course of this journey, he questions his institution that he works for. He questions his government. And he questions his own patriotism, because he believes that there are cracks in the system that potentially could bring the whole thing tumbling down. And ultimately, you are one person, and you hang onto that patriotism, or you reject it. And when you reject it, you’re an island, you’re nobody without your country. And it’s thrown into question, for sure.”
Berlin was a new workplace for Armitage, although he’d previously visited the city on a press tour.
“But understanding that city and realizing that it was almost another character in the piece, and my view of that city changing from when I first arrived, it just sort of blew my mind. One of the things I appreciated about that as the backdrop for our show was that it has so many identities. It’s sort of the 1800s, it’s the 1920s, it’s the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, it’s now, it’s the future. So many pockets have so many different identities, and the way that it’s shot is, one minute, we’re in a 1950s movie, and then the next minute, we’re in a futuristic drama. I just love that kind of variety. And the way that the city moves as well – the trains, the trams, the bikes, the people – it has this fluidity, which is captured by [cinematographer] Hagen Bogdanski, and you can see why it was the hotbed of espionage, you can see why it was a place you could disappear.”
Episode 103: Leland Orser stars as Robert Kirsch in the EPIX Original series BERLIN STATION
Because the CIA still has a huge real-world presence in Berlin, did Armitage ever look around the city, wondering which individuals might be with the Agency?
“Yeah. And we went to the [American] embassy and we met a number of our counterparts. Of course, it was all very hush-hush, and we weren’t particularly probing, but it was interesting to see how they function there. And one of the other things about Berlin is the international presence. All of the embassies, all with amazing architecture that sort of identifies it – that alone – if you go to Berlin and just do an embassies tour, it’s fascinating. So we had some good times.”
In Berlin, Armitage observes,
“There’s a real ease, I feel. Maybe it’s just my perspective, but I feel like it’s a culture that really doesn’t patronize its citizens. It assumes they’re intelligent, and it lets them be smart people, so it doesn’t nanny them. I come from England, where we are heavily surveilled and they call us the ‘nanny state.’ Not so in Germany. And I think it makes people very tolerant and very open-minded.”
BERLIN STATION is a European/American co-production. Is that different than shooting a series that is purely English?
“Yeah. One of the other things I love about the show are the German dialogue scenes. We are so lucky that we got incredible European actors – German, Dutch, British – and the performances that they offer. Often, in shows like this, your guest artists somehow don’t always come up to the mark, but in this instance, all of them, they’re German movie stars in our TV show, and every time a German actor came onto set, it was like, ‘Oh, wow, the bar is really high.’ The quality of the artistry in Germany across the board, not just the acting, the art department, it blew my mind.”
Episode 104: Rhys Ifans stars as Hector DeJean in the EPIX Original series Berlin Station. Photo Credit: Stephanie Kulbach for EPIX/Paramount
Armitage had previously worked with BERLIN STATION costar Rhys Ifans, who plays very conflicted CIA. Hector DeJean. Both men had been in ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS, though Armitage says they might have had a hard time recognizing one another afterward.
“I saw him in one massive scene. I think it was in a cathedral. I caught him in a corner in a bright red wig, and sort of waved at him from afar. We didn’t know we were doing this at that point, but it was a little bit of a thumbs-up kind of moment. We’ve never worked together, apart from that.”
Originally, the Internet Movie Data Base had listed two different surnames for Daniel – Miller, which was used, and Maier, which was not. Armitage explains,
“Initially, there was a name choice which happened. I think they always have to name-check [to make sure they’re not using the name of a real person who could be confused with the character]. They said they couldn’t have this name. It was really kind of, ‘Oh, that’s quite shocking,’ because I’d done a lot of research on this surname, and researched where that name came from, so I had to bin [throw out] that. But they offered me three other names – ‘Which name do you prefer?’ Miller wasn’t the name, and I found it weirdly bland, but actually, I do quite like the fact that he’s had another surname in a past draft. I like the fact he’s sort of the gray man that is potentially not who you think he is. I use everything.”
Episode 101: Rhys Ifans and Richard Armitage star in the EPIX original series Berlin Station. Photo Credit: Stephanie Kulbach for EPIX/Paramount.
Armitage says that he’s created his own back story for Daniel.
“I had a lot of time to prepare, so I did a huge biography on him and pulled up all kinds of things that I shared with the writers and said, ‘Look, here you go, this is my work. We may use it now, we may use it in Season 6. Who knows?’ If we get to Season 6,” he adds with a laugh.
For those who’d like to see Armitage live on stage, he’s currently in New York at the Laura Pels Theatre in LOVE, LOVE, LOVE, which runs through December 18.
“It’s written by Mike Bartlett. He’s probably our most political, socially conscious playwright of now. And it’s about the baby boomer generation and the legacy they’ve left the Generation X children. It’s a black comedy, with Amy Ryan and Zoe Kazan.”
Does Armitage think he’ll ever take a part that requires prosthetics again?
“I think I shot two hundred and seventy days on THE HOBBIT in a full-face prosthetic, and the discomfort doesn’t bother me. The thing that does bother me is afterwards, when the material is out in the marketplace, people just don’t recognize you. I saw that as a good thing at one point, because I was like, ‘Great! Transformation! No one’s going to know that there’s an actor in there.’ And I saw it as a good thing, but actually, it can be kind of an inhibitor, I’d say,” he laughs, “because people are like, ‘What do you really look like? Are you tiny? Do you have a massive nose and kind of ridiculous hair?’ So convincing them that I’m who I am has been challenging. This [playing Daniel in BERLIN STATION] is good. This is definitely more me.”
What would Armitage most like people to know about BERLIN STATION?
“I think we really throw down the gauntlet. It’s a smart television show, and you really have to have your brain switched on in order to watch it and follow it, and I hope people do.”