‘Hannibal’ Star Richard Armitage on the Horror and Innocence of the Red Dragon

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After seeing the first episode of your “Hannibal” arc, I was struck by how nonverbal your performance is at first.

It’s very interesting. I guess I’d forgotten, having played the entirety of the role now, that episode eight is really a silent movie for Dolarhyde. I feel like he’s kind of in a silent world of isolation in himself, despite the business of his mind and the voices in his head. It’s partly to do with the fact that he lives in such an isolated world, but it’s also to do with the restrictions he has of his own speech and his reluctance to speak. That’s something which is very pointed in Thomas Harris’s writing. When Francis does speak, it’s very well chosen. He avoids certain words, and that was interesting to take a look at it.

When you did start to get into the speaking parts of the role, how did you cultivate his voice, especially with his cleft palate?

I looked at what Harris had written. This is a guy who had cleft palate surgery very late in life. It’s normally tackled quite young in life so that speech can deliver normally, but his grandmother cruelly prevented that from happening and wouldn’t let him do it until he could pay for it himself, so it happened late in life. I looked at a lot of footage of people in speech therapy. Often it’s young people because that’s when they’re going through this. There was one particular young girl that I studied who, every time the sounds came out wrong, she would flinch at herself. It just stuck with me, so I studied that.

I also worked with this little piece of plastic on the roof of my mouth, which enabled me to speak quickly but at the same time not avoid the little tics that happen in cases of a cleft palate, so that was there all the way through. It comes and goes all the way through according to his anxiety. It’s a little like a stutter, the more anxious and restricted he became, the more pronounced the speech inhibition was. That was a little journey all on its own.

You mentioned how you observed children going through speech therapy. There’s a very pronounced sense of arrested development with Francis. Is this something that you integrated into the performance as well?

Yes. I feel like there was a point in his childhood where he experienced extreme trauma, and it’s almost as if he mentally got stuck in that place even though he grew into a man. His mind was stuck in the past, and it’s not that he’s retarded in any way, it’s that his choices are being made through the mind and body of a man, but he’s still stuck in a moment of childhood trauma. So there were certain aspects of his appearance that I wanted to be childlike. I wanted him to be very clean-shaven, I wanted him to have very little self-awareness of his masculinity, I wanted him to just have a very limited exposure to any kind of romance or sexual experience because he is a kind of an innocent, despite the terrible things he’s done. His life experience is actually very limited, so those were just smaller elements of the larger tapestry that’s the character.

When Francis is interacting with Reba, how did you and Rutina Wesley work out the awkwardness and then the eventual comfort between the two?

It’s something we didn’t really study too much. It sort of happened naturally because by the time Rutina arrived on set, Francis was physically established and he hadn’t really spoken. I was dealing with finding the confidence to speak in front of somebody, and she was dealing with the portrayal of a blind person. So we were both in our places of study, I suppose. In terms of character, the fact that Reba is blind and Francis is able to exist in front of her in a way that he can’t in front of anybody else because she can’t see him. She can’t see what he perceives as his physical deformity. In a way, that’s one barrier down. He can start to take care of her. He can start to look at her as somebody that is potentially in need of his assistance, and that’s very unique and unusual for him.

How did the opportunity to play this part come about? It seemed like an unexpected choice.

(laughs) It wasn’t an expected choice for me, either. It came quite quickly. Early in January, I got into a conversation with Bryan Fuller, and he sent me the script. It happened fairly quickly. I was very inspired by what he had written, and I was inspired by his empathy for the character. He didn’t want to just portray this character as someone that was mentally ill or a monster. He was interested in exploring a very rounded human being who had trodden a dark path and had made choices, probably subconsciously, that led him to commit appalling atrocities. For me, that was a fascinating study.

I’d also been watching “The Jinx” on HBO, so I had a sense of that idea of somebody that, as you get to know them, you empathize with them and you see parts of their childhood that you think, “I can understand where you’ve gotten to in your life. I’m still appalled by what you’ve done, but at the same time I don’t condemn you as a man. I condemn you as a monster and a criminal.” That to me was an interesting exploration.

What was the most disturbing thing you found yourself doing as Francis?

The most disturbing scene I had … there’s a scene in episode nine where Francis is re-watching some of the film footage of the crimes he’s committed. I assumed I would be watching just a flickering light, and actually they managed to set up some of the shots of the crime scene. Actually seeing that for the first time was really, really shocking, and to see the pieces of mirror that had been placed on the eyes and the mouth, knowing what I knew about the story and having read the book, I don’t know whether I saw more than was actually there. But it was really frightening for me to be inside Dolarhyde, being frightened and appalled by his own work, I suppose you would call it. That was quite an uncomfortable day, to watch that.

With that in mind, would you ever want to play a character like this again?

I guess if it were handled with the same dexterity that this one has been, I would. I think getting into the habit of playing such dark characters is probably not so advisable. When people associate you with these people, it’s not necessarily a good thing. There’s already huge judgment out there, before anyone has seen any footage of this, about, “Why are you glamorizing violence in this way?” For that reason alone, it’s worth playing because you kind of have to say it’s not about entertainment, this is about investigating character and trying to understand why people do these things in a crime story. It would have to be thoroughly fleshed out, and the reason this is successful is because Thomas Harris’s writing is so detailed and succinct and has really deep root in psychotherapy.

http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2015/07/24/hannibal-star-richard-armitage-on-the-horror-and-innocence-of-the-red-dragon/

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