Set in Ireland in 1209, Pilgrimage follows a small group of monks, including a novice (Tom Holland) and a mute (Jon Bernthal), as they begin a pilgrimage across landscape that has endured centuries of warfare. As they escort their monastery’s holiest relic to Rome, they quickly realize just how dangerous their journey is when they cross paths with Sir Raymond de Merville (Richard Armitage), whose primary motive is to steal the relic on behalf of his family.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, British actor Richard Armitage talked about the appeal of Pilgrimage, the challenge of doing some of the role in French, understanding such a difficult and ambitious character, why religion is such an endlessly fascinating theme that’s explored in movies, having such terrific co-stars to work with, and pulling off something with such an epic look and feel on a much lower budget. He also talked about how much he enjoyed voicing the character of Trevor Belmont for the animated series Castlevania, what fans can expect from Season 2 of Berlin Station (returning to Epix on October 15th), and his experience working with the fantastic cast of Ocean’s Eight.
Collider: You do really remarkable work in this film, playing someone so intensely ambitious, as well as doing some of the role in French. What was the appeal of Pilgrimage, for you?
RICHARD ARMITAGE: One of the things that really attracted me to the piece was to do a European movie with multiple languages. I spoke to (director) Brendan [Muldowney], at the beginning, and I said, “Will this language thing throw away?” And he said, “No, I want all of these different languages to show what that period of time was like in Ireland.” So, the challenge of speaking a foreign language, for my character, was really fascinating.
When you play a character like this, do you look for ways you can identify with him or find things that you like about him, or is it more important just to understand why he says and does the things he does?
ARMITAGE: It’s interesting, it’s a bit of both. I think understanding or comprehension is probably the strongest emotion that you feel, or at least some kind of empathy. I didn’t necessarily like him, but I found certain aspects of his personality likeable. I understood his ambitious drive and the wanting to hold onto his family’s footing because of the decline of his father. Maybe it’s a very male thing, especially in that period of time in a paternal society where, if he doesn’t pick up his father’s mantle, what is he then? He kills the family name. I related to that, in a way.
It’s admirable to be driven, but this guys is a little bit too driven, in a way that’s very scary.
ARMITAGE: Yeah, and also the one thing that I didn’t want to underestimate was that, in that period of time, the Normans were part of a big war machine and he would have been raised in that kind of culture. He would have always been at war and he would have been trained for battle. For him, his normality was violence and dominating his position in society through violence. For him, a day at the office is to fight.
Why do you think religion is both a common theme and an endlessly fascinating theme in movies, no matter the time period the story is set in?
ARMITAGE: It’s interesting ‘cause I just stumbled on a piece asking exactly the same question. I think because we can’t quite comprehend. You can have your beliefs, but if you’re not devout, you can’t quite believe that something which grows out of a story, a book or a piece of literature can rise to dominate and make entire nations go to war with each other. I think that’s endlessly fascinating, and it’s a human construct. It’s something that’s constructed to occupy the mind and occupy society, and some people would say to control society. That was very much the case in this story, but we can also see that today. I think that’s one of the reasons we relate to it. I would describe Raymond as an extremist, which is a hot word, but he is. He’s prepared to kill and slaughter and commit genocide to push forward his religious agenda.
This story not only deals with faith, but also with the strength of conviction for that faith, as these men protect and fight over a revered relic that seems to just be a lump of rock.
ARMITAGE: I feel like you’ve absolutely hit the nail on the head of it. I’ve been trying to explain the kind of endowment we all give to this piece of stone. Without alienating people that have strong religious beliefs, we endow something, whether it’s a book or a wafer in Communion or the wine that you drink, with power, which is coming out of the human mind. We give it that power and relevance. In a way, that’s the whole point of the movie. We see this stone and we know where it came from, and the journey of that relic is as important as any of these characters. You realize that they’ve given power to this thing and it’s costing people their lives, but it’s just this stone.
Do you think this man would view himself as the hero of his own story?
ARMITAGE: Yeah, absolutely! I feel like he views himself as the champion who is going to bring that family’s presence in front of the king and present him with this relic. He’s going to lead an army into the next Crusade. That’s part of what he talks about, with redemption and salvation coming through heroic acts in war. I think he sees his trajectory as that and he can almost visualize himself having his army in the holy land, and yet he’s living in his head. That’s why I would call him an extremist or a fanaticist.
What was it like to have Jon Bernthal and Tom Holland to interact with, in some of these really intense moments?
ARMITAGE: It’s one of those things where sometimes you have to have long conversations with the other actors, where you have to figure out what you’re going to do. With both Tom and Jon, there really wasn’t any conversation needed. We all really understood the commitment from each other. It’s interesting because Tom was up and coming, at that point. He still is up and coming, but it was before he got Spider-Man. But, he was so committed to the truth of the role. And Jon spent the entire movie without any speech at all, but he was saying so much in every scene. I found it fascinating to just look in Jon’s eyes and know what he was thinking. It was almost like telepathy, which was slightly unnerving, and I used that for Raymond. It infuriated me. I just wanted to know, “What are you not telling me? What are you not saying?” It was brilliant. All of the cast, and all of our amazing Irish cast, was great. There was not a great deal of intellectual analysis. It was a very instinctive thing.
This movie seems so epic, but it was done on a much lower budget than it looks like it was. Was this a daunting shooting schedule?
ARMITAGE: I think it was something like 23 days. We all arrived in Ireland, and the trailers were really shabby and the costumes were pulled together from pieces. The costume designer did an amazing job, sewing things with her own hands. I love the fact that the movie looks so much bigger than the money that was spent on it. That’s a real testament to Brendan Muldowney’s genius, some incredible camera work, and the Irish landscapes. You can never underestimate that.
Was there one thing that you found most challenging about this project and playing this character, or was it the whole of it that was challenging?
ARMITAGE: The biggest challenge, and the thing that I was most excited about, was speaking French as though it was my first language, amongst other French speakers. I really needed to pass as a Frenchman. It was a lot of work and a lot of listening and some work in post-production. That, to me, was the biggest challenge.
You work in theater, television and film, and you’ve been in some very large movies, in size and scope, but you’ve said that you particularly enjoy working in relatively low-budget independent features because you get to stretch yourself and you can experiment in them. Have you always felt that way, or is that’s something that’s evolved, the more that you’ve worked and found what you feel best suited for?
ARMITAGE: I think it’s a combination of both. A lot of my taste, as an audience member has developed not necessarily through the big blockbusters that I’ve seen, but the slightly more obscure movies that I’ve discovered in art cinemas. Some of my favorite movies are European movies that not many people have necessarily seen, but they just stay with me. You’re not drawn by a mega-star in a leading role. You’re drawn by the subject of the film, and then you see incredible performances from people that you may not have seen before. I’ve always looked at those projects as something to aspire to, creatively and artistically, but I’m lucky that I get to play in so many different places. I never underestimate what it’s done for my career to have been in a blockbuster like The Hobbit, but I do love to stretch. When a movie has a limited budget, it does force the writing into a much more creative place and you have to work at such speed that you make fast choices. Sometimes that can be really exciting.