British actor Richard Armitage calls Francis Dolarhyde, the serial killer he portrays in the thriller series 'Hannibal,' a 'contained piece of work.' (Photo courtesy of AXN)

Richard Armitage Shifts From Dwarf Prince to Murderous Tooth Fairy

JULY 24, 2015

After his ventures in blockbuster movies such as “Captain America: The First Avenger” and “The Hobbit” trilogy, British actor Richard Armitage returns to the small screen in “Hannibal.”

The horror-thriller by Bryan Fuller is a critically acclaimed series stars Hugh Dancy, Mads Mikkelsen and Gillian Anderson and is now in the second half of its third season on AXN in Asia, where each new episode is shown within 12 hours of its US telecast. Starting this weekend, viewers and Fannibals, as fans of the series are known, will be able to enjoy Armitage’s performance as Francis Dolarhyde, a serial killer and the main antagonist in “Red Dragon” by Thomas Harris, the novel on which “Hannibal” is based.

Dolarhyde, also known as the Tooth Fairy for his tendency for biting his victims, was previously featured by Tom Noonan in the 1986 film “Manhunter” and by Ralph Fiennes in 2002’s “Red Dragon.” Armitage’s portrayal of the iconic murderer will be the first for the small screen, which allows a bigger space for the actor to interpret and experiment with the role.

Speaking by phone from Vancouver on Thursday, Armitage told the Jakarta Globe that playing Dolarhyde was an opportunity to explore something that he hasn’t done played before.

“Working on ‘The Hobbit’ was a very fulfilling collaborative experience, but it was very technical,” he said. “So after ‘The Hobbit’ ended I went in search of a character, I spent some time seeking out independent movies that were character driven.”

Armitage said he was a fan of Fuller and followed most of his television work, but found Dolarhyde, as part of the Red Dragon storyline in “Hannibal,” difficult to understand. He spent 10 days studying the novel and getting into physical shape, and was pleased to learn that Fuller intended to be faithful to the book.

“Dolarhyde is a man who was in great pain, who was experiencing love for the first time and having these confusing, terrible impulses to destroy families in order to empower himself,” he said. “As a person, I had empathy and sympathy for him, but I hated what he was doing to people, and I felt I wanted to condemn him.”

In the series, Dolarhyde describes himself as a fan of Hannibal Lecter’s (Mikkelsen) and is after the family of investigator Will Graham (Dancy). Armitage said the show would unveil a dangerous triangle between Lecter, Dolarhyde and Graham as they try to push and stop each other.

Armitage called Dolarhyde “a contained piece of work,” and said he was grateful for having six episodes in “Hannibal” to perform. In the original story, Dolarhyde refers to himself as “the dragon.” Harris says the character was inspired by William Blake’s painting “The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed With the Sun.”

“We get a chance to see him in the present day, struggling with speech impediment, falling in love, and see that love affair develop, and where he started to fight the metaphorical dragon inside himself,” Armitage said.

He called his first day on set as “a trial by snow,” because it was a winter night in Toronto, with the temperature a frosty -17 degrees Celsius. The scene being shot required him to be out in a garden, naked and covered in blood, and howling at the moon. There’s a glimpse of the scene in the trailer for the third season of “Hannibal,” which Armitage said took a lot of courage to stand up in front of the crew without any clothes on.

“I had a number of scenes where I was playing a blossoming love affair with Reba McClane [played by Rutina Wesley], so those days were very good,” he said.

“And then there were some days where what was happening on set was uncomfortable, so I go home and wind down in different ways, but the crew are very kind and supportive and try to make it not too gruesome.”

Even though Dolarhyde is a very consuming character, Armitage said he was glad he had a chance to film his favorite scene from the novel.

“It’s where the dragon and Francis are separated in his mind, it’s a kind of schizophrenia, and the dragon attacks Francis and rips off the flesh of his back,” he said.

“I was excited to try and find out how it would be possible to even play that scene where you are arguing and fighting with yourself.”

For Armitage, “Hannibal” marks a return to television, the medium through which his career hit the big time. Originally a stage actor in the great British tradition, Armitage first made it big on the UK TV series “Spooks” in 2008. Now 43, he said the difference between British and US TV shows was mainly in the scale of the production design.

To be able to channel Dolarhyde, Armitage adopted an American dialect for the entire duration of filming, including in between takes and off the set.

“Shifting out of the speech impediment was quite difficult, so in that respect, it really enabled me to live in the world of Francis Dolarhyde,” he said.

Armitage’s post-“Hannibal” work includes the period thriller “Pilgrimage,” a feature film shot in Belgium and Ireland, and the currently in-production “Brain on Fire,” the real-life story of a girl with a rare brain disease, being shot in Vancouver.

“At the moment I am playing a very loving, kind person, a real family man who is fighting very hard to save his daughter’s life, so in a way that’s nice antidote to Francis Dolarhyde, who is a very destructive character,” he said.

“Hannibal” airs on Sundays at 9 p.m. Jakarta time on AXN.