Richard Armitage on I Am Urban, ITV thriller Red Eye and Harlan Coben
The actor talks exclusively to RadioTimes.com to mark the digital release of film I Am Urban – which was filmed almost a decade ago.
Normally when an actor is promoting their latest project, the shoot is still relatively fresh in the memory – even in cases where there have been a few post-production delays. But when Richard Armitage speaks exclusively with RadioTimes.com, it's been almost a decade since he wrapped filming on the Leeds-set drama I Am Urban, which has just been made available for digital download.
In most cases, this might make it rather difficult for the actor to clearly recall his experiences on set, but as Armitage explains, that is not true of this particular film.
"In general, I don't watch many of my projects after I've filmed them," he says. "So it's normally quite helpful to talk about it sooner rather than later. [But] strangely, I think this project sort of had an indelible quality on my memory, because it's as if we filmed it yesterday, to be honest."
Speaking to Armitage, it quickly becomes clear why I Am Urban might have crystallised in his consciousness more than most projects. Although relatively few people have seen the film between its completion in 2015 and now, it did have a couple of festival screenings shortly after it was finished – and one viewer who was especially moved by seeing it back then was Armitage's late father John.
"My father's roots [are in] Leeds and his experience growing up in... I wouldn't say in poverty, but he was definitely at that sort of lower end of the working classes," he says. "And actually, he came to that screening in Leeds and was really moved by the piece and would constantly ask me, 'Where's that film? Where's that Urban film?' I think it had a big effect on him. And I think I was quite surprised by that."
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He continues: "He's not with us anymore. But you know, I struggled all of my life to get any reaction out of my dad for any of the work that I did, because he was sort of not fazed by it at all, it was like, sort of shaking him to sort of say, 'Are you proud of me?' It was like getting blood out of a stone.
"But this one film, he just would not shut up about. And I just realised that something in this film really touched him. And I could never quite work out what it was. But it just had a profound effect on him. And I just think if it cracked him, then it will do the same for other people."
I Am Urban is based on Bernard Hare’s 2005 memoir Urban Grimshaw and the Shed Crew, which chronicles an ex-social worker's experiences caring for a group of poverty-stricken teenagers who had been left to fend for themselves. Armitage notes that there is "a kind of Ken Loach tone" to the drama, and says he was initially drawn to the project due to a desire to tell the true story of a man making a positive difference in the lives of overlooked people.
"It's based on a memoir of a man who offered these people who often get sort of forgotten by society something very, very monumental," he explains. "And in this case, it's a social worker with problems of his own, but he's given this sort of safe haven to really disadvantaged kids and created a safety net for them. It's kind of remarkable story in that respect."
Although the film is set in the post-Thatcherite early '90s and was filmed nine years ago, many of the issues it explores are still painfully relevant – and indeed, Armitage reckons things might even be worse in the present day.
He notes that we're not "in the best of places with regards to disadvantaged children that slip through the net" and explains that his cousin's husband, a police officer in Leeds who was also at the aforementioned 2015 screening, has pointed out that many of the areas featured in the film are still very much facing an uphill battle.
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But he hopes viewers can find a ray of positivity in the film, rather than it simply shining a spotlight on suffering.
"I suppose it is a story of hope because you see what Bernard Hare does for them," he says. "He created this family where there was none. And they weren't his children, but they became his family. And he taught them how to read, and he taught them how to write and gave them a place to sort of gather and feel like they were safe, so it's kind of remarkable.
"Something we talked about early on is that, you know... it was really important to sort of not just focus on the misery but to focus on the good things that happened and the positive outcomes and how they thrived as people because of him. Because I do think it's important... to just sort of highlight the misery is a documentary rather than a movie."
Of course, it's one thing for Armitage to have had to wait so long for a digital release for the film, but for the young actors who play the disadvantaged kids, it must be an even stranger experience. Fraser Kelly, who plays the role of Urban, gives an excellent performance, and Armitage – who says he has reconnected with Kelly over social media in the years since production – is glad that turn will now finally be seen.
"He's sort of the jewel in the centre of the film really," he says. "His spirit and his commitment to that role was amazing, he's a great kid. And I am glad that the film is finally being seen, because it really should have been a raft to launch his career."
Meanwhile, one young actor in the film who has gone on to bigger things is Charlie Heaton, who plays Urban's older brother Frank. Heaton is now globally known for his role as Jonathan Byers in Netflix's mega-hit sci-fi series Stranger Things, but Armitage says that at the time he wasn't even sure if he was going to follow the acting path.
"I remember talking to him, and he was like, I'm not sure whether I want to be an actor or musician," he says. "And then I saw him play the scene where we find him in this sort of drugs den. And after the scene, I was like, 'You're an actor mate. Don't even think about it.' And I'm so glad to see his career thrive with Stranger Things and things like that."
Throughout his career, Armitage has starred in both massive blockbusters such as The Hobbit movies and more independent fare like this one, and he says that while lower-budget films can bring obstacles – and often a wish for more resources – there are parts of this process he finds very rewarding.
"I think for something like this that really worked," he says. "So some of the locations that we were shooting, we weren't making a big fuss over making a movie because that can remove the reality of where you are. We were able to be a little bit more guerrilla in terms of the filming and I like that aspect of it because you really feel like you're experiencing the community as it is."
Next up for Armitage is something a little different: an ITV thriller titled Red Eye which also stars Leslie Sharp and Jing Lusi and should be arriving at some point this Spring. The experience of working on the six-parter was "brilliant", Armitage says, and he also notes some similarities with one of his most well-known previous projects.
"It's about a doctor who's arrested on a return flight from China and put back on the flight because he is accused of killing someone in a car crash," he explains. "But what happens on that return flight is terrifying. It's a little bit like And Then There Were None but set on an aeroplane [and] it's just sort of return in a way to that sort of political espionage that I love, that we did with Spooks. It's elements of that in it."
Armitage has also been seen in several hugely successful Harlan Coben Netflix thrillers in recent years – including a small but vital role in the author's latest series Fool Me Once – and with at least two more series already confirmed, he's keen to return for more in the future.
“I would go back in a heartbeat," he says. "I love it, [and] Harlan Coben has kind of become a mate now. He actually lives down the road from me, we hook up occasionally [and] he interviewed me for my book release in the US. And so it's almost like this relationship that we've built from working together.
"And I just love what he does," he continues. "Every time there's a new book out, you kind of devour it over a weekend because you can't put them down and I feel like the shows are the same. They've just found this sweet spot of New Year's Day when everyone's a bit hungover or a bit tired from the night before [and] you just think 'What are we going to do? Let's just boxset the next Harlan Coben'.
"It's such a great team up in Manchester and I remember finishing The Stranger and wishing we could do a second series. But you know, they're standalone stories. But I've been lucky enough to go back and do three of them."
And Coben's influence on Armitage stretches beyond the series they've worked on together. In addition to starring in several TV shows – including another project that he "can't quite tell you about yet" – and having ambitions to get back into theatre work, one of the things occupying much of Armitage's time right now is his newfound passion for writing, which he calls a "whole new avenue of creativity."
He is in the final editing stage of his second novel – which he says has a very different tone to his debut – and is also working with Sony on a screen adaptation of his first novel, Geneva. Armitage won't be adapting the screenplay himself, as he wants to find a writer who "will challenge me and tell me what I've missed and what things I got wrong", but he thinks the project is very well-suited to the current moment.
"One of the subjects is a neural implant and then you read the news and Elon Musk is raising hands going, 'We've done it, the first neural implant has gone into somebody's head! And you think, wow, there's a Zeitgeist here that I don't want to miss."
Still, as exciting as working on his own ideas and projects has clearly been for Armitage, he points out that it does come with a greater degree of risk than his acting work.
"If the project that you've acted in turns out to be a dud, you can always put your hands up and go, 'Well, I didn't write it. Not my fault,'" he says. "But when you've written it and you can't, there's no way to hide."
"But I quite like that as well, because you get to be the architect. And it's something that I wanted to do, not from any sort of narcissism, but just because I've kind of got a brain that's exploding with ideas, and I want to sort of put them all into action.
"So it's been very satisfying. [And] all of the tools that I picked up along the way of working with people like Harlan and Nicola Shindler on long-form television, of just understanding structure and pacing, and how to keep your listener or your reader engaged, has been a big learning curve for me."