It's hard to believe that Netflix nail-biter The Stranger only came out last year. The first collaboration between Harlan Coben and Richard Armitage dropped on the streaming service at the tail-end of January 2020, making a big splash upon its initial launch and no doubt picking up some extra viewers as the nation gradually retreated indoors. Fans were quick to demand a direct follow-up, which sadly never materialised, but a spiritual successor arrives on New Year's Eve in the form of Stay Close.
"I would love to have gone back to do season two, but it was a closed story," Armitage tells RadioTimes.com. "So when the opportunity came to do another one with the same team, same writer – different cast, obviously – it was a no brainer. I said 'yes' immediately and then started reading the book, and just thought, 'here we go again'. It's a complete page-turner."
Both stories involve an individual's seemingly perfect life being thrown into chaos by buried secrets, but Cush Jumbo (The Beast Must Die) portrays the polished middle-class suburbanite this time around. That side of Armitage has been firmly locked away as he inhabits the role of dishevelled photographer Ray Levine, whose once-promising life was reduced to shambles following a devastating trauma 17 years ago, from which he has never recovered.
"It's where me and the character are so poles apart, because actually I move on from things really quickly," the North & South star reveals. "I can pick myself up, compartmentalise it and move on. I mean, you do that all the time as an actor. When you're faced with massive disappointments when you don't get work, you just forget about it and you find yourself in a forward trajectory. But Ray hasn't been able to do that."
Armitage attributes this stagnation to the memory problems Ray has experienced since that fateful night and the fact that he has nobody "to guide him" through the recovery process. His understanding of the character is clear and confident, having carried out exhaustive research in preparation for Stay Close, creating a "rich" biography for Ray that extends far beyond what is laid out in the source material. Not only did this inform his performance, but it also proved an invaluable resource when it came to crafting the look of certain scenes.
"The production designer would email me and say, 'what do you think Ray's flat looks like? What kind of things does he have?' And of course, I had the answers, because I'd done a lot of the background work," he explains. "So when I got to set, it's almost like nothing needed to be touched, it was so perfect down to the half-finished Pot Noodles on the couch and the cheap white bread that he was eating... In-between takes, I would just flop down on the couch as if it was my apartment because it felt so right, which I just love."
The disparity between Ray and The Stranger's Adam Price is quite deliberate, as the team at Red Production Company were keen to win Armitage back, but "concerned" he would feel the material was "too close" in style and tone. The actor speaks highly of his collaborators there, including founder Nicola Shindler, describing them as "good friends" that he hopes to work with again, but adds the caveat that their next project is unlikely to be yet another Harlan Coben adaptation.
"I'm always looking to do something radically different to what I've done before," he begins. "I'd be really surprised, [as] much as I like Harlan and how much he likes me, I think it would be pushing our luck to do a third. But never say never."
Netflix has certainly invested heavily in the mystery author, brokering a deal in 2018 that will see up to 14 of his novels turned into streaming shows or films over the next few years. So far, these adaptations have been spread across Europe, with productions setting up shop in the UK, Poland, Spain and France, despite most of the books being set around the United States. Armitage credits Coben's understanding of human behaviour for why these stories have resonated so strongly all over the globe, while he also hails Netflix for bringing the consumption of international content into the mainstream.
"These shows are not curated specifically for Spain or for Eastern Europe [or] whatever it is... they're not embargoed," he continues. "Sometimes in the past you'd think, 'well, that's never going to work in America, so we won't sell it to America'. With Netflix, anything goes anywhere. So we're watching stuff from all over the world and whether it's got subtitles or not, I think people are just fascinated with how it works.
"It makes it more interesting if it's not in your language. [When] I watched Money Heist, Netflix dubbed it for me by default, and I spent a day looking for how to watch it in the original language... because the voice is so connected to the person. I've got great people that dub me all over the world, but I want to hear the actor's real voice. I don't want to hear another actor voicing their words in English; it's like you're removing such a huge chunk of the character, particularly in high drama."
Armitage himself has been part of this global push. Not only has he just finished work on a Spanish film, but earlier this year he appeared in South Korean blockbuster Space Sweepers, which landed on Netflix seven months before Squid Game brought increased attention to the country's cultural output. It's the latest in a long line of genre work, having previously played Marvel's Wolverine in two audio dramas, as well as bagging key roles in animated fantasy series Castlevania, psychological horror Hannibal, and Peter Jackson's The Hobbit trilogy.
"As a teenager, I was really into fantasy, magic, and then science fiction, so the Tolkien world, the CS Lewis world, [and] then sort of moved into Isaac Asimov and the early science fiction writers," he recalls. "So when my agent came to me and said, 'Look, they're scouting the world for the cast of The Hobbit', I was immediately engaged because I knew those books, I knew the world and I was almost salivating.
"So when somebody comes to me with a brilliant science fiction script, like Space Sweepers, I'm immediately transported and my brain goes into that place. It doesn't necessarily put you in line for any awards or anything like that, because they're often sidelined in terms of critical acclaim. But in terms of an audience and a practitioner, I love it, so I dive straight in... The whole green screen thing doesn't bother me, because my brain is so full of the imagery anyway, I can project myself into that world."
Armitage agrees that sci-fi and fantasy is deserving of more recognition on the awards circuit, naming The Hobbit co-star Andy Serkis as someone who "should have won an Oscar by now" for his work in the field of motion capture. Nevertheless, he's far from done with either genre, revealing he's keeping an eye out for an as-yet-unrealised dream project.
"Science fiction is still an untapped fantasy of my own. I'd love to do a really, really well executed comprehensive science fiction series, which is not so far away from us [in terms of realism]," he says, explaining his ideal project would be closer in tone to Black Mirror than Star Trek. "So if the door opens for me to take part in those things, I'll jump."