‘Hobbit’ Star Richard Armitage on Tackling New ‘Hannibal’ Villain Francis Dolarhyde

British actor divulges his binge-watching habits, and how he got into serial-killer shape for NBC series

Last Updated: July 24, 2015 @ 12:32 PM

“Hannibal,” Bryan Fuller’s gory TV retelling of serial killer Hannibal Lecter’s fictional universe, introduces British stage and screen actor Richard Armitage as Francis Dolarhyde in Saturday’s episode, “The Great Red Dragon.”

“The beauty and the operatic luxury of the show is what I think attracted me to it. I knew that Bryan was going to handle this character in a really beautiful, interesting, succinct way,” Armitage said.

The actor is especially familiar to U.S. film audiences as dwarf prince Thorin Oakenshield in Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” film trilogy. He spoke to TheWrap about the lengths he went to in sculpting his version of “Hannibal’s” toothy antagonist.

For two seasons, Fuller has profiled a seductive serial killer in Mads Mikkelsen’s rendition of Dr. Lecter, who is being pursued by FBI profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy). In the first part of Season 3 — its last on NBC — the series indulged in the fictional cannibal’s bloody European vacation, a sumptuous gothic romp in Italy.

Episode 8, however, finds Lecter imprisoned at the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, and broken Will being lured out of retirement by Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) to track down a vicious new threat.

Mads Mikkelsen stars as Hannibal Lecter in

Dolarhyde, an emotionally and physically disfigured character who kills entire families, originated in Thomas Harris’ 1981 novel “Red Dragon.” The villain is dubbed the “Tooth Fairy” because of his proclivity for biting his victims, an act of intimacy that underscores the character’s history as a victim and lack of personal connections.

Dolarhyde has been trained by isolation, bullying and abuse to despise himself and aspires to transform into the central figure in William Blake’s painting “The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun.” In undertaking his great transformation, he is a bodybuilder in the novel, but Armitage reimagines him for contemporary audiences as an arts-obsessed hardbody.

Richard Armitage as killer Francis Dolarhyde in

Armitage spoke to TheWrap about how his interpretation — which follows film portrayals by Tom Noonan in 1986’s “Manhunter” and Ralph Fiennes in 2002’s “Red Dragon” — falls into Fuller’s horror fantasy.

THEWRAP: How did you get involved with “Hannibal” — were you a fan of the series?
RICHARD ARMITAGE: I wasn’t an avid watcher, but I was very aware of where the show was in the marketplace — the advertising for it was always very stylish. I’m a fan of both Hugh and Mads, so I knew that they were doing it, but I hadn’t actually sat down to watch it until I started to get involved in it, and then I did one of those marathon sessions where I did the back-to-backs of this work.

I do find the graphic horror of it quite difficult to look at, but, for all of that, the beauty and the operatic luxury of the show is what I think attracted me to it. I knew that Bryan was going to handle this character in a really beautiful, interesting, succinct way.

You must be acutely aware of the arc of the show up to this season since you binge-watched it.
One of the reasons I think TV advertisers are struggling to get what they want out of a network is because people really now get the choice to watch TV how they want. And most people enjoy that sort of experience: sitting down and watching one after the other after the other, getting the whole thing in one hit. All of the shows I’ve been involved with — like “Spooks,” I watched in exactly the same way. Purely for entertainment, I watched “House of Cards” in that way. You watch it once and then you go back and watch the whole thing again. I really enjoy that.

It seems the same as getting involved in a book series — just reading and reading and reading until you can’t anymore.
And when you have a great book that you just can’t put down, you’ll be there at 4 in the morning with your light on and your mum knocking on the door going, “Come on, time to put the light off.” It’s great and feels like a personal connection, and then when it’s over, you have a sort of grieving period for it, which is where I think the Fannibals kind of come from.

What was it like to inhabit this character that fans of the franchise are so familiar with — is it scary going into that?
I felt like, Oh, this is a formidable character that people know about, so I need to put aside everything that people think they know about him and go to the book and find out what my interpretation of him is. Luckily, it was in the same vein as Bryan Fuller. We really were interested in looking at a character who was born out of misery really. His life was so restricted as a child; he was orphaned, he was severely bullied by his stepsiblings and possibly abused by his grandmother. So to see how that seed grows into a man, and knowing what it became, knowing the mental deformity that came with that journey was something that we were interested in looking at, seeing how that person then falls in love and finds empathy for a girl, and how he struggles with what he does and what he’s doing and what he’s done, yet is seemingly living a normal life.

Richard Armitage as killer Francis Dolarhyde in

“Hannibal” is such a stylized show. Are Bryan Fuller’s sensibilities palpable as an actor when you’re in the thick of it, doing the scenes?
Dolarhyde was such an isolated character, that I really felt like I lived in that attic for most of the shoot alone. Aside from the journey that he goes on with Reba (Rutina Wesley), he lives in such an isolated world, but that world felt like a world of the past. His grandmother’s house felt like no one had ever been there in 50 years; he’s had no visitors, no cleaners, no one had entered that house. I really did get a feel for that. But at the same time, he’s existing in the contemporary world — he goes to work at the laboratory. But again, isolated: corridors of darkness, in a processing lab which is dark, a darkroom, sitting at a table alone. I did sort of enter that world of solitude. So actually, when Rutina turned up on set and I got to play off of her, it was fascinating.

She’s an actress with sight, playing a woman without sight, but I really feel like I was with a blind girl — I can’t remember a time when we actually made eye contact. I remember having real long, deep conversations with her, but we would always sit side-by-side, and I don’t remember every really looking Rutina right in the eye, which is interesting, because I feel like our whole experience on “Hannibal” has been a sort of sensual one.

Can you talk about Dolarhyde’s physical training — how your choices for his physicality apply to the character?
Thomas Harris describes him as a bodybuilder. Bryan studied Pilates, so he said to me, “I want you to do something which feels like Pilates.” I’ve never done yoga, but I trained as a dancer years ago. None of these things felt right, none of them felt right for Francis. I felt like, he’s not doing something because he wants to exercise his body; he’s trying to empower himself. He’s also struggling inside with his own physicality. He wants to get out of his own skin.

So an exercise which trains the body just didn’t feel right, so I looked at Japanese art form called butoh, which is often referred to as the “dance of death.” What it is is like a biological observation of the body in extremis — how far can the body be in an extreme contortion? That was really what I was working toward, and I don’t have a body that can contort in the way that I wanted it to, but I wanted to give the feeling that Francis was trying to achieve that. It isn’t coming out of vanity — it’s coming out of a need to feel more powerful than he really is. Those were the physical paths that took us to that physical exploration in episode 8.

Like a caterpillar trying to burst through a cocoon?
One of the images I pulled was a snake shedding its skin. It looks a little bit like peristalsis in the body. It has a pulse to it, and it doesn’t happen easily. It looks like digestion, and it looks like a sexual act.

“Hannibal” airs Saturdays at 10/9C on NBC.

Watch the video of Armitage’s transformation into the Red Dragon below.