Richard Armitage may not be a household name just yet, but his face is one you’ve seen. His breakthrough role as the romantic lead in the 2004 BBC miniseries, North & South, catapulted him to success in the U.K., leading him to coveted parts in MI-5 and The Hobbit.
Now, the British actor is leading EPIX’s first scripted drama, CIA thriller Berlin Station, which airs its second episode on Sunday, and marks his first major role for U.S. television. A fan of the spy genre (his favorite movie is 1965’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold), it was a project that intrigued Armitage from the get go.
“Understanding the kind of climate we’re in at the moment, I felt like it was really fertile ground for a piece of work that is very now and what’s going to come next,” Armitage, 45, told ET when he sat down for a chat in Beverly Hills, California. “Our characters question their own patriotism. They question their own government and they question who they work for because they all believe in the truth.”
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In Berlin Station, Armitage portrays Daniel Miller, a newly-appointed CIA officer recruited to be an undercover spy in the Berlin bureau and tasked with finding the mole within the agency, known only by the alias, “Thomas Shaw,” who has been leaking classified intelligence.
To get into Daniel’s mindset, Armitage stayed in character for the entirety of the production, like he often does when diving into a demanding new role.
“I found myself using Daniel’s dialect all the time because it just fell into my mouth,” he recalled, embracing the intensity those in the intelligence sector face daily. “There were nights when I would sleep three hours and I would be emailing the writers with questions and problems in my head, and I realized that it’s probably how these characters live. I would be very surprised if Daniel got a good night’s sleep when stuff’s on and it’s always on. There’s a high level of stress they live with and I did let that in.”
“I didn’t want it to be an easy ride,” Armitage continued in his trademark baritone. “I wanted it to be more complicated because I knew that that was the truth of what we were portraying, that it was nuanced and complex and there was no definitive black and white. When there was a moment in the script where I felt like ‘This is a little bit delineated,’ I would be like, ‘Could we mess this up a bit? Could we make it more complicated than it really is?’”
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Though Daniel starts off the series as the quintessential “hero,” with a clear moral center, as the season unfolds, Armitage admitted he began to struggle and question his character's morality and the choices he’s forced to make.
“As our story progresses, the patriotism is thrown into question,” he said. “But ultimately, the base of the character is he believes in the CIA motto, ‘You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free.’ He had to keep coming back to that place, because it is his driving force.”
For Armitage, toplining a TV show for an American audience -- as well as playing someone far different from his usual self -- was something he hoped to accomplish but wasn’t counting on.
Though he doesn’t discuss it often, Armitage has a loyal fanbase online within the Tumblrs of the world, much of that dating all the way back to past roles like North & South. Appreciative of the fan support, he explained why he chooses not to engage too regularly -- especially when work calls.
“I do find it kind of a time-consuming distraction when I’m working, and I do have to walk away from it when I’m creating a character and when I’m executing it, because you risk being infected by other people’s opinions, and I am still a bit of a purist,” Armitage said. “But I use it for my news feed and I love the fact that I can follow Edward Snowden, I can follow the Dalai Lama, I can get all of this opinion and there’s the place where I find my truth and my balance.”
As for his current project, Berlin Station, Armitage promised an exhilarating ride.“It ends on a big cliffhanger, and hopefully we’ll [get another season],” he said. “The season is the key to the next door.”
Berlin Station airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on EPIX.