Lost in the landscape of a Norman Ireland

Richard Armitage tells Esther McCarthy about filming Pilgrimage, a new film about monks being hunted by knights in the 13th Century

Richard Armitage in 'Pilgramage'

A cast of stars did battle with the elements as well as each other in Pilgrimage, Brendan Muldowney’s gritty new drama set in a lawless 13th century Ireland.

The film follows a small group of monks on a pilgrimage, escorting their monastery’s holiest relic to Rome, in an Ireland torn apart by tribal warfare and violent Norman invaders.

The low-budget feature drew a big-name cast, including the new Spider-Man, Tom Holland, and Richard Armitage (The Hobbit, Captain America). Our dramatic landscape is still ingrained in Armitage’s mind.

“We were largely out in Connemara in western Ireland. To me it felt Nordic in a way,” says Armitage.

“I was always fascinated by the fact that on the map it (a location) was two miles away, and then we would spend hours winding our way around these bays, waterways, to get to where we needed to go to. It was uninterrupted landscape, no kind of infrastructure anywhere, and I think one of the locations, we had to get across there on a little boat because the tide had come in.

“I love shooting like that, because you can do a 360 with the camera and really not see anything for miles. The sky, the weather was extraordinary, we were shooting that day when we did a big fight on the beach. We could see a storm in the distance, it was probably about an hour and a half away. True to time it came across, pelted us with hailstones and rain and then just disappeared, but it was really amazing to feel so exposed to the elements, it really took you to that time and place.”

Armitage gives good bad guy as a cold, French-speaking, sword-wielding Norman knight who causes havoc as the monks attempt to progress.

Although the film is fictional, the history of the time appealed to him when taking on the project, he said.

“I was really interested first of all in playing a character where I would be speaking a different language. I was interested in that world. I’ve always been a bit of a historian when it comes to that period of history - the Norman Conquests, Richard the Lionheart always fascinated me, the fact that he was an English king that never spoke a word of English and probably never set foot in England, by all accounts.

“Also the juxtaposition of a group of very peace-loving monks, devout Christians, and a war-mongering family who were basically in occupation in Ireland at that time.”

Filming in such a remote setting gave him an opportunity to drop out of the world and immerse himself in the film. “There was very little cellphone reception so it was nice to disconnect from what I’m used to. The only thing I really took with me was my music - I tend to listen to music to focus myself as I’m driving in my car in the morning.

“A lot of the time, the peace and quiet of the place, and the rain and the wind, is just taking your mind away from a very modern, busy head.”

Armitage has always marched to his own beat in terms of career choices, blending high-profile projects such as The Hobbit movies with low-budget roles such as this, and theatre - he was nominated for the Laurence Oliver Award for his performance in the 2015 production of The Crucible.

“I’m never, ever driven by money, I never have been, so I never know what I’m going to be paid until the very last minute,” he smiled.

“I guess I always hunt for something new and exciting and a challenge I haven’t tried before. Sometimes that’s hard to find. I lot of the time you’re sort of asked to repeat things that have been successful, but I have to find a new element to it that stimulates me.”

A case in point is his next two movies. This autumn he’ll start work on My Zoe, an independent project written and directed by French actress Julie Delpy.

Next year we’ll see him opposite Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett in Ocean’s Eight, a female take on the hit heist series. It was a whole lot of fun to make, he said. “There was one night when we were doing a night shoot at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art and we were sitting in a holding room and there was Sandra Bullock, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Rihanna, sitting around eating snacks and singing songs. You pinch yourself and think: this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Pilgrimage opens in cinemas today

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