At this point, it’s a given that the stories being told on television have begun to equal or surpass the choices one can get at the movie theater, and this weekend, the EPIX Network are finally getting into the game with their first two Epix Original Series, including Berlin Station, an espionage thriller with an all-star cast.
It stars Richard Armitage (The Hobbit) as Daniel Miller, a CIA agent called to work undercover out of the Berlin office, tasked to find a leak from a whistleblower known as “Thomas Shaw” along with his long-time friend and colleague, Hector DeJean (Rhys Ifans). They work under the CIA’s Berlin Chief of Station Steven Frost (Richard Jenkins) and his administrator Valerie Edwards, played by Michelle Forbes (The Killing, True Blood).
LRM sat down with Armitage and Forbes while they were in New York City promoting the show.
LRM: Your American accent on the show is great!
Richard Armitage: Oh, thanks! I was around these guys a lot. They didn’t realize it, but I was studying them intently.
LRM: I was really impressed with it. I think if people weren’t familiar with your history of British stage acting, they’d assume you were American.
Armitage: It’s always a bit of a headache, and you think, “Oh, God, am I going to pull it off?” But actually, I ended up staying with that dialect a lot, didn’t I?
Michelle Forbes: You really did.
Armitage: Even when we went out for dinner in the evenings, I couldn’t let it drop.
Forbes: Yeah, you were really… and not in that horrible actor way, but it really just became a part of you.
LRM: There’s a really interesting paradigm shift with actors these days where it used to be that they’d do TV if they couldn’t get a movie role, but it was almost last resort, but these days…
Armitage: It’s the other way around, isn’t it?
LRM: For this, you have Eric Roth writing and overseeing and an amazing cast.
Armitage: Thank goodness!
LRM: What got you interested in going in that direction?
Armitage: I’d been looking for a television show because features and indies are great, and you can tell some incredible stories, but telling a character’s story over ten episodes and possibly further, finding that character development was something that’s appealing, which is why it’s attracting really top-notch actors. So yeah, I was searching for something political, current, relevant and exciting. It had to be all of those things and it had to have some kind of fizz for me. The script did that, it really did. It’s the genre that I love.
LRM: I’ve only seen the first couple episodes but are you in Berlin for the whole show?
Armitage: We were five months in Berlin and we did a little location shoot in the Canary Islands, which was served a little bit of Panama and a little treat coming up in Episodes 9 and 10.
LRM: What interested you in playing Daniel Miller, beyond the genre or story?
Armitage: It was interesting obviously playing an American. I’m not American, I’m European, and I’m trying to understand somebody that was raised in Europe, he’s a patriot. He works for an institution because of what his father did, and he’s taken to place where there are scars in his past and his patriotism is questioned. The institution he’s working for is potentially flawed and that is sort of like the rug being pulled out from underneath him, and him questioning, “What does it mean to be a patriot and function in that environment?” That was interesting to me.
LRM: How was it shooting in Berlin? I love the city and the show opens on Alexander Platze where when I first went to Berlin I got hopelessly lost and was wandering around for over an hour. It’s a little easier to get around now.
Armitage: She can talk about working in Berlin. That’s her bag. Go on, you talk about Berlin. You do it best.
Forbes: Well, we all just had such an extraordinary time together in Berlin, just because the period we were there, so much happened. Only in hindsight do I understand that this is the new normal that we went through the Brussels, Istanbul, Paris, Orlando and Baghdad bombings as we were there. We lost Prince. We lost David Bowie, who is the adopted son of Berlin. Along with all this loss and sorrow and being what felt like right in the middle of it, there was just a really deep and devastating understanding that this is normal for us now, all of these bombings. This is just the global world we live in now, so to go through that with such good people and good friends and to walk through that sorrow together in a city that has experienced so much in its history, still defines what it’s like to own your mistakes and come back and create a better world. The Germans’ ability for self-reflection and self-assessment is really remarkable, inspiring, and my heart was just so full as I was there, and I think for all of us, it was just an incredibly special time.
LRM: It’s also an interesting city because there’s the old and a lot of new, and it’s always changing because it’s been 26 years since the wall came down.
Armitage: Yeah, and we might start putting them back up, apparently. That would be a good idea, wouldn’t it? Not.
LRM : But shooting in that environment where you have a lot of different options…
Armitage: You know, I think it’s something that is reflected in all of the characters. These characters have to adopt different personas, and I feel like the city of Berlin has had so many masks that it wears itself from the Weinmar Republic in the ‘20s to the First World War, the Second World War, the Stasi in the ‘60s, the fall of the Wall in the late ‘80s and then to a modern Berlin and a generation that really don’t want to look at the past. They want to look forward. Like Michelle said, there’s another energy there which I didn’t expect. Berlin itself is its own spy, I think.
Forbes: I like that.
LRM: The show is very topical because it’s dealing with whistleblowers, at least on the surface, and that’s something in the news quite a lot between Snowden and Julian Assange. Can you talk about that aspect of the story or as far as you can get into it without spoiling the rest of the season?
Armitage: Yes, it’s sort of the nugget that we come into the story with is the identification of the source of a leak, and the leak is Thomas Shaw blowing the lid on the CIA or the secrets that the CIA has, so every character is potentially implicated, and we’ve all got secrets to hide. Daniel’s sent in to figure out who is lifting the lids and if it’s containable, and of course, these guys are in lockdown trying to hold onto their secrets, aren’t we, Valerie Edwards?
Forbes: Trying to keep our secrets secret and trying to keep our agents from their covers being blown, through all the chaos and mayhem of the leaks.
LRM: I mentioned the cast earlier and this really has an amazing cast, including Richard Jenkins, Rhys Ifans, who is also playing a different role for himself. Can you talk about working with this cast and doing a show like this vs. other things?
Armitage: We kind of came together in different stages. I came in at the point where Richard Jenkins was cast and Rhys was cast. You were on board as well, weren’t you?
Forbes: I think you came right after me.
Armitage: Yeah, so it really helps you to sign on the dotted line when you know you’re going to be working with really, really good people and people that are going to make you come up to a different level. The memorable moments for me was a lot of work that I did with Rhys, because these two characters are sort of opposite ends of the spectrum, and yet, are kind of galvanized by something that happened between them in their past. It’s kind of a serious relationship and a dangerous relationship, and Rhys is such a natural comedian and a clown, the dichotomy of that. He manages to get that into his character, don’t you think?
Forbes: Totally, totally. I love that relationship between you two. You play off each other as well.
LRM: Was that the first time you worked with him?
Armitage: Yeah, yeah, but I also get a kick out of Valerie and Robert.
Forbes: Yea, they’re funny. (laughs)
LRM: I assume you’re used to a long-term commitment from making “The Hobbit” movies for a while. How long did it actually take to shoot the ten episodes for the first season?
Armitage: How long did it take? It was about…
Forbes: Five months. No, five and change, ‘cause you and I came three weeks earlier. I stayed three weeks after, which I’ve never done.
Armitage: Just to be in Berlin and hang out in a great city.
Forbes: To work on assets and dialogue in German.
Armitage: To do prep, yeah. It was like shooting five feature films, ‘cause it’s ten episodes, two hours long and it’s a true two hours, there’s no commercial breaks. What is it 57 minutes including credits? And each director that came in was a feature film director, so that was really exciting? We shot them so that one director would have two episodes each, and of course, the city changed over that period. We went sort of at the festive time when it was cozy and lovely, and then it went into extremely low temperatures. I think Hagen (Bogdanski, the cinematographer) shot the city as it changed. It started to warm up towards the end, which is really interesting.
LRM: How is it working with different directors on a show like this? When you watch an episode, it feels like a movie, so I guess if you watch all ten episodes, it would feel like a very long movie. But it has the look and feel of a movie but you’re changing directors…
Armitage: We’re changing directors, but the DOP stays for the entire piece, so the whole tone of it… I think each director comes in and they sort of want to put their imprint on it but at the same time, there was a tonal thing for the show. I think Hagen created something amazing. I think his lighting and the way that he shot that city — he knows that city, he lives in that city, so…
Forbes: He knows that city like the back of his hand, and he’s such a gifted photographer.
Armitage: A credit to the German creative team, every single one of them—the costume designer, the location… of course, Marco Bittner Rosser, who we never really talk about, the production designer, his eye, his work, the detail, the locations they found. Every single one, you’d walk in there and kind of gasp because it was so authentic and extraordinary and interesting.
Forbes: And Michael Sheiler, the German steel spine of our show.
LRM: So you have these ten episodes coming out, but is it set up in a way that they could theoretically do more? Or was it done as a closed story?
Armitage: You know what? I don’t know. We definitely shot two endings, so there is an outcome that none of us really know because I haven’t seen the final cut of Episode 10, so we don’t really know where it’s going, do we?
Forbes: Uh-uh, but you know, the horizon is endless.
LRM: Hopefully people like it enough so that they’ll use the ending that says “To Be Continued…”
Forbes: Yeah, exactly.
Armitage: I like that. I like an open-ended finish.