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Interview: Joe Dempsie

18 October 12 interview: Alison Emm
photos: David Parry

Joe Dempsie used to cane it full-time in Skins. Now - when he’s not bagging plum roles in Birger Larsen’s Murder and This Is England ‘86 - he gets medieval on our arses in Game Of Thrones. We blocked his way on Trent Bridge refusing to let him pass until he answered a load of riddles...

When we last interviewed you, three years ago, you were in LA touting your wares off the back of Skins. How did that go?
I had a great time, which was mostly down to bumping into Tony Kebbell on the street on my second day there – how weird is that?  He took me under his wing, showed me round, took me out. LA can be such an intimidating place, especially when you’re twenty one. You have to do that first trip out there to see what it’s like, and to give you a better understanding of what you want from your career and how to go about achieving it. I went during pilot season, when there’s an exodus of British actors who all go over to LA; it’s a cattle market, really. So many pilots get made, and only a very small percentage of them actually get picked up and made into a series.

So not only are you vying to get picked up, but you’re hoping to be picked up by something that’s going to actually get produced.
You realise that there is a lot of shit - loads of really mediocre, rushed pilots - and you have to read three or four of them a day. You get to the audition, it’s packed and they’re running behind. You get one go at a scene, and you come out of it a bit bewildered, wondering what’s happened. America is held up as the Holy Grail of the acting world, but at home I only wanted to do good stuff and I had a strong idea about what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to sacrifice that just because it was America - I wanted to hold out for something quality.

Do you have to be based out there to get work?
The great thing about the internet is that you can do auditions by Skype. I had been sending audition tapes out there for six months or so; you spend hours on them, send them with hope and excitement, and it feels like you’re just sending them off into this black hole. I thought “I need to get over there. I’m better at getting jobs if I’m actually in the room”. But really, when you’re there you still spend every day in a room with a casting director and a camcorder and the director is still just watching a video tape. I’m glad I did it, but I didn’t get any work out of it, basically.

Did you watch Skins after you left?
I watched a couple of the generation that immediately followed us because Jack O’Connell - a fellow Television Workshop lad from Derby - was in it and I wanted to see how he was doing.  It was such a bold move, getting rid of the first cast. I knew that even if Skins was successful I only wanted to do two seasons, but we had such a good time making it that if they’d offered a third season to us it would have been really hard to turn that down. It’s good that they took that decision out of our hands.  People are quite resistant to change, so the problem with the second generation of cast members was that the writers felt that they really had to pull out all the stops to win people over and I think it lost touch with reality a bit.  Not that Skins wasn’t always an exaggerated sense of reality, but it maybe went a touch too far.

There are loads of people hitting drinking age now who secretly watched Skins on their bedroom portables when they were younger. Do you wonder about the influence the show had on them?
When the series came out we were doing quite a few interviews - there was the ad campaign, and it was causing a bit of a stir. Whenever we were asked if we were a bad influence on teenagers, I had what I thought was a really smart-arse answer, which was that Skins is a heightened version of reality and I think we need to give teenagers more credit for knowing the difference between a TV programme and real life. In reality, and in retrospect, we absolutely would have influenced kids.  If I’d been at the younger end of the demographic - the fourteen or fifteen-year-olds who would sneak upstairs to watch it because you knew everyone would be talking about it at school the next day - I would have been thinking; “God, are they the sort of parties I’m supposed to be having? Are those the drugs I’m supposed to be taking?” I’m sure we encouraged loads of kids to do things they probably shouldn’t have. Skins was never as outrageous as people made out, though; kids have been doing those things for years.

How did Game of Thrones come about, then?
It’s a medieval drama, so they need a lot of British actors. I initially auditioned for the part of Jon Snow, and obviously didn’t get it. Down the line I got called in again for different roles. I’d been for two or three different parts, and each time I didn’t get them I’d think; “I’m not getting these parts, they obviously think I’m rubbish.” Eventually I auditioned for Gendry and I thought the initial audition went quite well, but the recall was probably one of the worst auditions I’d ever done. I think it was just one of those things where they’d already decided before I went in for the second audition.  

You must have been made up.
It was nice knowing that they’d wanted to work with me, and they were just trying to figure out which piece of the jigsaw I was. In the first series I’m only in two episodes, and I remember thinking that I had none of the physical attributes of the character; I was supposed to be tall and muscular with thick black hair, and I was none of them. They said; “We’ll dye your hair, you go to the gym.” Even after that I was convinced that they were going to recast me; when we were shooting in the first series I was working out whether or not they were avoiding my face so that they could get another actor in for series two.

There seems to be very little job security in Westeros.
I was being paranoid, but I’ve realised since that pretty much everyone in the first couple of weeks on Game of Thrones are so petrified by the scale of the thing that they are utterly convinced that halfway through a take they’re just going to say “Cut” and the producers are going to say “We’ve made a terrible mistake, we’re sorry. Get off our set.” It’s very normal to be scared for your job on Game of Thrones.

It has to be the TV show to be on at the moment. Is it just being paid to LARP?
Probably. We were filming in the studio for this series and they’d built a cave, like the Batcave, and we’re walking around it saying, “This is incredible.” Then someone says, “Right, can we turn the water on, please.” And water starts trickling down the walls and I just thought, “This is my job. I get paid to muck about here.” And then we watched a scene with a sword fight between two guys, one of whom had a flaming sword. Amazing.

You still come back to Notts when you can. How much do you get recognised these days?
Every now and again. When Skins was on, it was pretty full-on. The programme was advertised so heavily that there was this audience just waiting to watch it. TV programmes usually have to build an audience, but we got the highest viewing figures on our opening episode. It was overnight - the next day life was completely different.

How do you cope with that?
I didn’t deal with it well for a while, but then you get used to it. I realised it was me that had to make the small talk.  Someone will come up to you and say; “You the guy from Skins?” And you go, “Oh, yeah…” And then they go, “….” So you have to start talking and say; “So, you like the programme, then?” It’s calmed down now, but I do look quite different.  In Murder I looked different, and as Gendry, and in This is England ‘86 I had a haircut…

And what a haircut.
It was bank holiday weekend when I finished filming and my mates all wanted to go out in Nottingham. It was a Sunday, and there were no barbers open anywhere, and I had this ridiculous haircut - I couldn’t go into town like that. The annoying thing was that I’d seen people in Shoreditch with haircuts like that, so it could have been perceived as me trying to be trendy, which is even worse. I ended up shaving it all off.

Murder: how did you hear about the part?
All of a sudden I’d become very popular with actresses I knew in London, and I quickly realised it was because they were auditioning for Coleen’s part and they wanted to know what a Nottingham accent was all about. I asked for a script because I wanted to see whether there was anything in it for me, being from Nottingham. In the script Stefan was thirty-seven and H was meant to be in his early twenties. I got the audition a couple of weeks later and it was for Stefan and thought they were probably just seeing if they liked me and they’d get me back in for H. But they kept getting me back in for Stefan and eventually I was offered it.  In terms of the character it was a good call - it makes more sense for him to still be young and for his life to still have a different path to take.  It also makes the ending even more tragic, the fact that he still has his best years ahead of him and he’s going to spend a lot of them behind bars after being dealt such successively shit hands in life.  Not that I wanted him to be a complete victim; injustice had been done to him, but he still had a very dark side. The great thing about the show was that with all the characters you understood what had brought them to this point and there were things that were beyond their control but things that were their fault.

You character was from Doncaster…
The only part in the entire thing that isn’t Nottingham...

...and your character says that his mam had warned him about Nottingham. That, and Birger Larsen’s comments about Notts being hostile when he came to film, put a few noses out of joint round here.
I think it’s normal to be defensive about your home town, but it’s something that I’d picked up on when I grew up here. There’s always been, in my opinion, an undercurrent of danger just bubbling under the surface.  Nothing major - I barely got in any trouble here - but I’ve seen countless scraps, and a definite contrast to Bristol when I did Skins.  Bristol was a really upbeat and jovial town at the weekend; there wasn’t that feeling that if you looked at someone the wrong way you’d end up on the pavement.  Nottingham definitely had that when I was growing up. I don’t know about now, because I don’t go out much when I come back. Nottingham has made great strides in sorting out its crime problem, though - particularly the gun crime element which, from what I can gather, has reduced massively. People have got to be realistic and admit that there are a few unsavoury types in Nottingham. And maybe a few more than the national average.

Murder was a bit different, with its monologues to the camera...
Loads of actors I knew wanted to be involved with it, and that was because of the unique script and style of it. Admittedly, I didn’t really grasp the concept until I actually saw bits of it near the end. He wanted everything straight down the lens which was so weird for an actor to do, you feel so exposed. I was desperate to be in it and work with Birger, he’s such a fantastic director that you just know from the off that it’s going to be a really different and great job, and he was going to get the best out of you.

He does quite a lot of dark stuff. What's he like?
That’s the thing; he’s one of the funniest guys I’ve ever met. In Denmark he’s also known for doing children’s films, so he’s versatile.  The thing I liked about him... it sounds silly to say about a director, but he was very direct. You get people that try and pussyfoot around you, or they try and put very clever thoughts in your head that they think will get the right reaction out of you. Whereas Birger just tells you exactly what he wants you to do and if you do something he doesn’t like he tells you to stop doing it. That’s exactly what you want and need as an actor. He liked to play Jimi Hendrix between takes, which again is a different way of working, but it gets you hyped up. Everything on set was geared towards creating the environment that you felt you needed to perform the monologue. It was a happy medium because on set you can have actors being fussed over ridiculously or just being completely ignored. But he found that great balance.

Was it harder as an actor to do that fourth-wall style, because you’re not using your body or interacting with the environment as much?
That was actually what I found so good about the job. It was all about you: just you, the camera, Birger and the sound man and everyone else was outside. The amount of time that afforded was incredible. Usually when you’re shooting, however many actors there are in a scene multiplies the amount of things that can go wrong, especially if you’re outdoors, props involved and all that.  It was so simple with Murder, and you could try a different take or spin on the monologue – you could really tweak and refine it until you felt that you’d got it just right.

The bit where your character hits Coleen - he properly goes for it.  Do you get trained, or do you get scared that you will accidentally clock someone?
There’s always a fight co-ordinator – not that it was much of a fight – but it’s all very regulated. There are always people there telling you how to do it right and make sure you don’t do it wrong but at the end of the day it’s just you and your fist and if you get it wrong, you get it wrong.

Thanks for bigging LeftLion up in The Observer the other week, by the way.
Nottingham is going through a creative boom at the moment. There have always been creative people here, but it’s never really had a focal point to get people to know about your music, come to your gigs or watch your play. There wasn’t anything apart from the weekend section of the Evening Post; I think LeftLion has really galvanised a scene.

Anything else you want to say to our readers?
Looks like it’s going to be a better season for Forest.

Game of Thrones website

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