From playing an intoxicated hipster in cult hit Skins to a blacksmith in epic worldwide success Game Of Thrones, actor Joe Dempsie has been a well-known face on our screens for more than five years. But a long-harboured desire to make his mark on the London stage may well be about to be realised as he makes his theatrical debut in Even Stillness Breathes Softly Against A Brick Wall at the intimate Soho theatre.
Given the subject matter of the play, which grapples with the problems of the ever-growing, ever-present technology in our lives and two people’s decision to opt out, its intimacy is fitting, as Dempsie explained to Charlotte Marshall as they chatted during rehearsals.
Here he talks about the thrill of playing an “incredibly average man”, the surreal experience of being part of one of the world’s biggest television programmes and how dangling out of a Black Hawk helicopter is all in a day’s work.
CV in brief:
2007: Wins first major screen role and stars as hedonist Chris Miles in E4 cult hit Skins
2008-2010: Makes appearances in popular TV series including Doctor Who, Merlin and This Is England ‘86
2009: Appears in British film The Damned United
2011: Stars in BBC3 series The Fades
2011-present day: Plays Gendry in HBO’s hugely popular Game Of Thrones
2013: Makes London stage debut in Even Stillness Breathes Softly Against A Brick Wall at the Soho theatre
What first got you interested in acting?
It was a semi-accidental thing really. I used to enjoy drama at school and my mum had picked up on that and had heard about a drama workshop that existed in Nottingham, which is where I grew up. It was called the Junior Television Workshop and it’s still going today. You had to audition to get in, but the great thing was that once you were in it was free to go; it used to be subsidised by ITV. The focus was less on stage acting and more on acting for the screen – Shane Meadows uses it a lot to cast for his films – and over the years Vicky McClure, Samantha Morton and Toby Kebbell have come out of the workshop, so it’s developed a really good reputation [and] it’s almost become akin to having a drama school education.
How old were you when you made your professional debut?
I was 13. I’d just been accepted into the workshop and then you have the whole summer before you start sessions, but in that summer I got an audition for Peak Practice, which was a rite of passage for any young budding actor from the midlands!
You’re currently starring in Even Stillness Breathes Softly Against A Brick Wall. Tell me about your character in the play.
He’s a 29-year-old incredibly average man and, in a way, that’s sort of what the play is about. It’s about two people who have a real, strong love for each other, but have realised that modern life is getting the better of them and it’s wearing them down. They’re not sure how much more of it they can take, but have been too apathetic to do anything about it for a long time. And so through the course of the play he realises that in essence she’s the only thing that he cares about, and it’s then about him developing this philosophy of how they can live without any other distractions apart from each other; a rejection of the outside world and modern society.
It sounds quite romantic in a strange way!
Weirdly it is, but it’s a fairly disturbing piece. But that’s the interesting thing, that at the heart of it there are these two characters who just love each other completely but end up isolating themselves in a really extreme way, which is often not great for relationships.
You’re best known for your work on screen, so what drew you to do a play at the Soho theatre?
I’ve wanted to do some theatre for a long, long time. We used to do plays at the workshop, but it would be a four night run and you would just feel like you were getting hooked on the buzz of it then it was over, so it was something I’d wanted to do for a while, but it’s been a tough nut to crack.
It was the script that drew me into this. I think Brad [Birch] is just a brilliant writer and I’m drawn to the bleak anyway [laughs], and Brad does it wonderfully. The Soho puts on some really challenging material and I think because it’s a smaller venue you don’t really have to worry about it being a crowd pleaser in too many ways; you can take a few more risks at the Soho. I think the intimate space is something that’s quite essential as well because, as I said before, this is about two people who reject the outside world and try and find a way to exist completely in their flat, so that feeling of claustrophobia is going to be quite important.
How do you feel about making your London stage debut?
I’m looking forward to it. I’ve missed the buzz of getting that instant feedback from an audience and seeing how a play evolves over a run, because that’s something I’ve never experienced before either. I think it’s going to be great and it’s something where I don’t just want to do this and then not bother with theatre for a while, I’d really love to crack on and do some more.
This play reunites you with your Murder co-star Lara Rossi. Is that a coincidence or did you plan it?
No, it’s complete coincidence. Working with Lara on Murder was wicked. We shot for a couple of weeks in Edinburgh last year and then when it came to casting for this, Nadia [Latif, the director] was only giving me little hints as to who they were auditioning and I got this text saying ‘You know Lara Rossi don’t you?’ and I said ‘Yes, that would be brilliant!’ It’s the kind of play as well that the less breaking of the ice that you have to do before you get stuck into rehearsals, the better, and there was none whatsoever, we were completely comfortable together anyway.
A lot of people will still know you best for your role in Skins. How was that experience?
It was brilliant. For me it came at a really pivotal moment in my life because I’d done my A-Levels and decided that I wanted to try and be an actor, but it wasn’t going too well to be honest. I was still living in Nottingham and working in a cinema part-time. I think my theory behind it was that I could go and watch films for free and watch other actors at work, and then you realise if you’ve just done a 12 hour shift, the last thing you want to do is stay for another two and a half! All my friends were off at universities around the country, so I’d spend the odd weekend experiencing the student life and it was great so I thought ‘am I missing out here?’ I’d just sent my accommodation forms back when I found out I’d got the part in Skins, so in a way Skins became my university experience.
In terms of the friends I made there and the start that it gave me in my career, it will always be tough to match. They were such formative years for all of us that were involved and we’re still all really good friends and I think we will be forever. Professionally, in the two years after it – and it’s kind of testament to the programme’s success – I actually found it quite hard to get the work that I wanted. I think I was so closely associated with that character that it was essentially the role that Casting Directors were asking me to play again and again. It led to probably about a two year period in which I didn’t really do much at all, I had tiny little bit parts and things that I thought would be good projects as a whole and that I might be able to learn from some people on, like The Damned United. But I think those two years have become invaluable in terms of me working out exactly what it was I wanted to do and the kind of career that I wanted to have and what the best way of going about achieving that was.
Were the parties as wild as we all imagined?
I remember when the trailer for series one came out – you know the one with the Gossip track? – and I’m sure Channel 4 sent some sort of rumour out online that they’d just locked us away in a house with loads of drugs for a weekend, and I was like ‘Really? Do you really think Channel 4 can get the insurance for that?!’ But no, it was as fun to make as it looked. It was obviously slightly controlled, but it did get pretty wild. There were definitely moments… actually I’ve had moments like this so often in the past five years on various jobs, hanging around going ‘I can’t really believe this is my job’, it’s kind of brilliant and ridiculous in equal measure I think.
You’re also in Game Of Thrones. What is it like being in seemingly the biggest TV programme in the world at the moment?
It’s brilliant. There’s something about being a relatively small cog in a massive machine that’s quite liberating. With Game Of Thrones there is so much going on that you’re actually entrusted with the material a bit more than you would be on other shoots, because the director’s got so many other things to be thinking about; there’ll be 25 horses in the back of the shoot and there’ll probably be a dragon that needs to fly in halfway through, so you knowing your lines and having a fair idea of how you’re going to deliver them is expected of you!
The great thing is that, despite its massive success, you kind of feel slightly removed from it in a nice way. We’re away mostly in Belfast, in the rain, shooting in very unglamorous locations for the majority of the time and then you can get to hear about how huge it is over in the States. I went to Los Angeles last year and it was around the time the last series was starting, and the billboards are just everywhere. It’s bizarre, that feeling as an actor, at being in the mecca of the film world and seeing billboards for a TV show that you’re in pretty much everywhere.
The main way it’s affected my life is the friends that I’ve made from it. The cast is so vast and there are actually loads of people who are a similar age to me that I now hang out with. I keep saying to people that there are so many characters in it and there will be so many more, that it will be one of those things where, like they say you’re never more than 10 feet away from a rat in London, you’ll never be more than that distance away from someone whose been in Game Of Thrones! I think just that show on its own will shorten the degrees of separation for everyone in the world eventually!
Is filming it physically demanding?
It can be. But the great thing is they make sure you’re well trained up for everything you have to do. That’s the incredible thing about it as well; I might come out of it with a real skill set, a Bear Grylls style survival skill. The days are actually long and that’s the toughest thing. When you’re on set, that’s it, you are on set all day.
You might have the odd fight scene, but they make sure you’re well-choreographed and by the time you come to shoot it, you’re really looking forward to it. Some people get it tougher than others. Like Gwendoline [Christie], who plays Brienne, had a 65-move fight sequence to learn last year and even before she started shooting she was in Belfast for three weeks, every day training, training, training. So they work you hard when they have to.
I heard a fan wrote a song about you…
Yes, they did [laughs]. That’s the most crazy but impressive thing I think I’ve ever seen. She was a girl from Denmark who initially sent a video to my agent of her just talking to her webcam asking me out on a date and it was very sweet and very nice, but I didn’t really know how to reply to it, so I just showed it to a few friends and said ‘this is quite cool isn’t it’, but in the following weeks she discovered my Twitter account and decided to send it to everyone that I’d ever interacted with on Twitter, which included my ex-girlfriend’s mum, which was a bit awkward. Another one arrived a week later, which was genuinely incredible. It was her sat at a piano playing the opening chords to a song she’d written, and as she started singing, this chorus of male backing singers – there must have been about 15 of them – rose from beneath the shot singing my name in the background. It was nuts! But they were really funny, they were kind of tongue in cheek. We actually did – again at the behest of Oona [Chaplin, his Game Of Thrones co-star] – take a photo of me kissing her face on the screen [from the video she made] and sent it to her.
What’s your favourite moment of your career so far?
I’ve just finished shooting the sequel to Monsters, which was out a couple of years ago, called The Dark Continent, and every day on that job you were doing something more and more insane. We were filming out in Jordan playing US soldiers and there was a day we were flying in a Black Hawk helicopter. They were shooting us with our feet hanging off the edge of a Black Hawk and the guy that was flying – this Jordanian pilot who was the same guy that filmed the chopper in Zero Dark Thirty – was essentially doing tricks in the air. So we were sat with our legs dangling out, facing outwards out of the side of the helicopter, we’re strapped in, then he was flying in a circle but he was banking so our faces were parallel to the ground, looking straight down. It was brilliant. It was absolutely brilliant. I was just thinking ‘this is absolutely nuts, I can’t believe this is my job’.