"Fame wasn’t something I really wanted." How Joe Dempsie played the game (and won)

Actor Joe Dempsie never intended to step into the full glare of the fame spotlight – he just happened to land a role in one of the biggest TV series in the world. Ever. With the final season of Game of Thrones upon us, Max Williams meets a very humble heir to the Iron Throne

Looking back, it was inevitable that addiction would come for Joe Dempsie. Here, after all, was an actor who made his name as Chris in the epocal teen drama Skins, playing the hedonist’s hedonist, the party boy who made other party boys quiver and reach for the yoga mat and herbal tea.

He followed this quite literally overnight success – one morning he could walk to the shops unnoticed; the next morning he couldn’t – by signing up to what would become the biggest TV show of all time, a cultural event of such seismic… oh, it’s Game of Thrones, you know Game of Thrones even if you’re one of those irritating people who loudly disclaim that you’ve never watched an episode because ‘dragons are for kids’ or however you justify your detachment from the zeitgeist, the fact is you still know Game of Thrones – sex and battles and, yes, dragons – even if you mightn’t know that Dempsie plays the blacksmith Gendry, bastard son of King Robert Baratheon and one of the few plausible (and surviving)claimants to the Iron Throne.

All this in his twenties – the lad’s only 31… Who could blame him for seeking an escape from the maelstrom? Surrendering to the urges that had gripped him since adolescence, and entering a spiral of wanton self-gratification from which he has still not emerged. Frequent the right shop or website and you might even spot him, searching for the next buzz – be it Nottingham Forest’s home kit of 1958/59; or perhaps England’s 1990 third strip (immortalised in the ‘World in Motion’ video); or even – be still, trembling hands – Barcelona’s 1995/96 turquoise away number with the original Ronaldo on the back!

“My name’s Joe Dempsie and I collect football shirts”mightn’t be the most chilling of confessions but nonetheless it comes from the soul. “I’ve got a problem: I’m addicted to buying and looking at old football shirts.”

The craze dates back to 15, when a friend began wearing “these gorgeous mid-1980s Liverpool shirts.” He directed Dempsie to the website, and the actor’s collection has been growing ever since. Sartorially, his tastes proved prescient: in recent years, football shirts have been elevated into legitimate street style. “They’ve got more expensive,” Dempsie sighs, “and I’m still buying them.”

Watching the throne

Additional pieces of random Dempsie trivia:

– He’s a long-time Frank Ocean fan, discovering the musician in Coachella, 2011 – a year before the release of Ocean’s debut album Channel Orange. “There was something almost religious about watching him perform, and I think everyone at that gig felt the same way.”

– His older sister got him into UK garage, playing tunes such as Indo’s ‘R U Sleeping’ and Tina Moore’s ‘Never Gonna Let You Go’. “DJ Spoony decided to partner with the Ignition Orchestra, and put a night on at the Barbican of orchestral renditions of garage classics, and it was the best night of my life.”

– His favourite film is Shane Meadows’ A Room For Romeo Brass. He first watched it as a teenager. “It was the best film I'd ever seen, and it had people that I knew in it.” The two leads, Andrew Shim and Ben Marshall, were local boys, even attended the same Nottingham drama workshop as Dempsie. Suddenly, being an actor went from abstract concept to tangible career: if people who lived round the corner could do it, why couldn’t he?

– Dempsie ranks high on the list of Interviewees You’d Like To Be Mates With, for no other reason that he seems a really sound guy: open, witty, self-deprecating, great taste in music, film and football shirts. A man who not only buys his round – admittedly we’re on softies, but still – but returns from the bar with a bowl of nuts. When fellow cast members gush about how much they love Joe, it’s because they really do love Joe.

– Gendry, the character he plays in Game of Thrones, will end the show having slain the Night King, wrestled all three dragons into submission, and ruling over the Seven Kingdoms with his consort Jon Snow.

OK, the last one is a lie (you’d imagine…). Only a few thousand people in the world know how the biggest show in TV history will ultimately go down, and although one of those people happens to be sitting opposite me in the pub, I’m not going to ask what happens, and he wouldn’t tell me if I did. (As mentioned, we’re on the softies.)

I was made more aware of how profoundly the show had changed a lot of the cast’s lives

When the cast received the scripts for the final seven episodes, “it was like a grenade went off on the WhatsApp groups. ‘They’re here, they’re here! No spoilers!’” No spoilers indeed – although this does somewhat limit our season eight discussion. “It’s the tricky thing whenever this time of year rolls around,”says Dempsie cheerfully. “I can never quite get my head around how any interviewer or journalist does their job.

“As an actor in the show, you get quite adept at essentially giving an answer which doesn’t give any answers whatsoever. You’re able to talk around the subject.” A career in politics awaits. “Especially in the current climate. Before you know it, Brexit will be being negotiated by Kit Harington, Emilia Clarke and Peter Dinklage – and I'd much rather they were doing it than Theresa May.”

(Based on recent months, Hodor would do a better job than Theresa May. Ideally you'd want Tyrion sat opposite Jean-Claude Juncker, although Lyanna Mormont would be fun.)

What’s unique about Dempsie’s GoT experience is that he essentially signed up twice: at the beginning, in 2011, when nobody knew whether a show pitched as ‘The Sopranos meets Middle-earth’ would find an audience beyond hardcore book devotees; and again in season seven, after a four-year absence in which the “tits and dragons” formula had produced a bonafide cultural event, the biggest thing to ever happen to the small screen.

“I was made more aware of how profoundly the show had changed a lot of the cast’s lives, in a way that it hadn’t for me and some of the more peripheral characters. For a lot of the guys whose faces you see a hell of a lot in the show – like Kit, like Emilia, like Peter – it really is quite significant, and going about day-to-day business becomes a lot harder. Going out in a big bunch of us anywhere now is tricky, because people spot those guys immediately.”

Sometimes it’s hard to take step back and appreciate what you’re involved in

He speaks without the slightest trace of envy. His time on Skins offered a brief taste of what it would be like to be really, properly famous – Harry Styles famous, Kit Harington famous – and he didn’t like it very much, to the extent that many of his post-Skins career choices were informed by a desire to avoid projects that might raise his profile too high. The actor wanted to act; not be papped outside nightclubs, or linked with Taylor Swift.

Robbie Williams once said of Take That, and the numbing effect of unimaginable fame: “Once you’re on that treadmill of promotion tour and all of the above, there is no ‘what does it feel like?’. Feels like France. Feels like this dressing room. After a while that weighs down on you; it weighs down on anybody.“

I mention the quote to Dempsie. Leaving the tour, so to speak, allowed him to appreciate the scale of the band. He doesn’t know if this is true of those who have remained onstage throughout. “If my experience of Skins is anything to go by, sometimes it’s really hard when you’re in the midst of it to take step back and appreciate what you’re involved in.“

Shedding his skin

So let us step back from GoT, for a moment – OK, for most of the remaining feature. Didn’t you hear the man? He can’t say anything about it! Let us leave Westeros and head to late 1990s-Nottingham, where an adolescent Joe Dempsie is about to embark on an acting career that “kind of happened by accident.”

His younger sister, Lauren, has cerebral palsy. “Whenever a severely disabled member of the family comes along, on purely practical terms, life has to revolve around them. There’s so much stuff that needs to be organised and planned for, equipment that needs to come into play – spontaneity goes out of the window. As a result, my parents were really keen to ensure that I never felt left out, and I never did.”

Mother overheard son tell a family friend how much he enjoys drama at school – “which was really bizarre to her, because I’d never been a particularly outgoing kid. Also, I was really sporty.” She encouraged Joe to audition for the Central Junior Television Workshop –a local drama school of some prestige. (Fellow Skins alumni Jack O’Connell also attended.) “On the day of the audition, my mates were doing something that you could do on any day of the holiday – bowling or something. And I wanted to do that instead.

“My mum said, very gently, ‘look, I know you want to go bowling with your mates. But there’s a door open here, and if there’s an open door go through it and see what’s on the other side – and if you don’t like it you can go back.’

I went along and had the most fun that I’d had in ages – it was essentially just dicking about for two hours, trying to make people laugh.”

He passed the first round, fell at the second; but the spark was lit, and the following year he got in. “I was 13, 14 by this point. It was such a unique place, this – a lot of kids auditioned, only a handful got in every year, but once you were in it was fully subsidised, it was free to go. So you had kids from all over the region, all kinds of different backgrounds, all kinds of different families. It led to this really special atmosphere and alchemy.”

Several happy years passed. He honed his craft, even appeared “in the odd episode of a TV show, usually with zero street cred like Peak Practice, Doctors”– although there was also a film appearance alongside Michael Sheen. Then the classic Young Actor’s Dilemma presented itself. “Do I go to uni like all my friends, and enjoy that experience, that broadening of horizons, or do I stay in Nottingham, keep going to the workshop, keep learning, and hope that something comes up?”

He chose the latter. Something came up.

Pretty soon you’ll need an Oscar nomination to attend the Skins Christmas party

If you weren’t of the ’Skins Generation’, it’s difficult to convey the show’s cultural ubiquity for the teenagers and young adults of 2007. Everyone you knew watched it, everyone had a favourite character, everyone would be talking about last night’s episode the following day – and you could guarantee, if a group of you were stumbling home from a house party in the early hours, somebody would announce, “I feel just like the kids from Skins.”

Skins revolved around a group of Bristol sixth formers, focusing on a different character each week. Its themes included drug addiction, bulimia, homosexuality, religion, and unrequited love – all presented with a lightness of touch that prevented the heavy stuff from weighing it down completely. Skins knew that being a teenager was hard, but it was also fun, possibly the most fun you would ever have.

Crucially, the first incarnation of the show (the cast was replaced every two seasons) remained anchored in an adolescence its audience could recognise. These people were cooler, better-looking, more debauched versions of your friends, but nonetheless you might just about be friends with them. (Later storylines became increasingly implausible: one of the main characters being beaten to death by his girlfriend’s stalker is hardly a “I feel just like…”moment. At least, I hope not.)

Dempsie’s sweet-natured party boy Chris was arguably the standout member of an ensemble that included Nicholas Hoult, Dev Patel and Daniel Kaluuya. (Skins rivalled RADA as a breeding ground for British talent. Quips Dempsie, “pretty soon you’ll need an Oscar nomination to attend the Christmas party.”) However, none of the young actors quite expected the fame sprung upon them. An inspired marketing campaign, founded upon a trailer showing a house party straight out of a parental nightmare, ensured 1.5m of the nation’s youth watched the first episode air (a then-record for E4).

His life was forever changed. “It sounds like an exaggeration, but the next day you couldn’t walk down the street without people saying something or stopping you. For three years after that, life was pretty intense. Nights out with friends would turn into three-hour photoshoots in bars with drunk people.

“At the time, the only tools I had to cope with that was to get as drunk as the drunk people who wanted photos with me. Also, playing the character that I did, Chris being the number-one hedonist of the group, I had this thing in my mind: they want Chris, give them Chris. I used to get really trashed, I guess as a way of coping with that.”

He didn’t really know who he was, exactly – a rare condition exclusive to pretty much everybody in their early twenties, except most people don’t have a ready-made alter-ego waiting to be inhabited. Later, I ask what advice he’d give to young actors thrust into the spotlight. “Don’t feel under pressure to perform for anyone,” he says. “Unless you’re being paid for it and you’re on a film set.

“It can be easy to feel obligated to please the fans. A lot of us are people pleasers, particularly when we’re younger, and it’s something we get better at avoiding as we get older and older. Don’t try and please anyone; just try and please yourself.”A beat later: “That sounds weird – like I’m encouraging people to masturbate!”

Despite the oft-documented pitfalls of youthful fame, none of the Skins cast experienced the type of public meltdown so beloved of former child actors and boyband members. (Perhaps this is more notable due to the show’s lurid content: is anyone surprised the Inbetweeners all turned out fine?) “We were actually quite innocent as a group – initially, anyway…” There was a real desire, says Dempsie, not only to work but to do good work, step up rather than cash out – and this mentality became infectious. “In any walk of life, your close friends and immediate colleagues are the ones that inspire you, and make you want to push on.”

Skins was a teen drama for E4 – imagine what it would be like to be properly famous. That wasn’t something I really wanted.

Skins informed his career in two crucial ways. It made his name, offering opportunities that a young actor could only dream of; it also offered “a little slice of what it must be like to be Harry Styles”– exist as an object of desire and fascination for a certain type of teenager. “It was a very specific age group,” says Dempsie of the superfans. “The age group most likely to come up to you in the street, scream in your face, and run away.“

Fortunately that age group must grow up as well. After two seasons, his time on Skins came to an end and life began to calm. He kept busy, even fulfilling his earliest acting ambition by working with Shane Meadows on This is England ’86, but there was no desire to follow Hoult et al to Hollywood. He’d recall the Skins years and think, “That was a teen drama for E4 – imagine what it would be like to be properly famous. And that wasn’t something I really wanted. A long time afterwards, it really informed the choices that I made, work-wise. And then Game of Thrones came along.”

He grins, fully aware that trying to keep a low profile by starring in Game of Thrones is a bit like trying to stay on the straight and narrow by robbing a bank. Although of course he never expected Game of Thrones to become GAME OF THRONES; “I just thought: HBO, great! Obviously I want to work for HBO. A friend of mine loved the books, said they were fantastic. For him more than anything, I was like, ‘I really want to be involved in this thing’.”

While his public profile spiked, there wasn’t the same ‘aaaand now you’re famous’ hullabaloo there had been with Skins. “In both instances, I really didn’t know what I was letting myself in for. Both times. There’s a certain naivety that you go into it with, which when you look back you’re really glad that you had – it’s better to not know that you’re opening Pandora’s Box with this thing.“

Game over?

His life remains his own. When we head up to Clapham Common for our photoshoot, hordes of screaming teenagers do not appear from behind the trees, scream in his face and run away. His mood is relaxed, cheerful – none of the edginess sometimes shown by public figures in public places. It’s a bitterly cold winter’s afternoon – ‘so Joe, we want you in a T-shirt and boxers’. He chuckles. “Showing where I’ll be in the future, now Game of Thrones has finished. Wandering around the common in my pants.”

That seems unlikely. His celebrity may depend a little on Gendry’s prominence in the final season (please don’t die in the first episode, please don’t die in the first episode), but the phone should keep ringing for a while yet. Whose call to take?

Dempsie has no immediate designs on Hollywood, although he concedes it would be “fucking cool” to emulate certain friends with an Oscar nomination. However, a role in the next Marvel blockbuster is the last thing on his mind. “It seems like in recent years, for a young actor who’s given an amazing performance in something, the reward is, ‘well done, that was great, here’s your big superhero part’. I’m so bored of it.”

Would he turn down Marvel or DC? He’d like to think so, but can’t pretend the giant ton of money wouldn’t be a factor. “As a viewer my sensibility is towards human stories, told in an interesting and original way – but if you see me in a superhero outfit in ten years, so be it.”

“I just want to keep being involved in interesting stuff. The medium doesn't matter to me

He yearns to return to the “nourishment”of the stage, the rhythms of a working life that he hasn’t experienced since graduating from the workshop more than a decade ago. He speaks of having experienced “a slight imposter syndrome”: at his lack of a drama-school education, and the speed with which his career took off. “There’s part of you that wonders, did I really deserve this? Do I have the tools required? I’m still running on instinct, and how far that will take me is anyone’s guess.”

He seems a man at peace: with life, his career, and the possibilities that lie ahead.

“I just want to keep being involved in interesting stuff. It doesn’t really matter to me whether it’s television, film, theatre; the medium is not my concern. I just want to work with great writers and keep finding interesting stories to tell.” Iron Throne or no Iron Throne, he certainly won’t lack an audience for them.

The final season of Game of Thrones airs exclusively in the UK on Sky Atlantic and Now TV from Monday 15 April. Dempsie also stars in Deep State; the second season is coming this spring on FOX.