Joe Demspie talks spy thriller Deep State, Game of Thrones and the legacy of Skins
There’s a torture scene in Joe Dempsie’s new TV spy thriller Deep State where pliers are produced to remove fingernails to make someone talk. I’m reminded of this when I start interrogating him on the final season of the forthcoming Game of Thrones in which Dempsie plays Gendry, AKA Robert Baratheon’s bastard son and heir to the Iron Throne if you’re a big Thronie. He’s on a break at his home in London before heading back to Belfast to wrap the final scenes of the finale when we speak, “just having a week at home, catching up with people you haven’t seen for ages, washing pants. The lack of glamour is staggering,” he laughs. So can he give us a hint about how it all ends?
Aw go on, tell us what happens to Gendry. Will he be wielding the Baratheon hammer? Will he end up on the Iron Throne?
No chance. Dempsie has just played an MI6 agent, and even if he hadn’t, he’s been working on Game of Thrones long enough to be an expert at keeping secrets.
“It becomes second nature,” he says. “You become adept at talking about it without giving anything away. It’s fun, a challenge to keep everything under wraps. Walking around with the final episode of the last ever Game of Thrones in your head is like being privy to a massive state secret, and most of the actors in Thrones are probably MI6 level now in terms of keeping secrets.”
The reference is entirely appropriate for Dempsie, as he plays an MI6 agent, Harry Clarke, opposite Mark Strong and Karima McAdams, in FOX UK’s eight part Deep State. After kicking off with a bang it’s now racing along in Bourne, Homeland, Night Manager style with locations like Tehran and Beirut, and has already been commissioned for a second series. It’s a step up in terms of screen time for Dempsie, whose career is going great guns.
After making his name as the guy a generation of teenagers wanted to have on speed dial as party animal Chris in Skins, the controversial cult show everyone watched from 2007-13 Dempsie appeared in Shane Meadows’ cult series This is England ‘86, Southcliffe, Doctor Who, and then the global phenomenon that is HBO’s Game of Thrones. It was between seasons seven and eight of the latter that he headed out to Casablanca to film Deep State, with very little notice or time to prepare.
“I was filming before I knew it and in hindsight that was a good thing because it’s such a complex, twisting narrative that I just had to go in there with a bit of tunnel vision. There are so many elements to playing Harry; the technical side of playing an MI6 agent, the practical things like having to do scenes in Farsi and Arabic, so I just flung myself into it headfirst.
“Being out in Morocco was an amazing experience too. Casablanca is such a vibrant city that never stops and it’s the Hollywood of the Middle East with everything in place to shoot movies, so it’s a great place to go,” he says, full of enthusiasm, before sounding a sombre note, “although it’s unfortunate we are making so much film and TV that requires Middle Eastern locations purely because of the fact that there’s been a war on now for the past 15 years.”
Deep State follows Mark Strong playing a former MI6 agent forced out of retirement for one last job, to plug the leak in a cell of joint MI6/CIA agents who have been blasting apart Iran’s nuclear programme by carbombing scientists. Dempsie plays his son Harry, a chip off the old block and part of the cell, and everyone is spying on everyone else in a plot with more twists and turns than a dragon’s tail.
“Events unfold at a rapid pace and the way the writer Matthew Parkhill has constructed the narrative is beyond impressive. We would sometimes get confused because we weren’t shooting chronologically, so had to keep re-reading the scripts to check where we were in the story, and every time, it all hung together and made sense. But as a viewer you have to really stick to it and pay attention,” he says.
“Harry is a young operative, fairly green, who’s been in a few operations but this is the first time he’s had to take an active part in assassinations. He thinks he’s been fighting the good fight but in the course of the series, this ends up being called into question.”
With the tone of the show more Bourne than Bond, and little in the way of glamour about it, Dempsie was keen to make his portrayal of an agent as authentic as possible.
“But you can’t look them up on the internet,” he says and laughs. “It’s helpful to talk to people who have done a job, or to a character you’re about to play, but a big part of being an actor is to use your imagination.”
Using his imagination is familiar territory for Dempsie, since playing Gendry in Game of Thrones, the bastard son blacksmith from 2012, was also a leap into the unknown.
“Gendry is an everyman character,” he says. “Of all the characters in Game of Thrones he’s the one who has spent most of his life in the slums and has no family, or idea of his place in the world. Essentially he’s just working in an armoury and though highly skilled, is living on a pittance. Then he’s hit with the news he’s of royal stock, so he goes on the biggest journey of the lot.”
Gendry escaped Dragonstone for King’s Landing on a rowing boat after learning the truth about his parentage back in season three and washed up in King’s Landing in season seven. Is he poised for a pivotal role in the final eighth season which will air in 2019?
“I can neither confirm nor deny,” he says, apologetic, yet amused. “I feel sorry for you guys, but you know the deal by now. There’s very little that can be said, if anything. The theorising you can do is pretty much endless,” he says and laughs. “And I think that’s a key component of the show’s success, that we’re in the age of Twitter and fandom and the internet has provided a place for fans to congregate and discuss without limits. So it’s a perfect show for the age we’re in.”
If it’s any comfort, Dempsie didn’t see the ending coming either until he got the script, but he will confirm it’s a fitting conclusion to the ratings record smashing series, that saw 12.1 million viewers watch the finale of last season.
“It has to be an ending people haven’t thought of and I think they’ve done that,” he says.
With only two more weeks to go on Thrones when we speak, Dempsie is enjoying the end of term feeling on the set in Belfast. “People haven’t quite started bringing in Connect 4 and dressing in their own clothes yet, but we’re not far off.“
For his part, Dempsie is sad that it’s winding up, after being out of the show for four years and learning to appreciate it more in the gap.
“In hindsight it was a good thing because I think on a personal level I had started to take the friends bit for granted. By the end of season three when I left, GoT was already well on its way to being the biggest TV show on the planet, but I had started to define the success or otherwise of my year on what else I had done. I had just seen it as yeah, I like to go to Belfast for a few months every year and hang out with my mates and work, but I think I had stopped appreciating everything that goes with Thrones, and the time spent with friends.
“But being out of it also gave me an opportunity to get on with other stuff and it went to the back of my mind, to the point where I could just enjoy the show as a fan and see it grow from something that was incredibly popular into the juggernaut it is today. So since I got the call to go back I’ve just enjoyed every last minute. There are some who’ve been there from the start who are looking forward to spreading their wings, but for me having had those years out in the middle, I just don’t really want it to end.”
In terms of souvenirs Dempsie might want to liberate from the set, he has his eye on a couple of items but reckons most of the props are destined for exhibitions and tours.
“I’ll see what I can get my hands on basically. I would take the bull’s head helmet Gendry was forging the first time you ever see him, the one Ned Stark tries to buy that he tells him bullishly ain’t for sale. I think I’d swipe that if I could.”
He already has a souvenir from the set in the form of a piece of metalwork that the show’s resident blacksmith helped him make when they had a few sessions together.
“He showed me how to turn a square rod of steel into an iron leaf. His was beautiful – he has such a delicate touch and artistic eye. Mine was horrendous. It was supposed to be a keyring, but it’s no use, it’s in a drawer somewhere.
“Blacksmithing is amazing to watch, a fascinating mixture between something that’s traditionally incredibly masculine, working with hammer and tongs, fire and steam, whacking bits of metal all day on an anvil, and an art that requires sensibility and a delicate touch. It’s an amazing mixture of skills that I don’t have!”
Along with ironmongery, however rudimentary, horse riding, stunts and espionage, Dempsie loves the variety his chosen career has brought to his life.
“As an actor you want to play as many varied parts as you can,” he says and he’s certainly achieved that.
Born in Liverpool in 1987 and raised in Nottingham, Dempsie joined the drama classes at Junior Television Workshop as a teenager after his mum heard him tell a friend of hers he was enjoying the compulsory drama he did at school.
“She was always looking out for things I was into,” he says. “I’ve got a younger sister, Lauren, who has cerebral palsy, so I think because of the amount of life that had to revolve around her, my parents were keen to ensure I didn’t feel left out and used to encourage me to try things. So I auditioned and had the best couple of hours, but didn’t get in, got in the next year when I was 13 or 14 and loved it, then when it came to applying for university, I decided that an actor was what I wanted to be.”
It was the role of Chris in the controversial teen drama Skins, which ran over seven series that kick-started his career and saw him make friends for life. His housemate in London, where he’s lived for the past eight years, is Larissa Wilson who played his sometime girlfriend Jal [Frazer].
“I got really lucky with that role, first of all because Chris was predominantly created by Jack Thorne [the writer who started on Shameless and Skins, went on to write Cast Offs, Glue, The Last Panthers, won a BAFTA for National Treasure and most recently tackled transracial adoption in the Channel 4 series Kiri starring Sarah Lancashire], and there’s nothing he’s not right on. There was always something about the characters in Skins, they were all archetypal, and Chris was the life and soul of the party, the most impulsive, outrageous, but with a heart of gold, a combination of hedonism and thoughtfulness. Then it was revealed he was dealing with the most significant problems, and to die at the end, that’s where you really reel them in. Live fast and die young,” he says.
Yet the beauty of Skins, and perhaps the reason for its popularity with the 18-24 year old demographic – not forgetting older viewers who enjoyed the likes of Bill Bailey, Peter Capaldi and Josie Lawrence as the parents – was that it portrayed without preaching.
“Yeah,” says Dempsie, “Chris died of a brain haemorrhage, which his brother had died of, there was a genetic predisposition, rather than as a consequence of a hedonistic lifestyle. He didn’t die because he took loads of drugs, he took loads of drugs because he knew he could die at any point.
“Skins wasn’t a consequence-led show, it didn’t lecture teenagers about the perils of exploring and expressions of self. I’m sure there are a fair few people out there who maybe decided to try things in their teens that they might not have done if they hadn’t watched Skins, but it had a level of respect for its audience and expected them to be able to make that distinction.”
Now ten years on with the series back on Netflix and Dempsie the other side of 30, it’s come full circle, with a new generation of teenagers watching the adventures of the Skins gang.
“I think it’s amazing that teenagers are starting to watch it again now,” he says. “That’s been fascinating for me. With platforms like Netflix, it lives on forever doesn’t it? I remember the hysteria around it when it was on first, like when I was a teenager there was always that one show you’re not technically allowed to watch by your parents, but you have to because everyone will be talking about it at school. For me it was Harry Enfield and Chums. It was on past my bedtime but I had to watch it to know what anyone was on about... yeah, Kevin and Perry and Lulu.”
He’s sounding nostalgic, possibly softened up, so it’s time for one last attempt to get him to crack, Deep State style. Would he say there’s any similarity between the fatal ending for Chris in Skins and what may or may not happen to Gendry in Game of Thrones?
“No,” he says, then answers a completely different question with such aplomb it’s only later I realise he’s been doing that talking about it without giving anything away thing. “But I was in Belfast at the same time as Hannah Murray last week, who played Cassie in Skins and is Gilly in Game of Thrones, and we were reflecting about how fortunate we are to have had two experiences of being part of really important, genre-busting television.”
Nicely done. Time’s up and it’s mission accomplished, no leaks, no spoilers on GoT or Deep State. Time to go back to washing his pants.
He laughs. “Apologies.”
He can get a job in MI6 now, in fact he could already have one and we’d never know.
“Exactly. I wouldn’t be telling you.”
With Thrones about to wrap, and another season of Deep State looking likely, Dempsie is hopeful that’s what he’ll be working on later this year, but it’s the uncertainty at the core of his job that he thrives on.
“In terms of planning where my career would be, I never could have guessed. The thing I love about it, and didn’t realise when I made the decision to try and be an actor, is that it really suits my personality and my disposition. I hate planning, not knowing what’s round the corner, where I’m going to be this time next month let alone next year. Hopefully Deep State season two will happen, but after Game of Thrones finishes, I’ll just see what’s out there.”
Deep State is on FOX UK, Thursdays, 9pm