“I don’t think drama has any responsibility beyond telling great stories – and I still broadly believe that – but when done in the right way it can hold up a very powerful mirror to society.” -Joe Dempsie
Joe Dempsie has been involved in a number of amazing stories. He first captured attention (and hearts) on screen in 2007 as the flawed but extremely charming Chris, on the seminal youth series, Skins – a show whose unflinching portrayal of teenage life excited teenagers and terrified adults. Since then, Dempsie has become a household name for a very different genre of television. On the first six seasons of the action-fueled fantasy series, Game of Thrones, he played Gendry, the skilled blacksmith and bastard son of a king, whose questionable death launched a thousand memes.
Dempsie’s ability to transition from fact to fiction and back again has led to comedic and dramatic roles in award-winning television shows and movies that run the gamut from spine-tingling thriller to quirky comedy. The year alone has seen him play a murder suspect in the BBC1 series One of Us, a darkly complicated character in the television film Ellen, and the straitlaced foil to a bohemian spirit in the dark comedy, Burn Burn Burn.
The Untitled Magazine caught up with Dempsie to get the lowdown on his current and upcoming roles and the method to his madness. Check out the exclusive interview below and catch him in Burn Burn Burn, now available on Netflix.
The Untitled Magazine: How did you get into acting?
Joe Dempsie: By accident really, my mum heard me telling a friend that I was enjoying drama at school, and around the same time was made aware of an acting workshop for young people in Nottingham, the town where I grew up. I started going there two evenings a week from the age of thirteen. Most of the sessions involved improvisation exercises or rehearsing for plays we planned to stage but it also had a reputation among casting directors as a good place to go to find young actors for parts in TV or film. I did my first few professional acting jobs from that point onwards, but it wasn’t until nineteen that I started seeing it as anything other than a hobby. At that point, with help from the Workshop, I managed to get an agent down in London, six months later Skins came along. I’ve been earning my keep acting ever since.
UM: Was it like to film Skins?
JD: I’ll always look back on filming Skins, particularly the first series, with really fond memories. It came at a fairly crucial time for me as the previous summer I’d decided to defer a place at university for a year to see if I could land any more decent acting work that may in turn get me an agent. I had a part time job at a local cinema but there didn’t seem to be many auditions on the horizon. At the same time all my school friends were off having a blast at various Uni’s around the country – experiencing new cities, new people, new hangovers…At the end of that gap year I’d got the agent but had no work. I just decided to take up my university place when I found out I’d got the part in Skins. Filming the show became my university experience in every way – I moved to a new town, learned a lot about the industry I wanted to work in and made friends I’ll have for the rest of my life. It was every bit as fun to shoot as it looked on screen and in that first year we had no idea what we were letting ourselves in for so, ironically, there was a real innocence to it which will always have a special place in my heart.
Left Page: Joe wears a jumper by PAUL SMITH, trousers by SEVERAL, and boots by RUSSELL AND BROMLEY. Right Page: He wears trousers by LOU DALTON, a shirt by BARBOUR, a coat by PAUL SMITH, and boots by RUSSELL AND BROMLEY.
JD: Did you feel as if you grew up with your character, Chris? He was definitely an audience favorite.
JD: I think Chris will always be the character I miss the most. Despite his troubles he seemed to have an infectious optimism, which I think audiences connected with and admired. It’s certainly a quality I’ve tried to take on board in my own life, with varying degrees of success.. It’s always nice to hear people say a character you’ve played has stayed with them in some way. I was nineteen when we started filming, a couple of years older than the rest of the cast so I personally felt like I’d already come through the other side of those awkward years we were portraying. There were definitely things I learned from Chris, but I think I’d done a fair bit of my growing up by then.
UM: Fast forward to today and you have several award-winning shows under your belt, how do you decide which roles to take?
JD: There’s no strict set of rules, it’s usually just instinctive. When I’m reading a script I don’t look for anything other than an engaging story told in an original way with layered characters. If you don’t have those three elements then what’s the point? I’m still at a stage in my career where I’m auditioning for the majority of the roles I end up playing so in reality the only real power I have is over what I say no to. Beyond that, if I read a script I like – whatever the medium – I just have to make sure I put the work in, do myself justice in the audition and hope I get the job.
UM: We can’t talk about your career without mentioning Game of Thrones, what is it like to be a part of such a global phenomenon?
JD: Well again, like with Skins, I don’t think anyone that was involved in season one of Thrones could’ve predicted how popular the show was going to be. On a personal level it was, and remains, the biggest production I’ve ever worked on. It was a different kind of work to anything I’d done before. I learned a lot, had loads of fun and again found some great mates. Since I’ve left it’s been amazing to watch Thrones grow in popularity, scale and ambition – I’m very proud to have been part of it.
UM: We heard that you might be returning to the show, can you say anything about that? It will mean the death of many memes!
JD: It would be lovely to go back at some point, but it’s completely out of my hands. Like every year, we’ll just have to wait and see. Long live the memes.
UM: You just starred in the television series One of Us and it has quite a dark premise. How do you get in to the mental space for something like that?
JD: No method in particular. Sometimes I might take myself off somewhere quiet and put a bit of music on, but other times the scene itself can do the work for you. Weirdly some of the shows with the heaviest subject matter end up having the most light-hearted atmosphere on set. Think we’d go nuts if it was all doom and gloom.
UM: Do you prefer to act in comedies or dramas?
JD: I’ve tended to do more drama over the last few years, but I love them both. It might feel like you’re working different muscles but I guess good comedy and drama is all about truth in the end. All writing is hard, and I’ve huge admiration for all the writers I’ve been fortunate enough to work with. I think it’s doubly difficult to write a great, original comedy these day, which I think is partly why I haven’t done so much recently.
UM: How about television or films, do you have a preference there?
JD: Again, not really. I’ve tried to stick to the ethos that if I like the script, character and director – the medium is irrelevant. It’s almost become cliche to talk about ‘The Golden Age Of Television’, but I do think we’re seeing a significant shift. At a time when film studios are spending an ever greater portion of their money on superhero films at the expense of mid-budget human stories, TV has stolen a march. Resources have increased along with the number of platforms, and American cable networks in particular have trusted their show’s creators to deliver their vision with minimal interference in the creative process. The idea of the long form narrative – the opportunity to let your story and characters develop over a number of hours – appeals massively to top-level directors and actors alike.
UM: You just starred in the TV movie, Ellen, which is about a teenage girl who has been forgotten by society. What made you want to be involved with that film?
JD: I just loved the script. I thought Sarah Quintrell had shone a light on a section of society that isn’t always done justice on film. Nearly all of her characters are poor and working class, but aren’t, as is often portrayed, devoid of humor, warmth and hope. As well as being keen to play with the ambiguity of my character, Jason, I also thought it was important for the darker elements of the narrative to be shown on screen. I’ve said before that I don’t think drama has any responsibility beyond telling great stories – and I still broadly believe that – but when done in the right way it can hold up a very powerful mirror to society. I think Ellen did that.
UM: Your next full-length film to be released is Burn Burn Burn, which is about two young women who are road tripping to spread their deceased friend’s ashes. Where does your character fit into the plot?
JD: I play James, the boyfriend of Seph (Laura Carmichael). He’s a decent man, but I think ultimately kind of predictable. He has his life and career planned out and struggles with Seph’s spontaneity, dependence and occasional childishness…They’ve been together a number of years and are maybe a little too comfortable, but Dan’s (Jack Farthing) death leads Seph to consider whether they’re really right for each other.
UM: Burn Burn Burn seems like a fun one, how was it to be on the set for that?
JD: Yeah, it was great…despite the film opening on a funeral it is a comedy, so it was nice to play a lighter character. It was made on a shoestring budget, but they’re often the nicest sets to be on because no-one’s there for the money – it’s all for the love of the script. The director Chanya Button put together a brilliant cast and crew and I think she’s going to go on to fantastic things. I’m chuffed that I got to work with her right at the beginning.
UM: What projects are you excited about for 2017?
JD: Earlier this year I shot a film called Dark River with Clio Barnard, a director who’s work I’ve admired for a number of years. That should be out at some point in 2017.
UM: What do you like to do when you aren’t acting, do you have any hobbies or passion projects?
JD: At the moment my passion project is decorating my house. It’s taken me nearly three years to start, and progress is slow. I see a Gendry/rowboat/paintbrush meme on the horizon…
Photography by Mary Rozzi @ A&R Photographic
Styling by Lorna McGee @ A&R Photographic
Grooming by Amy Conley @ Stella Creative Artists
Stylist Assistant: Federica Battistino