It’s midday in Burbank, and “Game of Thrones” actor Joe Dempsie has arrived at Access Hollywood looking rather different to Gendry, the increasingly popular character he plays in HBO’s hit fantasy drama.
“I’ve had a wash,” the British actor laughs, referring to the missing layers of fake road dirt generally found smudged on the face of the young armorer’s apprentice, who started Season 2 on the long journey to The Wall with Arya Stark.
Gone too are the jet black locks that helped him look like the illegitimate son of the late King Robert Baratheon. Instead, Joe is sporting his natural color, a blond hue more befitting the Lannisters, the very family whose armies just made Gendry and Arya prisoners at Harrenhal.
“When I was cast, the character description was, ‘tall, muscular, with thick black hair.’ I was none of those three at that time,” he tells AccessHollywood.com’s Laura Saltman as he sits down for a chat. “I kind of thought, ‘I can die my hair and hit the gym, but I can’t do much about the shortness.’ So two out of three ain’t bad.
“In terms of playing the character, though, I had to sort of do a lot of my own thinking and there wasn’t much information to go on about his past or anything that really shaped him into the person that he kind of is,” Joe continues. “So I just kind of wanted to make him a nice guy, who was a man of principle… more than anything.”
He may not have physically resembled the part, but it’s easy to see why Joe was given the role of Gendry. In just a few scenes at the start of the Season 2, his performances – humorous, delightful and full of chemistry with co-star Maisie Williams (who plays Arya) – quickly made him a fan favorite. In recent weeks, #Gendry even became a top trending topic on Twitter, but the popularity of his character still came as a bit of a surprise.
“Oh yeah, definitely,” he says. “I think it’s strange, ‘cause he was quite a minor character in [Season] 1, but you definitely got the impression that there was more to come, that there was kind of something… like a deeper story to be told.”
“Game of Thrones” might be the first time Joe’s managed to trend on Twitter, but it’s not his first brush with success.
In 2007, he was part of the freshman cast of “Skins,” the raw British drama, starring and aimed at teens, a show that quickly became a phenomenon in his native UK.
Starring a pre-“Slumdog Millionaire” Dev Patel, Nicholas Hoult (“About A Boy”) and “GOT” Season 2 newcomer Hannah Murray (she plays Gilly), Joe’s show won awards, prompted a host of headlines and the British press even likened its quick rise to a sort of new Beatlemania.
“We were surprised at how popular that show became. So there was a period of about two years where, it was quite full on because teenagers… they’re more likely to come say something to you in the street,” Joe recalls of the fan reaction.
“It was lovely and I got some very nice people talking to me during that period of time, but it was a bit full on, so I’m more than happy to go under the radar. And I say that as I’m talking to Access Hollywood,” he laughs.
“Skins” may have been Joe’s breakout role in the UK, but despite his age (he’s in his early 20s), and unlike many of his fellow young “GOT” castmates who came in with much less experience, the Nottingham-raised actor has had a host of roles across British screens. Most recently, there was “The Fades,” which was imported stateside via BBC America (and also starred Natalie Dormer, who plays Margaery Tyrell in “GOT”), and a brief appearance in the 2011 Jason Statham film “Blitz” (with another “GOT” star – Aidan Gillen).
One of Joe’s earliest acting gigs, though, was playing a patient in British program called “Doctors,” which like “Law & Order” does stateside, offers endless plotlines that need a stream of fresh faces.
“Let me explain it to you what ‘Doctors’ is — ’Doctors’ is a really bad daytime soap in the UK. Actually, I’ve not watched for ages, it might not be really bad anymore. But the great thing about it was — it was a rite of passage for young actors,” he says of the show, which was also where Emilia Clarke (Daenerys) got her start. “It was like [you got your] first job on ‘Doctors.’ I had two jobs on ‘Doctors.’
Separated by a span of three years, Joe says he first played — a young man who, “overdosed on his older brother’s methadone,” and later brought to life “an angsty teen, who discovered he had epilepsy.”
These days, on “Game of Thrones,” his first project for American audiences, Joe is once again playing a young person, and while his character, Gendry, is smart enough to know Arya is a girl in disguise, he hasn’t quite made the connection that King Robert was his father.
“He knows that there’s something up because obviously he knows that Jon Arryn came to see him, as Hand of the King and then Ned Stark, and the same thing happened [to them]. And now, knowing he’s kind of a wanted man, it is kind of strange that he’s not asked anyone. I have to admit,” Joe notes of his character. “But I think his world has been so far removed from anything that could even compare to being the son of the king… If he discovered his true parentage, I think he would be shocked, but… I think he would believe it.”
For now, Joe’s character has other things to focus on instead of unlocking that mystery — like surviving. In Sunday’s episode, just before Gendry was about to undergo torture at the mouth of a rat fleeing a burning bucket, Tywin Lannister stepped in and told his troops to put the prisoners to work. According to Joe, for Gendry, that means making armor — and in true “Game of Thrones” fashion, some of that work will be shirtless.
“Yeah, there was a complete – I mean it was completely gratuitous. I obviously have no dignity,” he laughs, after a discussion of the “Saturday Night Live” “GOT” parody (he loved it) prompts the revelation he’s about to show off the work of many hours in the gym.
“But, yeah, I’m forging a sword. In the script it says he’s forging a sword in the baking heat. Belfast, [where the show is partially shot] in November, doesn’t really do baking heat. So I’m kind of like, forging a sword. Topless. In drizzle,” he adds.
Knowing he had the scene coming up last year lead the actor to consuming “a lot of protein shakes” and into a bit of competition with some of his fellow cast mates.
“It got quite competitive on set — to the extent of complete body fascism on set,” he laughs. “Alfie Allen [Theon Greyjoy], Richard Madden [Robb Stark] – we were all trying to get in the best shape possible.”
“So who’s winning that war – who’s winning the best body on ‘Game of Thrones?’” Laura chimes in.
“You know what? I don’t know. I have not seen the stuff that they have shot. We don’t all really show each other,” he laughs. “I will have to wait and see.”
“Game of Thrones” airs Sunday nights at 9 PM on HBO.