Viewers on this side of the pond are just catching up to Joe Dempsie. The Nottingham native got his big break several years ago as a partying, pleasure-seeking teen on the cultishly popular English comedy-drama Skins. However, many Americans first saw Dempsie as a grimy-looking blacksmith named Gendry—at the time, a peripheral character—on HBO’s Game of Thrones.
But times have changed, and Dempsie has become more of a fixture in pop culture, including some very important memes. In April, he’ll return for the eighth and final season of Game of Thrones, where Gendry has evolved from bastard blacksmith to crowd-favorite Iron Throne bidder. Later in the year, Dempsie will swap his over-sized hammer for a modest firearm in the second season of Deep State. If you didn’t know Joe before, you should get to know him now.
Men’s Health talked to Dempsie about his wild last several months, the evolution of his style, and what to expect from Game of Thrones’ massive final season.
MH: First off, welcome back. We all cheered when Davos showed up [in Flea Bottom] and you turned your head. What was it like getting that call back?
JD: Well, nothing on Game of Thrones is ever a given. But when I left, show runners David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss] did say: “Don’t worry, we’re gonna bring you back at some point; we just don’t quite know when.” Every year that went by, I just got with other things, really. Got my head down and did various other roles and bits and pieces. It can almost be that way—can’t it?— where as soon as you stop expecting something, it happens. [By the time I got the call] I had a long time to think about it and prepare. And I suppose the main thing is getting into shape, isn’t it? If you’re playing someone who’s potentially been rowing for all that time. You better come back with some arms on you.
The Gendry rowing memes. Did you take shit from your friends?
I kind of have to take at least a modicum of responsibility for that. I was watching the show like everyone else, as a fan. Every week there would be tweets and questions about where Gendry was, and what happened to him. And then at the end of the season I just tweeted: “still rowing.” That kind of took on a life of its own, and spawned an entire subculture of memes that involved a mock-up of Gendry in the boat from the poster from Life of Pi, with the tiger. It’s never ended. But it’s a nice ego stroke as an actor to know that a character that you play doesn’t just disappear from people’s memories.
Did the writers expect any physical preparation? During the first three seasons there are many sleeveless scenes (and that one shirtless scene in Harenhall).
[Laughing] In Herenhall, there is an incredibly pointless shirtless scene. It was my first job that required some kind of physical transformation. It’s because I didn’t fit the brief for the character initially. I was amazed that I was offered the part, because the character description that I was sent before I auditioned said that he was tall, muscular, and with thick black hair. Now, at the time, I was 5’8″, skinny, and with brown hair. So I was like, “Well what’s the point?” I’m not gonna get this part. But they obviously saw something that made them feel like I could play it. From that point, it was, “Right, how did we mold you into the aesthetic we want?”
I knew that I had to hit the gym before we even start[ed] something on season one. And it was quite good for me actually, because I had started going to the gym anyway. I’d started trying to make it a bit more part of my routine. But like a lot of people, until you have a real genuine motivation to go, it can often be quite hard. If you know you’re gonna have your top off in front of millions of people, that’s usually a pretty good impetus as well, isn’t it?
Originally, when they told me about it, they justified it by saying, “So basically, he’s forging a sword, but it’s really hot—he’s in the blazing heat—so he’s got his shirt off.” I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Belfast in November, but blazing heat has never existed in Belfast, full stop. Let alone in November. So we got there and it all felt a little bit silly. The broader idea is that it’s more a scene about Aria than Gendry. Aria getting to an age where she notices that kind of thing.
When you wield weaponry or the blacksmith hammer—are these fakes, or are you actually lifting heavy iron equipment?
When I went back, and on one of my first trips to Belfast, they said, “Alright, before you leave, we should take you over to the stunt department and show you the weapon you’re gonna be using this year.” Which is obviously a moment for any actor, and you get a little bit giddy and excited. I went around and I saw a prototype version of the hammer and thought, this is pretty fucking cool. And then the stunt guy said, “Right, so have a little play, give it a little swing around. Now this is just the prototype, so I tell you what you should do: Between now and when we start shooting, get yourself down to your local hardware store, pick up a sledgehammer, and spend the next couple of months in your yard or in your garden just sort of practicing—because when you have the real thing, it’s gonna be much heavier.” So I did that. If anyone had seen me, they’d have thought that I was a certified psychopath, swinging the sledgehammer around in my back garden.
The first day of filming, when I was gonna be using it as part of a fight sequence, they hand me one made entirely of foam. I was like: “Hold on, I thought I was supposed to be getting bigger, so I could carry the hammer?” And they went, “Oh, yeah, we’re not gonna let you do a stunt scene with a real heavy hammer; you’re gonna kill a stuntman! Oh, by the way, you’ve got to make that look heavy.” So now I’m stronger than I’ve ever been, trying to make a foam hammer look heavy.
You wrapped up filming in Belfast a few months ago. Tell me about the day that you all were finally allowed to read the final script.
In the lead-up to the season eight shoot, there were a couple of dates in the diary where we were going to do a Belfast read-through. As those read-throughs approached (and usually you’ve at least read [the script] yourself before you get there), we still hadn’t received anything, and so everyone was waiting with bated breath. And then I remember the day that they dropped in all of our inboxes. There was this flurry of activity on WhatsApp, with people essentially rushing home to get started on reading these things, and saying to everybody else, “All right they’re here; I’m not gonna be able to start reading till tomorrow; NOBODY discuss anything that they read; don’t spoil it!” None of us wanted spoilers, even though we’re gonna sit down a read the flippin’ thing. And when we did the read-through, there were a couple of cast members—Kit [John Snow] and Liam Cunningham [Sir Davos]—who had shown up to the read-through having not read anything. They wanted to experience the story in real time as we all read it out. It was quite an emotional atmosphere. I remember John Bradley [Samwell Tarly] saying it’s strange, because it feels like the last day at school. But it’s not; it’s the first day at school—we’ve not even started filming!
I know you can’t tell us any plot details, but what was the reaction like when you guys all read [the script]? Are you all on the same WhatsApp group—you, Emilia, Kit, and everyone?
Yeah, there’s a big old WhatsApp group that we all chat on. I think that reading those final scripts made everyone really aware that we should enjoy this time that we’ve got left on it. And the fact that David and Dan did such a good job as well—that’s what made it bittersweet. Joy and, I guess, relief at the fact that they managed to bring this show to such a fantastic close. That’s a daunting prospect for anyone … I think that if the show ended in the way that a lot of people online predicted, then that might be a bit of an anticlimax.
Can you give us an adjective [to describe the ending]?
I think “bittersweet” is actually really appropriate and really applicable. And I think it couldn’t have ended any other way than bittersweet. I think David and Dan realized long ago that you can’t please everyone. I don’t think they’ve ever tried to please everyone. There may be people that aren’t too keen on the ending. But I really think that it’s one that will stand the test of time. And I think even those who don’t necessarily appreciate it when they watch it, I think television history will judge it really favorably.
What were some of the theories or endings that circulated among the cast?
We don’t really spend too much time discussing potential theories. I just wanted answers about my character. I was the most curious as to what we might find out about Gendry’s parentage. Obviously, we know that he was the bastard of Robert Baratheon, but who might his mover have been?
There’s a line in season one, and it’s a first scene you ever see of Gendry, where he’s looking to Ned and he’s asked about his mother, and he says he doesn’t remember much about her at all, other than the fact that she had yellow hair and she would sing to him. It’s one of those things where you go, “Do they usually write lines that don’t mean anything, or lines that seem to have significance that [are] never addressed again?” I was kind of intrigued to see what that might mean, and what impact that might have on Gendry’s clout politically.
Do you find that some of your cast mates are a lot like their characters or that they’ve changed over the years and developed some of the same kind of tendencies?
I think inevitably with so many characters, actors bring elements of themselves to it—and it’s just genius casting on the part of Nina Gold. There are quite a few of the actors that share their characters eccentricities. Like Kristofer Hivju who plays Tormund. He’s pretty much Tormud. Like without the blood lust. I mean, who knows, maybe with the bloodlust. Yeah he’s pretty nuts.
Let’s talk about Gendry’s style. How would you describe his look?
What’s Gendry’s look? It’s porno blacksmith. Lots of leather. Lots of baby oil. He’s gone for the crew cut now. He’s variations on that theme. It’s quite rare that you get to do a scene that he’s not completely grubby and sweaty in it, which is understandable given his vocation.
Do costumes influence your personal choices?
I haven’t quite graduated to leather yet myself. I think the costumes are so spectacular. The actors could do a lot worse than incorporate some of that into their own wardrobes. For me, I’ve not graduated to leather aprons just yet. I’m still fairly simple fashion-wise.
How would you describe your own style?
Fairly simple, fairly clean. I don’t really like too many bright colors or certain logos. I just like nice knitwear. I live in London, so warmth has to be a factor as well. Wolverine boots and black jeans is pretty much my staple. Clothes used to be my vice. That was the thing I’d spend a lot of money on when I was younger. And probably terrible, terrible items of clothing. As I got older, my taste simplified. I think I do care less about it. I’m less bothered about looking on trend. Whereas a few years ago, I would have made more of an effort.
Now that Game of Thrones has come to an end, what’s been your most memorable moment on set?
A lot of the stuff that we’ve done in season 8—the scale of it has been unbelievable. It’s the kind of thing that makes you wonder, “I don’t know if I’ll ever work on something of this level again.” And also, just the fact that you can turn to one of your colleagues in between takes, look at each other and say, without hyperbole or being ironic: “TV history, man; we’re in it, we’re making it.”
The shoot for “Beyond the Wall” from season 7, where that motley crew went on the ill-advised mission to capture a white walker … was such an incredible experience. We were in Iceland for 3-4 weeks. It was in January, so the nights were long, the days were short. We were in the wilderness, filming on glaciers and mountains. That group of actors all had their little eccentricities and idiosyncrasies. As a group experience, it was pretty special. Everywhere you looked it looked like a postcard. But we were making TV.
The eighth and final season of the Emmy®-winning HBO Original series GAME OF THRONES airs Sunday 14th April on HBO.
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