joe dempsie talks skins, game of thrones, monsters and grand theft auto
We ask Brit boy Joe how he un-typecast himself as Chris in Skins, where the fuck Gendry went in Game of Thrones, and why a week in Detroit was more unsettling than a month in the desert filming Monsters: Dark Continent.
Joe Dempsie has played his part in some pretty cult TV shows. Everyone loved Chris, the happy-go-lucky, naked-more-often-than-not joker in teen drama Skins, and even though he may have disappeared from Game of Thrones (#wheresgendry? #stillrowing), he captured the hearts and minds not only of Arya Stark but also the legion of GoT fans who remember that he's totally the real heir to the throne, as Gendry Waters. Choosing his roles carefully so as not to get typecast as the pill-popping hedonist he played so perfectly in Skins, his latest role is as a young soldier deployed to the Middle East in Monsters: Dark Continent, the sequel to 2010 blockbuster Monsters. Despite the name, Monsters: Dark Continent is less gung-ho action movie and more a film about its characters, about war and what human beings are capable of doing to each other. When we catch up with Joe he's just found out he's off to South Africa next week to film a one-off for the BBC about the tragic case of Devin Moore - the real life Grand Theft Auto obsessive who stole a car and shot two policemen and a dispatcher in the head. We talk to Brixton-based Joe about spending a month in the Jordanian desert, the abandoned metropolis of Detroit, and deferring uni to shovel popcorn for 10 hours a day…
Tell me about your character Frankie in Monsters…
Frankie's a young guy from Detroit, as all of the platoon are, Detroit being a place with little to no prospects really. In the army the main recruiting grounds are those sort of run down cities. Frankie's kind of the life and soul of the party, I think he's the one who's the most excited for signing up and going to war. But the interesting thing - for me as an actor to play - is that when the boys get out there, when confronted with the realities of the situation, he finds it the hardest to deal with.
What was it like shooting in the desert for a month?
We stayed in Amman, which is the capital of Jordan and it's a weird clash of cultures that place, because aesthetically, it looks like the Middle East that you've seen in films and on the news, but then it also has Pizza Hut and Taco Bell and nightclubs and stuff.
What are the nightclubs like there?
Pretty good, it's a real party city Amann. But for me, Detroit was a far more unsettling experience than Jordan. We've all seen a big city, I mean we live in a metropolis, and Detroit very much looks like that, but there's just no people. Detroit is kind of a city completely on its knees. I think it started in the late 60s/early 70s when the automobile industry - which the city was founded on - started to decline a little bit. It was also a very racially segregated city and a massive portion of the white population migrated into the suburbs after these race riots. Since the recession in 2008 hit it's got even worse. I think there are something like 90, 000 abandoned, empty buildings in Detroit. If you see an empty building over here, you get the impression that you're not allowed to go in, like there's someone watching, but there's no one watching in Detroit.
Did you do your own stunts?
Hell yeah! We had a day of military boot camp and by the afternoon we were firing live bullets out of an automatic rifle.
Had you ever shot a gun before?
I'd shot guns for work, with blank bullets in. But people say you feel really powerful and I just sort of felt nervous and - this is fairly morbid, I hope the rest of the guys had this - but I just had this flash across my brain going, there is quite literally nothing stopping me turning around and shooting these people!
Did you ever think Skins would lead to this?
I mean there was a time after Skins when I thought I was never going to work again! So it's been quite nice to be able to play a range of different characters. It's been a mixture of good fortune and a bit of persistence and stubbornness on my part. When I first left that show, a lot of the work that was being offered to me was essentially the same character, they just wanted me to play Chris again.
Did you study acting?
Not in the traditional sense. I didn't go to drama school or anything, but I did go to a place in Nottingham called the Television Workshop which has developed a reputation almost as good as any drama school. I joined that when I was 13 so I was doing it the same time as school, two nights a week. You had to audition to get in but once you were in it was free to go, it was fully subsidised, the ethos being that it wasn't restrictive in terms of your social background or anything, because you know, drama club is something that only a certain type of kid has access to.
And Skins came out of that?
Well, even before that I'd deferred this place at uni, I was going to study History at Birmingham, but I thought I'd see if I could get any more acting jobs through the workshop. I got a job at a cinema because I thought I'd watch loads of films and study actors, but once you've shoveled pop corn for ten hours, you're not going to stay for another two, you just get the hell outta there! All my mates were at uni having a great time and I was having a shit time so I decided at the end of that year I'd go to Birmingham. Only about a week after I'd sent off my accommodation forms, I got the part in Skins. That's another nice thing about the workshop, over the years people like Samantha Morton, Toby Kebbell and more recently Jack O'Connell and Vicky McClure, we've all sort of grown up together in that group.
Game of Thrones has just started again… where the hell is Gendry?
I don't know… You'll have to wait and see…
Have you seen his Twitter? Sometimes he just tweets, "Still rowing…"
At the end of the series last year, I got people asking me on Twitter what had happened to my character, and the producers would absolutely have me strung up if I revealed anything! At the end of the fourth season I Tweeted saying, "Still rowing…" and it took on a life of its own! I can't say, I don't know!
What are you doing in South Africa?
We're shooting a one off for the BBC. It's a drama about the guys who started Rockstar Games. Daniel Radcliff's in the lead and Bill Paxton's supporting. It follows the guys who were all public school boys from London, who made Grand Theft Auto. They got into a lot of hot water in the mid-2000s. A lawyer who sort of doubles up as a moral crusader came across this really tragic case of a teenager in Alabama who was an avid player of Grand Theft Auto, and he went out and stole a car, and the police took him in to interview him and stuff. They didn't think too much of it, he didn't seem too threatening, and then this guy, Devin Moore, reached into a police officers holster and took the gun out and shot him in the head, shot his colleague in the head and shot the guy at the desk in the head too. This lawyer picked up on the story and filed a lawsuit against Rockstar Games on behalf of the families of the victims. For me it's a novelty being able to read a script about a period in time or a cultural event that you felt you were a part of in a way. I played Grand Theft Auto when I was a kid and I don't think I've ever read a script where I felt that I kind of took part in it a little bit. So yeah, we're shooting in South Africa for about three weeks and then New York in a week.
Text Felicity Kinsella
Photography Yuvali Theis