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'Game of Thrones' Q&A: Joe Dempsie on Gendry's Long, Strange Trip

King Robert's bastard son talks nudity, Arya, season finale

Joe Dempsie as Gendry on 'Game of Thrones'
Helen Sloan/HBO
June 6, 2013 9:00 AM ET

Bastard. Swordsmith. Night's Watch recruit. Wanted man. Shirtless swordsmith. Best friend to a runaway Stark. Member of the Brotherhood Without Banners (briefly). Lover to Melisandre (more briefly). Leech bait. Few characters on Game of Thrones have covered more ground than Gendry, secret son of the late King Robert Baratheon. And few have made as much of a break from their book-version counterparts: Gendry's abduction and potential ritual sacrifice by the red priestess Melisandre and his uncle Stannis is a brand-new development. It's been up to actor Joe Dempsie to tie it all together, while simultaneously crafting one of the series' most affecting relationships: the friendship between Gendry and Arya Stark (Maisie Williams). With the season finale almost here, Dempsie took stock of Gendry's life, times and torso. 

This is awkward to bring up, but you're a good-looking guy. I think that's safe to say.
[Laughs] Thanks, Sean. 

My pleasure! There's a sense that with your character, and then this season also with Robb and Jon and Jamie, that there's now a movement within the show to show off the male characters the way the female characters have been shown off. When you have those scenes where you take your tunic or whatever off, people go berserk. I'm curious what that's like as an actor.
It's kind of weird, because from my personal point of view, you don't really want to do nudity unless it's appropriate, and unless it's relevant to the storyline and it makes sense to do it in the scene. There's a scene in Season Two where I'm forging a sword with no top on for no apparent reason. It's amazing what a bit of soot and shaving can do for muscle definition, honestly. I didn't recognize that torso.

'Game of Thrones' Sparks Intense Reactions

I think David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss, the showrunners] still try to . . . there is a bit of a responsibility to try and even up the balance a little bit. You can't let the ladies do it all. But I think they do try and keep it within reasonable parameters. That scene where I'm forging the sword, I'm saying that it's gratuitous, but the idea they wanted to convey was that . . . it was more for Arya than anything to do with my character. It was them trying to imply that Arya's becoming a woman now and she's dealing with feelings that she's maybe not experienced before. I think they just want to hint at that – I'm saying "subtly," but . . . [Laughs] But it's not something I want to make a particular habit of.

When I was cast as Gendry, I didn't have any of the physical attributes the part required. I was astounded that I got the role, to be honest. But David and Dan said, "We need to die his hair black . . . and it'd be great you hit the gym before we start filming." So I was told to get in shape. I suppose you've got to look like you're made of steel for nudity. You've got to get some arms on you. The reaction is not something I pay too much attention to. You don't want to be a torso. You don't want that to be what you're known for. I think if it's overshadowing your acting, you need to up your game a little bit. 

I interviewed Maisie Williams a few weeks ago after the episode where you two depart, and just hearing her describe how that felt to her as a person . . . I was choking back tears on the phone. It was really something.
It was a really strange thing, because I don't know if they did it on purpose, but it was actually the last scene that we shot together. Normally, they always shoot everything chronologically. There are scenes that we have that take place after that scene itself, but we'd shot all the subsequent scenes already, so that was actually the last day that we were going to have on set together. It was really weird. You're working so closely with these people, so you get to know each other much quicker and much better than you would normally at that stage of time. And I think particularly for Maisie, it mirrors her character's experience almost exactly. She gets to know people really, really well, becomes really close with them, and then they're kind of wrenched away from her, as well as from Arya. It was a very difficult scene to film, and her performance in that scene was just incredible. For her shot, I was sitting there behind the camera giving her my lines the best that I could, but really I just sat there watching her work. It was amazing.

It was fascinating to watch the fans pick apart every word that each of them said, looking for how they really felt about each other.
This is the first job that I've ever done where that's been an element. After every episode, everything is analyzed and picked apart, and I think it's really nice. There's loads of people that are willing Gendry and Arya to end up together one day. [Laughs] It's something that, obviously, we have no idea about and have no control over. And whenever you say anything about it, that you think it might be a bit implausible, you get crucified. [Laughs] You get so much flak. But it's nice that people care.

I'm a reader of the books, and the exciting thing about talking to you right now is that it's a rare case where I have no clue what's going to happen.
If you read any novel that is then translated into a TV series or a movie, there are always going to be parts that you are already precious about, and everyone has a set idea in their head of how a certain character should be or how a certain storyline should appear. But I think it must also be quite interesting to feel like you're still being kept on your toes a little bit. There are vast swaths of books that probably should be sacred and probably shouldn't be messed with – they've been so successful for a reason. But I think there are certain things that can probably be played around with, and I'm more than happy to play around with my character because that means I get to do some interesting stuff, like that last episode illustrated.

"Interesting" – that's a word for your scene with Melisandre, all right.
Yeah, that's one way to describe it.

It's also a real change in tone, since Gendry had spent all his time with Arya on the run. This is a whole new world for him.
That was interesting for me personally as well, because it's such a vast production, and the cast members are already in the hundreds, so you can sometimes feel like ships in the night a bit. When we're [shooting] in Belfast there are always people coming and going, but some of the stories are so disparate. I've met Emilia Clarke . . . twice in three years? You're quite isolated. You work with the actors that you have scenes with, and some of those you don't even see very often. As brilliant as it is hanging out with Maisie and Ben [Hawkey, a.k.a. Hot Pie] on set – they're an absolute blast – it was nice to strike out on my own a little bit and get to explore. The whole time Gendry has been with Arya, his main purpose has sort of been as a foil for her, in many ways. You're only really going to get to find out more about Gendry himself if he did head off on his own little adventure.

When this runs, there will only be one episode left to go, and it obviously seems fairly pivotal for Gendry's future. What can you say?
Having been thrown in the dungeons by Melisandre while they decide what to do, Melisandre and Stannis essentially have a decision to make about how brutal they want to be. With Gendry, they've got what they want out of him, but as long as he's alive, he's still a pretty direct threat to Stannis's campaign, I'd imagine. But it's a land in which rumors spread quickly and tales of heinous crimes are very speedily passed on throughout the kingdom, so it's about whether Stannis cares enough about his reputation to keep him alive or to get rid. That'll be the crux of Gendry. Essentially, Gendry's found himself in a position which isn't nice for anyone, which is that he has literally no control. He's fairly helpless by the end of the series.

Since you have to live in this character who's just been buffeted around by forces beyond his control for his whole life, does that affect your performance, or even just your mentality – just getting up in the morning and working on this stuff?
Gendry's been consistently let down his entire life. I'm quite an optimistic person, generally, in day-to-day life, but . . . well, he's probably more of a realist than a pessimist. The thing I quite admire about the character is he retains his nobility despite his abject mistrust of pretty much everyone, and despite his refusal to get his hopes up about anything. I think he knows better than to ever consider the best possible outcome, as opposed to the worst. He's a glass-half-empty person, but only because he has to be. That's the main difference between me personally and him. That's the challenge.

He's so much more complex than we've even had a chance to show so far. I think he wants answers desperately. He's not someone that craves power or privilege or anything like that. He just wants answers. He knows so little about his background and his parentage and stuff. So it's getting yourself into that mindset of not really knowing where you fit in society or with anyone, but somehow, someway, maintaining a sense of principle and maintaining a kind of nobility. There's a goodness that runs through Gendry, I think, and I think that's what makes him quite remarkable. He retains that sense of honor despite life being so shitty. He's got more to complain about than Theon, you know what I mean? But he doesn't go fucking nutso. [Laughs]

It's great to play someone with a sense of nobility. I've always wanted to play someone fairly stoic. I've spent most of my career playing druggies and idiots, so it's nice.

Now that Gendry is off on this uncharted path, versus where he is in the books, fans are really enjoying speculating where he'll end up. "Maybe he'll go to the wall and join Jon Snow. Maybe he'll travel around with Davos." Do you have a dream of what Gendry would end up doing if he survives his time with Melisandre?
I would really like to think that he'd have a significant role to play in the endgame. I think if you ask pretty much anyone on the show, they would say, "Well, I would like to have a really important role to play in the climax of the whole thing." The dream scenario is that he returns as some badass fighting machine with a conscience, ready to take Westeros by storm. In a good way. But hooking up with Jon Snow would be great. What's better than a pair of bastards, roaming the roads? I hope his experiences with Melisandre don't in any way sully him and make him embittered, although it would be really interesting to play as an actor. I just feel like he's such a noble guy. I would hate to see him lose that.

King Gendry, someday?
Yeah, that'd be fine by me.

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