Joe Dempsie decides to step out into the garden when we start our call. He says this is because the weather is so nice – this was in the week the British summer tried very hard to break temperature records – but we suspect there is a second reason. Dempsie is visiting his parents, who are inside the house, and, well, we’re about to talk quite extensively about porn.
This is not because pornography is of significant mutual interest – how dare you – but for professional reasons. Dempsie has had a very busy and very eclectic career. He’s been in huge hits, like Skins and Game of Thrones, but then followed them with much smaller projects or offbeat roles. He’s about to be seen in one of the offbeat ones. For his first TV role since Thrones, in which he played the very nice bastard Gendry, Dempsie is taking a supporting part in Adult Material, playing the husband of a porn star.
It’s very Dempsie that he’s playing the husband of a porn star, rather than playing a porn star himself. He is a man who has always tried to side-step fame, while fame has kept seeking him out and trying to cling to him. So low is his profile, that before speaking to him we had no idea what to expect. For someone so recognisable, he has given relatively few interviews. There was a worry that he’d be one of those actors who is terrific on screen but has little to say without a script. The opposite is true. He is friendly, extremely chatty and quick to make fun of himself. His lack of a public profile is through choice, not lack of personality. But we’ll come to that later.
“‘Skins’ became my uni experience”
Adult Material is set in the British porn industry. It’s less about the sex being had on screen than about the business, ordinary lives and exploitation off-screen. Hayley Squires (I, Daniel Blake) plays ‘Jolene Dollar’, real name also Hayley, a successful porn actress. When a co-star is horribly mistreated, Hayley speaks out about an industry that most people choose to ignore, except in the privacy of their own homes. She makes porn a public discussion. The show looks at both sides of Hayley’s life: the larger-than-life on-camera performer and the woman with a normal family. Dempsie plays Rich, her husband. Rich is effectively his wife’s assistant, running her social media accounts and organising requests from fans.
When he first saw the script, Dempsie said he felt some relief he wasn’t being asked to play a porn star himself. “I thought, ‘OK, I’m not auditioning for the part of a porn star, so I probably won’t have to get my kit off.’ Then I realised, actually, the show aims to illustrate the distinction between real and fake… so a lot of our scenes were the most intimate.” That means that while the actors playing porn stars stay largely clothed, Dempsie’s bum gets a regular airing in domestic sex scenes.
The thing that brought Dempsie to the role was not an opportunity to parade his buttocks, but a relationship he’s had since virtually the beginning of his career. Adult Material’s writer is Lucy Kirkwood, who was a writer on Skins, the show that launched Dempsie. “She’s one of my favourite writers and her career is one I’ve followed keenly,” he says. Although it’s 12 years since he left the show, Chris in Skins remains one of Dempsie’s defining roles. He doesn’t mind that at all.
“Skins is really brave in many aspects,” he says. “Not just in the subject matter, but in the tone and style and what they allowed their writers and cast to experiment with.” The show changed forever the way teenagers are depicted on TV. It showed young people having sex, taking drugs, getting drunk and having fun doing it. Chris was the major hedonist in the show. His life was a permanent party. It was a similar experience for Dempsie, although not entirely by choice.
“I don’t think I reacted well to fame”
When Skins came along, Dempsie was at the end of a gap year, a break he’d taken to see if he could make it as an actor. He’d had bit parts in medical dramas like Peak Practice and Doctors, but wanted to find out if there was more for him. For most of the year, there wasn’t. “I was getting a bit disillusioned toward the end of that year,” he says. “Then Skins came along and it became my uni experience. I got to move to a different city. I got to meet new people and learn so much about the field I wanted to work in. I got to make friends for life.” The Skins crew – including now-megastars Nicholas Hoult, Dev Patel, Kaya Scodelario and Daniel Kaluuya – became incredibly famous overnight. As a 19-year-old, Dempsie was slightly thrilled and completely terrified.
“It was quite a shock that everything about the show… was so directly targeted at a particular demographic, that as soon as the show came out, it felt like everyone, even if they didn’t watch the show, was aware of it,” Dempsie says. Initially, he played up to the fame and his audience. “People wanted to see Chris, so I might as well give them Chris. How do you give them Chris? You get hammered… A night out would turn into an extended selfie session.” As his personal life became almost as much a performance as his day job, Dempsie started to get frustrated. He had to start considering where he went. “You learned the places to avoid, like Topshop on Oxford Circus. That’s the entire demographic in one building,” he laughs. It also stopped him doing the things he loved. “We were at that age where we wanted to go to loads of music festivals,” he says. “But it’s 200,000 screaming fans in one place. It took a while to get used to. Initially, I don’t think I reacted well to it.”
“A night out would turn into an extended selfie session”
The experience made him wary of fame, but he has nothing but affection for his time on the show and his fellow cast members. All now in their thirties, they still meet up when they can. “There’s a group of us who spend quite a lot of time together in London: Mike (Bailey), Larissa (Wilson), Nick Hoult, Daniel, Kaya, and Lily Loveless from the second generation. We span the generations. And I still keep in touch with Dev, who lives in LA now. We’ve spoken on the phone during lockdown.” It’s incredible how many still familiar names there are in that group. “The success of everyone doesn’t surprise me at all… The success of the show surprised me… but from watching the other actors on set, nothing surprised me. To have Daniel and Dev nominated for Oscars [makes sense]. I think Daniel’s going to win one next year (for Queen & Slim).”
After Skins, Dempsie didn’t disappear, but he didn’t leap into the world of film and American productions like some co-stars did. “I did feel, ‘Maybe I don’t want this to be my life forever. And God forbid it escalates.’ I was thinking, ‘This is Skins. Imagine what it’s like to be actual Brad Pitt. That’d be a nightmare.’” He made a choice to keep things lower key, doing guest spots on Doctor Who and Merlin, a couple of episodes of This Is England ‘86, with his hero Shane Meadows, and a role in the football biopic The Damned United. Then came another accidental shot of massive fame.
When Game of Thrones was being cast, it was just some fantasy show. George RR Martin’s books had sold in enormous numbers, but most people had never heard of them. Certainly nobody expected the TV adaptation to become one of the biggest shows in history, least of all Dempsie. “You might have thought that would be on my mind when I signed up for Thrones, that this [level of fame] could happen again, but it wasn’t at all,” he says. “I was naive. I hadn’t heard of the books, but one of my friends was really excited when he found out I was auditioning, because he loved the books.” Most people, he says, didn’t care. “I remember when I was filming season one and people would ask me what I was working on. I’d start telling them and after about 10 seconds I could see their eyes glazing over.”
Gendry started as a minor supporting character. The bastard son of Robert Baratheon, the murdered king of the Seven Kingdoms, he had the potential to be important later on, but in the first three seasons he did a lot of standing on the sidelines and being told he had the potential to be important later on. After season three, Gendry disappeared after escaping by sea from his father’s more ruthless younger brother, Stannis. As Dempsie says, Gendry spent three seasons, “rowing, having his Castaway moment.” He was brought back for season seven, when his character did become very important, making it all the way to the end.
“‘Game Of Thrones’ went from very popular… to nuts”
In the years when he wasn’t in Thrones, Dempsie watched the show grow from, “very popular to… nuts.” He says there was a marked difference on set on his return. “It was noticeable when I came back for season seven. The level of security on set. The scripts were under lock and key. You had a few people who didn’t come out for the social aspect, so they could get their sleep… and not have to deal with taking photos all night.” After his experience on Skins, in the full glare of the publicity spotlight, he saw what the next level up from that looked like. “It was quite nice being one ring removed from this nuclear cast you’ve been following the whole way through: Emilia [Clarke], Kit [Harrington], Peter [Dinklage]. Lena [Headey]. Those guys carried the weight of the show on their shoulders. I never had to do that… For Kit Harrington, I think going to buy a pint of milk is a hassle, and it isn’t for me.”
It never crossed his mind not to come back for season seven, even though he knew how much it would ratchet up his fame again. “I was really excited when the call came,” he says. “I think most actors have a bit of an ego, so definitely part of me thought, ‘Maybe I’m going to come back and it’s going to all be about me. Maybe it’s me! Maybe I win the whole thing.’ It could have been! I think even up to the final episode I was thinking…’maybe?’”
Of course – spoiler – he did not win, but Gendry did have a great ending. He had a night with Arya Stark (Maisie Williams), which delighted fans who’d been ‘shipping’ the relationship for a while. He was made a Lord and given legitimacy. He didn’t die. He got lucky, with one of the better received endings. After the finale aired, fan response to the show’s climax was mixed, to say the least.
“I have a theory that Gendry’s mother was actually cersei”
“They were never going to please everybody,” he says diplomatically. “I think in some ways that’s indicative of how popular the show had become. The audience is so huge you can’t please them all… There are some criticisms of season eight I think are warranted and some that I think are just subjective opinion. [The response] was difficult for some of us to take, just because we knew we’d worked so hard… The petitions to get it remade, we took those with a pinch of salt. ‘Good luck with that one. You got a spare $500million?’” As supportive as he is of everything the creators did, as a fan, he still has a couple of questions. “I still wanted to find out who Gendry’s mother was. I have a theory that it was actually Cersei and he was actually [her and Robert Baratheon’s] only biological child. In season one, when Ned Stark comes to visit him, he asks him about his parents and he said he never knew his father but his mother had yellow hair. I remember thinking, that’s too loaded a line not to mean anything.” One for Reddit, there.
After two big doses of fame, Dempsie says the prospect of huge projects no longer really frightens him. He knows how lucky he is to have two era-defining shows to his name and wouldn’t walk away from another. If another huge show came along, he says, “I’d like to think I would feel much more adequately prepared for what comes with it,” he says. Plus, of course, he wants to be a successful actor and have a career as varied as those of some of his more famous Skins co-stars. “Obviously, I look at Daniel and Dev and there is a part of me that has professional envy… I want to get those amazing parts and hit that out of the park and get that sort of recognition.” He wouldn’t change his path, though. He expresses great admiration at how Dev Patel went straight from Skins to Slumdog Millionaire, becoming famous from the moment he started acting. “The fact he managed to navigate that and keep his sanity, I think is incredible. I don’t think I would have been able to do that. I wouldn’t have had the mental stability. I actually feel very fortunate that I had my entire twenties to play a range of different parts… and learn how to do my job without too much pressure..”
The pandemic and the industry’s slow return to filming means that Joe Dempsie doesn’t have much of his future mapped out right now. He’s about to start shooting a psychological thriller for Netflix, but he’s not allowed to go into any details on that just yet (Game of Thrones gives you lots of practice keeping secrets). One thing he knows is that after years of being cautious, he’s now open to anything and everything. He’s yet to appear in a project he knew would be huge – both Skins and Thrones were surprises – and he says if something obviously very high profile came his way he would now happily go for it. “If someone was casting something like Star Wars you know exactly what you’re getting into,” he says. “I like to think I would be much more adequately prepared for what comes with [something like that] now… I wouldn’t see myself ever turning down an opportunity like that.” So the man who has spent years shying away from fame would be up for Star Wars, if someone casting the next Star Wars happens to be reading? He laughs, “Oh yes, absolutely. I’d jump in with both feet!” And, after all he’s seen, with both eyes open.