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Interview with Charles Dance

At the end of February, I had the privilege of joining international press in a two-day junket to London. The first day featured a screening of the first episode of the new season—more on which later, when we’re allowed to say more about it!—and the second day featured several hours of round-table interviews with a number of actors, as well as executive producers David Benioff and Dan Weiss. Those will all be going up apace in the days to come. Of all the interviews, however, one of our personal favorites was the one with veteran, respected actor Charles Dance, who plays Lord Tywin Lannister, the uncompromising, ruthless patriarch of the Lannister clan, and we’ve decided that it was very well suited to leading off the interview.

Having acted for some forty years, Dance had his start with the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company, and went on to roles in many television and film productions, including parts in The Jewel in the Crown, Bleak House, The Last Action Hero, and Gosford Park. In the interview that follows, Dance discusses his role as Tywin Lannister in some detail, the scale and scope of HBO’s production, and his future legacy as an actor.

Interview

Is reading the source material a part of your process, or do you prefer to avoid reading anything outside of the scripts?

“I avoid reading books that are that thick! They frighten me, and they weigh a lot in the baggage as well.

“No, I stick to the script because that’s what we’re dealing with, and the scripts happened to be really, really good. If, while working on this, I thought the scripts were not very good, I’d go back to the source material and try to figure out why that was the case. But the writers on this have been very clever. The quality of the writing is as good as the quality of the production values which, for a television show, are astonishing.”

So you don’t really know about the fate of your character?

“I do know, because devotees of the books approach me in the street and tell me all about it. So, I know now. It’s quite something.”

One of the common questions about Tywin is how much he perceives of his children’s doing—namely, the incest between Cersei and Jaime. What’s your take? Does he know what’s going on, or is he blind to it? Does it affect your performance?

“I think he’s prepared to not necessarily forgive, but tolerate, almost anything of his gorgeous, handsome son’s life, because [Jaime] is the apple of his eye. He’s the epitome of perfection—tall, good looking, great warrior, and all the rest of it. Unfortunately, his other son… he probably wishes he’d been smothered at birth.

Of course, on the other hand, Tyrion is most like Tywin in many ways, in terms of brilliance and intelligence.

“Yes! He’s only small in stature. He has a great intellect, he has guile, he’s well-read—he’s the only one who ever reads a book—and he’s an extraordinary character. By this stage now, Tywin Lannister is having to accept that Tyrion is only small in stature. Reluctantly having to accept that he’s not the awful thing he thought he was.

“We’re very lucky to have Peter Dinklage playing him, because he’s extraordinarily gifted. He’s such a great guy to work with. I have this wonderful memory of him in this film The Station Agent—he’s a phenomenal actor, he really is. A lot of the time, in certain areas in our business, it’s very difficult for women because it’s a male-dominated industry still although we have hugely bankable female stars; never the less, women have to fight that much harder. Now imagine if you’re that size, in a world that’s this size, and you have to fight even harder. And he has this wonderful talent he brings to the fore. Very bright guy, and a sweetheart, really a delightful guy. We’re really lucky in that regard.”

Do you like the character? It seems you’re always always playing bad guys and villains.

“Yes I do like him, but I don’t think he’s a bad guy at all. No. He’s a man of principle—they might not be your principles or my principles, but he’s quite principled. But no, I don’t always play the “bad” guy. I’ve played quite a few not bad guys. But if something as well written as this comes along…

“I’m attracted to characters that make you ask questions, or make an audience ask questions—why is he doing that, what is he really about?—that’s great as far as I’m concerned. There’s an ambiguity about him, you’re never quite sure which way he’s going to go. There are scenes where I have a fair amount of dialog, but most of the time he is a man of few words… and he doesn’t smile very much either. I think he’s a great character, but I wouldn’t describe him as a bad guy, not as all.”

To me he seems very much like Machiavelli’s Prince, which was of course an ideal that Machiavelli put forward, as the best way to rule.

“Oh, yes. Sure.”

To what degree do you feel Tywin is doing this out of self-aggrandizement, or is it pride in his family, or a belief that things have to be done a certain way and he’s the man to do it?

“It’s partly pride in his family, but also awareness of his position. It’s a feudal society, this mythical land we all inhabit, and in feudal societies people have their positions. In the film industry, everyone has their job and they have their different status. Everyone’s aware of these things. The makeup lady doesn’t involve herself in the location manager’s job, and the bit part player doesn’t play his part like Hamlet, he plays it for what it’s worth. No more, and certainly no less. People are very aware of their positions.

“It’s not a belief that one position is superior to another—you have your job and you do it. Many years ago I was a member of the Royal Shakespeare Society—I still am, I go back from time to time—and the last play I did there was Coriolanus. Ralph Fiennes just did a film of it—quite interesting, I saw it just last night—but that’s a character who is very aware of his position. I do my job and I do it well, you do your job and you do it well, don’t complain to me. Just be content in your position. That’s the kind of society we’re dealing with, it’s very feudal.”

You’ve worked in all sorts of things—theater, film—but how does the HBO model of television compare, especially the rigors of it?

“I think it’s great. It’s only different in as much that it’s on television. It’s a huge project, this. The production values are astonishing. It looks sensational. There is so much stuff of quality coming over from America at the moment, on the Sky Atlantic channel. Really, really good stuff, and it doesn’t matter to me whether it’s in the cinema or on television, as long as its work we like to think of as “quality”. The job remains the same—my job, the camera operator’s job, the cinematographer’s job, it doesn’t matter where we do it.

“It’s a huge operation, this thing. Hundreds of people working on it, two or three units at the same time. It’s great to work on, it really is. It compares very favorably with other stuff that I’m quite proud of. I’ve done junk in my time, of course I have, because we all have bills to pay. But this is by no means junk, it’s great stuff.”

For those who haven’t read the book, what can they expect for your character over this season and next?

“I get taken by surprise. It’s a great leap of faith, actually, for all of us, because I like to know when someone tells me, “I’ve got this film,” and I’ll say show me the script. Then if I like the script, and I like the part, and the director, and so on, I’ll do it. But for this show, many of us agreed to do it based on the first couple of episodes. We get drip-fed the scripts. I’ve no idea what we’re going to be showing this year, at all, but I’m continuing to do it because of the quality of the stuff that comes before.

“The stuff we did last year, equally I didn’t know before we went into that. I’d seen the first couple of episodes, but the stuff that followed we get about a week before. It’s a huge leap of faith. So what’s happening this year? I’ve no idea, but I hope I’ll be presently surprised.”

Did you expect this to become such a phenomenon?

“I didn’t realize how widely read the books are, I really didn’t. I hadn’t heard of them before. Someone told me, “Oh, it’s a kind of grown up Lord of the Rings”, which it is because there’s more rumpy-pumpy! And it is quite violent. But I’m kind of continuously surprised because they are very widely spread, and they will be more so now because like all literary adaptations, the one service an adaptation will do for a book is to make people who’ve now read the book think, “Oh, now I’ll read the book.” Which is good, it’s good for everybody.”

When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. Sometimes just keeping your life is winning. How does it feel to play a character who’s so powerful that he’s maybe not really aware of his own mortality?

“Much the same as playing any character, really. I pretend, that’s what an actor’s job is. But a man of his age—like a man of my age—you become increasingly aware of your mortality, but in this society life isn’t a very expensive commodity. People get their heads chopped frequently in this. Although it’s mythical, one can draw a parallel with medieval Europe, and life was cheap. Life is more valuable to us now, in the 21st century, but anybody who has any knowledge of history knows that one of the ways we have evolved is to value life more and live in a way that prolongs our life.

“Then, I think there was an acceptance that life was fine as long as it goes on, but when it stops, it stops. Because of my age, I have an ability to think myself into the state of a man who’s going to be reminded of his mortality frequently.”

Do you think Tywin would like to become king, deep inside?

“As far as I’m concerned, he’s probably a man who probably thinks that if it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.”

The other actors have spoken of shooting in Iceland and Dubrovnik. Where did you get to film?

“Northern Ireland. I keep trying to persuade them that maybe the Lannisters all go on a holiday to the Caribbean or something. I’ve been to Dubrovnik for a film festival once. It’s beautiful, lovely. And I’ve filmed in the Arctic, in the Russian Arctic and the Canadian Arctic. But in this case, I just get Belfast. It’s nice enough, but you couldn’t describe it as an exotic location, I’m afraid.”

How do you feel that so many great actors and theater actors are ultimately remembered for their roles in sciene fiction and fantasy genre works, like Sir Alec Guinness or Sir Ian McKellen?

“You just accept that, really. I remember I did a film with Arnold Schwarzenegger a few years ago, and Joan Plowright was in it. Joan Plowright, the widow of Lord Olivier, our first theatrical lord, described as the greatest actor of his generation, who worked his way through the classical canon in the theater and went on to some remarkable work on film. And there’s a line in the film when somebody refers to him… and he’s remembered for his role as Zeus in Clash of the Titans, which was not a great Hollywood movie at all.

“I thought that was quite amusing. You know, that’s the nature of the business. People’s memories change, of course. When Game of Thrones is being shown, then people will come up to me to talk about it. If I happen to be in some enormously successful film, that’s what they’ll talk about. Actually, the driver who drove me in today started to talking to me about a film I did with Eddie Murphy, The Golden Child, which is a kind of cult movie for some people. People remember what appeals to them. We try to please as many people as we can. We try to do the impossible which is to try and please all the people all the time, which is ridiculous and can’t happen, but people still try do to do in this business.”

Looking back over your career, what’s the thing you’re most proud of?

“A strange film I did in the Arctic, called Kabloonak. It was the story about how Robert Flaherty came to make Nanook of the North, which was the first commercially successful documentary in 1922, and Flaherty was the father of the documentary. It was a French-French-Canadian-Russian co-production that we shot in the Russian Arctic and the Canadian Arctic, and it was really me and fifteen Inuit (and their dogs). We lived on an icebreaker in the Bering Sea for four months, in temperatures sometimes 35 degrees below 0. It had a French director, who unfortunately committed suicide six months after the film was finished.

“It had a very limited distribution, because it was difficult to market—it was a hybrid, made by a documentary filmmaker with a good feature film script. It and I received prizes at the Paris Film Festival in 1994. It’s a quite remarkable film, but we are in the hands of distributors and exhibitors in the film industry and if they decide they don’t want to show a film, the film doesn’t get made.”

 

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