Movies & TV

Joe Dempsie Was Nearly Jon Snow. Now Gendry Is 'Game Of Thrones' Most Earnest Heartthrob

The actor talks about the final episodes, his next project, and the hypocrisy that the Arya and Gendry sex scene forced everyone to face
IMAGE Tyler Joe
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It’s the morning after the Game of Thrones Season Eight premiere in Manhattan and Joe Dempsie is dragging from the party. He's also jetlagged, having flown in from England for the April unveiling of the HBO blockbuster. But as he pulls his smart phone from his back pocket, he perks up as he taps through to YouTube.

“This video is amazing. It's called Ode to Joe. Oh yeah. It's here. Do you want to see it?” he asks with a conspiratorial smile, scooting forward on the couch and turning his phone to face me. “Come on 4G.”

The video starts with a young woman facing the camera to say, “Come on, Joe, don’t be scared. It’s all love,” as she plays the piano below the frame. A few seconds in, seven people in black T-shirts and sunglasses slowly rise from behind her to harmonize as she sings an original ballad about the actor who plays Game of Thrones’ most low-key heartthrob, Gendry Baratheon.

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Dempsie shares a certain modesty with his character. When talking about his passionate fans, he seems genuinely tickled about the attention. Marie, the star of the YouTube video, went so far as to send her song to all of Dempsie's Thrones castmates. Finn Jones (who plays Ser Loras Tyrell) insisted Dempsie respond.

"So, we freeze frame the video on her face and then I went and planted a kiss and we took a picture and sent it to her," the 31-year-old says. "But we never met."

Gendry's humility—along with his many shirtless blacksmith scenes—have made him an easy character to like and root for. He's portrayed as an outsider, which makes him relatable, despite playing an incredibly important role in the series. As the last known living child of Robert Baratheon, he has a claim to the Iron Throne, but his total screen time has been relatively meager. In fact, he was off-camera rowing for three full seasons after Davos Seaworth rescues him from the clutches of Melisandre in Season Three. So fans were thrilled when he returned—and reunited with Arya Stark, to whom he proposed in Episode Four after he was bestowed with the title of Lord of Storm's End.

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Joe Dempsie originally auditioned for three other Game of Thrones characters—including Jon Snow—before being cast as Gendry. Polo shirt by Missoni, trousers by Dior.

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Image: Tyler Joe

"Gendry just got a bit excited, didn’t he?" Dempsie laughs. "He’d just been made a lord—he’d known for awhile now where he’s come from but the recognition of that by someone in authority has given him an ability to find a place in the world that I think he’s been searching for his entire life. And he just got a bit gassed and asked someone to marry him. And she quite rightly told him where to go. What a stupid question! I think he knows deep down in his heart of hearts there is no way Arya will ever be anyone’s lady. "

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Though Dempsie’s character has defied the odds to make it to the final season of Game of Thrones, and has turned out to be a much more pivotal character than he seemed back in Season One, Dempsie had his eye on an even more central part when he auditioned for the series a decade ago. He was up for the role of Jon Snow.

“I auditioned for the pilot. I had no idea what Game of Thrones was. Didn't get it. Kind of forgot about it,” he says. “Nobody knew it was going to become the biggest TV show on the planet at that point. It was just another audition.”

But a year-and-a-half later, after learning more about the George R. R. Martin books from a friend, he tried again—this time he auditioned for two minor characters who are Jon Snow’s friends from the war.

“Didn't get either of those and was convinced that they must just think I'm a terrible actor,” he says. “Then Gendry came along and again I went along to the audition and I think it was three auditions I had. I had one in London, then one in Belfast where I met [showrunners] David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss] for the first time. And then a final one where David and Dan were there again. And there was like four other producers in the room, too. And I was fairly convinced it was the worst audition I've ever given.”

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A week later he got a call from his manager. He’d finally landed a Game of Thrones role.

“I thought he was playing a trick on me,” he laughs.

Before Thrones, Dempsie had made a name for himself as Chris Miles in Seasons One and Two of the teen drama Skins. After his character’s death, Dempsie had taken small roles here and there, waiting for his next big thing. But when he got the Gendry role, it wasn’t clear exactly how big the role would be. Dempsie was told that he’d only be in two episodes in Season One, and that he’d have just one scene in each.

In Season One, Gendry is working as a blacksmith when he meets Ned Stark who, from first glance, realises he’s a bastard son of Robert Baratheon—though Gendry doesn’t know who his father is. In his second scene, Gendry is sold to the Night’s Watch, which is where he meets Arya, who has cut her hair short to disguise herself as a boy. Eventually, Arya, Gendry and their friend Hot Pie leave, heading north to River Run. On their journey, Gendry befriends the Brotherhood Without Banners, which sells him to Melisandre, who is working with his uncle Stannis Baratheon. Melisandre wants Gendry’s blood because she knows he’s a Baratheon bastard—and she gets her wish in an infamous scene in which she sticks leeches all over his body after seducing him. Gendry is saved by Ser Davos Seaworth, who puts him on a small rowboat and tells him to head west, avoiding Stannis as well as the Lannisters.

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When Gendry was off camera rowing for three full seasons, Dempsie wasn't sure that the writers would bring him back for the final episodes.

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Image: Tyler Joe

But then we didn’t hear from Gendry for years.

“When they told me that Gendry is going to disappear for awhile, they were keen to stress that they were going to bring him back,” Dempsie says. “They just didn't know when that was going to be. I'm never convinced. I just think there's so many different storylines and character arcs they have to deal with and they have to try and fit in to this narrative. But it wouldn't have surprised me at all if after a couple years they just said, ‘We don't have time.’”

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The question of, ‘Where the fuck is Gendry?’ became a daily occurence.

During that time, fans agonised over where he could be—and whether or not he'd ever be reunited with Arya.

“For those years that I spent out of the show, the question of, ‘Where the fuck is Gendry?’ became a daily occurence,” he says. His response? “He’s still rowing.”

Gendry finally shows up again in Season Seven working as a blacksmith in King’s Landing, and his character has become increasingly central to the plot ever since. He teamed up with Jon Snow and the two led a dangerous expedition beyond the wall. And then, of course, there was his flirtatious reunion with Arya in the Season Eight premiere. The night before the historic Battle of Winterfell, Arya says to Gendry, “We’re probably going to die soon, I want to know what it’s like before that happens.” Then the characters have sex for the first time, much to the delight of fans who've been shipping the characters for years.

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Image HBO

"The most common thing Thrones fans have wanted to talk to me about over the years was this suggested relationship with Arya. I was always found that conversation quite uncomfortable at the time, particularly in the early years. I was a 25-year-old man being asked whether I would like my character to get together with an at-the-time 14-year-old actress," Dempsie says. "It was always something I thought wasn’t fair to ask me personally ... I felt there needed to be an understanding that even though what we’re making is fantasy, actual execution of that had to take place in reality. It was never really something I gave much thought to."

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Though most fans were thrilled when the characters finally got together this season—now that actress Maisie Williams is 22 years old—some of the audience felt uncomfortable with Arya and Gendry's sex scene in Episode Two. Dempsie admits shooting it made him feel similarly.

"It was strange for me having known [Williams] since she was 11 or 12 years old and being asked to play out a scene like that. That discomfort I had initially seemed to have been shared by quite a lot of people who have watched that episode, too," he says. "But I found the subsequent conversation actually really quite interesting. What that scene ended up doing was forcing people to confront their own hypocrisy in a way. I think the root cause of that unease and discomfort in a lot of viewers is because they feel like they’ve seen her grow up on screen. That’s something that happens to us all—we all start off young and then the majority of us start having sex and we’re all perfectly capable to finding that journey out for ourselves. But we still find it difficult to watch someone else take that journey, say, on a TV screen."

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In Episode Three, Arya is the hero of the Battle of Winterfell, killing the Night King, and in Episode Four, Gendry finally gets the legitimacy he's always craved when Daenerys Targaryen names him Lord of Storm's End. He promptly uses his newfound title to propose to Arya, who turns him down. But he heads into these final episodes of the series with a mantle of legitimacy.

"I don’t think necessarily that all the trimmings that come with Lords of Storm's End are really the kinds of things that he was after. Power and the land and the wealth that you would imagine Gendry would acquire now, that’s all kind of superfluous to him," Dempsie says. "I think the main thing that he would take from it is the legitimacy and that he’s no longer a bastard. The fact that he’s been recognised as a legitimate son of somebody—it can be as simple as that. You can imagine he’s not a particular fan of hierarchy but he can place himself somewhere within it now."

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Gendry has become more crucial as Thrones has become a cultural behemoth. A staggering 17.8 million people watched the Battle of Winterfell, beating the previous series record set by the Season Eight premiere. For Dempsie, the scale of the popularity hit when they were filming the final season in Belfast. On one of their days off, Dempsie and Kit Harington ran into one of Bill Clinton’s aides. The former President was in Northern Ireland to speak on a panel for the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, and the aide invited the two actors to the event.

Dempsie says of saying goodbye to his castmates: "It's making me quite sad talking about it, actually."

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Image: Tyler Joe

“We sat down for about 10 minutes, and we get taken through to this room out in the back and we got to meet Bill Clinton. Talked to Bill Clinton for like 20 minutes,” Dempsie says. “One of his people was like, ‘Oh, we should take some photos.’ I was like, yeah, it's the craziness of this show that it's just as good for Bill Clinton to be seen with some people from Game of Thrones as it is cool for us to get photos with Bill Clinton.”

Shortly after his presidential run-in, Dempsie filmed his final episode of the series. On the last day of filming, Benioff and Weiss gave a speech about each actor and presented them with a framed storyboard of one of their scenes. Dempsie’s was his brutal Melisandre scene.

“There were a couple of others finishing on the same day as me, which I was pleased about,” he says. “I thanked [Benioff and Weiss] for an amazing experience. And then they moved on to the next person, and I looked across and I saw their lip tremble and it was at that point that I learned I'm fine until I see someone else trying not to cry, at which point I'm a mess.”

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Even though they finished filming months ago, the cast still had months of press and premiere parties before their real final goodbyes. When I first spoke to Dempsie he was in the home stretch—a week away from the last premiere in Belfast. When I ask what it will be like to really wrap it all up, he pauses for a few seconds, looking down at his hands.

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“It's making me quite sad talking about it, actually,” he says. “ I've known obviously Hannah Murray [who plays Gilly] since Skins and Jacob Anderson [Grey Worm] I knew since before Game of Thrones existed, so it's been amazing being able to work with them and to hang out with them in Belfast ... so I'm not going to miss them, because I won't need to miss them. I'll see them all the time anyway.

Weeks after wrapping up Thrones, Dempsie began filming the EPIX series Deep State. 

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On Dempsie: shirt by The Kooples, trousers by Tommy Hilfiger, shoes by Asos

Image: Tyler Joe

“In terms of other friends made on the show, like Kit and John Bradley and Alfie and Gwendolyn. We've all been really good mates over the years and I think it's like, it feels like finishing school. Because there are those people that you know you're going to see again. You will stay in such. We just got to make the effort.”

Dempsie only took six weeks off between his final Thrones scene and the start of filming a gruelling Season Two of the EPIX spy drama Deep State. Dempsie plays Harry Clarke, a secret agent whose team was captured by rebel soldiers as the second season began last Sunday.

"Deep State, in terms of the filming schedule, was the most relentless job I’ve ever had," says Dempsie, who was waterboarded while filming the thriller. "This season of Deep State is a pretty comprehensive breaking down of Harry Clarke into pretty much an empty husk of a man and seeing if he can build himself back up. For an actor, it’s exactly what you want to try. You want to challenge yourself."

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After playing two fan favourites—Chris in Skins and Gendry in Thrones—the actor is ready to leave both characters behind as he takes on a leading role in Deep State.

“For years after Skins, I was, brackets ‘Chris from Skins,’ and I think it's great. I'm very lucky to have these parts and to have been part of these shows, but it'd be nice to have no brackets,” he says. “It'd be nice to have done enough varied work and enough good work that people just know you as a good actor.”

Photography and Videography by Tyler Joe • Styling by Kristin Saladino • Set design by Alix Winsby • Grooming by Walton Nunez

This story originally appeared on Esquire.co.uk.

* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.

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