Charles Dance interview: Dracula Untold, Game Of Thrones

Duncan chats to Charles Dance about Dracula Untold, Game Of Thrones' staggering popularity, and working with Robert Altman...

Warning: contains marked spoilers for Game Of Thrones season 4.

Being offered the chance to interview Charles Dance was a strangely exhilarating experience. Dance has an incredible body of work behind him and for many geeks has been a constant presence in everything from The Golden Child, through Alien 3, Last Action Hero and most recently of course, Game Of Thrones.

However, on accepting the invitation to speak to Mr Dance there was a sudden onset of fear. This is, after all, a man who’s played some of fiction’s finest villains, stands an intimidating six foot three, and has one of the most incredible voices – so powerful that it could reduce a grown man to apologetic and teary mess should he put a foot wrong. 

Our interview found him on outstanding and jovial form, though, even after a long day of press and an admission that junkets weren’t his idea of a fun day. His candour and stories kept me laughing – when I told him that at least I was marking the end of his day, he replied “This is not the end of the day, darling, this is going on, we’ve got another two or three hours yet. Anyway, never mind!” and laughed. Despite that, he was generous with his answers and so engaged that the poor PR rep had to physically enter the room to call time. It’s my absolute pleasure then, to hand over to Mr Charles Dance…

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I know you only have a small part in Dracula Untold, but…

I haven’t seen the film, I hasten to add – did you like it?

I did.

Good, excellent.

Now obviously you’ve played all kinds of roles over the course of your career – how was it playing a literal monster, as opposed to people with monstrous tendencies?

Well, Gary [Shore, the director] and I met to talk about this, because I think there was some kind of re-write happening. Because I came into this really at the end of the shoot – I don’t know what had gone before – but this was an afterthought, which is great, I mean that’s fine [smiles]. But we met and talked about it and this notion of a kind of Faustian pact, between Vlad and this funny old bastard who’s been down in a cave for a thousand years, appealed somewhat.

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So Gary and I both thought that if we were going to have a kind of visual reference for it, it should be Nosferatu rather than anything else, because my earliest memory of Dracula was Christopher Lee in those Hammer House of Horror days, with their limited budgets and they couldn’t put wide lenses on anything because they’d run out of set you know?

And they’d re-use the sets they did have all the time in other movies.

Yes, yes exactly! [laughs] And they were always quite domestic, they were quite small little chamber films, there was a little group of people and then there were a few angry villagers with garlic round their necks and people going round with crosses and things! [makes the gesture and laughs] And that was it.

So we talked about this character and that look and then we talked to the people who did this wonderful prosthetic make-up… and also the lines influenced it. The script is quite lyrical actually, I don’t know about the rest of it, because I haven’t seen it, but my couple of scenes, the lines are quite lyrical, they’re quite poetic. So that and the look that Gary and I had talked about – I said I don’t want him to be “rrraughhh!” frightening [makes vampire gesture], I want him to be creepy, reptilian, repulsive, I want him to look as if he must have the most awful breath, can you imagine you know? [laughs]

All that time in a cave with nothing but bones…

Well yes, absolutely and just cadavers to chew on from time to time – you imagine it! And so we put all this stuff on and agree that that’s the way I’m gonna play the thing, well, there’s not much acting required really, I mean I walk on the set with that face, those teeth, those fingernails and I’m crawling all over poor Luke and licking him for fu… I mean there’s a couple of women journalists this morning, actually, who would give their eye teeth to lick Luke Evans! [laughs] I said why don’t you go up and say “I don’t suppose a lick’s out of the question!?” [roars with laughter]

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I’m sure he wouldn’t thank you for that, although there would be quite the orderly queue wouldn’t there!?

Well, yes I think so, I mean look at him – a gorgeous hunk with this Celtic energy! He’s fantastic. I’ve not worked with Luke before, I’d never met him before, but I think he has all the qualities to be a monstrous great star actually. I think he’s great and he’s such a sweet man. In the time we spent together we’d sit round having a chat, I couldn’t be too animated with all that bloody stuff on my face, we couldn’t sit and enjoy lunch together or anything, but you know down time between takes. He’s a great guy, he’s terrific and I hope this film does what it should do for him.

*SPOILERS FOR GAME OF THRONES START* Do you mind me asking about Game Of Thrones?

Go ahead.

Now you’ve just had your departure…

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My very ignoble end, yes!

Yes, your very Elvis rock ‘n’ roll demise!

[Laughs loudly] Yes of course, I didn’t think of that!

How did you feel about that as an end to what has to be one of the most evil and infuriatingly nasty characters?

Well you know although it’s set in this kind of fantasy world, it is based on a medieval, feudal society and if you’re in a position of power in that feudal society, you did everything you had to do to retain that position, basically, and maintain the status quo. Just not a very emotional man, who knows what he was like before his wife Joanna died, we don’t know.

That’s true, he did mention her rather a lot didn’t he?

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Yeah, but you know there he is with the apple of his eye is this gorgeous, handsome son of his who, god damn it, the little bastard’s shagging his sister – that’s bad enough and then I produce this imperfect little lecherous stump – I think that’s what I called him! [laughs] I spent a lot of time apologising to Peter, because he’s the most delightful man, he’s fantastic, he must be the envy of every dwarf actor in the world too because it’s a sensational part, that he has grabbed by the balls and plays for all it’s worth, he’s fantastic. He’s also incredibly handsome – you look at Peter, his head is Michelangelo’s David, look at it – you look at the hair, just look. I mean he’s an incredible guy, he’s extremely bright and very talented and a delight to be with.

But I’d never read any of the books, I didn’t know anything about Game Of Thrones until I joined it and then I realised there’s an enormous readership, a great fanbase and I swear a guy came up to me about eighteen months or so ago, said [in cockney] “Hello, Charles! Can I have a photograph?” – and everybody wants a fucking photograph [adopts an unamused, dutiful tone] so we take the photograph – and he says “You got a great death scene!”, I said “Have I…”

Oh no!

“What is the manner of my death?” and he told me! I thought ‘Oh right, okaaaay…’ and I went into Waterstones and got a copy of the book [gestures frantically flicking through the pages]  and thumbed through [he stops] Ah. Okay, fine! [laughs]

Skipped to the end and…

Yeah, but you know I was in it for four years, it’s hugely successful, as you know the thing is a global phenomenon. I mean I was in South Africa and Australia during an eighteen month period the year before last, I’m walking down the street in Cape Town and there’s the guys saying [adopts accent] “Oh we love Game Of Thrones, man, it’s fantastic” and then I’m in Melbourne and they say [adopts accent] “Oh Tywin Lannister, fucking great mate, we love ya!” and you think ‘fuck me, this is all over the world!’

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This thing, this same episode actually being aired in the same country, at the same time, is just amazing and of course all the bloody boxsets are around now, it’s huge.

And the success was really quite a surprise, even to someone like me who’s a fan of the genre.

But I thank God [he says with great emphasis] that it wasn’t a co-production between the BBC and HBO, there was rumour of that. It would’ve gone to two seasons at the very most. If it’d gone any further the budgets would’ve been reduced, the schedules would’ve been tightened, because that’s what happens in this country – you’ve got a successful season one, season two you get less time and less money, season three same thing. It’s crazy. It’s beyond any kind of rational thinking, I don’t understand it at all.

HBO, they spend money on it. The pilot was apparently pretty disastrous, but there was the potential of doing something really, really good, so rather than thinking ‘no scrap this idea’ (they thought) ‘okay let’s have another look at this’ and off they went and then season one, great success, then season two, season three. The plot lines are labyrinth-like, there are two full units working the whole time and they care for the thing. It’s run like a military operation, it’s so bloody efficient, it really is and we all care about it. It’s fantastic, it’s a great, great show and they want to do another two seasons apparently and Dan and David have done brilliant adaptations – I haven’t read any of the books even now, there’s no point and apart from anything else they’re about that thick [gestures a huge width] and that frightens me! [laughs]

But you know if you’re dealing with masterful adaptations there is no point going back to the source material, it’s also bloody annoying for directors when actors come on to set with a well-thumbed copy of the book complaining that [adopts whiny voice] ‘there’s this wonderful scene, why can’t I have this scene?’ and you think ‘oh fuck off!’ You know we’ve worked our asses off to make a good, good adaptation, this is what we’re doing.

So as much as I respect George R.R. Martin and this extraordinary brain that’s producing this stuff, the books don’t interest me, David and Dan’s work does.

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Now my wife is a massive Gosford Park fan…

Oh she’s a woman of great taste, obviously!

It’s a great film, but she was wanted to know if there’s a particular challenge you face as an actor when being a part of such a huge ensemble cast?

There wasn’t much of a challenge really, I was just glad of the opportunity to work with Robert Altman.

Is the ensemble actually more of a comfortable environment to work in then?

Yeah and the point about Altman was that he loved actors and everything, all the mechanics on the set were all geared around what the actors did. I mean what happens in this country, more in television than in film, you walk on the set and the director says “Okay let’s go through the lines” so you just speak the lines and then he’s assured that all the actors know their lines and they’re not going to waste time with actors trying to remember lines. Then you do a little rehearsal and he’s already got his shot list out.

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But when you walked onto an Altman set and he would say [adopts voice] “Okay here’s what we’re gonna do, I think you can do this and why don’t you try doing this and what do you think about this Charles?” and so you’re working out the picture, he’s composing shots and then at some point he’ll say “You got a line here, don’t you? … err what’s that line you had? Okay…” and they he’ll say to the DOP “Just try and pick up that line on the way round, that Charles says” and it doesn’t matter if you’re totally in shot. It doesn’t matter and I mean the camera might have passed you, but it’ll catch your intake of breath and you’re about to speak and the camera might be looking at someone else and you’re saying your line, especially when you’re sat round a dining table and the cameras on the move all the time – everything moved with Robert Altman, the camera was never still.

So it’s going along and do you remember his film of M.A.S.H?

No, I’m ashamed to say…

You’ve never seen M.A.S.H!? [sharp intake of breath]

It’s been on my list for years as I watched the TV series and I’ve seen a lot of Robert Altman’s work like Short Cuts and The Player (and Popeye, but I kept that to myself) and all sorts…

Rent M.A.S.H… that tapestry of sound – and I met Robert Altman about thirty years ago, I don’t know how it came about but he was in town and I said to my agent “Oh god I’d love to meet him” and so it was just him and me had lunch at The Caprice, it wasn’t for anything particular I don’t think, I don’t think he was here to cast anything.

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Anyway there was this fantastic guy and I said to him “How do you get that sound?” – because we’re obsessed with getting clean tracks in this country – and he said that everyone was wired up and “If the sound man tells you that he can’t do it, tell him to go fuck himself.” And I said “Oh err… right. ok…” [laughs] And so no, Gosford Park was joy, there was no challenge, tell her, at all.

Charles Dance, thank you very much!

Dracula Untold is released in cinemas in the UK on the 3rd of October and in the USA a week later on the 10th.

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