Warning: contains spoilers for Our Girl and Game Of Thrones season 4.
Following a couple of minor roles in Welsh-speaking dramas, Iwan Rheon’s first TV break came in 2009 with Howard Overman’s refreshingly crude, inventive super power series, Misfits. Rheon played awkward, shy Simon for three series of the E4 comedy drama, a buttoned-up young man whose lack of self-confidence and social skills translated to the dubious gift of invisibility after the show’s power-bestowing ice storm hit London.
By far Rheon’s biggest role to date though, has come via HBO’s Game Of Thrones, in which he plays grinning sadist Ramsay Snow, a contender for the show’s most monstrous character (and with the likes of Joffrey, The Mountain, Tywin Lannister, Roose Bolton, Walder Frey, Locke and countless others to choose between, that’s saying something). Over two seasons, we’ve seen Rheon’s character physically and psychologically break Theon Greyjoy, played by Alfie Allen, transforming him into servile, traumatised eunuch ‘Reek’.
We caught up with Rheon mid-way through his filming season 5 of Game Of Thrones to chat about his latest role as traumatised soldier ‘Smurf’ in BBC One Afghanistan war drama Our Girl, why he wishes the mooted Misfits movie would still happen, working with Sirs Ian McKellan and Derek Jacobi in ITV sitcom Vicious, and how Ramsay Snow is basically Dennis the Menace…
To start with Our Girl, your character, Smurf, has such a sad story. He’s in his twin brother’s shadow all his life, then loses him and is utterly traumatised by it, then falls in unrequited love, feels betrayed by the man he looks to as a father-figure, is injured, then…
Yeah. It is pretty dark isn’t it?
Is that how you saw the character?
I suppose it’s realistic though, it can happen. I didn’t know what would happen when I first signed on – I only had the first two episodes – but obviously we discussed the character and the idea of what was going to happen. He’s kind of the tragedy of the whole story, I think.
He’s a character with ideals and beliefs though?
Yeah, he certainly is. Whether they’re the right ones for a soldier out there though, I don’t know! He’s actually a sweet guy who just got a bit messed up. He thought that everything was going to be alright but then, obviously, it turns out that it isn’t and it’s all a bit traumatic and everything goes wrong.
When he says to Molly in that black cab, “For Queen and Country, that’s what it’s all been about”, how did you read that line? Was that meant bitterly, ironically, or do you think he really believed it?
I don’t think bitter. I think it’s quite a pensive, retrospective comment on… The way I tried to do it was, ‘was it all worth it? The sacrifice that we’d made, was it worth it?’ That’s what it was supposed to be. I didn’t want to play it like national pride or… there’s a mixture of things in there. It’s almost like you’re saying it in real life, what is it actually all for?
Would you say Our Girl investigates what heroism means?
I think so. Molly [Lacey Turner] turns out to be heroic. I guess it’s part of it. I think the major theme in Our Girl is how are the soldiers dealing with everything and how it affects them. There’s a definite change in Smurf for example, from when he left to go to Afghan and when he came back in episode five. He’s not the same person. It is a story about the soldiers, it’s not a political piece. It’s not about the ins and outs of whether they should be there, it’s telling a story about these soldiers because they are there whatever the politicians decide to do.
It’s about the human toll of it, then.
By the end of Misfits, your character went through a progression that turned him into a hero. He started off as a bit of a loner, a bit of a knicker sniffer – I always remember that really uncomfortable moment when Kelly is passed out at the club and Simon looks under her skirt – but then by the end of series three, you’re Superhoody and a romantic hero. How was that progression for you?
I loved it. I think some of the things from very early on were hangovers of a plotline that was going to happen but they just decided to go in a different direction with the series. I think the idea was that Simon was going to lose it and get locked up and become like a Hannibal Lecter-type character. That’s what they were thinking, but for various reasons they decided to take it a different way, so maybe some of those little moments within that were slightly a hangover.
I think he was just a really confused, fucked-up boy. He’d been having a really bad time. The thing is about that scene in the club is that he thought about it, and went to do it, and then didn’t, he thought ‘that’s not me’, and that really disturbed him even more. He’s kind of a poor lonely soul who’s got nobody. But the progression was really good. The most fun was series two and three, getting the original Simon character to gradually become this superhero character. I really enjoyed that, just putting in little moments and slowly building his confidence until he became who he was destined to be.
Don’t take this the wrong way, but I think you would have made a great Hannibal Lecter-type psycho character. I’m not surprised they thought of taking Simon in that direction…
[laughs] It just depends on the character. Obviously certain characters are out-and-out psychos, but I think Simon was just quite messed up. I don’t think there was anything evil in him.
You always thought there was more for Simon’s character to do in Misfits didn’t you? That his story was a bit rushed in his final series?
I thought in series three it was really rushed. Things change and there was a new character, but I thought that storyline needed a bit more time to progress into being what it was, I felt it was rushed, yeah, but it’s not up to me!
So I suppose you were looking forward to delving into a bit more of that in the Misfits film, had it happened?
Yeah. The film did sort of help that along a little bit.
You’ve read the script for it then?
Yeah, a draft of. I thought it was really good.
Is it completely dead now, or is there still a chance for it?
I don’t know. I don’t think it’s completely dead, but I have absolutely no idea where they’re at with that, to be honest. I’m not in the loop.
On the subject of heroes, there’s nothing heroic about Game Of Thrones’ Ramsay Snow, of course…
[laughs] No, he’s a scumbag.
Though, interestingly, you describe Ramsay as a very happy, content character.
I think he is. I think that’s the key to him. None of it is hurting him. The only thing he really wants is for his dad to respect him and make him his son, apart from that, he’s just quite an evil psychopath with no empathy, so he’s happy about what he’s doing, he really enjoys doing it. I think that was the key to the character for me to play it, that there’s joy in all this stuff, as opposed to just being like [adopts over the top villainous accent] evil! Mwahaha! He just sees it all as being really fun. It’s like a fun game, he’s basically Dennis the Menace.
That sense of childish mischief really comes across, now you mention it, in that season four scene between you and Yara’s men when they attempt to rescue Theon. He’s having a whale of a time, giggling like a mad thing whilst stabbing people in the head…
The thing is, he’d been really bored more than anything, because his dad’s been away bloody ages fighting a war, and he’s not allowed to go, so he’s just been left in this fucking castle and he’s just left to his own devices – and you can’t leave someone like that to their own devices [laughing], not with power.
It’s all about power for him isn’t it? Alex Graves [GoT director] has said that season five sees the Boltons enjoying real power for the first time. They’re ruling the North. How does Ramsay take to that?
You see at the end of the last season that he’s been legitimised, so it’s a big deal for him. He sort of embraces it in his own little way I think [laughs].
How did Ramsay learn to fight like that, do you think? Do you consider biographical things like that for your character?
The fact that his father was a lord, he’d have had pretty good training I’d imagine. Even though he was a bastard. He’s very much like Jon Snow.
He’s like the evil Jon Snow, really.
He’s basically the antithesis of Jon Snow. Jon is honourable and good and he does the right thing, whereas Ramsay [laughing] is the complete opposite. He’s a complete bastard, in more ways than one! But that might be a lot to say about their fathers who brought them up and how they were brought up. Obviously Ramsay had something in him anyway. He would have been taught to fight by one of the big boys at home.
How far along are you in the season five filming now?
We’re still in the middle of it now.
How did you go about developing Ramsay’s character with the showrunners and the directors?
We had a meeting and really discussed the character. Chatting to them, it all started making sense. Also the notes they gave during the audition process I took on, and then you work with the directors on the day on the scenes and it all started coming together. They know exactly what they want. They’re all over it.
And they know where it’s all leading too for each character, of course.
I know you based Misfits’ Simon, visually at least, on Ian Curtis from Joy Division. Was there anyone in mind for Ramsay?
Probably some sort of combination between Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight, and Dennis The Menace. That sort of mischievousness.
Is it right that you haven’t read the books?
So how much do you know about your character’s fate in the novels?
Nothing. I feel that might be conflicting in the way that I play it, and also the stories have changed so I just think I need to stay away from the books and just play it as I get the scripts and whatever happens happens.
Talking about that, yours and Theon’s characters’ stories underwent a significant change from the books. Originally there was a separate character called Reek, and lots of identity swapping and disguise, but that was all changed for the TV series. Were the reasons for why those changes were necessary explained to you?
From what I understand, it was just purely for dramatic television reasons. They brought that Ramsay storyline forward I think – because he doesn’t get into the books until a bit later on – because they felt that Alfie [Allen] had done such a great job in season two, they thought, we can’t lose the character, so they brought everything forward to keep him in it, basically.
From my understanding, that’s what it is. So, hats off to Alfie Allen.
For getting you the job two years earlier than it might have been.
Because I got the job, that’s right! [laughing]
One of the showrunners has said about season five was that it’s “time for negative population growth”. Because they’re introducing a whole load of new characters so they have to clear the way with some others. On set, do the cast feel a kind of axe hanging over them because of the show’s reputation for culling characters?
It’s funny when you’re chatting to actors on set and they go, ‘I die in this one. It’s my last one which is a shame’ [laughs] and you think, ‘oh man!’ but we all treat it like professional actors in that it’s out of our hands what happens to us in the grand scheme of things. We do joke about it, that anyone could go at any time, that’s the thing about it, like ‘oh, don’t piss them off or you’ll be…’ [laughing] It’s true though, it does happen. We all have a laugh about it, but there’s nothing we can do.
The US remake of Misfits went quiet recently, we understand.
Had you heard anything on that?
No, I know nothing about it, no.
Your original series started airing on Hulu in the US a couple of years ago. Did you notice a response from the States when it first came out?
Yeah. A little bit. People are catching on to it slowly. I think it’s the kind of thing that people will continue to pick up on, because I don’t think it’s going to date. Although it’s incredibly contemporary, I think there’s something quite timeless about it so I don’t think if you watched it now, you’d think it was old. Maybe in fifteen years, you might, but I think people are still finding it now, which is good!
Are you aware there’s an Italian kind-of remake, called Freaks!
It’s not exactly the same by any means. I thought the closest to your character might be the one called Marco, whose power is that he can travel through time, but only when he’s sexually aroused…
[Laughs] Wow. Okay.
But I’m not sure it’s that linear a translation. Also I don’t speak Italian. It’s not on your radar then?
No, I haven’t seen it. I’ll look it up. I did meet the guy who dubbed my voice in Italian in a pub in Belfast, which was quite bizarre. He just came over with a pint of Guinness and said ‘How’s it going? I did your voice in the Italian dub of Misfits’. I said ‘I should be buying you that, mate’.
[ITV sitcom] Vicious is coming back for a second series next year. What co-stars you’ve got there! You must have a good story or two about working with Sir Ian Mckellan and Sir Derek Jacobi?
They are amazing people to work with, absolute gentlemen, because they’re so good and polite and generous and all those things. It’s hard to think of anything specific… Very early on I was stepping backwards in one scene, and Ian McKellen went [in a McKellen voice] ‘Darling, me and Derek have been doing this for years, don’t try and upstage me’ [laughs] and I wasn’t trying to, I was just nervous! It was just one of those things where you think ‘Oh God, on day one’.
And your heart drops through your stomach…
Yeah, though he didn’t mean it. They were just testing me out I think.
Speaking of stages, congratulations on the Olivier award for Spring Awakening. Do you have plans for more musicals?
No, I don’t think so. I’m not really equipped to do musicals. That was a very different one in quite a specific style of singing and acting. I don’t think I’ll probably do a musical again. I don’t know, I might.
You don’t fancy a part in The Lion King?
No, no, I’m alright thanks. I’ll do a play, but I don’t know about musicals.
You are a singer though.
Yeah. I’ve got an album coming out at the end of the year. It’s called Dinan, which is a place in France.
That’s it. It’s my first full album, because I did 3 EPs over the last two years, but I’ve been recording this album for a while, trying to fit in the time. Hopefully that’ll be out towards the beginning of next year.
Your Our Girl character in fact, Smurf, had a reading from his namesake, Dylan Thomas, from Under Milk Wood at his church service, which is fitting as you’ve a part in the new TV version for his centenary…
I’ve already done it. It was a BBC production that got all the Welsh actors in to do a little bit each.
That’s been done as a straight movie, it’s not animated or…?
No no. What they wanted to do was a co-production with BBC Wales and National Theatre Wales where they had loads of different Welsh actors and performers from Tom Jones, Matthew Rhys, and Michael Sheen and that kind of range of people and we all just did little bits, not as a performance but just to camera, but it worked really well and they went to us, so they’re off in L.A. with Michael Sheen and New York with Matthew Rhys, but it really works, I thought that was fantastic.
I have to ask, because it’s a tradition on our site. What’s your favourite Jason Statham film?
Snatch? Is he in that? Yeah, he’s in that.
Er, speaking of which, do you have a particularly memorable line from Misfits? And remember, this is a family site…
“We have to bury the bodies under the foundations of the environmental monitoring station before they pour in the concrete” or something like that! I still remember it, because it was so hard to say and also because there was all of them lot laughing in my face, it was very hard to say.
And from Game Of Thrones?
What have I said in that? Well, I won’t say any of them, but there’s some beauties coming up in the next series. I’ll leave you with a bit of intrigue!
Iwan Rheon, thank you very much!
Iwan Rheon stars in Our Girl, on DVD on Monday the 3rd of November.
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