Paul Kaye interview: Dennis Pennis, Game Of Thrones, Zapped

We chatted to actor Paul Kaye about playing wizards, the musical Matilda, and his move from celebrity satire to serious drama…

Main image credit: Jordan Katz-Kaye

“Bitterness, really” is Paul Kaye’s explanation of what drove his satirical red-carpet interviewer Dennis Pennis in the nineties. “I’d hit thirty, I’d sort of failed as a musician, I’d failed as an artist I felt at the time.” Ambushing Hollywood’s elite in the persona of a brash, punk nuisance wasn’t Kaye’s first choice for stardom, he admits. “It wasn’t how I expected to forge a career. Of all the things I thought I’d end up doing, it wasn’t that.”

Trained in theatre design, in his twenties Kaye worked as an illustrator and graphic artist while also playing in bands, one of which signed to Go! Discs in the early nineties. When the Dennis Pennis opportunity on BBC Two’s The Sunday Show cropped up, says Kaye, “it fucking terrified me, to be honest. I hadn’t done any acting at all up until that point. I needed a good few stiff drinks to be doing it because I’m naturally quite shy and don’t really like confrontation,” he laughs. “It was a bit of a nightmare.”

“I’d spent so much of my youth and twenties dying my hair bright red to either look like Ziggy Stardust or Johnny Rotten,” he remembers, “I think I needed to come up with my own redheaded alter-ego in order to move on in life! Looking back, it amuses me that people imagined that I was a very brash, fearless, redheaded young revolutionary when I was in fact a very insecure, mousy-haired, middle-aged man with a deep fear of authority.”

Authority for Pennis usually took the form of security guards. “There were times it was very hairy. I spent most of my time either being threatened or chased by bouncers,” he recalls. “I’d turn up at a premiere and there’d be two bruisers assigned to keep me away.” Every so often, a sterner force would stand in their way. “We were hauled in by the LAPD,” he says. “We got grassed up by Barry Norman! I think it was the 1997 Oscars and that was going to be my swansong and we ended up being kept in a Portakabin all night. But the LAPD, fuck, you don’t mess around with them.”

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Some of Pennis’ targets presented their own risk. “When Sean Penn was at his peak of punching people I remember we went to find him somewhere and I lied to my producer that I’d heard a rumour that he was coming out the back entrance just to avoid doing it.”

Kaye had other reasons for being reluctant to approach some stars in Pennis mode. Steve Martin, for instance, or Woody Allen. “I’d spent all my life wanting to meet Woody Allen and the last thing I wanted to do was piss him off! I think that’s why I did that one very quietly, we had to turn that up in the mix.” (He must have been quiet enough, because a decade later Kaye had a role in Allen’s 2005 film Match Point.)

If the prospect of getting manhandled by bouncers or sparked out by bad-tempered actors didn’t appeal to Kaye, the notion of cutting celebrity egos down to size did. “I loved the idea of it,” he says. “I’d always wanted to be Johnny Rotten and I’d always wanted to feel infamous or do something that kicked shit off. That felt very natural. It was a lovely feeling for a couple of years, feeling like Robin Hood.”

Kaye, aged 17, "thinking I was  Ziggy Stardust".

Kaye though, didn’t plan to make Pennis an institution. “I really had no illusions of sticking around in the industry. I modelled Pennis on the band X-Ray Spex who made one concept album back in the 1970s called Germ Free Adolescence about consumerism. Pennis was a one-album band about celebrity. It was really a reaction to Hello magazine. There was only one magazine of that ilk on the shelves back then. I mean, we certainly lost the war,” he laughs.

As Pennis became more recognisable, the bite of the satire threatened to be blunted as actors increasingly wanted to be seen to be in on the joke. “Towards the end of it, PRs were coming along and offering people to me,” he says. “I was very punk back then and I got offered a chat show and I turned it down because I was thinking the last thing I want to be doing is sit next to someone who’s getting paid three grand to be insulted because it’s sort of the antithesis of what I was setting out to do.”

In 1995, the same year Kaye was filming Pennis for The Sunday Show, Caroline Aherne was doing The Mrs Merton Show. “We were coming from a very similar direction I think. She did it brilliantly. I remember thinking at the time that what I was doing was quite Dame Edna, that was sort of the reference I had in my head. The production company on The Sunday Show were really into Howard Sterne and there was a guy called Stuttering John who did it on radio, and it’s a similar sort of thing. There was something in the air at that time.”

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Imitators and successors followed (Pennis co-writer Anthony Hines went on to write with Sacha Baron Cohen on Ali G and Borat), but the Google-enabled recognisability of stunt comedians and changing nature of celebrity changed things.

“If Dennis Pennis were around now,” Kaye says, “you’d be spending most of your time hanging around waiting for Big Brother winners. The great thing about it was meeting Tom Hanks and Charlton Heston and all those kind of guys. We were going right for the top drawer and it was exciting. It was very exhilarating, up to a point.”

Pranksters are still making headlines. The week before Kaye and I speak, Simon Brodkin pulled a stunt interrupting Theresa May’s address to the Tory Party Conference. What did Kaye make of that? “I loved the Sepp Blatter one,” he answers diplomatically. “That was genius and that photograph is iconic, with all the money flying around, I mean, it doesn’t get better than that. And he’s managing to get on the front pages of newspapers, so he’s doing it.”

Does Kaye have any regrets about doing the Pennis character? “No, no, no regrets,” he says. “My only regret is that I didn’t get into acting ten years earlier when I was handsome!”

Acting was an early dream of Kaye’s. “I did have an inkling that I wanted to be an actor back in 1987 when I was twenty-one. But then I went to see the film Sid And Nancy in Camden and came out thinking that there was no point anymore because Sid Vicious was the part I was born to play and they were never going to make another film about him!”

Seeing Sid And Nancy was a memorable night in more ways than one, Kaye recalls. “Me and my friend were randomly attacked leaving the cinema as we were walking up Parkway. My friend Pete was punched in the face and this guy started beating him up. I jumped on him and he threw me into the road and I almost got killed by a bus.  A traumatic evening all round. I didn’t think of acting again for another decade.”

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Kaye’s first mainstream dramatic role came with BBC Hebrides-set family drama Two Thousand Acres Of Sky, which was followed by parts in films and numerous sitcoms including a cult cameo alongside David Walliams as a performance artist in Spaced. “I knew Simon [Pegg] and Edgar Wright. Edgar actually did the title sequence for Dennis Pennis when he was about seventeen. He was amazing. He worked for a company called Dancing Sleeves down in King’s Cross and he was an extraordinary young talent and we managed to nab him to do this great title sequence.”

[Look out for Kaye and his then-twelve year old son in Shaun Of The Dead as “the first zombies at the window when he cranks up the electricity down in the basement of The Winchester.”]

In 2007, Kaye popped up in an episode of EastEnders. “Yeah! I played a vicar in a Free Tibet t-shirt,” he remembers. His co-star June Brown was “amazing,” he says. “We were late on set because she had a real issue with some of the lines and I remember hearing quite lively discussions going on next-door to me. She still really gave a shit about everything that Dot Cotton was about and wouldn’t go on set until she was absolutely satisfied that the dialogue was right for her, which I just thought was amazing, having done it for twenty-five, thirty years, she still cared passionately about her character.”

The popularity of EastEnders gave Kaye his first real taste of public fame. The day after his episode aired, he remembers being at an airport. “Fuck me, I’d never experienced anything like it—because I don’t get recognised very much, which is great—just from being on EastEnders for ten minutes! My God.”

Encounters with the public haven’t always gone well for him, he says, laughing. There was the time, filming BBC fantasy Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, that the cast hotel refused him entry to breakfast, not believing he was an actor. And then, on the first day of rehearsals for Tim Minchin and Dennis Kelly’s RSC Matilda The Musical, “I was sat outside having a fag and a guy was driving up the road on a motorbike and he saw me and stopped, came over and said ‘You used to be Dennis Pennis didn’t you?’ and I said yes and he put five quid in my hand and said ‘Sorry to see you down on your luck!’”

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In recent years, Kaye has carved out a niche playing shambolic, black-market wizards who enjoy a drink. He followed up rum-swilling resurrectionist priest Thoros of Myr in Game Of Thrones with chaotic wizard Vinculus in Jonathan Strange, and is currently playing untrustworthy purveyor of magical items Howell in Dave Original fantasy comedy Zapped. “Howell is fantastic,” he enthuses. “He’s a complete alcoholic maniac which I used to be, but now it’s just a day job! I spent twenty years researching the part.” He hasn’t had a drink for around nine years, he says, “but the memory is still there.”

Kaye says he enjoys “going big” with comedy characters. He loves playing Howell on Zapped because “you can really take it as big and manic as you can. It’s just silly. It’s a sort of celebration of silliness.” Series two of Zapped, the story of a temp called Brian [The Inbetweeners’ James Buckley] magically transported to an enchanted realm, is airing now next to Red Dwarf, and the new episodes promise plenty of weirdness from Kaye’s ramshackle, pickled-beak-eating wizard. “Probably the strangest thing in series two is turning into James Buckley, I inhabit James Buckley’s body.”

“What I love most about James Buckley,” he goes on to explain, “is that he’s a man who still believes in talc-ing! Nobody talcs anymore do they? Well James Buckley does. A shit load. That’s one of the main reasons I wanted to grow up when I was a kid. I used to watch my Dad talc-ing his balls to the point where it looked like someone had let off a smoke bomb in the bathroom. There was a huge layer of talc residue on everything within a 10ft radius of him and I remember clearly thinking “I cannot wait until I’m old enough to have a large set of testicles and talc them into oblivion.”


Moving on!

One big, comedic role in particular was the highlight of Kaye’s working life. From November 2010 to January 2012, he played disreputable used-car salesman Mr Wormwood in the original cast production of the RSC’s Matilda The Musical. “I loved every single show that we did,” he says. “Right from the beginning of the show you just felt like you had to fire yourself out of a cannon, you just had to explode onto stage and sustain that energy.”

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Kaye was able to draw on his days in bands to perform a song in the role. Mr Wormwood’s Luddite anthem Telly, which couldn’t feel more Roald Dahl, had been cut from the show when Kaye was cast, “but I managed to wangle it back in to the interval,” he says. “It was a beautiful song, Telly, it was like an old Ian Dury song. Initially we were going to do the song in the bar in the interval as a little Easter Egg, you could catch it or you wouldn’t but Matthew Warchus [director] said to try it on stage. I love those ironies of my life, you join the RSC and you’re looking forward to the interval more than anything else!”

On Matilda, Kaye happily shared a dressing room with Bertie Carvel, who played fearsome villain Miss Trunchbull. “He was fabulous. Because he’s RADA-trained and I never trained, it was fascinating watching his process. I learned a lot from him.” The musical, says Kaye, especially Carvel’s character and performance, “pushed the limits of what would be considered acceptable for a family show and really made it dark and disturbing.” The whole production had a sense of risk about it, “[writers] Dennis and Tim were mavericks, real anarchists.”

More stage roles followed in the wake of Matilda, a sort of homecoming for the former theatre designer. “I do feel like an outsider because I sort of crashed into it late in life, and I’ve only done five plays but there is also a sense of feeling very at home,” he agrees. Kaye is currently appearing in B at the Royal Court, by Chilean writer Guillermo Calderón, a “kind of dark comedy about terrorism”.

Matilda’s storytelling was what made it special, he says, that, and the performances, especially by the young lead. Kerry Ingram [another Game Of Thrones refugee—Kaye laughs at the word—who played Shireen Baratheon on the HBO drama] “just blew the roof off in Stratford,” he remembers. You’re witnessing a ten year old girl carrying the show every night. I mean, the whole show’s about the courage of a child.”

The courage of a child, and children, subjected to the worst of ordeals was also the theme of a recent dramatic role for Kaye, in Philippa Lowthorpe and Nicole Taylor’s powerful BBC One drama Three Girls retelling the experiences of victims of the Rochdale child sex abuse ring. Kaye played Jim, father of real-life survivor Holly Winshaw. A small role, but one he made truly moving.

“I’d never done anything that came with such a big sense of responsibility,” says Kaye. “I met the father who I played, he was on set a couple of days. You could sense how empowered him and his daughter felt that the story was being told and that it hadn’t been forgotten. Philippa’s objective right from the beginning was to give voice to people who all too often don’t have one, who were the girls.”

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The hardest part of playing Jim, Kaye recalls, “was reining in the emotions because it was just so upsetting. I remember being in Iceland shooting Game Of Thrones in February, there was a dinner conversation with all the guys in the cast and everyone unanimously agreed that there was nothing worse than watching an actor crying his eyes out on screen. I just sat there thinking ‘Oh shit’ because of how many tears had been shed on Three Girls. I was worried I was crying too much in it, but Philippa thankfully found enough dry-eyed takes.”

The camaraderie on Game Of Thrones is something Kaye, whose character first appeared on the world-straddling show in 2013, will miss now it’s drawing to an end. “I’ll miss the boys. We all got on so well. Rory McGann and Richard Dormer and Kit [Harington] and Kristof [Hivju], Joe Dempsie… we all got on brilliantly. A great little gang.”

Kaye filmed his season seven scenes in Iceland and Northern Ireland. [Spoiler alert] “My death, or my ruckus with the zombie polar bear was filmed in Belfast. I was fighting with some guy in a green suit holding a flaming wheelbarrow,” he laughs. “It couldn’t get further from what ends up on telly!”

2017 also saw Kaye put on an iconic black hat and silver beard to play the hugely loved and greatly missed writer Terry Pratchett in documentary Back To Black. “He was like one of the Pythons or something, that great British eccentric imagination,” says Kaye. “We actually got thrown out of the crematorium that he was cremated in. We were going to start the film with me opening the coffin, dressed as him, and getting out, which his assistant Rob thought Terry would find very amusing. The people in the crematorium saw us doing it on CCTV in their office and we got chucked out!” he laughs.

Something tells me Pratchett would have enjoyed the farce of that, I say. There’s that quote of his about something only being worth doing if someone, somewhere would much rather you didn’t do it. “Absolutely!” says Kaye. “I’m very much of that mindset. If everybody loved something, there’s got to be something wrong with it.”

Zapped series 2 is currently airing on Dave on Thursday nights and is available to stream  on UK TV Play.

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