Pardon our French here, but from the moment you start talking to Stephen Dillane you realise this is a man who doesn’t do bullshit. No equivocation, no meandering; he’s thoughtful in his answers but straightforward. A professional. It’s quite a contrast to his unintimidating, more laid-back character in Sky Atlantic’s subterranean remake of The Bridge, The Tunnel.
Dillane plays DCI Karl Roebuck, the British cop assigned to work with the glacial Captain Ellie Wasserman (Euro star Clémence Poésy) of the French police when – ‘sacre bleu!’ – a body is found at the exact halfway point of The Channel Tunnel. What follows is a twisty-turny tale of suspense, cross-continental commuting, and people staring in horror at computer screens, as Roebuck and Wasserman leap back and forth across la Manche trying to catch the killer, a so-called ‘Truth Terrorist’ responsible for a series of diabolical murders.
Ahead of The Tunnel’s release on vidéo disque, aka DVD, we spoke to Stephen about the show, his work on Game of Thrones, and being Stannis ‘The Mannis’ Baratheon.
You seem like an actor who picks projects with great consideration – what was it that brought you to The Tunnel?
I saw the script for the first two episodes and I was attracted by the world they suggested, a sort of dystopian Europe where the Eurozone seemed to be in trouble and these dark forces were emerging. I was attracted by the politics implicit in that; the suggestion of what we owe each other in terms of a society. And the kind of background of Karl’s father being an old Communist. I didn’t know where that was going to go but I talked to the writer about it to see whether that was going to play out. And not least the humour of it, the opportunity to play a light-hearted cop, and the relationship with Clémence (Poésy).
Also the fact that this had the feel of a European project around it. It was a French project really – the First Director was French and the cameraman was French – so it was an opportunity to engage with the French way of film-making, which is interesting to me. I’ve always been a fan of French cinema so that was an opportunity to engage with that.
Is there a great difference in the way the French approach making drama then to us Brits then?
I’m not sure about drama generally, because the French will say that their television, by and large, is not very good quality. But their films – or the films that we see, and maybe we only get to see the best of them – are very good, I always enjoy the aspirations of the films, the way they tell stories and they way they engage. And I think there is a difference, yeah, in the aesthetic and the ambition I think they’re trying to do something different to what most British films are doing. Not all, but most.
Your character Karl comes across as a good man who keeps succumbing to the same mistakes (ie: sleeping with other people’s wives) – is that how you viewed the character?
Errm, no. The difficulty is you only really know a week in advance where your character’s going. There’s quite a lot that’s ad hoc about it. It’s trusting that you’re on the right track and that you’re not leaving any hostages to fortune. So I had a feeling at the beginning at least that he was reasonably contented with his lot. I had a feeling that he’d had a bit of a past, that he’s put that behind him and he was settled into a fairly pleasant if unambitious and undemanding life. And then his past – I didn’t know how this would turn out – his past comes back to get him.
Did you watch The Bridge beforehand, or did you avoid it so that it wasn’t an influence on you?
I didn’t know it existed to start with, and then when I was told it was a remake I didn’t want to see it really because I didn’t really see how I’d benefit from it.
The Tunnel can be gruelling to watch simply because of the suspense it keeps the viewers in week on week. Was it a slog to make?
It was demanding for sure, just to stay on top of the plot was demanding because you’re only getting bits and pieces so you’re never quite sure what’s significant and what isn’t. We shot pretty fast but I hope it’s more gruelling to watch than it was to make. We had a nice time. We were together for six months down in Kent and across in France, with more or less the same crew all the way, so it all became one of the more pleasant experiences.
You get a better quality of on-set catering over in France then?
No, well, we took the British caterers. The caterers were fantastic, so it wasn’t a problem!
Have you watched it back, or are you one of those actors who can’t stand to watch themselves?
I actually haven’t got Sky so I haven’t been able to watch it! I’ve seen DVDs of the first 2 episodes, but that’s all.
What would you say to people who haven’t seen The Tunnel yet (or to those fans of The Bridge who don’t like the idea of a remake) to persuade them to watch it?
Well as I say I haven’t seen the original, so for people who’ve seen The Bridge, I just don’t know. It may be they’re right to steer clear, I just don’t know. From what I understand from people that have seen The Bridge and The Tunnel is that it follows the plot of The Bridge fairly closely to some extent but the atmosphere, the world its created and the humour is very different. I would trust that it’s its own creature.
The Bridge got a second series, is there any word on a second series for The Tunnel?
There’s been talk about it but no decision yet.
Would you be up for returning to the role if a second series gets the green light?
I think I’d probably do it again yeah. I enjoyed it. If Clémence would do it again I’d be quite happy to hook up with her again. All these things depend on the resources and the people involved, but in principle yeah, I’d be happy to do it again.
Well there’s always Game of Thrones to keep you busy in the meantime…
It’s not actually that much of a commitment, Game of Thrones. It’s only half the year and not that many filming days, so I’m not hugely involved in it at the moment. Who knows what it’ll be like next season…
Will we see a great deal more of Stannis in Season 4?
Is Game of Thrones a very different show for you to work on given its scale and budget and the sheer heat of fan attention that it receives?
I don’t think the heat of fan attention makes that much difference to the actual process of making it, but certainly the first two things you mentioned are significant. It’s a much much bigger industry. The experience of going in and out of something as vast as that is not the same as turning up every day on set with a bunch of people that you know. So it’s pretty different and the attention is different. There’s a lot of time spent setting up shots, and in a way the acting’s neither here nor there, so it’s a very different acting experience.
Did you read the books to prepare for the role, or did you not have a spare year handy?
(Laughs) I didn’t read the books, no. I decided I’d wing it (laughs).
Did you have to audition or were you just kidnapped in the dead of night and spirited away to be on the show like all of Britain’s actors seem to have been?
(Laughs) Pressganged! No, I went and read for it.
You’ve done your fair share of Shakespeare in the past. Do the machinations on Game of Thrones appeal to the Shakespearean actor in you?
I wouldn’t say that that is its appeal, no. I know what you mean about Shakespeare in the sense that it clearly draws on Shakespeare’s history plays for its inspiration in some ways, and the Greeks, and pretty much every other kind of epic history thats ever been written. But in terms of playing the role, no, I wouldn’t say that’s the attraction. I find its fascination is certainly in that kind of extraordinary exchange of power that goes on, and the fact that it’s really the only game in town. I think that people recognise that to be the way of the world at the moment.
Have you ever checked out the fan reaction to your character online? A lot of them call you ‘Stannis the Mannis’…
(Laughs) No, I haven’t…
Oh don’t worry, Stannis has a lot of fans.
That’s a relief actually, I must say because I do know how much people are invested in it. Especially people who’ve read the books. And you do feel a sense of obligation to those people to live up to their hopes. So even if I’m doing it by accident I’m very glad!
You’re a respected actor on both the stage and the screen, but where is it you feel most comfortable – on the boards or in front of the camera?
These days I feel more comfortable with the camera. I’m a little bit lost on stage at the moment. Maybe it’ll come back, but at the moment I’m out of favour with the stage. Who knows. Right now I just don’t seem to be able to get my act together with the stage.
But it’s something you’d like to return to in the future…
If it happens. I mean, it’s really hard to tell. The stage is such an investment and it’s so emotional that it’s really hard to tell how that will go. At the moment I’m doing TV.
Given that’s the case, what’s next for you?
I don’t know. I’m waiting and seeing. I know that I’ll be doing Game of Thrones next season…at least I assume I’ll be doing Game of Thrones next season…
They do have a habit of killing people off!
They do! I’m still there as far as I know, so I’ll be doing that again. But apart from that, I just don’t know.
Stephen Dillane, thank you very much.
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