A game of (two) thrones – Glass interviews actor de jour Iwan Rheon


Welsh Actor Iwan Rheon is best known for his role as the sadistic torturer Ramsay Snow in HBO’s screen adaption of George RR Martin’s novel Game of Thrones. The series, currently in its fifth season, is set on the fictional continents of Westeros and Essos, and has a large ensemble cast of characters and a huge worldwide following in India, the Philippines, South Africa, Australia, Canada, The UK and Ireland to name a few.

Iwan RheonIwan Rheon. Photograph: Justin van Vliet

We chat in a rare moment of down time, Rheon is relaxing at his home in London with girlfriend Zoe. I have to start with the obvious. Is it possible to actually enjoy playing the psychopathic Ramsey?

“Well,” he chuckles,  “he’s an interesting character but I wouldn’t want to hang out with him.”
I ask him if it’s important to like the characters he plays?

“Ramsay has few redeeming features, but he’s very happy, so I like playing that element of him, he’s not bogged down or introverted and in that way he’s fun to play. A very interesting young man.”

The series is shot in Belfast, but with multiple interweaving plot lines and one of  the largest cast of characters currently on television, he remarks that it is “a really strange job. You don’t know everybody. Some of the cast I’ve only met very recently at the premieres,  it’s a bit, ‘nice to meet you, we work on the same show!’“ He admits to being a huge fan before he joined the cast.

“By the time I watched the second season I thought yes, I really want to be part of this.”
Now he is part of it, does he still watch the show? “Anything on the main land of Westeros, I look forward to. Especially if it doesn’t involve my character directly.”

Born in Carmarthen but brought up in Cardiff, at 17 he landed a part in Welsh soap opera Pobol Y Cym. He later left to take up a place at LAMDA (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art) in London. Did his family approve?

“My mum and dad aren’t in the industry but they knew there was no point in trying to push me towards an academic career. I think they thought that I had to do this. They were resigned to the fact that I would go and they were supportive of it.”

Rheon confesses that while at LAMDA though he “learnt an incredible amount, I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it. It was an interesting place. I made a terrible decision and fell in love in my first year there. Then it all went wrong and was quite depressing. I went into my shell a bit and that was read as perhaps being arrogant or not interested.

“I had a lot of energy and was confident, and they read that wrong. I think they thought that I was some cocky little shit. It was full of establishment figures that had been there too long. It needed a change of energy. I was put into a box quite quickly. I refused to kiss ass and a lot of people did.”

As well as acting, Rheon wears another hat as a musician.  He has just released his first album Dinard named after the French town where he and Zoe met.  It is a beautiful, lyrical work – about as far away from the gore and guts of Thrones as is possible.

Dinard possesses both the cadence of Welsh folk ballads and the louche confidence of old world European chanson, it clearly refuses to pay homage to the over produced standardized tin pop we’ve grown accustomed to. A disinclination to bow to convention is evident in the albums lucid integrity.

The Welsh have long been associated with music and singing. Was music was part of the family’s immediate experience growing up? “My dad can play a tune on the piano but my mum is tone deaf. It’s a bit of a family joke like. Bless her. But my dad can sing.”

Rheon’s voice is soft, melodious and easy on the ear. He cites Bob Dylan as one of his musical heroes and fellow Welsh band Super Furry Animals. Influences of both can be heard on the album. “I played in bands in my teenage years and it was probably more what I wanted to do. When the acting work started it made it impossible to be in bands as the gigs are time consuming, but I started thinking of it in a more singer/songwriter way and started writing songs – and I take my guitar with me wherever I go.”

I suggest that music is important to counterbalance the craziness that can trail behind a high profile career? “With acting you’ve got to do all this stuff. Stand there, because that’s where the camera angle is, etc, but with the album it’s like ‘What about this?’ We’d sit there and work it out and come up with a line for the violin and then just do it.  A really lovely experience.”

How does he cope with the attention that Game of Thrones has generated? “I like to keep myself to myself. I’m pretty good at getting out and about without getting noticed. London lends itself to that – it can be a very anonymous city. Generally people are respectful. Negative attention is the worst part of the job for me.”

Rheon has certainly proved his talent. About a year after drama school, he won a part in the much-lauded Broadway musical Spring Awakening. It was a gruelling rehearsal period, which lead to a back injury just days before the show previewed,

“I’d been gearing up to do the show during the six week rehearsal and then the doctors tell me that I couldn’t go on. I went to watch the show twice whilst I was injured. Seeing my understudy playing my role was heart-breaking  – but actually it was a really valuable experience for me as I was the only cast member who got to watch the show as an audience member.”

Refusing to be downcast he now sees the injury as “a weird twist of fate. I realised that ‘Wow this show is amazing! And when you are part of something that you know is good – it feels amazing! Spring Awakening was an intense show, physically and vocally. And I did go back way to early but it ended up being fine.”

His determination paid off. In 2010 he won the Olivier award for best supporting actor in a musical. That success led to him to being cast as Simon Bellamy in the Bafta Winning sci-fi comedy drama Misfits. With its idiosyncratic filming style it was an ambitious project, ‘seat of the pants stuff’, but again ingenuity paid off, and the series garnered a loyal following.  Next came the role of Ash Weston in ITV sitcom Vicious starring Derek Jacobi and Sir Ian McKellen.

He describes working with two living legends of the acting world as “daunting, surreal and wonderful.  They were generous and polite. It was so inspiring to work with two people who both have had such immense careers.”

Though softly spoken and laid back it is clear that Rheon has his feet firmly on the ground and a refreshing clarity when he talks about the business.

Are there any roles you’d like to play in the future?  “I’d like to tackle some of the big Shakespeare roles. Iago, Coriolanus, Macbeth.”

All characters who desire to rule. With his down-to-earth attitude and immense talent he is capable of wearing any of these crowns.

by Gabriella Crewe-Read

Photographs by Justin van Vliet

Game of Thrones series five is shown on SKY Atlantic on Sunday evenings.
Dinard is available here and iTunes. Vicious will air on ITV later this year