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August 2022 / People / by Liz Skone James

Exclusive Interview: Steve Toussaint

Things are hotting up for Steve Toussaint, who will be dancing with dragons in the new Game of Thrones prequel this month.We caught up to talk Targaryens, talent and taking on disguises, and find out why he’d never have made it in politics.

Photography by Phil Sharp | Styling by Tanja Martin | Grooming by Charley McEwen | Photography assistance by Lydia Pritchard

Three years on from the final season of Game of Thrones, HBO will transport fans back to Westeros this month with a highly anticipated prequel to the franchise. “The events in House of the Dragon take place 200 years before the events of Game of Thrones, and they sort of chronicle the fall of the House Targaryen, which is the house of Daenerys, played by Emilia Clarke,” Steve Toussaint explains when we catch up to chat about his role in the show. The story is primarily based on the George R.R. Martin book, Fire & Blood, and was created by Martin alongside executive producer Ryan J. Condal.

“We meet the Targaryens in House of the Dragon when they are on top,” Steve explains. “My character is called Lord Corlys Velaryon, also known as the Sea Snake, because he is an incredible explorer and a great naval seaman – every time I say that word it still makes me laugh, I am very immature,” he laughs. “He is the richest man in the land after his nine voyages. His family is thought to be the oldest family in Westeros. According to his books they were the first ones to make the journey to Westeros and settle there, even before the Targaryens.”

Steve wears: striped white and orange linen shirt by Thom Sweeney (matchesfashion.com); orange pleated trousers (richard-james.com); watch (tateossian.com)

Little is known about the series, but we do know that it will tell the story of a war for the Iron Throne, fought between rival factions of the Targaryen dynasty. “At the beginning of the series, there is a choice about who should rule this land,” Steve explains. “And the choice is between my wife, Rhaenys Targaryen, played by Eve Best, and Viserys Targaryen, played by Paddy Considine. And the realm chooses Viserys, and my character feels that he is a nice man, but that it should be my wife ruling. So, a lot of this series is me plotting and trying to find ways to get my wife closer to the throne, and in fact onto the throne.”

For a fan like Steve, the appeal of the role was obvious. “I would’ve loved to have been in Game of Thrones,” he tells me. “So, superficially, there was that. But actually, what it came down to, when I came to meet Miguel (Sapochnik, the director) and Ryan, when we were first discussing the job, one of the things we talked about a lot was fathers, and fatherhood, and hopes for your family and all of that sort of stuff. So, despite the fact that, as I said, Corlys is rich and he is a guy who wants to seal his legacy, he is a husband and a father, and he wants the best for his family. Now, that doesn’t always mean that it is what is best, but it’s what he thinks is best. I liked the angle that they were coming at it from – that, OK, we can have big swords and all that stuff, but actually, these are still people. I get to show quite a few different sides – there is rage, there is intellect and manipulation, but also there is bloody mindedness.”

Whether the approach has paid off remains to be seen, but Steve is impressed with what he has seen. “Like everyone, I have seen the trailers, and a tiny amount when I had to go in and do a little bit of ADR a couple of weeks ago,” he explains. “I can say that what I have seen looks epic, as you would expect – no expense spared. But I am as keen as everybody else to watch it unfold properly, rather than having the highlights picked out of it.”

Steve rarely watches his own work, but this is something he will make an exception for. “Over the last, I don’t know, ten or fifteen years I have barely watched the things I am in, I find it excruciating!” He exclaims. “Unless I am in something where I don’t really look like me, do you know what I mean? So, the last thing that I was in that I watched… OK, yeah, I did an episode of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe, and I watched that, because they put a wig on me, and a moustache and glasses, so I thought, well, I’ll have a look at that. And I will watch this, because I don’t usually have foot long dreadlocks and a big white beard,” he laughs.

Steve wears, left: cream polo top (angloitalian.com) Right: yellow linen shirt and blue trousers (oliverspencer.co.uk)

Steve thanks both Gary Oldman and Frank Bruno for the fact that he is now working in the industry, though neither man is probably aware of the role he played. “I grew up in SE London: New Cross/Deptford, that sort of area,” Steve tells me. “And sometimes people would go, ‘Haha, you’re funny, you should be an actor,’ but I didn’t know anybody who was an actor from my neighbourhood, so it was never something that I thought was within my reach. Years later, I went to university, and while I was there, I was offered a part in a play by the Nigerian Poet Laureate Wole Soyinka. And I did the play and really enjoyed it. But I still didn’t think that acting was something that people from Deptford did. So, when I finished university I started temping, working in banks.” 

Things might have worked out very differently if it hadn’t been for going to see Prick Up Your Ears. Steve describes watching Gary in the film and thinking how amazing he was, then later learning that the actor had spent his childhood very close by, in New Cross. “I was like, oh my God, people like me can be actors. So, then I called up drama schools, because I had asked how you become an actor and been told, well, you go to drama school, and then you audition, and you get in. So, I rang up a couple of drama schools and they said, yes, come along and audition, bring your money. And I was like, well, if I don’t get in, do I get the money back. And they laughed and said, no, we
keep that.”

Determined to pursue this ambition, but reluctant to part with his hard-earned cash, Steve decided to enrol in acting classes. “I thought, well, what I had better do first is find out if I actually can act. So, what I will do is I will go and do evening classes, and find out if I actually have any talent,” he explains. As it transpired, the evening class tutor thought that there was talent there, and encouraged Steve to approach various theatres, asking for work. “I wrote to some, and one of them, The Churchill Theatre in Bromley, was looking for a tall black man to play the genie of the lamp in their pantomime. The year before, Frank Bruno had played it at The Dominion, so I guess they thought, hang on, what a great idea. Then my letter came through the door, and I was cheap. I auditioned and I got it. And that is kind of how I got in,” he shrugs.

Steve wears: stone cotton suit (oliverspencer.co.uk); blue shirt (emmawillis.com) 

Steve is incredibly grateful that things worked out the way they did. “I’m not sure what I would’ve done if they hadn’t,” he admits. “The office work used to kill me. I studied politics at university, and I am interested in politics, especially these days, as an observer, but I don’t think that I would want to be involved in politics. I might’ve been a photographer, but I’m not sure that I have any talent in that department. I just like taking photos of people. I do like to think that I would’ve found my way into something creative, though. Perhaps I would’ve taken my writing more seriously because I always liked writing back when I was at school.”

In fact, this is something that Steve has been focusing on lately. “A couple of years ago a friend of mine, a director, wanted to get back into directing – he had been in academia, teaching, but he wanted to get back into directing – so he asked me if I could write a short that he could direct and use as a calling card,” he tells me. The pair were both fans of 1970s style political conspiracies and decided to write something along these lines. “I was doing some research: we’ve had 55 prime ministers and 28 of them have come from Oxbridge. John Major is famous for being one of the ones who didn’t. So, I thought it could be interesting to write something about somebody who hadn’t followed this route. Somebody who had risen to prominence through street politics and so forth. And then, something that had happened in his past threatens to scupper his ambitions. So, I wrote this thing, called A Viable Candidate, and we made it,” he explains.

They took the film to various festivals, thinking that that would be the end of it, but it wasn’t. “A couple of years later, someone from a major broadcaster got in touch saying they had seen it, and that they thought it might make a TV series,” Steve reveals. “So, they have allowed us now to try to develop it into a six-parter, which is what I am doing at the moment. Finally, this week I should be finished with it. So, I have had to expand the world, develop a pilot episode, write a six-episode arc, create a small biog of the main characters… I’ll then send all that in and hope that they like it and that we can develop it further. It is still very early days, but yeah, it is exciting. We’ll keep our fingers crossed and see what happens.”

Steve wears: tobacco brown linen suit (richard-james.com); striped organic cotton polo (oliverspencer.co.uk); brown suede loafers by Crockett and Jones (angloitalian.com)

This isn’t something that has come naturally to Steve. “The funny thing is that I like the idea of telling stories,” he admits. “I think, oh, imagine if this happened, and then that happened and so on… And that’s great. That’s fun. But once you write something down and then somebody critiques it, and starts going: ‘Well, why would they do that? And that doesn’t make any sense. And what’s the arc? And what does it really mean?’ It becomes incredibly tedious, and I absolutely admire people who get up every day and write. People who do it as their job and have these wonderful stories that they have to tell. Purely from a selfish point of view, I am writing because there is a part in it that I would like to play, so I’ve got to write that part, sort of thing.”

So, what is it that makes for an irresistible part? “That’s a good question,” Steve ponders. “The actor’s answer is something that is different to what I did before, which is true, but I think, ideally, and I don’t always get to play these roles, the character who is caught up in something bigger than themself. Characters who have both internal and external foes and oppositions to overcome are the best of them. So, in an ideal world, that would be what I would try to do. Which is what we are trying to do with A Viable Candidate. But then, also, sometimes it can just be: ‘Oh my gosh, I’ll be working with that actor, or that particular director’ or ‘I like this writer’s work, so I just really want to do that’. It varies.”

If Steve’s CV is anything to go by, it is a formula that is proving fruitful. In a career spanning over 20 years, he has appeared in many big name projects including Prince of Persia, The Knock, Line of Duty and most recently Small Axe and It’s A Sin. And right now, aside from House of the Dragon and A Viable Candidate, there are a couple of exciting jobs in the pipeline for him. “I have got a part in this film by the directors of a movie called Boiling Point – I don’t know if you saw that?” He asks. “It was all one shot set in the kitchen with Stephen Graham. Good movie. So, anyway, the producers of that are producing another film, shooting as we speak, called Gassed Up, and I am in that, so that will be out next year. And, during the lockdown I shot a crime series for Channel 4 called Before We Die, and it proved to be very successful, so I will be going back to do season two of that in a couple of months’ time. So, yeah, that is keeping me busy until Christmas.” Meanwhile, catching up with those Targaryens promises to keep us busy for the next month or so, and personally, I can’t wait. 

House of the Dragon starts on 22 August on Sky Atlantic and streaming service NOW