He made his name as a loveable hedonist in Skins, but since then Joe Dempsie has pursued bleaker roles. here he reveals why he’s drawn to the dark side.
How does it feel to be famous literally hours after your first TV appearance? Joe Dempsie can tell you. Back in 2006, he was cast as lovable party animal Chris Miles in the controversial teen drama Skins. E4 marketed the series aggressively, with a raunchy trailer featuring the cast at a house party fuelling the pre-broadcast frenzy. “The minute the first episode aired, everything changed,” he says. “It was weird. Skins was aimed at a young audience, and fans had no qualms about coming up to you and saying something – or just screaming in your face and running away.” Overnight the cast had a public profile that normally took actors several series to achieve.
Skins was a critical success as well as a ratings winner, which meant more to the cast than instant fame. “When you’re personally invested in something, you’re often the most critical of it,” says Joe. He remembers going to dinner with fellow cast members Nicholas Hoult and Dev Patel. “We were sitting around wondering if the series was going to be any good, and I said to Nick, ‘Nobody knows who Dev and I are, but if it isn’t any good, you’re screwed.’”
Chris Miles died an untimely death in the second series of Skins, but they were “a bonkers couple of years” for Joe. The level of recognition he received at the time made him stop and think about what he wanted from a career as an actor. “That level of fame wasn’t harrowing, it was just intense. I didn’t think I’d be able to cope with being properly famous.”
Predictably, after Skins Joe was offered Chris-type parts. But he made a conscious effort to go after more dramatic roles, he says. It’s a decision that has served him well. Post-Skins, Joe has carved out an impressive career in some of the UK’s most original TV dramas – series like This is England 86 and This is England 90; The Fades, New Worlds and Southcliffe; and one-off dramas like Murder and Game Changer.
Joe’s latest projects definitely sit at the bleaker end of the scale. Set in Scotland, One of Us is a powerful four-part drama that explores the impact of a brutal double murder on the victims’ two families. Everyone, it transpires, has secrets and moral boundaries quickly become blurred. Joe plays Rob, the brother of one of the victims – a troubled and conflicted soul, who goes to extreme lengths to protect the people he loves. He was drawn to the script, he says, because “Rob is a character I’ve not played much in the past – someone with the weight of the world on his shoulders.” The moral ambiguity of the role interested him too. “I don’t think anyone knows how they would act until they found themselves in that situation.”
In Ellen, a 90-minute drama for Channel 4, Joe has another morally ambiguous role. It’s a visceral story of a teenager trying to take control of her chaotic life who’s befriended by Joe’s character, Jason. It’s a tough watch, admits Joe, but it has heart. “It’s a brave piece of storytelling, but it’s not sensationalist.” Jessica Barden, Jaime Winstone and Charlie Creed-Miles co-star and the performances are astonishingly naturalistic. Credit for that has to go to the director and the writer, says Joe. “The director Mahalia Belo was pretty relaxed about letting us actors feel our way into a scene. But we didn’t really have to do much, Sarah Quinnell’s script was so beautifully written.”
So why is he drawn to dark parts? That’s a tough question, says Joe. He’s not sure whether it’s because he wants to work on TV programmes or films that he or his friends would want to watch, or whether he genuinely enjoys it. “I guess for an actor it’s a bigger challenge,” he says. “If you’re examining the human condition, the bleaker stuff gives you more depths to plumb.”
That said, Joe’s latest film role is more bittersweet than bleak. Burn, Burn Burn is a road-trip comedy about two young women on a mission to scatter the ashes of a dead friend. Joe plays the hapless boyfriend of one of the women. “It’s a really welcome break,” admits Joe, “the caveat being that as well as being funny, it’s a really poignant piece. It’s nice to have a break from the more draining stuff, to work different muscles.”
Joe’s acting muscles – dramatic and comic – were honed at the Nottingham Television Workshop, whose alumni include Samantha Morton, Vicky McClure (who worked with Joe on This is England) and Jack O’Connell (who was also cast in Skins). “It’s impossible for me to overstate the importance of the Workshop,” he says, “without it, I wouldn’t have become an actor. It gave me a bullshit detector – the ability to read a script and pick out what’s true and authentic. Plus, it taught me how to deal with rejection, which in this industry you have to deal with more than success.”
One project that involved both rejection and success for Joe was Game of Thrones. He initially auditioned for the part of Jon Snow and went up for a couple more roles before he landed the part of blacksmith Gendry, bastard son of Robert Baratheon. He wasn’t an obvious choice, he admits. His character was supposed to be tall and muscular with dark hair. “I wasn’t any of those things. So they sent me to the gym and dyed my hair. But they couldn’t do anything about my height.”
Joining Game of Thrones early on and being written out after three series meant that Joe didn’t experience the crazy level of fame that cast members have to deal with now. But it did change his life in a quite major way. “Working with so many people of a similar age who gravitated to London gave me a ready made social circle when I finally made the move down from Nottingham,” he says. His first house share was in Herne Hill, and he now lives in Forest Hill. But like many actors, he spends a lot of time in the West End. “Barely anyone shoots in London these days, but they come to Soho to audition or visit production offices, so I’m always catching up with friends there. And it’s always over a meal rather than coffee,” he laughs. “Like most people who live in London, after my mortgage I spend most of my money on food and drink.”
The four-part series, One of Us, begins on BBC1 on 23 August.
Ellen will be available to watch on All4.