Alfie Allen’s dad — that’s Alfie as in Theon Greyjoy/Reek from Game of Thrones — once threatened to throw me out of a top-floor window of the Groucho club. True story. I can’t remember the precise details because it happened a quarter of a century ago. And to be fair, Keith Allen wasn’t the main instigator, nor, I’m sure, did he actually mean to kill me. It was more by way of the kind of hell-raising, rock’n’roll thing actors of Allen’s rugged, no-nonsense ilk used to do back in the day at the Groucho.
There he was, chatting at some drunken showbiz launch party or other to his fellow Comic Strip Presents… actor Rik Mayall and also to then up-and-coming actor Tim Roth. And there was I, an ephebic hack, fresh out of university, trying to extract some low-level gossip for the Evening Standard’s ‘Londoner’s Diary’. Next thing I knew — it was Mayall’s idea — I was being manhandled towards the window and being pushed half out of it. Not quite dangled by the ankles, like Ozzy Osbourne’s manager Don Arden supposedly used to do to people who crossed him. But definitely shoved far enough to feel the kind of queasy sensation you might get on, say, Game of Thrones as you teeter on the edge of the Moon Door…
And now here I am, 25 years on, recounting this story to the somewhat nonplussed son of one of my tormentors. I feel a bit guilty because Alfie, I can tell, is a much more gentle soul than his famously bad-assed dad. But maybe that’s why I’m telling it. To get a reaction. To signal: ‘It’s OK, mate. You can trust me with your entertaining anecdotes. I’ve been round the block. Nothing will shock me. And anyway, your family bloody owes me one…’
We meet not, unfortunately, in some thrillingly redolent dungeon set on location in Northern Ireland, but in an office at an arts centre in north London. Allen, 29, has only an hour — it’s his lunch break between rehearsals for a play he’s in called The Spoils — and between questions he scoffs down mouthfuls of something in a box an assistant has brought from an artisanal takeaway. He looks much as you’d expect: blond-stubbly, gaunt–featured with those piercing blue bug-eyes, dressed in a collarless, rough grey button-up top which could almost be a bit of cast-off kit from Thrones. First impressions: nice kid — affable, polite. Even so, I can tell from the off that it’s going to quite a tough gig by the way he answers some utterly inconsequential question about his attitude to health and safety.
It’s just an icebreaker, prompted by the fact that he has dropped some food on the floor, picked it up and eaten it citing the (actually nonsense) ‘five-second rule’. I’m hoping he’s going to say something suitably butch about the absurdity of ’elf and safety rules, obviously, but I’m only halfway through asking when he gives me a pained look and says: ‘Are we really going to talk about politics this early in the interview?’
We move swiftly on to the product he’s officially here to plug: this play he’s in, shortly to open in the Trafalgar Studios in London’s West End, written by and starring Jesse Eisenberg, with a cast that includes Kunal Nayyar from The Big Bang Theory and Katie Brayben, who won an Olivier award for her performance in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.
The Spoils will surely be a big hit, as it was in New York when it ran off-Broadway and garnered excellent reviews. Though I’ve not seen it yet, I’ve read the script: it’s a tight, pacey, blackly funny chamber piece with Eisenberg — best known for playing Facebook inventor Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network — as Ben, a horrible, passive-aggressive jerk of a New York rich kid whom the script cleverly makes almost sympathetic.
Allen plays his mate Ted, whose main job is to act as a foil for Ben’s awfulness. It’s not a career-changing role (in fact, it’s only his second major theatrical part; the other was taking over from Daniel Radcliffe as the lead in Equus), but the most important thing for Allen is that it’s live. This is something he’d like to do a lot more of because, he’s realised, it’s in his blood. ‘I saw my dad on stage last year in The Homecoming at the same theatre, Trafalgar Studios,’ he says. ‘The stage is where I want to be.’
All that said, there are only so many questions I can ask about a play I haven’t seen (and most readers of Spectator Life never will). Hence the game we play for much of the interview, with me wondering how subtly and swiftly I can switch the conversation to Thrones and Allen loyally trying to steer it back to his current play. Most heroic example of this: just after I’ve told Allen that I really can’t think of a more wonderful thing right now than to be starring in Game of Thrones, he says: ‘What about The Spoils? Would you like to be in that?’
Anyway, Thrones. Alfie Allen — as all fans will know; everyone else should look away now to avoid spoilers — has been there right from the beginning as Theon Greyjoy, Iron-born son of Balon and presumed heir to the dank, fishy fiefdom of Pyke in the Iron Islands. Originally, he was considered for the part of Jon Snow, the show’s almost tediously noble and decent long-running heart-throb. I tell him he dodged a bullet there.
‘What do you mean? His part’s amazing!’
Oh rubbish. Everyone knows that Jon Snow is the most boring character in the show because all he ever wants to do is the right thing.
‘But everyone wants to think they do the right thing, don’t they?’
Still, Allen concedes that he’s glad he ended up as Theon, a character with an arc as terrifyingly eventful, random and disturbing as anyone in the series. Over six seasons, he has gone from trusted, semi-adopted son of the Stark family to strutting cocksure warrior to vile traitor to almost unbearably pitiful victim of grotesque torture to — currently — partially redeemed almost-hero and would-be avenger.
Most of these twists and turns have come as much of a surprise to him as they have to the viewer. George R.R. Martin, who wrote the books, has a terrible habit of killing major characters unexpectedly — most notably in the infamous ‘Red Wedding’ episode, when numerous key characters are suddenly wiped out. To complicate matters, the TV version has diverged from the books, meaning none of the actors know whether they’re safe. Early on, the screenwriters played a cruel trick on Allen, giving him a fake script in which he died. It was a practical joke to tease him for asking too many questions about his fate.
Instead, Allen — or rather his character, as he insists on stressing — experienced a fate far worse than death, being first mock-rescued and pretend-befriended by the sadistic Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon), who says: ‘If you think this has a happy ending you haven’t been paying attention’ — then proceeds to slice off Theon’s proudest possession (his apparently enormous member). Thereafter, Theon is treated like a dog — literally: he now lives in the kennels — and is kept as Bolton’s cowed, whimpering, smelly manservant under the new name of Reek.
‘It was a harrowing scene,’ he says. ‘A lot of physicality in it. You didn’t see the act [of castration] happen, just the lead up to it, the foreplay. You see me hit my face on the floor, then crawling away.’
As you can see from the above, Allen takes his craft seriously — and is not given to the kind of flippant willy jokes one might have hoped for. At one point, he actually uses the phrase ‘You’ve just got to make sure the energy is right on the day’ and talks solemnly about the significance to Theon’s character of his penile loss — ‘his only point of authority is in the bedroom’. No doubt this earnestness of intent contributes greatly to his performances. But it doesn’t exactly make for a trove of Thrones anecdotes.
Because he plays a character in ‘the North’, Allen has drawn the short straw of having to film in chilly Northern Ireland, whereas if he’d been, say, the Mother of Dragons, he’d be based in Croatia, Malta, Spain or Morocco, where the sunnier scenes are shot. ‘Ireland’s great,’ he nobly insists, putting on a Northern Irish brogue which suggests he has a gift for accents. ‘It could be like New Zealand if it had better weather.’ Nonetheless, he concedes, it can be pretty grim.
‘HBO [Home Box Office, the producers] like to keep it real so when you see me in the kennels with dogs, I’m in the kennels with dogs — it’s smelly and it’s dirty,’ he says. ‘Also, it really is that freezing cold. When Nikolaj [Coster-Waldau who plays Jaime Lannister] first came on set, he said, “Is this how it is down here?” And I was like, “Yeah. Winter is Coming. Welcome to Winterfell, mate.” ’
If he could play any other character, who would it be? I tell him mine would be Arya, the homicidal daughter of Ned Stark who’s sworn revenge on all her father’s killers. ‘Then we are two of the same kind, for I too would be Arya,’ he says. ‘Maisie [Williams] makes her so incredible, so likeable. She’s like a lickle girl in a big man’s world and still she rules it, which is great.’
Each season is filmed in four-month stretches, so the cast have got to know each other pretty well in the last six years and there is much Thrones cameraderie. This makes it all the more upsetting when another character gets the chop. ‘When Richard [Madden] and Oona [Chaplin] left at the end of season three that was really sad because I’d been working with them for two years. But that’s the nature of our industry.’
Then again, if it hadn’t been for this random brutality, the show might never have been made. ‘That Red Wedding massacre [the one that did for Richard and Oona] was the reason David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss] took the project on,’ he says. ‘It was also the moment when Thrones got huge, after that shock ending of the third series, when people started to go mental for it.’
In season one, in the US alone, Thrones was averaging 2.5 million viewers per episode. By season two, this had risen to 3.7 million. By the beginning of the current season (six), it was up to 10 million — though of course, worldwide, it’s much bigger, shown in 170 countries, and illegally downloaded more times than any other programme ever.
What this means is that Allen finds it impossible to go anywhere without being recognised. Not that he’s complaining. ‘As long as people are nice and not aggressive and not physical then I’m fine,’ he says. ‘People are into the show and if someone wants a selfie with me and it’ll make their day I’ll do that. Oh God, that makes me sound such an idiot.’
‘No it doesn’t Alfie. It just makes you a normal, modest, decent bloke,’ I reply. Or would have done if I was his analyst. What I’d also suggest is that he try to lighten up a bit. Though I don’t have much evidence for this other than personal observation, I’d say Alfie has a bit of a hang-up about fame and success, perhaps even to the point of thinking he doesn’t quite deserve it — a slight case of imposter syndrome.
If this is the case, you could hardly blame him. Dad is an actor, mum is a film producer and uncle Kevin is an actor-director. Alfie made his professional TV debut at the age of 12 in a comedy co-written by Matt Lucas and David Walliams and in the same year appeared as the Earl of Arundel’s son in Elizabeth (starring Cate Blanchett), which his mother produced. When he comes to write the book on how he got into showbiz, it’s probably not going to be called My Struggle.
Also, I notice, he’s not totally comfortable talking about his uber-talented pop-star sister Lily. This could, of course, be standard showbiz reticence when discussing one’s family with the press. But I think what I also detect amid the brotherly pride (“She’s very clever, Lil. Wait till you hear the new stuff!”) is perhaps a hint of antagonism. Early in her career, Lily famously wrote a song about her brother, immortalising him as a dope-smoking teenage waster: ‘Ooooo Alfie get up it’s a brand new day/I just can’t sit back and watch you waste your life away/You need to get a job because the bills need to get paid/Get off your lazy arse’. Alfie says ‘it’s great to be immortalised in a song’ but I get the slight impression it still rankles — and that perhaps this was because it contained an element of truth.
That, at any rate, is my theory — which you can take or leave — as to why he is so keen to prove himself on the stage, why he is at such pains (and very charming it is too) not to have any starry airs and graces, why he is so grateful for his good fortune on landing a key role in the most talked-about drama serial of our age (‘Are you mad? I was ecstatic!’) and why he takes his role so seriously. He really shouldn’t worry. He’s a great Theon/Reek and you can’t imagine anyone playing it better. What he’d now like, if everything pans out, is a career somewhere in the realm of Gene Hackman or David Thewlis: ‘actors with range; who can do anything — intense just as much as funny, kind just as much as horrible.’
It will happen, Alfie, I’m sure. But one more tip before we go: anecdotes. You must get yourself some anecdotes.
The Spoils is playing at the Trafalgar Studios until 13th August. Click here to book.