‘Game of Thrones’ star Alfie Allen on Theon’s torture

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Senior Television Writer
04.01.14

HBO

Alfie Allen has had a whiplash-inducing experience on “Game of Thrones.” As Theon Greyjoy, boy hostage of the Stark family, he was a relatively minor player in the first season. Then in the second, he had one of the most prominent, clear and interesting character arcs, as Theon betrayed the Starks to get back in the good graces of his cruel father, only to overreach (and murder innocent children) in his attempts to impress dear papa. And he spent virtually all of the third season strapped to a large X-shaped cross, suffering physical and psychological torture at the hands of the sadistic Ramsay Snow (Iwan Rheon), who ultimately mutilated Theon and redubbed him Reek.

And that”s not even mentioning the time that showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss pranked Allen for three weeks into believing that Theon was going to die in the next episode.

Allen was the first of several “GoT” castmembers I interviewed in New York a few weeks ago, and we spoke about the ups and downs of being Theon, the relationship he and Rheon developed during those months of torture, the sympathetic glances he gets from fans in the street, and more.

NOTE: The final question alludes to some new developments for Theon in season 4, though both Allen and I are vague about it. If you”ve read the books, you know what”s coming; if you haven”t and want to know nothing, stop reading before his answer begins.

How much of the books have you read and at what point did you read them?

Alfie Allen: I”ve read the first two and a half books. I can”t remember if I decided to stop reading them at the end of the first series or somewhere during the second. I”m pretty sure it was at the end of the first series.

Why did you decide to stop?

Alfie Allen: Because I didn”t want to preempt stuff for years and years and start getting down the road and just, you know, torture myself into preempting these emotions. And to pressure myself, basically. I didn”t want to do that for years.

“Torture” is an interesting choice of words, given what poor Theon goes through in the previous season. Since you hadn”t ready that book yet, at what point did Dan and Dave come to you and say, “Well look, you”re gonna be tied to a cross for most of the season and tortured and mutilated and that”ll be fun”?

Alfie Allen: They didn”t give it away as much as that. They just told me something would be happening to me and which everyone now knows about, which is what I gasped about a lot. And they told me that was gonna happen and I was like, “Oh really?” But it was interesting because to me, it”s Theon”s only weapon, really. It”s like his only point of authority is in the bedroom. Everywhere else in his life, he doesn”t really have any decisions to make for himself because they were made for him. So to have that taken away from him really strips him down to nothing.

So you”ve got this big block of scripts, and you”re going through them and you”re seeing that this is what you”re going to be doing this year in production. How did you react to that?

Alfie Allen: (laughs) I wanted to have some input into how comfortable things were gonna be. And that was really my only qualm was that I wanted for it to be not too painful but obviously a little bit real. I could work with it, but it was fine. It was really interesting. The way in which it”s done is extra, extra cruel and so I thought that was very, very interesting. The way he”s led to believe that everything is kind of okay and it”s just not.

And was there concern about monotony? Of being in this one location dealing with this one actor?

Alfie Allen: There was. I figured me and Iwan had to become friends. Like with the guy who was playing my dad, I wanted there to be a distance. And with Iwan, we could have tried to have done that, but I think to be in that position for so long with each other and be working those very very long hours with each other, we needed to be friendly, and we needed to really trust each other. So it was just great to be able to build the relationship with this one dude. Working one place, it can get very depressing, especially in that sort of surrounding. It”s really, really dark and very, very real and you just get into it.

So it helped put you into the mind space.

Alfie Allen: II would come away from it feeling awful and I wouldn”t really think about why. “Why am I feeling like this? Why am I feeling like this?” And then when the series was finished I”d be like, “That”s probably why.” Because I”ve been tied to a cross and I”ve got water all over me. But it”s great.

It”s a relief to hear that it didn”t go method, where the director calls cut and Iwan is still cruel to you.

Alfie Allen: No, we”re all good. The only grievance we have with each other is that we”re for different football teams.

Back when you were looking at the books, what did you make of Theon when you first encountered him?

Alfie Allen: One line that definitely stuck with me was that he has a smile on his face that suggests that the world is a joke that nobody else gets but him. I think it was something along those lines. And that definitely made me get what he was about. But at the same time I wanted to have my own shot at it. Obviously George Martin”s image of him, I wanted to do that justice, but I also wanted to bring my own thing to it as well. And George is totally cool with that, and I think Dave and Dan encouraged that as well. As actors, it”s kind of what you do. In the books, he”s more devious, I think, because he”s actually made that decision before he goes over to Pyke that he”s gonna fuck the Starks over. And in the TV show, it”s more like his father turns his head and confuses him. He was just more of a devious character in the books, for sure.

In the first season, you didn”t get a ton to do, but then Theon is one of the central characters of the second season. Having read at least a book ahead at that point, was that reassuring to you as you were going about the first season, knowing you had so much coming up?

Alfie Allen: Yeah. As a cast member, you feel like that as well. You want to get involved. You just wait until your turn. And yeah, it was great. The first season was amazing. I got to really act with some amazing people. Richard Madden and me had some really great moments together. I was really, really excited when the second series came around. And especially when I read that scene. Although the scene that I read was a different scene, first of all.

What was that?

Alfie Allen: The one where I do my walk on at the end. When I was given it, I died, because it was a joke that David and Dan were playing on me. It was quite funny. I read the whole script and then comes the end and this big speech and then I get stabbed in the heart. And I”m like, “Wow. Amazing.”

How long did they leave you dangling before they told you?

Alfie Allen: I”m not the sort of dude that”s gonna call up and go, “Hold on a minute.” Do you know what I mean? It”s their world. It”s their decisions and, you know, life will carry on. I was a bit dismayed, but at the same time I was really excited to perform that and to be able to have a memorable death like that. It was great but they left me hanging for about three weeks, I think.

Wow.

Alfie Allen: They left me hanging for a while, but I think they were expecting me to call. And then I had a big gap in between my shooting schedule so I went on holiday to an island off the coast of Spain called Ibiza. I was just sitting there on the beach and I got a phone call and I was like, “Wow, David and Dan are calling me. Okay, Hi.” And they were like, “So, what do you think about your scene at the end?” And I was like, “Umm, yeah it”s great. It”s really good. It”s really good.” And they”re like, “Okay. So we”re gonna keep you in it.” And I was like, “Oh, really. Amazing.” They were like, “So how would you feel about next year becoming a zombie?” I was like, “Great. Yeah I”m up for that.” “Okay, okay. How would you feel about being a zombie who has absolutely no dialogue whatsoever.” I was like, “It”s your show guys, cool.” “How would you feel about being a naked zombie who has no dialogue whatsoever.” I was just like, “This is a wind-up, isn”t it?” They were like, “Dude, of course man.” I think it was the people on the set who were saying, “You can”t leave him like this. He”s gonna be tearing his hair out.” I wasn”t really. I was thinking life will go on, you know.

Some of your costars have read everything that George has written thus far. Is there ever a point of tension: “I know something you don”t know”?

Alfie Allen: Well it doesn”t really matter now, because the books are their own thing and the TV show is its own thing. But a lot of people I meet still think they know what”s going to happen to me, and they just (he mimes being given a sympathetic chuck on the shoulder). I”m so glad that people are really worried about me and considerate. But there”s nothing really that happens like that between cast members. It”s irrelevant, really, because it could just go anywhere.

Logistically how does a season like season 3 work for you? Other than when you”re riding on horseback, you”re basically in one location the entire time. Did they shoot it all at once, or did you come in and out with each episode director?

Alfie Allen: No, I got a chance to come in and out. It”s because of the directors and their availability and where they”re shooting. But I like it that way, because it would be very hard to just (do it at once). I definitely had things going on in my life that gave me an opportunity over that sort of extended period of time to digest and figure out these emotions, and to try and convey them and use them with Theon in some way. I definitely had some dark stuff going on in that point of my life. My grandfather passed away, so that was pretty sad. I definitely am trying to use anything, really. That”s the job of an actor – you just try to use any emotions that will go that way.

You said before that you were concerned about comfort. How comfortable ultimately was the big giant X for you?

Alfie Allen: It wasn”t very comfortable on the knees. But other than that it was all right. Sometimes, I”d choose to stay up there and just get in it and stay on there. But sometimes I needed to come off. But it was okay. HBO made it as comfortable as they could.

Were you genuinely strapped to it or you could have gotten down on your own?

Alfie Allen: No, no. I was definitely strapped to it. I couldn”t get out of it. Somebody had to come and undo me every time I wanted to come out.

But no one ever took advantage of that? When you asked, they came?

Alfie Allen: No one prodded me with anything while they could. “Let”s just prod Alfie.”

I know you”re limited in what you can say. I”ve seen the first few episodes, so I”ve seen where Theon is at in the coming season. How did you choose to approach this turn for the character?

Alfie Allen: With the whole pain thing in the third series, it was difficult, because of how far can you go with that pain stuff,? I”ve never really been tortured or experienced that sort of pain, so you”re just trying to convey emotions that you”ve experienced in your life and try and use that and make it relative. But in terms of becoming (this new version of the character), it”s all about Iwan, really. It”s all about Ramsay, whenever he”s around. That”s when you”re really the other person, you know. And when you”re alone is when your mind starts worrying a bit.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

NOTE: No more comments on any “Game of Thrones” posts. I tried setting up separate message board threads for readers and non-readers, but that unfortunately didn't work out so well. Sorry.

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Alan Sepinwall has been writing about television since the mid-'90s. He's the author of "The Revolution Was Televised," about the rise of TV's new golden age, and co-author of "TV (The Book): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time."

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