Some of you might know Owen Teale from his most recent play, some might know him from the various movies and plays in which you have seen him along the years, but, most probably, a lot of you know him for his Game of Thrones role. When it comes to my own discovery, I’ve seen him in one or two movies before Game of Thrones, and, recently, I went and saw him in “The Broken Heart”, which is when I can say I fully discovered him, thanks to a complex and over jealous character like Bassanes. Luckily, he was still in London when I reached out for an interview and he agreed to meet.
Now, because the actual interview is quite long, I believe it is best to leave it to speak for itself. However, there are a few things I would like to mention beforehand. I met Owen in a cosy place in south London and I am glad I actually got to do this interview in person as it allowed me to discover a truly wonderful and full of good energy human being. He might be a bully in Game of Thrones, as he very correctly admits at one point, but in real life I got to talk to a very warm person that kept on tempting me with cake and made me laugh and forget I was actually fighting the flu.
We got to debate theatre, film and human nature and you could see him light up when he would mention his kids or his love for the stage, which is and will always be truly inspiring.
D.N.: Tell us a bit about how everything started, would you? Your first role was as a dancer if I remember correctly?
O.T.: Yes, it was a dancer role in “Cabaret”, don’t know if you know it. I went to a drama school that was and still is very much associated with musical theatre, but I have never felt very comfortable with singing. One of the reasons I often blame is that I was at school with a very famous singer and when he used to sing you used to think “Oh well, what’s the point?!”.
O.T.: That is true, I just didn’t click with it over the years and I am not a big musical fan, and it is probably because I find that most of the time they tend to become generic, with some exceptions of course.
D.N.: If however you would have to choose one, which would be your favourite?
O.T.: Company. Sondheim. My favourite songs. When I came to London…
D.N.: Yes, because you are from Wales, right?
O.T.: Yes, from Wales, which is even smaller than London. It is a very beautiful area and it has an ancient language, much older than English, which actually is starting to become more and more popular nowadays. It is good, as I wasn’t brought up speaking it fluently, because I think my parents thought that it was somehow a backward step. You had to learn to speak English, better than you already did.
Now back to where we left before I introduced Wales in the conversation.
O.T.: So, I went to Guildford for 3 years, and then I came out and got my equity card which in those days was a very difficult thing to do. Certain theatres would have these things called assistant stage management, which would come with a card, so you would have to do that in order to get it. It’s not like that now. In America however, everything still has to be in the parameters set by the American Equity and if it’s not, the people will not work on the show. And that I find surprising and almost ironic that in America, which is associated with free markets, they have these clear boundaries and unions and they have the Screen Actors Guild that is incredibly strong.
D.N.: So how is it that you keep on coming back to theatre?
O.T.: It really is my first love and I would say I’ve had more success in theatre. When I was about 27-28, I played a role in an earthy romantic drama of the early to middle part of the 20th century, and after this play I made a film for television called “The Fifteen Streets” and that was when my day to day life changed. Because you wouldn’t have that many channels back then, it was 1989, and I think around 15 million people watched that film. So the next day the chance of seeing someone that would go “Oh my God, you are that guy”, were so big, as it was a massive and heroic part. And it was this bad brother kind of scenario, and that character was played by Sean Bean and I remember that we use to hang out a lot and I used to get a lot of attention from people. But, I still wanted to go back to theatre, so I joined up with the Royal Shakespeare Company and stayed for 4 years and Sean became a huge movie star.
O.T.: Yes, it is. I think the whole game is changing. Television is becoming more powerful, plus you have the download situation. The other thing is that if you are not acting, if you are not practising your job, then how are you going to maintain everything at a high level? In America they go to classes all the time. And it’s not just blind luck, it’s about technique, it’s about how much actual work you put in and getting that practice and theatre can help you with that. You could say that the technique with theatre is very different, but there is a lot that is very common. You have to own the thoughts, in order to be able to remember the line and say it with conviction, you have to understand from where it comes, or at least that’s how it is for me.
D.N.: How much does that matter when you accept a role? How easy you can remember the lines and go into the script and make it as those would be your own thoughts.
O.T.: The Broken Heart is actually quite a good example here. When I first read it I found it quite difficult, impenetrable, and I said no initially because it also didn’t seem like the best timing. Then the director, whom I already knew, told me that she wants me to just read my part for the moment. And when I did that, I had that moment of identifying with the character.
D.N.: It took me by surprise when I saw the huge different between that character and the Game of Thrones one. It is the most recent one and usually you associate the character with the actor somehow, even if you might know that it isn’t the same person.
O.T.: Yes, a lot a people say that and it is a huge difference. But yes, it is quite a lot to take in if you recently saw me in Game of Thrones and we, as actors, do tend to swing in such different directions all the time.
D.N.: But variety is good.
O.T.: Yes, it really is. And I do know who I really am deep down and to be honest, right now, I am enjoying it enormously. More than ever. I am trying less hard to please others and more to say what I have to say in a part. And Game of Thrones, with its success, is a huge part of that.
D.N.: How do you cope with that?
O.T.: It’s ok. But you can see the changes. I was in Italy recently and you could see people from all over the world and, at the time, episodes were coming out, and that was a bit weird because you would be visiting a cathedral or a small village and people would come to say hello. And, sometimes, they would just look at you like they wouldn’t believe that you are actually there.
D.N.: I read somewhere that you don’t allow your girls to watch it?
O.T.: Well, it is up to Eliza now. Grace is only 13, and I want to somehow protect them because some scenes show such cynical parts of human nature and, at this age, when you want to do whatever is cool, and the series go under that category, you are so easy to influence like that. I mean, I do know that eventually they will see it and face that, I just want them to do it when it’s right.
D.N.: How did you start with the series?
O.T.: Through a normal casting process, but I had worked with one of the producers before for HBO. This is the 3rd time I worked with HBO. I did “Conspiracy” with Kenneth Branagh and Stanley Tucci, and we were just men around a table, and to be a part of that was really something. It was based on real conversations, and it was about finding the solution and how to get rid of that many people. But anyway, that is how I knew one of the producers. And it all happened really fast for me, as I wasn’t even in the pilot, so I had no chance to read ahead or understand the full picture. I just was what they needed me to be, which was the bully in this sort of foreign legion with these recruits that aren’t meant to be soldiers, if you know what I mean, apart, of course, from Jon Snow. And I remember filming the first series and thinking “I don’t think this is going to work!” because it was too big and I thought it would be hard to take in all these stories at once. Plus, there has been an overkill of medieval fantasy. But, how wrong could I have been? And after I got a call for the second season and I couldn’t do it, because I’d moved on and was on another project…
D.N.: So they didn’t kill you, but you moved on? Now, that is a first!
O.T.: Yes, exactly, I know. I just moved on. So I wasn’t available then and they weren’t happy about it, so they told me a bit about how things will develop and I became much more intrigued as I looked more into it. So I came back for seasons 4 and 5 and it has been wonderful. It hasn’t really changed, it’s still the same guys that wrote and produced, David and Dan, and I feel that they were the ones that really had to sell that idea at the beginning, and now they have all the support they need. It’s a real buzz being part of something like that. They aren’t arrogant, they are confident, and if they don’t agree with a director or a designer, they keep a tight hold on everything and they fly everywhere. Not me though.
D.N.: I actually wanted to ask where you have filmed.
O.T.: I am in a quarry, outside Belfast, where it rains and it rains and it rains. And it is so bleak because when you go in there you have to leave behind your trailers and your comfort. You stay in there for the day. I actually remember complaining at the beginning, but, in a way, it’s kind of helped who Alliser Thorne is, and there is no drop humour in him. There is a sort of cynicism and world weary bitterness about being stuck in a quarry. And it adds to it when it gets wet. And they are very good, they come with umbrellas in between the scenes, but if it’s constantly raining there is not much you can do about it.
D.N.: How did you manage to identify with Alliser? Because you are quite different.
O.T.: Well, he is a defeated character. He was on a losing side of a battle, we however don’t see that. I think he had the option of being put to death or being sent to the wall and of that becoming the only life he knows. Probably now he regrets not choosing the death penalty. No no, seriously now, I think he is doing a job that he sees as a very difficult one, and there was a time when probably honourable men were signing to be up the wall to protect, but right now he is surrounded with, let’s say, less inspiring characters, but the one that is genuinely inspiring is Jon Snow who has all his life before him and he has built everything from within and hasn’t been influenced by being the bastard. And I think Alliser somehow admires that, but hasn’t brought himself to actually admitting it, so he keeps trying to put him in a box.
D.N.: Do you think there is a bit of jealousy there?
O.T.: Oh yes, there is, of his youth, his charm, which is effortless, and Kit is like that in real life. Kit is a wonderful character and completely engaging. He has a huge reputation from all of this, but at the end of the day he behaves like an actor, we go and have a beer and have a good time. You know, he hasn’t changed after all of this. And it is amazing watching the younger ones and observing how they develop after such a production.
D.N.: Are any of your kids interested in acting?
O.T.: Eliza, and she is very good actually.
D.N.: Movies or theatre?
O.T.: More towards theatre in my opinion. But I think that is because you can see so much wonderful theatre here. Probably if you would be in America you would think more in a filmic way.
D.N.: So what’s next?
O.T.: Well, I am taking my time now. I am being selective. I want to play the parts that mean something. The last few days have been a process of eliminating things that I don’t want to do. I am working on a project in New York which is work-shopping, with Trudie Styler, and I am tempted by an independent film. I like the script and I know the director. It’s a father and daughter relationship and it is a very forward character, and it’s about a journey that they have to take together. And it would be filmed in Greece.
D.N.: I would do it just to have a change of scenery.
O.T.: That is so true! Just to run away from the quarry!
D.N.: Since you are thinking about this indie film, what differences can you spot, from an actor’s point of view, when working on an indie compared to when you are working on a huge budget project like Game of Thrones?
O.T.: With a smaller budget I would expect to get involved in a much more comprehensive level. And if I like the script, I am more than happy to do that. But with Game of Thrones, I don’t have to preoccupy myself with that. I deliberately don’t know as much about it because I try to stay in the world of my character and that works for me. When we go on the set, yes, it is a quarry, but it’s massive, and too much excitement is not right for my character. This way helps him to be bleak. He doesn’t have joy, yes, that is what Alliser doesn’t have.
O.T.: At the end of the battle, when for once, he fights on the same side as Jon Snow and he gets injured very badly. And a lot of people believed that when it came out last year. Fans would come and talk to me and ask “How do you feel now that he is dead?” and I used to just go “But is he?” because you only saw him being dragged away shouting. I think that if he is going to die, we will see him die.
D.N.: So that’s when you actually believed it.
O.T.: Oh yes, they will, because they never allow things to actually settle in the story. And you can’t take anything for granted. They managed to give honesty to it, even if it’s a fantasy. And because you are looking at it at through a medieval world it’s almost like understanding history. With them the point is not what will happen after, but now, what you can get right now and I think that speaks to everybody. And it’s remarkable, because it reminds us what we are capable of doing, but we choose not to do this, we choose to live very civilised lives instead.
D.N.: What if I would say you would have to choose between movies and theatre?
O.T.: It is very hard, theatre takes more energy to do every night and to do it well, but the shared experience and to inspire the imagination of the people in the room is the most amazing drug and I long to go back to New York. I’ve done 2 plays there and their hunger for them is just amazing. When you don’t have such a well-known play and you come out on that stage, it takes a lot of concentration. When you are in one that is world known and people are fighting for tickets, you just have to come and put your costume on, get on that stage and you will find yourself in the middle of such amazing energy. And when you are in a play that really gets knocked very badly and nobody seems to get it, it is really hard every night, to go out and see why it isn’t understood. But, at the end of the day, it is my favourite and I would probably choose theatre. I love it in all forms, I love poetry and I get invited to do the most amazing things, one of them would be for the Prince of Wales, and I just think how wonderful that is. And, usually, if you do theatre there are chances of something coming up in the movie business that you might want to do.
D.N.: Best from both worlds in a way, isn’t it?
O.T.: It is. That would the best, not to have to choose and do both!