Joe Dempsie — Gendry on ‘Game of Thrones’ — on rowing memes and shirtless scenes
Tear down the missing-person posters and cancel the all-points-bulletin broadcast — Gendry, the long-lost blacksmith bastard son of King Robert Baratheon, and perhaps the most missed character on “Game of Thrones,” has finally been found.
Sent off in a rowboat in Season 3, Gendry, played by Joe Dempsie, never seemed to land anywhere. It quickly became another of the show’s mysteries: Was he still alive? Where in Westeros did he go? To calm everyone’s nerves, Dempsie provided an answer of sorts a few years ago, tweeting that he was “still rowin’” — a remark that prompted countless memes and kept hope alive for the character’s return. On Monday, Dempsie called from London to talk about pumping up for the role, his favorite fan reactions and what Gendry’s part might be in the wars to come. Following are edited excerpts from a spoiler-filled conversation with Dempsie.
Q: What is it like to play a fan favorite who has been off-screen for so long, and then returns?
A: When you’re in a show like “Game of Thrones,” there are so many characters who are beloved by the audience, and you’re not always necessarily aware of whether that applies to your character or not, until you go away. And the longer it went on with his absence being unexplained, it was like the more the hysteria rose. And I think that’s what the internet was created for. (Laughs)
Q: Did people ever recognize you on the street?
A: Yes. The question of what happened to the character started becoming part of my daily existence. It came in peaks and troughs. Before a new season starts, you get a spike of people recognizing you and asking, “Where have you been?”
Q: Then there were the memes …
A: I have to take a portion of the blame for that. Starting right after Season 3, on a weekly basis, I’d get messages asking where the character was, and it seemed to be something that was generating a bit of interest. So I did the “Still rowin’” tweet at the end of Season 4, and it kind of took on a life of its own. After that, I sat back and watched the hilarity unfold. The “Life of Gendry”/”Life of Pi” one always sticks in my mind. The internet can cause untold problems, but the wit — you see something like that, and you’re so thankful for it. It just warms your heart.
Q: Given the length of time Gendry must have been rowing, it morphed into a joke about how jacked his arms must be at this point.
A: With the amount of nude scenes on “Game of Thrones” anyway, there is a certain level of body-consciousness you find yourself with. Most characters have had some nudity to undertake, and when you see everyone ripped before you, you think, “Ah … maybe I should hit the gym.” In the past they’d give you a bit of a head’s up, and it puts a particular pressure on you. And the character of Gendry, he was always supposed to be a muscular guy. He’s a blacksmith, forging steel, and there’s a certain physique that goes hand in hand with that.
Q: Did you get enough time to hit the gym for Gendry? When did you find out you were coming back?
A: Eighteen months ago. It’s strange, because it’s been a fairly long process, and I wasn’t expecting to get the call, anyway. I think as the years go on, even if they had planned to bring the character back at some point, you just start getting work elsewhere. This season, they said: “We’ll give you a head’s up. You might have a shirtless scene.” So I thought: “OK, they’re giving me plenty of time to get in shape. How big do you want me to be?” I did hit the gym to prep, for months, and then there wasn’t a shirtless scene! It was completely unnecessary. It was the first time in my career where I’ve been like, “You’d better put a gratuitous shirtless scene in one of these scripts or I’m going to lose my mind.”
Q: Davos’ line about “still rowin’” is a bit of fan service, but how did you feel about your own words becoming part of the show?
A: I fought tooth and nail for a writer’s credit on that. It’s lovely. It’s just amazing that the show can do something meta like that.
Q: Davos instructs Gendry not to tell anyone about his lineage, but he does it anyway. Why do you think Gendry tells Jon Snow the truth?
A: I genuinely laughed out loud when I read that scene for the first time. Gendry felt a connection with Jon Snow because they have a shared experience of growing up as bastards. I think he’s kind of proud of his heritage, he enjoys it and he wants to share it, even when it’s not the wisest thing to do, which leads me to the third element, which is that Gendry’s maybe not that bright.
Q: Gendry is embarking on a mission, working with Beric Dondarrion and Thoros of Myr, despite his resentment about their selling him to Melisandre.
A: Yeah, and we’ll explore that further in Episode 6. There is still resentment on Gendry’s part. It’s probably one of the most significant things that’s happened to Gendry in his life, a near-death experience at the hands of a red priestess. But what he has to get to grips with — in Westeros, who doesn’t have a freaky story like that? (Laughs)
Q: Gendry might turn out to be pivotal to the larger mission in another way. He might be one of the few blacksmiths who knows how to reforge Valyrian steel, or work with dragonglass?
A: There’s a lot of merit in that. Gendry has to be back for a reason, and the dragonglass is an area where he could be put to great use. He’s been training, and he doesn’t know what for. It sort of feels like there is some kind of reckoning coming, and he doesn’t know what it is. All he knows is that he wants to do his bit.
Q: Have you heard the fan theory that Cersei was his mom? Since the show inserted the story of Cersei’s giving birth to one of Robert’s sons, and believing that he died?
A: That makes sense, doesn’t it? And it would be the most explosive thing for the series. There’s one solitary line in Season 1 where Gendry tells Ned Stark that he remembers his mother had yellow hair and used to sing to him. God knows how that would pan out. And it’s so throwaway, but this is a show that is pored over endlessly and every little detail is examined. Those lines can’t be thrown in with no conclusion, no answer. And Gendry’s already got an identity crisis, and a love/hate relationship with his mother. It’s all very Freudian, isn’t it? (Laughs.) But everyone seems to be slightly bonkers in King’s Landing.
In terms of the series as a whole, though, because of the way the show is, the only way I can envision it ending is bittersweet. But this has been the perfect route through the series, and probably the safest route — to spend three years out while a section of the fan base has held a torch for Gendry and kept his spirit alive, to stay in the forefront of people’s minds, and then to come back just as it’s reaching the climax, which I always hoped I’d be a part of. We all just want to be involved in one way, shape or form with the endgame. And what that means, I don’t even want to hazard a guess. I just want to be there, so that I can say that I was.