SPOILER ALERT: This interview contains details of the final season of Game of Thrones.
Alfie Allen joined nine of his Game of Thrones cast-mates with Emmy nominations this year—his first recognition from the TV Academy—as the blockbusting HBO megaseries drew to a close. He self-submitted, feeling the time was right to take a shot, even as he believed he didn’t stand a chance at a nod.
For his character, Theon Greyjoy, the journey over the past eight seasons has been fraught. And it was reflected in Allen’s own journey with the show, he admits, as he struggled with the dark paths Theon was led down. Now, emboldened by the show’s end, and rightly recognized for the work he put in over a decade, Allen is ready to talk about that struggle, how he fought to overcome it, and why it’s important to him now to open up about mental health.
How surprised were you on Emmy nominations morning, to see so many Game of Thrones cast-mates honored?
For me, it’s dream stuff. To be nominated alongside people I’ve spent eight, nine, ten years working with; it’s a dream.
It’s great to have it end of a positive note, because it was hard, during the process, to open up and talk about how difficult it was. It felt like the walls were closing in at some points. Theon was kind of hated. Reviled, in fact, might be the word.
Gwendoline [Christie] and Kit [Harington] were the two people—everybody a little bit, but them most so—who were always willing to talk to me about that stuff. There’s a lot to be said about men’s mental health within Theon’s journey to Reek and back again.
I always felt a pang of sympathy for Theon. He begins as a prisoner, effectively.
He’s a ward, yeah, and that is a kind of prisoner. Or at most a servant. I don’t know how much you know about the backstory, but there was a whole kind of rebellion to the Great War, and Theon was taken from the Greyjoys then, as a kind of [bargaining] token: “If you play up, we’re going to kill your son.” He was put in a weird position to start with, especially when he wasn’t treated as a prisoner but as one of the family.
But we all kind of have our own questions about who we are, and what makes us, us. Especially nowadays, when we’re all just trying to add different labels to define us. I’m an individual, I’m independent, I’m not like other people. I’m me, you know? Theon probably started with a bit of an identity crisis, long before he became Reek. Where did the humanity in him come from? Was it the way he was treated? Was he born like that?
I do think he always revolved around a shred of humanity. He’s constantly having to go back and question what that is. I think he kind of expects it all to make sense when he goes home, in the second season. He expects that identity for himself to be revealed, once and for all. And that’s not what he gets.
I’d say, from that point onwards, it was a bit of a downward spiral for him, as everybody saw. But I think it came from the environment in which he was brought up. “You’re one of us, but you’re not.”
As with many of the characters on Thrones, that means a vast journey to go on, as an actor. Did you always have to like Theon to play him?
It helps to be able to emphathize with him. You need to approach everything with a positive outlook. Everything you do. If it doesn’t turn out to be a positive character, then it does make you question, and there were times when it didn’t feel like things made sense. I was pouring my all into this character, and I would feel it at times, when I would enter rooms and people would give me a certain look. It was like I was wearing a really bad outfit or something. That was testing, at times, without a shadow of a doubt.
David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss] were taking me on a journey, where at times I had to question, why is this relevant? There was a definite thread the character had within Thrones where he held a position in the zeitgeist-ness of the show, and I was having to deal with that too, online. In retrospect, I think David and Dan believed in what I could do, even though it took me a while to realize that.
Even up to the point of getting an Emmy nomination, this character did make me get inside my own head a lot, and there were dark, dark moments. To have fans give the character a pat on the back after all of it, and end it on a note of positivity for Theon, that feels nice.
The show’s relationship with the fans has been intense. How much do you think their reaction to this final season has to do with separation anxiety?
Too right. I think we’ve seen it before, in other shows that have been massive, where people didn’t agree with how things ended. Where people are like, “This is not really feeding what I need anymore.” So inevitably, that was going to happen. David and Dan were under huge pressure to finish this series off and do it in the right way.
In my opinion, HBO set out to have a fantasy show—in inverted commas—that was steeped in familiar relationships, and those things were always at the core of it. I think that’s what those last few episodes were. It rounded up all those relationships, and of course people will be unhappy to leave them.
What pisses me off, though, is when you see people like the camera operators, who are the best in the world—people behind the scenes who break their backs for this show—who are then getting trolled online by people. I can’t even delve into that world too much, for my own sanity. But to read all that stuff… People laying into the DPs. It blows my mind.
You could see, in the documentary released shortly after the season ended, just how hard the behind-the-scenes team work to pull off something like this.
I must admit, I haven’t seen it yet. I can’t. Like I said, Kit was one of the other people who was really there for me, while I was going through stuff. And I felt for the guy, I have to be honest. I hope I’m not speaking out of turn here, but I was lucky, I think, in that when I finished on the show, I didn’t have a whole camera crew surrounding me, you know? It must be a lot. It must feel really strange, when you’re having such an intimate moment with the people you’ve spent so much time with.
The show that we see in that documentary is enormous. It didn’t start that way, though, even though it was always complex and high production value. Was there a moment where you felt things change in scale?
I think Season 3 is where it really kicked off, with the Red Wedding. Season 1, obviously, had a major character get killed off, but Season 3 was where it really started to feel big. It always felt like each season was getting bigger and bigger. But the Red Wedding was a lot for people to handle. I even remember speaking to Richard Madden, and being really shocked when he said, “Yeah, I die.” He felt like such a mainstay, you know? I had only read the books up until about two and a half. When Theon gets locked in the dungeons, I stopped reading. I didn’t know about the Reek name, but I knew torture was coming. So we were shocked when Richard announced he was going to be killed. But he’s come out and said he was quite happy that he was killed off early.
He told me he liked that he could watch the show as a fan after that. He’s done all right for himself since…
Yeah, he’s done OK, hasn’t he [laughs]? I saw him recently, actually. I think that’s the thing I’ll miss most about Thrones; the people.
Do you remember much about the last thing you shot? Was it your death scene?
You know, it’s all a bit of a blur. It was such a long time of doing night shoots. But I was really happy to have gotten to spend the last moments with Isaac [Hempstead-Wright], who I did my very first scene with.
None of us had a clue what was going on at the beginning of it; it was just amazing for us to be involved in it. I remember doing the wolf-pup scene, and Isaac was stood beside me, and I was trying to play up the whole, “Oh, don’t worry mate, I’ll look after you,” thing. “I’m not nervous, you’re nervous.” But actually, it was Isaac who was helping me through it. So, to end it on a note with him was really great. He has grown up through it.
I don’t know how to describe it, but it just felt right to end it with the character in a moment like that. It’s hard to know what to say.
I’m happy, too, that the fans got to say goodbye to the character with an ending that had a bit of honor and redemption. I think his arc deserved that. And I thank David and Dan for giving me the tools to be able to do that. I’m forever grateful to them, even though they fucked with my head a bit along the way [laughs].
So, you stopped reading the books even though there was more to find out. You chose not to know. Did they ever give you any hint of an endgame for Theon?
I don’t think they would have done that. They knew—which is why I stopped reading the books—that I didn’t want to preempt stuff. If they’d said, “Don’t worry, it’s going to be OK,” I think I would have relaxed, and without wanting to sound like an arse, I wouldn’t have been present in the role. My character is always ignorant of what is going to happen to him, so I wanted to be too.
You’re next in JoJo Rabbit, which premieres at the fall festivals.
It’s a beautiful film. It feels a weird word to use about a movie like this, but it really is. It’s what a film should be. It takes you in all different directions, and you’re laughing at things that don’t quite feel right. But all through, it’s hammering home this point, as an anti-hate satire.
I remember, when I was doing Predator, Thomas Jane said to me, “You know, half the stuff they’re going to shoot of us is going to end up on the cutting room floor.” If you think of it like that, it becomes really liberating. You should never be afraid to make an idiot of yourself. So filming JoJo was liberating, because I just sort of let rip, and had a laugh. It was a lot different from Game of Thrones, where directors constantly change and you’re forming new bonds. To have Taika [Waititi] there, every day, and to have him allow me—everyone really—to improvise and play with it, it was so great.
Where else do you want to go, now Thrones is done? Does the security of a long series, and the moment of it coming to an end, offer you time to take a breath and figure out the next challenge?
Yeah, you know, I’ve always like to push myself, creatively. And in other directions, too. I’d love to try writing something. I’ve always had an idea, again on the topic of men’s mental health, to look at the world of conventions, and make a really positive story set there. I think it’s an interesting realm, because it can be so touching, with the reunions that happen there, and also comedic, with these big egos coming in at the center of it all. You do get the most interesting people show up for a convention.
It’s about something larger I’m interested in, too, involving mental health, because that idea of the male ego and toxic masculinity, if we can talk about it a little more, and start a next generation without those kinds of ideals, I think that would be a good thing.
I also have a nine-month-old daughter, so I’m going to do try my best to show her that I talk about my problems, rather than projecting them on her. It was something I learned with Theon, where I shied away from talking about how hard it was, and how much I struggled with it. I think if we can just open up and talk about that, and allow ourselves to be more vulnerable, that’s the way forward.