You will never stop learning. You will never complete acting.
Fifteen years ago, the era’s “Indie Sleaze” ushered in Skins, a seminal British series that would break new ground for coming-of-age teenage dramas. And two years have now passed since Game of Thrones wrapped its run on HBO as one of the great spectacles to grace television screens in the 21st century. The common denominator between them? It’s Joe Dempsie. On Skins, we know him as the first generation’s sweet, pill-popping, and ill-fated Chris Miles. To “Thronies” everywhere, he’s Gendry, the bastard blacksmith-turned-lord. Who could forget the “still rowing” meme?
Next up for the actor is the Netflix limited series, Pieces of Her. In it, Toni Collette plays Laura, a speech therapist whose dormant skills are awakened when she dispatches, all assassin-like, a mass shooter who opens fire in the cafe where she happens to be dining with her daughter, Andy (Bella Heathcote). Video footage of the incident goes viral, and Laura very much does not wish to go viral. Turns out, she has a lot to hide, and this act of heroism threatens to upset the quiet life she has built in the coastal town of Belle Isle, Georgia. The fallout has Andy fleeing home on Laura’s instructions, despite having no idea what her mother might be withholding. So begins the mystery, predicated on ghosts from Laura’s past. Jumping back and forth between dueling timelines, and deepening its retro feel with a Reagan-era backstory, viewers are left to decipher Laura’s lingering traumas. Namely, young Laura’s—or young Jane’s (played by Jessica Barden), as we go on to find out—tempestuous romantic relationship with a would-be domestic terrorist, Nick Harp (Dempsie).
Anthem reached out to Dempsie in London to get the full run-down before the show’s premiere.
Pieces of Her arrives on Netflix on March 4th.
[Editor’s Note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. SPOILERS AHEAD.]
Hi, Joe. Congratulations on Pieces of Her. I did a marathon. Did you watch the whole thing?
Actually, no! Even I haven’t been as dedicated as you. I’ve watched the first five episodes, which is then where me and Jess [Barden] come into things a bit more prominently. For me, that was the strange thing about filming this show in particular: the flipped timeline. There were actors on the show that we felt like ships in the night with. I’d be on set the same day as Bella [Heathcote], but I would never see any of the stuff that she was shooting. So it was more intriguing for me to see the stuff I never saw on set coming together, as opposed to watching our own stuff played back. Because then all you do is pick holes in it, really: “Oh god, what is my face doing now?” [laughs]
I wonder when it clicks with actors what it is they think they’re actually making because there must be a moment where your expectations and high hopes intersect with reality.
To be totally honest, I think there are certain jobs where you only truly get a sense of that when you see the whole thing put together. As actors, there are certain parts of your contribution to the whole that you can control, but even that you can only control to a certain extent. Ultimately, you’re there to serve the director’s vision, and there are a myriad of elements that you have no control over. Sometimes you get a sense of it on set, but more often, it’s just purely when you see the thing put together. I’ve done jobs in the past where you get this amazing feeling on set and the finished article somehow doesn’t quite hit the mark. For me, it’s that strange thing where you always go into it with really high expectations, and when you’re watching it back, you’re also watching it with the most critical eye of anyone that’s going to watch it because it is ultimately your face up there on the screen. High expectations and self-criticism rarely match up.
So how did this come to you?
It came to me in the usual way, really, which is an email in my inbox asking me to do an audition tape. That was in January 2020 so it was quite a while back. I think they had initially sent me the script for the first episode, which, obviously, isn’t particularly useful when it comes to gleaning information about the character they wanted me to audition for. I’m barely in the thing. [laughs] But then they also sent me a little outline and a description of the character. Critically, by that point, the director, Minkie Spiro, was already on board. Toni Collette, Bella, and Jess were already on board. So even before you open that script, you know that it’s gonna be something you’ll probably want to be involved in if you’re fortunate enough to be offered the part at the end of that audition process. I’d actually worked with Minkie before on Skins like 16 years ago. I always liked her. We didn’t have loads to do together on Skins, but we hung out a bit off-camera. And Jess and I had worked together a few years ago on a show called Ellen over here in the U.K. She’s a really good mate of mine. So those two elements were enough to make me really keen. Throwing Toni into the mix is a bonus. That’s like your icing on the cake. It all started to make sense.
I noticed that Minkie got to direct every episode, which is perhaps rare with a series. That must be so nice for actors, too, to have a clear leader throughout. There is a consistency.
I don’t know how she didn’t totally lose her mind. It is lovely to have that consistency of vision. You don’t often see it these days, do you? It’s really rare for one director to do an entire show.
Where did you guys film this?
I was actually due to fly out to Vancouver. That’s where we were gonna shoot it in March 2020. But obviously, shit hit the fan. Everything went on hold. Not unlike everything else in the world, we were in limbo a little bit. We didn’t know how long the industry was going to be shut down. We didn’t know how long the world was gonna be shut down. But Netflix was great through that period. I think because this is a Netflix production—a Netflix Original, as opposed to Netflix buying it from somebody else—they were really keen that we were gonna make this show, that it was just a case of when and where. So we just played a bit of a waiting game. It was a great thing to have during that period of lockdown, of uncertainty. I was so lucky to know that I had this job to go to when the time was right. It played a big role in making my lockdown slightly more bearable.
I’ve had conversations with different actors about filming around Covid and the creative process appears, surprisingly, all in tact. The thing that’s maybe absent is the social aspect.
Well, the really fortunate thing for us was that we got the best of both worlds—or I thought I did anyway—purely because Australia had such a good Covid record and that policy seemed to be working. When we ended up moving the production to Sydney, I traveled over there in March 2021. I left the U.K. at a time when we were into our third lockdown, and the lockdowns lasted quite a while. They lasted for months and it was getting to that point where it was really starting to get to people. When I got to Australia, there were no Covid restrictions because they had no Covid. The restriction-free life was a novelty that I couldn’t wait to experience again. But in order to get that, you have to do a two-week quarantine once you arrive. I’d heard a lot about it. I’d spoken to some people who said it was really, really tough. Kee—I loved it. [laughs] I had the best time in those two weeks. And that was when I could really get my head into the job in the way that as an actor you always intend to and hope that you’ll be able to. And it’s not that I also didn’t have all that time leading up to it when everything was on hold, but it wasn’t like during that year of waiting I was also sitting down every night with the scripts going, “I gotta use this time to work.” Life gets in the way, you know? It was filtering through almost subconsciously, slowly percolating. I don’t think of myself as a lazy actor, but I definitely think that in years gone by, I’ve arrived on set not having done the amount of preparation I sort of hoped for. On my first days of filming on Pieces of Her, I knew all the lines to all the scenes for my character. It wasn’t like I learned the scenes just for that day—I knew every scene. And that’s where I can be the most malleable for a director. There are actors that don’t like to over-learn their lines or they don’t like their lines too solidified, but if I know the script back to front, that’s one less thing for me to think about, and I can be much more free and adaptable on set and try different things. So it felt really good, actually, having that time. And we did plenty of socializing off-set in Sydney. It was amazing.
I often forget that Toni is Australian. I actually met Bella at Sundance two years ago, right before this whole Covid mess reared its head, and I had no idea she was an Aussie before that. Shooting in Australia must’ve been nice for them, too, staying close to home.
Yeah! That’s the incredible thing, too: two of our lead actors are Aussies. And they were set in those roles before we even thought we had to go to Sydney to shoot.
You have a meaty arc on this show that covers the breadth of Nick Harp, and it’s your origin story as much as it is for Toni. That has to be fulfilling and super rewarding. I mean, in the worst cases, we’ve all seen how actors sometimes get sidelined with unresolved storylines.
It was strange coming from a show like Game of Thrones, where I was one of the characters that’s slightly on the periphery, because you can play a part for years, on and off, and still feel like you don’t really know anything about them. Your character may have one scene per episode, if you’re lucky, and information is drip-fed to you as much as it’s drip-fed to the audience. So to go from that where, in the space of, if we’re being honest, maybe four episodes worth of TV, to getting to play an entire origin story, that was fascinating for me. You try as an actor to get into the skin of what made this person the way that they are, even if you don’t see all of that play out on-screen. If you’re gonna try and humanize someone who ends up going beyond the pale into becoming almost indefensible and inexcusable, you have to find a way to at least understand what made them that way. And I think it’s really nice, actually, that Nick doesn’t really come into the show visually until midway through the season. Because to hear someone spoken about, or for someone to already have been made this ominous, looming presence over the whole thing first, the impact of then seeing him and his origin story is, hopefully, really compelling for viewers. That was a lot of fun to play, trying to get under the skin of this guy. Even though his origin story is set in the ‘80s, it really is an example of the kind of toxic masculinity that we’re hearing a lot about now. I know that term is bandied around quite a lot, but Nick really exemplifies that: someone who grew up feeling marginalized, and then somehow through student activism, finds a way to be listened to. He genuinely cares about these issues and he’s passionate about them, but something else is happening at the same time. He realizes that this activism bestows on him an authority and an aura, and he finds that addictive and seductive. So for him, it’s about maintaining that authority and upping the stakes at all costs. He doesn’t know where to draw the line anymore in this toxic feedback loop because, otherwise, in his mind at least, this potentially crumbles. I think most narcissists can’t deal with the facade crumbling, and that’s when they really implode. They’re more willing to burn the house down than to let people see them for who they really are.
Like so many psychopaths are—if what they say is true—there is a side to Nick that is very charming. He takes things too far, but there’s still the social justice aspect to him. There’s a want for revenge inside him, but that doesn’t discount the love that’s driving his madness.
Talking about Nick, even I start getting tangled up into knots. [laughs] Because I’m totally on board with all of those social justice issues that Nick so zealously campaigns for, you know? Anti-apartheid. Gay rights. Anti-capitalism. Trying to curb the power of exploitative pharmaceutical companies that don’t care for their patients. I’m on board with all of that. But because of the egotism that he’s fostering at the same time and the deep insecurity all of that is hiding, like the feeling that he doesn’t quite belong anywhere, when [Jane’s father] starts to question him, that immediately makes him feel like an imposter who doesn’t belong in the rarefied air of upper-class America and he lets his feelings take over. It’s no longer about the cause anymore. It’s about, as you said, revenge. That’s where things really start to go wrong. And with Jane? It’s someone he finds utterly intriguing. He’s beguiled by her. She doesn’t just take his shit, which I think he finds fascinating. But at the same time, he can’t bear the idea that she’ll see through him. He’s created this character for himself and he’s terrified that, at any moment, she’s going to see him for who he really is and leave him. That would be another rejection. I think he has significant abandonment issues, too. That makes him this combustible mixture and a really dangerous person ultimately.
There’s a great line in the show: “Is it revolutionary or revenge? Because it’s getting hard to tell.” It’s both, which, considering that Nick doesn’t exist in a vacuum, squares with reality.
Yeah, precisely. These things can both exist at the same time. It’s attractive and seductive, but then it’s also a source of resentment and anger. Even when he watches her playing [the piano] for the first time, I think he’s simultaneously in awe of that talent and deeply, deeply resentful that he could never do that himself. And he doesn’t know what it is that he can do. He just wants to be adored. He wants to be respected. He wants applause like Jane was getting from that room full of people in the concert hall. But for what, you know? What can he do that would get him that acceptance, that adulation? For me, it’s this almost mind-bending mixture of love and resentment and insecurity and anger that has been fascinating to try and get to the bottom of.
How did you relate to him?
You hear actors say all the time that they’re constantly waiting for someone to tap them on the shoulder, telling them that the game’s up: “We’ve found you out. This has all been a terrible mistake. You’re winging it.” It’s that imposter syndrome, and I’ve certainly had that over the years. I think that was a part of Nick that I identified with. Also, what’s driving him to activism in the first place is a search for purpose, right? Purpose is the most fundamental thing we need as humans that other animals don’t. The purpose of almost every other creature on the planet is to wake up, find food, procreate, find shelter, and repeat. We’ve evolved to such a level that we require some sort of greater meaning to life. We need to find a reason for all of this. I think I sometimes feel that way as well. I’ve chosen this job of being an actor so I want to be as good as I can possibly be. As I mentioned earlier, you have these high expectations of what you can do, and you’re also your own harshest critic. But then I think, “Why does it matter, really? What is the purpose of being an actor? Is there a job I can do that somehow makes more of a difference and has more meaning?” All of those things are how I think I identify with Nick. The search for what this is all about. Where do I fit in the world? And why does it fucking matter? I’ve certainly had periods like that.
Do you find some comfort in knowing that acting is a craft that always needs sharpening—that there’s no end point to this where you get a pat on the back and everyone goes home?
That’s a fact. Certainly, the way you just described it is the way that I would like to predominantly think about it, and I mostly do. But it also depends on how you frame it. It can be a comfort to you, or it can be a stress. You still have moments where you think, “Well, god. My work is never done. How can I ever relax when there’s always something I could be doing? There’s always some way I could be sharpening my tools. There’s some way I could be expanding my abilities, my range. You sometimes think, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a job where you just clocked off at six o’clock, went home, and didn’t think about work? And where you wake up, clock back in at nine, and that’s it?” But I know that if I was doing a job like that, I would be miserable. I love the unpredictability of being an actor, and of the industry. I love not knowing where I might be this time next month, let alone this time next year. I think it’s great to think of it in the way you described it: that you will never stop learning. That you never complete acting. You just have to be along for the journey.
When did acting turn from an early hobby, as you’ve worded it in the past, to a life pursuit?
Like with a lot of the big life decisions, I tried to sit on the fence for as long as I possibly could. I tend to not sweat the small stuff in life, but it’s different with those big, life-defining things. I’d applied to universities and I had secured a place, but I took a gap year to give myself that time to see whether I could get any more acting work through The Television Workshop [formally called The Central Junior Television Workshop, a training school for acting in Nottingham]. By that point, I knew it was what I wanted to do, but loads of people want to do it. I just wanted to put the decision off, really. I knew it was a very precarious industry. For the most part, it’s hard to succeed and make a career in it. So I knew it wasn’t that simple. It just so happened that, during that year, I was very fortunate. I was in the right place at the right time a couple of times. Firstly, in terms of getting an agent, which for actors is their gateway into the industry. People go to drama school for three years at the cost of thousands of pounds and they learn a lot during those three years, but the primary reason for spending all that money is because they know that at the end of those three years, you perform in front of agents. Agents might sign you. Signing with an agent is more of a stamp of approval that you’re an actor than even your drama school degree. So I was very lucky I got an agent. And then towards the end of that gap year, I got the part in Skins. Skins became such a big turning point for all of us that, from that point on, the decision was made. So it wasn’t until I got the part in Skins that I thought, “Okay. I’m going to do this now. I can do this.”
It’s no simple feat that you’ve been on these two era-defining shows. I know people are always going to bring up Skins and Game of Thrones. But I also love that you did Merlin.
Kee, I never talk about that show! [laughs] I’m happy you bring it up. Yeah, I’ve been so fortunate to be a part of shows that ended up having far greater impact than I think anyone thought when we first started. That’s what I’m thankful for as well: not only did I get to be a part of them, I got to be a part of them from the start. It’s wonderful the naïveté you go into something like that with, not knowing whether it’s gonna be, firstly, any good, let alone whether anyone’s going to watch it. Certainly, going back and shooting the second season of Skins, we still had a blast. But life had changed so much for all of us by the time we came back. Even though we were still kids, we were looking back on the previous year going, “Aw, wasn’t it nice then? When we didn’t know what this thing was that we were filming?” There was no pressure. We were just a bunch of kids dicking about, having fun. Obviously, with season two, there was expectation and the stakes were raised. People know who you are and we were kind of famous. Similarly with Thrones, when I started on that with season one, which I was only in for a tiny bit, friends would ask me what I was doing. I would try and describe to them what this show was and I would just see their eyes glaze over. I’d tell them: “It’s like a medieval fantasy. It’s about a power struggle. This king died, and there are dragons.” They would tune me out and I’m like, “Either I’m really bad at describing this, or HBO might have a really expensive flop on their hands.” It did alright, didn’t it? [laughs] But, again, I love reminiscing about that first season where we were all just walking around going, “Well, we can tell they’ve spent some money on this. But who knows what it’s gonna be?” And I love fast-forwarding again, knowing what the show became and what it did for all the people involved.
Filmmakers sometimes talk about that freshness of their first movie that they’re never going to get back. Is that something to chase for you? Is there a desire to recapture that feeling?
Well, it’s your first love, isn’t it? If that doesn’t work out, you find yourself trying to replicate it. And maybe it’s a long time before you realize that you can’t. You don’t ever replicate that feeling. I can’t think of a job I’ve done that I really, really didn’t enjoy. With every new job, it feels like you can’t possibly top the one that came before. And I’m old enough now to realize that it’s not about topping it. It’s about enjoying it differently. When I finished Skins, I thought, “I’ll never have a job like that again.” And I haven’t! But on almost the next thing I did after that, I was like, “This is fucking great.” So it’s not that you don’t ever enjoy anything as much. You enjoy it in different ways and for different reasons. I’m just always looking for interesting writing primarily and interesting characters. And I’m not in a position where there are five amazing scripts on the table and they all want me to play the parts, where I’ve got to choose which one I’m gonna do. No, I’m not at that stage. I read scripts as they come in. They’re asking me to audition. I have to pick the ones that I think speak to me. I try to do myself justice in the auditions and hope that they will consider me the right person for the parts. If I look back over my career, I like to think that I haven’t played the same character twice. I like to try new things. I like to try and take myself out of my comfort zone whenever I can. I hope that Nick feels like something audiences haven’t seen from me before. To an extent, that’s by design. But only to a degree because I ultimately am not in a position where I’m deciding what work I’m doing. I’m deciding what work I don’t do.
There’s this line in Pieces of Her: “I can’t die in someone else’s skin.” It’s paradoxical that your job is to sell the illusion of being somebody else, but you’re also probably unlocking parts of yourself you weren’t privy to before. Do you feel closer to Joe, having played Nick?
Do you know what? This isn’t any kind of revelatory newsflash, but I certainly feel more comfortable in my own skin now than I did maybe five years ago. It’s interesting because, when it comes to work, I’m always in the immediate aftermath of something like Skins. I remember looking back and going, “Ugh, I was so young. I wish I could do that again. I wish I could just film that part over again. I would do so many things differently. I’m so much better now than I was then.” And then other times as an older adult, I look back on some of my early work and go, “You were so free then, actually. You weren’t overthinking it. It wasn’t so much of a job or a career.” I think I’m trying to get to the point where I’m very comfortable in my own skin—that ease with myself, which will allow me to explore other characters more fully and go to the darker places that probably are part of my own psyche. You have to be self-aware enough to acknowledge the darker parts of yourself if you’re gonna explore them in characters and bring them to the fore. So, I hope that’s where I’m at. There’s always stuff to learn. And what is acting but trying to mirror life?