On the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration as US President, I find myself speaking to Iwan Rheon, the actor best known for playing Game of Thrones wrong’un Ramsay Bolton. Rheon has just got in after a plane journey from the south of France and has caught only a few moments of the ceremony, but it’s clearly left something of an impression on him.
“I saw a bit of it, yeah,” he tells me down the phone. “It’s crazy.”
Suddenly, he adds: “I don’t want to go too deeply into that.”
Perhaps the 31-year-old Welsh actor hoped I wasn’t looking to make any heavy-handed comparisons between today’s events and his latest project, in which he plays a younger version of Nazi führer Adolf Hitler back when he was trying to make it as an artist. So I won’t.
Still, I am interested in what attracted him to the role in Sky Arts’ Urban Myths series, which reimagines possibly apocryphal tales in one-off half hour dramas (this one called Adolf Hitler: The Artist). Surely after playing one megalomaniac in Game of Thrones he’d want a bit of a break?
Iwan Rheon as Ramsay Bolton in Game of Thrones; his other well-known roles include Simon Bellamy in Misfits, Ash Weston in Vicious and “Smurf” Smith in Our Girl
“Obviously I’m very wary of playing villainous roles… but he’s not really become a villain yet,” Rheon says, also revealing that he actually shot this before the last two series of Game of Thrones even aired.
“People will automatically make that connection and go ‘oh he’s just playing another villain’, but I don’t think it’s like that in The Artist. What I wanted to try and make was a young man who wanted to be an artist, and he just happens to be Adolf Hitler.”
With that in mind, Rheon says he chose to not closely imitate the far-right leader, avoiding clips of Hitler and trying to build up his character from scratch.
“I actually tried to stay away from what we actually do know, because I didn’t think that would help me play the role,” he says. “It was very tiring playing him, put it like that, because he’s such high-energy all the time and constantly just Bang! Just never-ending.”
Rheon in Hitler: The Artist
Not that Rheon is a stranger to exhausting shoots. For the last four years or so a large chunk of his year has been devoted to blockbuster fantasy series Game of Thrones, until his character Ramsay (the legitimised bastard son of Lord Roose Bolton) met a grisly end at the hands of his own mistreated hounds in the 2016 series.
Rheon says he was pleased at how Ramsay went out – “I think it was a very just ending for him,” he tells me – and now he has plans to put his extra free time to good use.
“It’s obviously kind of sad to be leaving the show because I loved being part of it so much,” he says. “But on the other hand, it’s nice now that I’m free. I can do whatever I want, to a degree.
“I was very happy to be involved with it for four seasons, that’s great. And in Game of Thrones terms, that’s pretty good going for a character!” he laughs. “Especially one like Ramsay!”
Iwan Rheon at the 2016 Game of Thrones panel with Faye Marsay
But a show like Game of Thrones doesn’t just take up time and effort. It also introduces you to some of the world’s most committed and enthusiastic fans, which was potentially at odds with the private actor’s self-proclaimed desire to “live as normal a life as I can outside of the industry.”
But he has had one or two run-ins.
“A weird sentence you hear a lot of people saying is ‘I’m so glad you died.’ Which is kind of an odd thing to say to someone,” he says with a chuckle. “Like, am I dead?
“I haven’t had anything really crazy happen. I don’t know, maybe that’ll come. But people are very nice about it. Because I think they genuinely enjoyed hating him, that’s the thing. He wasn’t the character that everyone just hated because he was horrible – they kind of secretly enjoyed him.
He adds: “I’m not being shouted at in the street or people punching me in the face or something, like I thought might have happened.”
Luckily, he could get some advice on dealing with the more enthusiastic of fans from his Urban Myths co-star Rupert Grint (below), who plays real-life childhood friend of Hitler Auguste Kubichek (who also wrote the book the drama is based on).
“I mean Harry Potter’s SO huge, he can’t go anywhere,” Rheon recalled. “It’s an interesting difference, because he started at such a young age that he doesn’t really remember it not being like that.
“And I guess when we shot The Artist I’d only been in two seasons of Game of Thrones, and the character I think in season 6 is where he really came to the forefront of the storylines. So I wasn’t necessarily so heavily involved, or recognisable. It was a very different time.
“I guess if we did it now, it’d be more different – we’d have more stories to discuss!”
He’s not wrong. Rheon made a big impression on audiences in Thrones, and for the foreseeable future it seems likely that he’ll remain best known for that work. Ramsay Bolton will be his defining role for a while – which obviously has a knock-on effect.
“I do have to be very careful now, because I don’t want to be typecast,” he tells me. “And it’s funny, you know – Ramsay’s probably the only villain I have played, but because of what it was in it was the most known thing.
“Obviously the roles I’m being offered a lot are villain roles, because people know ‘Oh he can do that, we’ll give him that.’”
Still, he happily notes that his new part in Sky Atlantic drama Riviera (above) opposite Julia Stiles “isn’t a complete psychopath, which is nice”, and he seems keen to try his hand at lighter roles and the sort of stage work that Thrones left little time for.
His Threxit also allows him greater freedom to indulge his other great passion, music, which used to be his second source of work until his acting career hugely picked up in the last few years.
“I think if you’d asked me ten years ago I would’ve said music,” he says when I ask which is more important to him. “The way things have panned out, acting’s become like my career.”
Rheon has been songwriting and singing since he was 16, and was lead singer in a band called The Convictions before leaving to focus on acting. Since then he’s continued to make music on his own part-time, releasing three EPs from 2010-2013 as a solo artist, and his first full album Dinard in April 2015.
Acting has obviously put music on the backburner for Rheon – but he says he actually prefers it that way.
“It means there’s no pressure on the music – I can just, you know, record and release stuff. I’m not doing it to make money or as a career, so… it’s just genuinely something that I love doing, and I can do, and it’s a nice creative thing to do that isn’t acting.”
His music also influences his attitude to social media, which he says he tries to use less and less like a platform for spouting his views and more as a place where he can draw people’s attention to things that might interest them.
“Going back to the music thing, it’s great because it’s a way that I can make people aware of that music without putting it in their faces,” he tells me. “I don’t like to use it too much putting my opinion across, as to more… just sort of sharing ideas or an article I’ve read.”
Like his Game of Thrones co-star Maisie Williams, he says he feels a responsibility for what his fans read from him, and thinks it’s possible to abuse that power – perhaps like certain American politicians who shall not be named.
“I think a lot of people do use social media in that sense. You know… certain people who have had a big day today.”
— Iwan Rheon (@iwanrheon) February 2, 2017
Still, he can’t help but be a little political on his account, sharing articles about Brexit, Trump’s refugee ban and Hillary Clinton, while in conversation he discusses his worries about the EU funding that his home country of Wales (he now lives in London with his girlfriend) will be deprived of once the UK leaves the European Union.
And in a roundabout way this brings us back to his Urban Myths role, which was filmed years before many of the recent seismic political changes around the world but coincidentally concerns itself with a period of history many are now looking at for a guideline of what to avoid in our own future.
“It’s a very very different world,” he qualifies at first, but then agrees that “we’re seeing a lot of the right-wing feelings coming back.”
“It happens when stuff’s going badly, the economy’s been not very good and people are looking for someone to blame.
“And it’s people like Hitler who rise from the ashes, and we’re sort of seeing that now all over Europe and all over the world at the moment, which is quite a frightening thing.
“We just have to be very careful moving on that we don’t lose all the great things that we’ve got in the world, by allowing these extreme kind of dangerous views to be spread.”
Iwan Rheon in an early role in Welsh-language soap Pobl y Cwm
On that light note we start to wind down the interview, as Rheon still needs to unpack from Riviera filming and get cracking on the next stage of his eclectic CV. He has roles ahead and plenty to do, for a career which he says he hopes will eclipse his current Game of Thrones fame at some point down the line.
“Um… no!” he blanches when I ask if he’d be happy being remembered for Ramsay Bolton. “No. For me it just feels like one part of my journey I guess, and my career.
“Although it’s a huge thing, and it’s not a bad thing to be remembered for, there’s so much more I want to do. I’m only 31! I want to continue my career and do loads of other fun things.
He concludes: “I mean you know, if that’s what they remember me for then fine, I’ll take it, but obviously I’d like to carry on. I hope it’s not the end.”
Unless things get a LOT worse in the political sphere, I think he’s probably safe.
Urban Myths: Adolf Hitler the Artist airs on Sky Arts tonight at 1000pm