House of the Dragon Star Matt Smith Isn’t Just Another Hotheaded Targaryen
In Matt Smith’s delightfully varied career, he’s explored everyone from serial killers (Charles Manson in Manson Says) to British royalty (Prince Philip in The Crown) to a dance-happy vampire (Morbius) and, of course, his tenure as Doctor Who. This weekend he’ll add Westerosi royalty to his list. On Sunday, he makes his debut as a Targaryen prince in HBO’s first Game of Thrones spinoff, House of the Dragon, a prequel set 200 years before the events of GoT that focuses entirely on the beginning of the end of Daenerys’ ancestors. (The series also airs on Sky Atlantic and streaming service beginning Aug 22.)
Smith is part of an impressive cast that’s headed up by Paddy Considine as King Viserys, who is due to name his successor to the Iron Throne. The choices are difficult: Princess Rhaenyra, Viserys’ firstborn, technically has a claim to the throne, but so does Daemon Targaryen (Smith), the king’s hotheaded, undefeated warrior brother. Multiple other claimants begin vying for the crown, triggering internecine conniving, backstabbing, and yes, dragon warfare in what author George R.R. Martin termed the “Dance of the Dragons” in his 2018 novel Fire and Blood, on which House of the Dragon is based.
The spin-off is a big gamble, considering the somewhat divisive reaction to Thrones’ series finale. But so far, Dragons is off to a promising start: Its pilot is better than the entirety of GoT Season 8, in no small part due to Smith’s presence as an arrogant swashbuckler who reveals his inner melancholy and doubts only to Mysaria (Sonoya Mizuno), a dancer and Daemon’s most trusted adviser. GQ spoke with Smith this week about his journey to Westeros through film, television, and stage:
GQ: Daemon Targaryen has a “shoot first and don’t ask any questions later” outlook to him, it would seem.
Matt Smith: I think there’s a sort of inner fragility to him that I was very interested in. Yes, I do think he is a man that sort of instinctually, naturally, is quite a violent person. But I think there’s a weird sense of morality, and it’s warped, but it is, nevertheless, a sense of morality to him. And sometimes he thinks he’s doing the right thing, however violent and obtuse his behavior may appear. Often, in his head, he’s doing things for a good cause. So I guess what I’m saying is, to some level, it’s not just gratuitous violence. He’s not violent just to be violent. He’s violent because he thinks there is a purpose to it, generally speaking.
There’s a very brief moment, when you’ve just finished having sex with Mysaria, she is the only character to whom you bow your head. You have no doubts when you’re storming a town. You have no doubts when you’re sitting on the Iron Throne. You know your mind. But in front of her, just through your body—you didn’t even say anything—you’re willing to say, “Shit. I don’t know.” Can you talk a little bit about your dynamic with Sonoya Mizuno and how you perceive their relationship?
Look, she’s a fabulous actress, we had a great time working together. She’s very brave. And we were just on the same page, really. And it was an interesting collaboration as sort of characters, but also as actors, and I’m really looking forward to seeing where that relationship goes. Because I think it gets very—it starts to get very complicated as we move forward, I understand.
You also had to learn a fake language for the show.
It’s a sort of collaboration between Latin and Arabic, in a strange way. And I thought, when I read so many of those scenes, “Oh God, this is gonna be a pain.” But I really enjoyed those scenes. I found there was something really revealing about Daemon. To me in those scenes, I could access this other, exotic part of his personality where it almost felt more natural to him, on some level.
I managed to find two episodes of Party Animals [a Veep-esque satire about Parliament staffers Smith starred in in 2007] on YouTube, but unfortunately couldn’t find the rest. But that was your first big job, right?.
I think we did one before it called The Ruby in the Smoke, which was a Philip Pullman adaptation. Party Animals should have done slightly better than it did. I thought it had a really good cast. I don’t think it was terribly well publicized. I thought it was quite a good show, actually. And actually in this day and age, I think it might do quite well.
When I started taking notes on your body of work I realized how detailed your body language is. I watched Christopher and His Kind, and there was this amazing way that you held up your spine. He had these really wide eyes, when Isherwood first gets to Berlin. But then, as the Nazis gain more and more power with each passing day, your eyes weren’t as wired anymore. Your affect became more somber.
Well, firstly, thank you for doing such detailed research. I’m quite a physical actor, I suppose. And I always start from quite a physical place, whether it be with one physical trait of the person. Christopher was quite a sort of straight person, ironically speaking. I love that he sort of loved the idea of being a foreigner. He loved the idea of being an outsider and observer. I think, in that, there was a sort of attentiveness that came with him, where he was alert to the world. His ears were pricked and also he’d been brought up in a certain time where you were taught to stand well, if nothing else.. It was the same with the Doctor, I wanted him to be quite clumsy and fluid. And with Prince Philip, I noticed that he always held his hands behind his back and that might just be one aspect of a person that allows you to find a sort of way in, as it were.
Your portrayal of Prince Philip had to strike a balance between “I think the monarchy is bullshit” and “We need to pull it together or we’re gonna be jobless and homeless.” Then there are the quieter scenes. Could you talk about the choreography of the private scenes with Elizabeth (Claire Foy)? Do those scenes require you to tone down the physicality? Because when it gets toned down, the substance is in the tilt of your head or the way you flick your hand.
MS: When you’re working with Peter Morgan, you’re in luck, because he is one of the best writers out there. The scenes are so beautifully structured, they’re so subtle. Claire and I had a really beautiful collaborative relationship. And so she was offering up things and I was simply responding. And we’ve done enough work in the run-up to it and enough detailed homework, as it is, to feel like we could be instinctive within the scene, within the characters and often, those things you’re referring to, a tilt or whatever it might be. That’s all sort of just instinctual stuff that comes on the day, really, and you’re reacting to the chemistry that’s alive in the room. If it leaves, you know, hopefully it is alive.
In the States, we certainly know of Doctor Who, but it’s very integral to British culture, it’s very much part of the fabric of British pop culture. The fans can be quite zealous. Did that make you more or less willing to enter the —for lack of a better phrase—Game of Thrones universe, a world of Comic Con and people with millions of theories and costumes?
[Laughs] The wonderful thing about Doctor Who fans is, yes, they are passionate, and they follow it very closely, but broadly speaking—I’d say majoritively speaking—they are a wonderful set of fans, and it’s a lovely community to be part of. And I can only hope that the Thrones community is something similar. We’ll have to see how they respond to the show and how they respond to Daemon Targaryen and King Viserys and all these other really brilliant characters that I happen to think have been played quite interestingly. But I feel very privileged to be a part of this. There’s a wonderful legacy, I suppose you could call it, already that George [R.R. Martin] has created. And I just hope that we can do it justice and deliver something interesting.
An eighth of the world’s population has watched Game of Thrones. Were you a member of the fan base?
Yeah, I thought it was wildly entertaining. And I tuned in, on a Monday in England, like many other people. I enjoy sort of magic realism and literature and I enjoy fantasy. And I think when that can be delivered, coherently and interestingly and fully on screen, then it’s a real win. Which that certainly did.