The British actor had initially auditioned for the part of Ned Stark's illegitimate son Jon Snow (a part that eventually went to Kit Harington) and then even tried out to play one of Jon's pals at The Wall, but didn't score either role. Thrones producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss were determined to work with Dempsie, however, and eventually cast him as Gendry the blacksmith's apprentice, the only one of King Robert's byblows to survive Joffrey's bastard massacre in the Season 2 premiere of Game of Thrones, which airs its third episode Sunday (9/8c, HBO).
"Obviously I've got 'bastard' written all over me," Dempsie tells TVGuide.com. "The character breakdown described Gendry as tall and muscular with black hair. I was none of those three at the time. I thought, 'I could dye my hair and hit the gym, but I can't stretch my legs!'... My friend is such a big fan of the books that even he didn't actually approve of my casting as Gendry. But it was a nice little vote of confidence from David and Dan."
In the first season, Gendry briefly appeared when Ned Stark (Sean Bean) questioned him and later, when he defended Arya (Maisie Williams), who was disguised as a boy. Season 2 picks up as Gendry, Arya and the rest of the Night's Watch recruits hit the road on the way to The Wall. Check out the rest of our interview with Dempsie, who weighs in on Gendry and Arya's relationship, the challenges of sword fighting and a very cruel-funny prank played on co-star Alfie Allen, who plays Theon Greyjoy:
What is your take on Gendry?
Joe Dempsie: I saw him as someone who hasn't had a very easy start in life. He has no idea who his father was and has no idea where his mother is either — is she dead? Is she away? So I think he's had to be quite tough and grow up a bit early on. It's implied in the books that he's not too bright, which is something I've tried to change quite a bit with my portrayal. He's not sophisticated and isn't particularly educated either but he's certainly got street smarts about him and has got a determination. I also think he's a man of principle. He's probably seen a lot of horrible things, seen people treated pretty badly and he's quite a fair person.
How does Gendry feel about joining the Night's Watch?
Dempsie: He has come to terms with his difficult start in life now. Going up to The Wall is a way out for him. I think he's quite an adventurous type by nature but has never been given the opportunity [until now]. He didn't have much choice in joining the Night's Watch, but the more he thinks about it, the more appealing it sounds to him. He sees this potentially as an exciting new chapter but he's aware there's dangers along the way, even though he has no idea about his parentage.
Gendry has no clue why the Gold Cloaks are hunting him. But if he discoverd that he's King Robert's illegitimate son, would he even believe it?
Dempsie: I think he would certainly be surprised but he'd definitely have to believe it. He knows now that the Gold Cloaks are after him. One of the weird things about the series is that he never actually asks why that is. I don't think he would guess that he's Robert's son. He's starting to piece together that whole thing. There's a line in Episode 2 when Arya is pestering him and he says that asking him questions is bad luck. He's starting to realize that it's strange that before Ned Stark came and asked questions and ended up dead, Jon Arryn did also. He knows that something's up and knows that he must be a point of interest for some reason, but I don't think he's got a clue. The truth would certainly answer a lot of questions for him.
Gendry has figured out that Arya's a girl. How would you describe their relationship?
Dempsie: From what I gather in the books, there's kind of an implied potential romance there for further down the line. But the way the casting is on the show, that's not going to happen. Gendry's a champion for the underdog. He doesn't like to see people mistreated or being bullied, so he helps her when Lommy and Hot Pie try to steal her sword at the end of Season 1. I think he immediately felt protective of her. This is even before sussing out that she's a girl. Now she's shared her secret with him and he's promised to keep it safe. I don't think Gendry has ever been given that level of responsibility before or ever felt like people trusted him enough to do that. I think he looks upon her as a little sister now. That's something he's never really experienced before. The other way around, he kind of reminds Arya of her older brothers.
What is it like working with Maisie Williams and the other child actors on set? Are there shenanigans?
Dempsie: Maisie is great. Casting young people is always so difficult and they got it so right in Game of Thrones. All the young actors are amazingly talented and so professional. She's also fun to be around and has lots of energy, which is good for me because I'm not very good in the mornings. With Ben who plays Hot Pie, 90 percent of the time, there is noise coming from his mouth. Whether it's Family Guy impressions or singing any song you would care to mention or telling jokes or the boy's always talking. There's never a quiet moment.
You have a fight scene coming up. What was it like to train for that?
Dempsie: It's something I've never done before. It's part of the job that really excited me, the fact that I could get a chance to do that kind of thing. Nevertheless, I was so daunted. It's the kind of thing where you want to immediately be as good as the guy who's training you, which is completely impossible. I'm the kind of person who if I can't get something right I get quite frustated with myself. I stressed out about that fight sequence for a hell of a long time, but when it came to actually doing it, I'd never had that much fun on a film set. But then it was kind of ironic that the scene only ended up lasting five seconds. I saw it and was like, "Bloody hell!" They could have just shot it from afar and gotten someone in a wig who looked somewhat like me.
What aspect of the fighting did you find the most challenging?
Dempsie: It was about footwork really. That's the hardest part to get right. But once you sort the footwork out it all starts falling into place. It's almost like choreographing a dance sequence really. If you're not a good dancer, as I'm not, that can be the trickiest part to get.
Who in the cast have you been hanging out with the most outside of your scene partners?
Dempsie: That's been one of the best things about doing Game of Thrones. My social circle in London has more or less doubled just by doing it because nearly everyone is based in London. And I hadn't long moved to London before doing it, so it's been really great in terms of meeting people to hang out with while I'm there. There's a group of us that usually does stuff together; There's myself, Alfie Allen (Theon), Finn Jones (Loras), Gwendoline Christie (Brienne), Kit Harington (Jon Snow). Us five went to Berlin together at the end of the series. And then sometimes Natalie Dormer (Margaery) would come up and Gemma Whelan (Yara) and Gethin Anthony (Renly). It was a really nice bunch of people. We'd go bowling sometimes.
What has your family and friends' response been to seeing your character on the show?
Dempsie: They just say that they think I'm very good in it and they thought the scene with Arya was kind of funny. That's what you need from your parents, isn't it? I could tell that the series is fairly good when my dad was saying how much he enjoyed it. My father doesn't really watch television. He usually watches whatever my mom is watching while he reads the paper. He was just raving about it. It's not like he's ever said to me, "I can't wait till next week," but that's what he said about Game of Thrones.
Are you a fan of the books on which Game of Thrones is based? Have you read them?
Dempsie: I have read the first two books. I hadn't ever heard of the books before the pilot script was being sent around. I casually mentioned it to one of my friends who is a massive fan. He loved the books. He was updating me on the characters before I'd audition for them. I've asked him to tell me a bit more of what I can expect, but I think he's being deliberately vague with me.
So much of the cast has read the books though...
Dempsie: It's very hard to avoid spoilers. Everyone's read them. But one time, David Benioff and Dan Weiss sent a script out to everyone and they sent a different one to Alfie Allen. They put a new scene in it in which Theon is murdered in a particularly grisly way. They waited to see what Alfie thought of him being killed off so soon when he thought he'd be doing it for [a longer period of time]. So for about a day, Alfie thought his character was being killed off, but it was only in his script did they put that scene. I think they should have made him film it first and then told him the truth.
Game of Thrones airs Sundays at 9/8c on HBO. Check out this preview of "What Is Dead May Never Die":