Matt Smith seemed such a nice guy.
He was the eleventh (and youngest at the time) actor to play the hero in the venerable BBC sci-fi series Doctor Who. The English actor went on to earn an Emmy nomination for his portrayal of the royal consort, Prince Philip, in The Crown.
But then something happened. Smith, now 40, has played very bad guys in films like Terminator Genisys, Last Night in Soho and Morbius. Last year, he portrayed the violent, charismatic demon Targaryen in House of the Dragon, the HBO prequel to the hit medieval fantasy series Game of Thrones. No, Mountbatten, this cruel, selfish and lustful prince is not the type a monarch would want when close to his teenage daughter. Not that King Viserys (Paddy Considine) can stop Daemon from doing whatever he pleases, even if he’s his brother.
However, do not confuse the character with pure evil. Smith isn’t, and the resulting unpredictability makes Daemon the most compelling character on the show.
“Actually, Daemon is an extremely complicated creature,” Smith says over the phone on the way home from Warner Bros. Leavesden Studios in London after spending a day working on the second season of the prequel. “He’s a lot more sensitive than he lets on and that gives you something to go up against on screen. You can kind of reverse it.”
Which Smith eventually does. But we get to know The Rogue Prince — also the title of A Song of Ice and Fire creator George RR Martin’s 2014 novella that provides much of the first season’s narrative — as the brutal mastermind of King’s Landing’s City Watch, who beheaded him defenseless civilians. After losing a tournament, he soon proves not to be a particularly good athlete. And when Viserys declares his only surviving child Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) heir to the throne, his erratic brother is clearly not happy. For Daemon acting out is a bloody sport.
“There’s a lot going on with his brother that he has to deal with,” says Smith, who found that scenes with Considine really helped him define the character. “Viserys supposedly raised him, and for Daemon it’s either to piss him off or to impress him.”
So it’s more Freudian than just perverted for Daemon to corrupt and almost seduce the underage Rhaenyra? Or is he really in love with her, as it often seems? Eventually, years later, Daemon even marries Rhaenyra (when she is played by Emma D’Arcy); He usually murders at least one of his other wives in the meantime.
“Well, in Targaryen country, it’s more common to be with your immediate family,” Smith explains with a slightly nervous laugh. “I think he’s really quite a lonely creature. But he’s also quite political. There is a feeling that his brother, and Rhaenyra in particular, are the two people he would go to war for. It’s like he has this very strange sense of loyalty. Sometimes he does the right thing for him, even when he’s actually doing the wrong thing.”
Just so you know, Smith appears to be the heartfelt opposite of Daemon Targaryen. Ten minutes into a transatlantic conversation, he calls you bro like you’re an old bar mate. His leisure interests are in line with those one would expect from someone with a common English name: Guinness, football, travel. “I can’t play polo,” he emphasizes, so he doesn’t fall into clichés too much. Smith declines to talk about his love life, which includes models and investment bankers. The British press went wild when he was spotted in public with his ex-girlfriend Lily James in February.
Creating Daemon was about much more than finding the man inside the monster. It takes most of each morning to don the Targaryen clan’s signature silver-blond, chest-length wigs. There were lessons in horsemanship and the use of broadswords. Smith also learned several dialects of Valyrian, the Latin language used among the nobles of Westeros, which he often used to emphasize Daemon’s more reflective dimensions.
And of course there was kite riding. Daemon has his own flying fire breather: Caraxes the Bloodwyrm.
“They built this huge pedestal that you have to climb on and then they move you with a remote control,” says Smith of the kite platform. “Last year they did it on a volume stage, which is like a reality stage [it surrounds actors with immersive sky visuals as opposed to blank bluescreens]. It’s quite high in the air and essentially resembles a bucking bronco. You’re sitting on what looks like a huge motorcycle, a low-rise Harley-Davidson.”
Smith applies a classic British acting education to these high-tech fantasy jobs. An acting teacher at his hometown’s Northampton School for Boys sent him to the National Youth Theatre, where he appeared in an adaptation of his favorite book, The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. The supernatural Soviet satire gave Smith an early taste of the challenges he would face in Doctor Who, house, and genre films. Plays like “The History Boys”, “Swimming with Sharks” and “That Face” on London stages made for more realistic, character-driven scenes. Everything seems to have ended up in Daemon.
“Is there a particular approach to acting in fantasy shows?” he muses. “No, it’s really just finding out the truth about the day and understanding the situation you’re in. Another thing I think is important, what is required of one: it should be simple, but not simpler. That’s a question I’m still trying to figure out in myself.”
Regardless, he has figured out how to take Daemon Targaryen beyond mere evil.
“I mean, look, I played Patrick Bateman on stage,” says Smith, with perfect comic timing (he headlined a musical adaptation of “American Psycho” at London’s Almeida Theatre). “No one is as fit as him. I find it interesting to find out what drives people. These are essentially jumbled up letters of the alphabet, and you can take out different versions of them at different times.
“Daemon thrives on chaos. There’s an element of him that walks on a glass wire, and he loves falling off at any moment. He operates on his own weird and often violent level. But for him, the violence is not unfounded. He doesn’t do it clumsily, he does it with purpose and precision. Whether that is right or wrong is for others to discuss.”