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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Fiona Sturges

Alfie Allen: ‘I had to go to dark places to play Theon Greyjoy’

‘I like being nomadic’ … Alfie Allen.
‘I like being nomadic’ … Alfie Allen. Photograph: Gareth Cattermole/Contour by Getty Images

When I first speak to the actor Alfie Allen, he is in the back of a taxi and winding his way through country lanes on the outskirts of Frome in Somerset. Judging by the startled look on his face, I’m guessing he has forgotten all about our interview, though, talking nine to the dozen, he is doing his utmost to style it out. Then, just as he is waxing lyrical about Somerset – he spent the early months of lockdown there and loves its proximity to the Glastonbury festival, and to his dad, Keith Allen, who lives in the nearby Cotswolds – the screen freezes. After shouting that he’ll call me when he gets to the house, everything goes dead.

Half an hour later, he’s back and full of apologies. Parked on a zingy yellow sofa, and dressed in tracksuit bottoms and a hoodie, he talks about the hectic schedule that has seen him zipping back and forth between the UK and America. Home is officially London, though his house is rented out since he is there so infrequently – “So I’m being a bit nomadic, which I like.” He says much of the last year has been spent either visiting his four-year-old daughter, Arrow, who lives with her mother in Los Angeles, or working in New York.

Allen – who is 36 but looks about 10 years younger – made his Broadway debut this April in Martin McDonagh’s Hangmen, which is set in an Oldham pub where the landlord is a former executioner. As Mooney, a menacing stranger who arrives at the pub, Allen was praised by the New York Times for his “convincingly reptilian performance” and received a Tony award nomination. He loved every minute of it. To him, theatre feels spontaneous in a way that TV rarely is, with the added frisson that, if anything goes wrong, you just have to keep going. “Plus, it was cool doing it on Broadway because if you missed home, you just waited until the evening and you got to spend the night in a British pub.”

Allen as Welsh Guards officer Jock Lewes in SAS Rogue Heroes.
Boy’s Own story … Allen as Welsh Guards officer Jock Lewes in SAS Rogue Heroes. Photograph: Robert Viglasky/BBC/Kudos

We’re talking today because he is starring in a new drama series, SAS Rogue Heroes, set during the second world war, which tells of the formation of the elite regiment that sneaked behind enemy lines and embarked on daring acts of sabotage. Allen plays one of the founder members, John “Jock” Lewes, an officer in the Welsh Guards who is caught between stiff-upper-lip professionalism and his frustration at military bureaucracy. Written by Steven Knight, who wrote Peaky Blinders, it is ridiculously fun, a Boy’s Own story of recklessness and derring-do in which explosive set-pieces unfold to a soundtrack of AC/DC.

The series is based on the book by Ben McIntyre, which Allen read in preparation for the role, along with a book of Lewes’s love letters to his sweetheart Mirren Barford. He says Lewes would declare his love in one letter and follow it up with a second where he would apologise for being too emotional. Shooting took place over three months in Morocco. The cast all stayed in a hotel in the oasis town of Erfoud where, Allen recalls, “you could look out of your window and see these rolling dunes that would change every day”. But the environment was tough – near the end of their time there, the temperature had reached 53C (127F). “That was concerning at times, especially for those who were out in it all day. But we all looked after one another. We’d sit and talk to each other about our feelings in the evenings and the next day we’d go out and shoot rifles.”

Before becoming an actor, Allen was known chiefly as the subject of the 2006 song Alfie by his older sister, Lily Allen, in which she admonished him for smoking weed, lying in bed all day and watching too much TV. Having been depicted as a waster by his sister, in the late 00s he became known as a party animal who was regularly photographed staggering out of clubs and around festivals with his friends Nick Grimshaw, Alexa Chung and his then-girlfriend Jaime Winstone.

Allen and Beanie Feldstein in How to Build a Girl.
Allen and Beanie Feldstein in How to Build a Girl. Photograph: Sven Arnstein/AP

At the time he appeared to be dabbling in acting, with bit-parts in Atonement and The Other Boleyn Girl. Now he has a strong body of work under his belt that spans comedy (Jojo Rabbit, How To Build a Girl), sci-fi horror (The Predator) and thrillers (John Wick, Night Teeth). But he is best known for his role as Theon Greyjoy in Game of Thrones, where, unlike many of his cast contemporaries, he lasted the full eight seasons. No one anticipated how huge the show would become. Allen says it hit home when he was on holiday in Thailand after finishing one of the early seasons. “I was on the beach and this guy came up selling [counterfeit] Game of Thrones DVDs and suddenly recognised me from the show.”

Playing Theon was no picnic. First, there was the nudity, which happened before the advent of intimacy coordinators. “I just want to have a conversation about it beforehand, and it not just be expected,” Allen reflects. “I’m glad for everyone, boy or girl, that it’s approached with a bit more sensitivity now.”

More difficult still was the cruelty inflicted on Theon, who was captured, castrated and forced into servitude by Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon). Allen spent the third and fourth seasons playing a man rendered mute with distress and trauma. “I had to do a lot with my body and my eyes and with my grunts,” he says. “I had to go to dark places to play that character. There was this mixture of enjoying it but also coming away from it feeling quite alone.”

Allen as Theon in Game of Thrones.
Mixed feelings … Allen as Theon in Game of Thrones. Photograph: Maximum Film/Alamy

Allen never trained as an actor, but grew up among actors and film-makers. Along with writing lairy football songs, his father, Keith, appeared in films including Comrades (as one of the Tolpuddle martyrs) and Shallow Grave (as a corpse), while his mother is Alison Owen, the Bafta-winning film producer. He says having your parents in the industry “can be a help or a hindrance”, though he doesn’t volunteer which category his mother and father fall into. Allen looks tense on the subject of his parents – a result, perhaps, of his sister Lily’s 2018 memoir, My Thoughts Exactly, which detailed some questionable childcare arrangements including nights where the two of them would be left upstairs at the Groucho club while Keith “got smashed in the bar downstairs”. What Allen will say is that his dad gave him the best piece of advice about acting he has ever had: “He told me ‘95% of it is about rejection and the other 5% is the fun part’.”

If he appears uneasy talking about his parents, it’s nothing next to his discomfort when I ask a question about Lily, who, since taking a break from music, is now working as an actor. Given what she endured at the hands of a hostile and often misogynistic media for the first decade of her career, I wonder whether she offered him advice on how to handle being in the public eye. “Hmm, errr, well,” he mumbles, nervously tapping the table in front of him. “I guess there wasn’t really a conversation that we had about the pressure of what we do. I mean, I was there for some of the things that she went through and I think she’s always handled that stuff pretty well.

“We live totally separate lives now, so I don’t really know how she’s dealing with the new career path that she’s taken. I enjoy acting and I enjoy being in that place of uncertainty, and maybe being in a big TV show for so long meant that that feeling wasn’t there for me in the same way.”

That’s not to say he doesn’t get any attention when out and about. Three years after the end of Game of Thrones, people still approach him wanting to talk about the series. Rather than waning, he says the interest is “still growing as more and more people discover it. And it’s only going to get bigger, which is insane. It’s just something that I take on board now, and I’m not ever going to get miserable about it. Thrones will be a part of my life for the rest of my life, and I don’t have a problem with that.”

SAS Rogue Heroes begins 30 October, 9pm, BBC One.

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