Matt Smith on Playing the Rogue Prince of ‘House of the Dragon’

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This interview includes spoilers for the series premiere of “House of the Dragon.”

Prince Daemon Targaryen is a man of action, and that suits the man who portrays him on “House of the Dragon” just fine.

“On an acting level, I was always quite pleased that I wasn’t in loads of the big table scenes,” said Matt Smith, who shares his royal character’s distaste for the minutiae of sitting down and running the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. “They’re often the ones that are hardest to shoot — the ones that can drive you bonkers. I preferred being on a horse with a sword in the hand.”

Of course, starring in “House of the Dragon” — the prequel series to HBO’s blockbuster “Game of Thrones,” based on the fantasy novel “Fire & Blood” by the author George R.R. Martin — means riding far more exotic mounts than mere horses. As the potential heir to the Targaryen dynasty and its royal seat, the Iron Throne, Daemon is a dragon-rider, and a dangerous one at that.

Created by Martin and Ryan Condal, who serves as a showrunner along with the director Miguel Sapochnik, “Dragon” chronicles a turbulent time in the history of the Targaryens and their fiery steeds, when a crisis of succession threatens to tear the family, and the realm they rule, apart. As the younger brother of the ruling King Viserys (played by Paddy Considine), Daemon is at the heart of the conflict, and emerged in Sunday night’s series premiere as one of the show’s most charismatic characters.

And if you found him fascinating, you’re not alone. In a phone conversation last week, a pensive Smith, who has had earlier star turns in other major franchises like “Doctor Who” and “The Crown,” openly wrestled with Daemon’s duality — agent of chaos one moment, ferociously loyal and loving the next.

“There’s a sort of folklore among ‘Fire & Blood’ fans and ‘Game of Thrones’ fans that when a Targaryen is born, you flip a coin,” he said “One side is greatness and the other side is madness, and you don’t know which side it’s going to land on.”

“With Daemon,” he continued, “the coin is still in the air.”

These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

You’ve stepped into some pretty big shows before. Is it safe to say this is an order of magnitude bigger?

It’s a big show, and it has a global appeal, obviously. There’s a huge legacy that’s gone before it, and we’re standing on the shoulders of giants. Whether or not we can recreate the level of success they had with “Game of Thrones” … I think it’s near on impossible.

But with all jobs, really, you can’t overthink that part of it. You’re there to be as authentic as you can be on a day-to-day basis as an actor. So I don’t pay it too much heed.

But when we first meet your character, he’s sitting on the Iron Throne, speaking in the invented language called High Valyrian. They threw you right into the deep end.

Right into the deep end, yeah. When I first got the script, I looked at all that High Valyrian stuff like [gasping], “Oh, I’ve got to learn a new language.” But I actually found that to be really rewarding. It was quite a revealing and informative experience. When you speak a different language, it accesses a different part of you.

“Game of Thrones” was famous, or infamous, for its sex and violence. In this episode, Daemon is the guy having sex and committing violence.

Well, when you accept a job like this, you know on some level what you’re getting into. There is a document there. You know that in the world that George has created, these elements and these scenes will probably be a part of it at some point.

Does anyone like doing those sorts of [sex] scenes? Probably not. They’re quite exposing. You’ve got 100 people around staring at you. But I had a wonderful relationship with Sonoya [Mizuno], who played Mysaria [Daemon’s sex-worker lover]. She’s brilliant in there.

The bond between Daemon and Mysaria is unusual because people in their respective social classes almost never interact as equals, which is how they seem to view one another.

It’s one of those things that I found quite alluring about Daemon: He lives in both worlds. He lives down in the belly of the beast, and he lives back in the Red Keep, in palaces and all that. He has a lot of respect for Mysaria. I’m interested to see where that relationship will go.

The most prominent relationship Daemon has in the premiere is with his brother, King Viserys, and the contrast is striking. Viserys wants to be liked, while Daemon really doesn’t care what people think.

That’s true. But what I uncovered, which perhaps wasn’t there in black and white, is that there’s a deep fragility to Daemon, actually — particularly when it comes to his brother. He cares what his brother thinks. The rest of the empire can go stick it. He doesn’t really give a toss.

Even though Viserys expels him from King’s Landing by the end of the episode, there’s obvious affection between the two of them.

Yeah, and me and Paddy really found that. There’s a deep and quite profound love between them, and I hope that’s something that comes alive throughout all 10 episodes.

The thing with Daemon is he just keeps pushing — pushing the envelope, pushing the boundaries, pushing the rules that were in place around him. But it’s weird. The more time I spent with palace intrigue … He’s got a strange moral compass of his own. What looks like he’s just being erratic and mad, he thinks he’s doing the right thing.

That played out in a visceral way in the story line involving his command of the Gold Cloaks, the city’s rudimentary police force.

Exactly. He thinks he’s going out and purging the city of crime [laughs], albeit in a very nasty manner. But in his head, there is a degree of sense to it. I think. Or isn’t there? I don’t know. This is the great thing about Daemon: You just don’t know. Is he doing it in pursuit of good things? Is he doing it to cause chaos? It’s a bit of both, probably. It always is, and that’s so interesting about him.

Were you thinking about real-world instances of police brutality and militarization during that sequence?

No, no. It was purely just invested in the story.

You mentioned palace intrigue, and the king’s Small Council is a battlefield in its own right. What was it like to play so many different character dynamics at once?

First, it was such a joy to work with Rhys Ifans [who portrays Daemon’s political rival, Otto Hightower], who is a brilliant and beautiful actor, and indeed an even more brilliant and beautiful man. Similarly with Paddy, Steve [Toussaint, who plays the naval commander Lord Corlys Velaryon] — there are some real heavyweight guys. I enjoyed that because Daemon’s petulance, that sort of chaotic dropping of little bombs on purpose … It’s almost like he really isn’t even interested in power. Lots of people ask that: “Is it power? Is it the throne?” It’s not. I think it’s essentially the obstruction of power. That was a good energy to have.

Within the royal family, the person Daemon seems closest to other than his brother is his niece, Rhaenyra.

They’re really the only two people in the whole of the kingdom who Daemon will concede to. He’s got a very strict, almost blind sense of loyalty, oddly. When it comes to those two people, I think he’d really fall on the sword for them. And he likes her.

Yet as the two leading candidates for heir to the throne, their interests are in direct conflict. What is it about her that resonates with him?

There’s that family bond that he is so invested in. It really, really matters to him. And probably he feels a certain kinship with her that he’s maybe lost with his brother. There’s an element of rebelliousness, or … I mean, I don’t know. It’s a good question. It’s not something that I’ve really considered. It’s always just felt like a very instinctual trust and bond between the two.

Talking about Daemon’s relationships with Viserys and Rhaenyra reminded me that this may be a show about dragons and the Iron Throne, but it’s also about family.

Very much so. At its heart, it’s a family drama, like a lot of those other great series that have come before it. I think if we can nail that aspect of it, then we’ll have a chance.

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