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The actor discusses his character, the power of speaking slowly, the Sea Snake prequel series and online backlash to his casting.
By James Hibberd
When Steve Toussaint was sent some script pages to audition for a mysterious new TV project, he couldn’t shake the feeling that the words were somehow familiar.
“I will not breathe further life into a malicious lie by discussing it,” read part of the script. “I don’t care what people believe — and neither do you.”
“It was so weird, I kept thinking this voice sounds like Charles Dance as I read them,” Toussaint recalls.
And for good reason. The lines were from a scene from Game of Thrones season 3 where Dance’s character Tywin Lannister faces off with Diana Rigg’s Olenna Tyrell. The audition was for the Thrones prequel House of the Dragon, where Toussaint was unknowingly trying out for Lord Corlys Velaryon — who, like Tywin in the original series, is the wealthiest lord in Westeros.
Yet as fans of author George R.R. Martin’s books know, Corlys is more action-driven character than Tywin’s taciturn puppet master. Corlys is a seafaring warrior from a blood line as old as the Targaryens and is legendary for completing nine map-expanding voyages. Married to Rhaenys Targaryen (Eve Best), Corlys sits on King Viserys’ Small Council as Master of Ships.
“He’s unlike just about every other high-born man we meet as he’s a self-made man who’s seen about 14 battles,” says the 57-year-old British actor (Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time) as he chatted with The Hollywood Reporter at a social club in London last December. “He made these legendary nine voyages when he was very young and made his fortune that way. Now he’s wealthy and he likes people to know it.”
Below Toussaint discusses the character, the power of speaking slowly, the Sea Snake prequel series and the unfortunate online backlash after he was cast as a character who is white in the books.
What excited you personally about Corlys?
That the Sea Snake says what he means. He’s very much like: “It doesn’t matter what my words mean to you. I’m telling you the truth. I don’t care if you hurt your feelings.” I can’t do that — Steve can’t do that. I think he’s reasonably good at politics, but he finds it tedious and frivolous.
I quite like that about him. Because as a younger man, there was no gray area for me — you were right or you were wrong. As you get older and, hopefully, wiser you start thinking, “Well, there’s nuance.” You come home and someone’s burgled your house and you find him, you’re going to call the police. But he’s had a hard life. Do I want this man to go through the system? It’s that kind of thing. Whereas the Sea Snake doesn’t have that.
The other thing Eve and I were discussing this the other day is [Rhaenys and Corlys] are the only couple together purely for love. He also listens to her. He doesn’t always pay attention, but he seeks her advice.
That’s rare in this franchise. One thing I always found amusing about the first show was that for most the of the series the only couple together for love was Jaime and Cersei. They’re together for the right reasons but the relationship itself is totally wrong.
Give with one hand and take away with another.
How did Corlys’ Nine Voyages shape who he is today?
He prefers to be on the battlefield. It’s much simpler: You’re trying to kill me, I’m trying to kill you. That’s it. There’s no gray area and I think he likes that.
And pretty much everything that I have asked for in terms of background material, they’re able to get. At one point I said to [Ryan Condal, who is showrunner along with Miguel Sapochnik], “Would it be possible to have some information about the voyages that he took?” I have all these wonderful artifacts he’s picked up from his voyages. Ryan came back with all this information so that when I looked at those artifacts I would have a memory.
What was the most helpful piece of direction you received?
Well, you’ll notice I have the tendency to speak quickly. That’s who I am. In our first meeting, Miguel and Ryan said I was too youthful. So the best piece of advice was to remember his gravitas. He’s a man who’s used to being listened to. Generally people who are used to being listened to speak slowly, right? I’m not used to being listened to. I’m always trying to fill the gaps.
Interesting, Miguel gave similar advice to Hannah Waddingham when she played Septa Unella, telling her the least she could do, the more powerful it would be. What was your most challenging moment during this long shoot?
It was the thing that I thought was going to be the most fun. There’s a battle scene where I have this huge staff with a double-edged blade on one end and weight on the other. It’s a lot of swinging around and all you’re like, “Why couldn’t they have given me a sword?” So I’m swinging and they’re coming at me from all angles and I have the armor on — it’s some kind of plastic with padding underneath but still incredibly heavy. So I’m doing takes that are a minute and a half [of fighting] and I’m sweating and coughing.
Yeah, that sounds exhausting.
It was the most challenging thing! I’m hoping it looks pretty good. Every job is an advert for the next job.
Speaking of, have you heard anything about the Sea Snake prequel that’s in development?
I have no idea. I mean, unfortunately, that’ll be somebody younger and prettier than me playing that, as much as I might campaign for it.
Maybe they’ll still have you for a framing device or something and then flash back.
I have heard that one person involved in it has seen some of the stuff I’ve done to help their scripts.
Thrones hasn’t had a person of color in a lead role before. Is that meaningful to you? Or were you just like, “It’s just another part.“
To be honest, James, it’s a combination of the two. When I got the gig, I literally was like, “It’s just another role because I have Black friends who had small parts or recurring parts in [Thrones].” I didn’t realize it was a bigger deal until I was racially abused on social media when it was announced. Yeah, that shit happened.
I guess I shouldn’t be shocked because social media can be a cesspool. At the same time, it’s such a WTF.
Yeah, exactly. That was my reaction. It got announced and somebody put up like an artist impression of The Sea Snake, which must come from one of the books. So someone put that up opposite my picture and [expressed dismay]. Then someone else referred to me by the N-word – that was in reply to a director I had worked with who wrote, “Steve Toussaint is great” and they said, “No, Steve Toussaint is a … —” There was also a Black American chap who is a big fan of the show who contacted me saying that he gets abuse because he championed me for the part. And on platforms like Reddit, which I’m not on, there are such discussions going on about it. I was like, “Oh wow,” and then I thought, “Okay, this means a lot to some people, but I can’t allow that to bother me.”
Someone I’ve known for a long time, he had it [when he was cast on a Marvel project]. A friend of mine who played Hermione in the stage version of Harry Potter, she got it. I’ve worked with [Star Wars: The Force Awakens actor] John Boyega, and he got it. If it bothers you so much, don’t watch.
So I suppose in that sense, it’s a big deal. But we have a saying that today’s headlines are just tomorrow’s chip paper; people forget about it.
The other actors you mentioned who had smaller parts on Thrones, did you talk to them about this at all?
I know Lucian Msamati who had a recurring role as a pirate [Salladhor Saan] and Nonso Anozie who played the rich guy in Qarth [Xaro Xhoan Daxos] who tried to kill Daenerys. But I didn’t discuss it with them. The only thing I could have asked was about going out on the streets – which is quite frightening, to be honest.
Yeah, for actors who haven’t been on one of these major franchises, the level of popularity and scrutiny once the show starts can be pretty intense. Are you ready for that?
I don’t think I am ready for it, but I don’t really think about it. This was a conversation I had with [Rhaenyra Targaryen actor] Emma D’Arcy, and we were saying to each other that this is the magic period right now because no one has seen anything. There are no judgments. We’re able to enjoy working and not think about that stuff. I also had a conversation with Matt Smith.
Because he did Doctor Who.
Yeah. He said there were good things that were bad things. But I don’t really look like my character. I obviously don’t have [long silver hair]. So I don’t think it will be a real issue. But let’s talk again in a year.
Before I let you go, was there anything I didn’t ask about that you would like our readers to know?
Actually, going back to being an actor of color. I think there is certainly more color in this show. For me, it’s a good thing. We must never forget it’s a fantasy, and it’s based on medieval law and so forth. But it still has to reflect a world. And I think this does that. I loved Game of Thrones. I don’t understand the criticism that it gets for the last season. I thought it was a wonderful show. But my only caveat was, “Where’s everybody else in this world?” Because it is a diverse world that [Martin] created if you look [beyond Westeros] at the whole thing. I think this show comes closer to that.
House of the Dragon premieres Aug. 21 on HBO. For more behind the scenes of the series, read The Hollywood Reporter’s recent cover story: Inside House of the Dragon.
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