Ewan Mitchell, master of reality
Ewan Mitchell plays Aemond Targaryen, the power-hungry prince in Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon. Aemond’s no one-eyed jester. Yet the actor’s first shoot and print interview are all a bit... what’s the word?... bonkers. And brilliant. A peeper-popping example of an actor, high on the possibilities of the only job he ever wanted. And half a kilo of sugar.
Taken from the new print issue of THE FACE. Get your copy here.
What in the Seven Kingdoms is this? In a 300-year-old master shipwright’s house on the banks of the Thames in Deptford, southeast London, Ewan Mitchell is going for it. Really going for it. The fans who flocked in blockbuster numbers to read December’s FACE digital interview, the actor’s first with a magazine, may spill their Dornish wine.
Fortified by furtive fags (“If you’re gonna ride a dragon, you’ve gotta have smoke”) and bolts of black coffee (“seven sugars, please”, although he’ll cut down in the afternoon to a reasonable five), the actor is wigging out for his FACE photoshoot – again, his first ever.
The 25-year-old is rocking a buzz cut, preparation for the resumption of a day job that requires the Derby lad to have flowing, milk-white locks fixed to his curvilinear, crescent-moon features. Today, though, on the creaking, history-reeking property that’s our location, that close-crop is the perfect canvas for what House of the Dragon’s greatest bad guy likes to do best: play a part.
For the first look, Mitchell emerges from fake hair and make-up wearing an emo toupée and a purposeful glint. Actually, no, those are contacts (he’d never worn lenses before this morning, but popped them in, easy as you like). For the second, he flicks longer ginger tresses. In another, he looks like the man who fell to earth, but lost an eye – and his shirt – in the process.
It’s all very Ewan Mitchell: actor. His mates might call him The Iceberg (more on that later) and in conversation he’s serious, sober (literally, he barely drinks) and given to pregnant… pauses. Like his character Aemond Targaryen, the power-hungry, one-eyed prince we met in HotD’s first series, he’s a man of few words. But also like Aemond, he’s a man of action with shimmering, nuclear charisma, owning HBO’s Game of Thrones prequel despite only appearing from episode eight onwards. Give him a set, a costume, a wig and he’s happy as Larry Targaryen (a lesser-known, showbiz-loving cousin, we’re saying, yet to be imagined by George R.R. Martin).
“I love all aspects of the business,” says Mitchell, who started acting straight out of school in 2015 and, pre-HotD, was largely kept busy in middle-Britain, parent-friendly telly (see: ITV/BBC period dramas The Halcyon, Grantchester, World on Fire), though he did get sword-friendly experience under his belt on Netflix’s Saxon-era drama The Last Kingdom. “I love acting. My earliest memory was wanting to be an actor. I always think of that line from GoodFellas: ‘As far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a gangster.’ Acting for me was that thing.”
The day before our shoot, Mitchell strides from his London hotel to the boutique hotel we’re meeting in. It’s a four-minute walk. It probably takes him five. In this rangy, lean, six-footer’s gait (purposeful) and clobber (all black), he’s already in Aemond mode. Shooting on series two of HotD begins in the spring, centred on Warners studios in Hertfordshire (“then a little bit again in Cáceres [in Spain]”), but Mitchell is playing the long game of prep.
“For Aemond’s walk, there was something I found interesting about Eighties horror icons,” Mitchell says in a murmur, barely audible above the incongruous disco muzak of the tea room we’ve moved to, his face half hidden beneath a black baseball cap. The only dash of colour on his person is a Help for Heroes wristband. “No matter how slow they walk, they always catch up with Jamie Lee Curtis,” he says, a smile twitching at the corners of his more-Joker-than-The-Joker lips. “There’s something in the physicality of [Elm Street’s] Freddy [Krueger], [Jamie Lee’s Halloween nemesis] Michael Myers, [the Creeper in] Jeepers Creepers.” Aemond, he says, also wears “a big, long duster coat”. Very boogeyman-adjacent.
“And Shakespeare,” he continues, “he said that the eyes are the windows to the soul. So what does that mean to only have one of them? How do you compensate? Is it through physicality? Aemond’s such a boiling pot of emotions anyway, that just because he’s smiling doesn’t mean he’s happy. He’s ready to go at any minute.” What about the Adidas trackie bottoms and hoodie Mitchell’s wearing today – does he always dress in black?
“I do nowadays, yeah. There’s just something about the power of representing [him]. There’s a Johnny Cash music video, [for] God’s Gonna Cut You Down, and someone says in that that wearing black stands for the poor and the downtrodden. And that’s what Aemond is.”
As an on/off fan of the genre, Mitchell decided that Aemond would be a heavy metal fan. The actor’s a Slipknot/Linkin Park guy, but Aemond’s all over Black Sabbath. “Children of the Grave feels like you’re riding on the back of one of the horses of the apocalypse,” he says approvingly of the Midlands rockers’ 1971 gallop.
The details, no matter how small, matter. But he knew there was a lot resting on his portrayal of a character who, at the end of HotD’s first series, does the Very Bad Thing – OK, he kills his little cousin – which catalyses what he described to us in December as the “all-out war” that will be depicted in series two.
HotD was years in the preparation. As HBO sought to expand their Westeros universe following the 2019 end of fantasy TV’s game-changing Thrones after eight series, they greenlit multiple pilots based on clans and histories created by American author Martin. In the end they pressed go on a prequel series, set 172 years before the birth of Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) and the events depicted in what Mitchell calls the “OG show”. HotD would focus on the dragon-riding Targaryens, how they ruled, then lost, the Iron Throne, their reign undone by infighting and incest. Don’t you hate when that happens?
Premiering last August, the show was a slow burn. Necessarily so, as there was a lot of world-building to cover, not to mention similarly named and identically haired Targaryens to get your head around. But over 10 weeks of broadcast, the show gained momentum, focus and, with the arrival of the grown-up Aemond for the last three episodes, a wrong ’un to root for.
“It definitely felt like Ewan’s arrival on the show was a seismic hit,” says showrunner Ryan Condal. “He’s come in with a bunch of young actors who are going to play these characters, then take over for the rest of the series. It’s a murderer’s row of great young British acting talent. But [the] Game of Thrones [universe] loves its villains. In a first season where we don’t have [characters like] The Mountain or a Ramsay Bolton right out of the gate, his arrival stoked those fires in the fanbase.”
Mitchell’s character never lost sight of the fact that his cousin, Lucerys, had slashed his eye out when they were kids. As Aemond grew in stature and power, and as the Targaryens split into throne-hungry factions while the King (Paddy Considine) neared his death, he inevitably squared up to Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith), King’s Landing’s other top dog.
Daemon is Aemond’s uncle – and also uncle to Aemond’s half-sister Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy). When Daemon and Rhaenyra become an item, the rival claims to the succession now come with a topspin of intra-family sex. And you thought Spare was a royal potboiler.
For Mitchell, that axis was all-important. “I did something on Dragon that was the first choice I made on my first day,” he says in the curiously curly speaking style he deploys. “I said to Ryan: ‘I’ve got this idea of avoiding Matt Smith and [even] avoiding eye contact.’”
Why? “Because there’s this moment in episode eight where we have that intense stare-down. I thought there was something in experimenting and saving that moment for then. Aemond idolises Daemon, and this is the first time that he makes any sort of contact with him. Their family tree is actually a circle!” he jokes.
Condal liked that, but they agreed it’d only work if Smith was on board. He was. This meant that, on set, Mitchell wouldn’t even have lunch in the vicinity of Smith.
“I just wanted to keep that separation, so that I never saw Matt and I only ever saw Daemon.”
Condal remembers a day when the actors were gathered in the cast tent, winding down from a previous scene. Mitchell was missing. “I went around the corner and saw Ewan in the corner with his sword, practising. That to me felt very Aemond. He’s always working on improving his skills. He’s not taking coffee breaks.”
Thinking back to Mitchell’s audition, he recalls “his presence – his walk, the way he took the room, the way he made eye contact with everybody”. But even for the experienced showrunner, the intensity was bracing. “It was actually quite off-putting because Ewan is a very committed actor. I don’t want to say he’s Method because I actually don’t know what his approach is. But he came into that room as Aemond! I just remember quietly saying to the casting director afterwards: ‘He’s fantastic, I have to have him… Is he always like that?’”
Today Mitchell – who’s come down to London specifically for the FACE interview and shoot – is not long off the train from Derby, where he went to school and still lives with his family “just outside” the city. He won’t tell me the name of that suburb, professes not to remember any of the qualifications he left school with less than eight years ago and declines to furnish even the most basic personal details. When I ask what his parents do, there’s a sharp intake of breath.
“You know, I was wondering if you were gonna ask me that question. And because I’m so green to the industry, I want to protect that for the time being.”
Equally, though, it sounds like he’s always been that way. “My friends call me The Iceberg because I’m seen as cool and collected. I don’t show too much. I’m just floating along the seas.”
But in terms of dealing with a profile that’s rocketed since HotD was broadcast, “I just think there’s something in staying anonymous for as long as possible. There’s a mystery. Once you lose it, you can’t get it back. If people get to know the real me, it detracts from what I’m trying to do as an actor.”
Fair enough. Brothers and sisters?
“I’ve got an older brother,” he replies in his soft Derbyshire burr, avoiding eye contact, as he does regularly throughout our interview, cap brim pulled low over his forehead. “I was a very quiet kid growing up, and I always played my cards close to my chest. [As a family] we made do with the little we had. Some kids have a lot less than [we did]. Some kids have a lot more.”
At one point, as we discuss the nature of what’s really hard graft, he mentions that his grandad was in the SAS and served in Oman after World War Two. Adding that to his Help for Heroes wristband, I ask if there’s a forces element to his family. “I’ve got quite a few family members in the military, yeah.”
That wasn’t going to be his path, but neither was another expected career. “Like a lot of kids from industrial towns in the Midlands, you’re expected to go into industry, get an apprenticeship. That was never something I dreamed of doing. I came into this industry on my own. So maybe I’m a little crazy.”
There were regular teenage jobs. He was a “care steward” at Derby County’s Pride Park. “I was on the away side, checking baggage, making sure no wrong was done. I don’t want to knock football, but it’s just not my thing… When I was 16, I got a job as a waiter. [But] when I heard about Workshop, the blinkers on the racehorse were on. Nothing else mattered. It was this. You’re gonna have to do it on your own. This is your shot. Make it count.”
The Television Workshop in Nottingham and Birmingham is a renowned drama group that encourages and trains mostly working-class kids, notably from the Midlands, who might otherwise have no obvious route into acting. Samantha Morton, Jack O’Connell and Bella Ramsey passed through its ranks. Aged 17, Mitchell won a place in Nottingham, attending once a week for two hours.
It sounds like heaven for an actor with a near-monastic dedication to his craft. “Anything that’s raw and visceral, I’m just attracted to it. Addicted to it,” he says. “I try and watch a film a day. Or a TV show. I remember it was something that Tom Cruise said, watching the film a day. I watch a film and I feel like I can’t [help but] be a better actor on the other side, in a weird kind of way, [in terms of] what I can take from it. Even if it’s a bad film, I can find out and learn what not to do on screen.”
Workshop helped him land what he frames as his first time performing as an actor, a 2015 short film called Fire, encouraging him to burn it onto a bunch of DVDs.
“I saved up to get the train to London. Posted them to all the agency names I could get hold of. I never heard back from any except one: Lizzie Newell at Independent Talent. And she’s been in my corner ever since.”
She’s his agent to this day, responsible for booking his jobs, and he’s away to meet her for a steak at Hawksmoor as soon as I’ve stopped bothering him with questions about his private life (no, of course he won’t be telling me if he’s in a relationship).
Before he heads off for his T‑bone, I ask: has she ever explained what she saw in him, this unknown who dropped off an unsolicited demo? Mitchell hesitates before finally saying: “You know, it takes me a long time to get warmed up to people. It’ll either take me a really long time to get to know you or, if you show a tremendous faith in me, and a loyalty, you’ve got that for life. I’ll jump in any foxhole you’re in. So… maybe you’d have to ask her!”
“I sat up pretty quickly to be honest,” says Newell when I call her the following week. “The talent was just so obvious. By a minute in, I was like: ‘This boy is really doing something brilliant.’ I gathered all my colleagues round and said: ‘Am I mad or is this unsolicited DVD one of the best things I’ve seen in a really long time?’ We watched it a few times, three or four of us, crowding around my computer. And we all agreed.”
Still, she kept watching it across the day, “to make sure I wasn’t wrong or being overexcited. When you represent someone, it’s a big commitment and you don’t want to make it lightly. But I was right. And being blown away like that doesn’t happen very often.”
If 2022 was a big year for Ewan Mitchell – “I’m very grateful that you mentioned me as one of the five breakout stars of 2022,” he says of THE FACE’s December interview. “That means the world to me, and so does fan reaction” – 2023 will be bigger still. He’ll next be seen in Saltburn, Emerald Fennell’s follow-up to her Oscar-winning Promising Young Woman.
Shot in Oxford last summer and a thriller about an aristocratic family, Mitchell describes it as a “story of obsession and identity. And finding one’s identity in that obsession. I play a character called Michael Gavy. He’s all about equations and Crunchie bars. That’s all I’ll say!”
“Ewan did the most unbelievable audition,” Fennell tells me over email in an echo of Condal’s experience. “The part called for someone that we’d pity, but that we’d also cross the street to avoid. His read was so arresting. So specific. Menacing and heartbreaking at the same time – like a great Pinter actor. His instinct for character detail is extraordinary: the way he gets off a chair in this film is one of the most specific and perfect things I’ve ever seen. Honestly, I’d watch him take out the bins.”
But most of his year will be taken up with filming HotD. That “all-out war” suggests a much more physically demanding series for Mitchell.
“No comment,” he says, smiling, although Condal does confirm something of Aemond’s arc: “Ewan has lots of work coming his way in series two.”
Does the actor have scripts now?
“I’m afraid that HBO are going to detonate this charge in my head if I say anything remotely spoilerish.”
Does he at least have a message for all of his new fans? He grins a wolfish grin.
“Stay tuned. The best is yet to come.”
Fan enthusiasm for our first interview with Ewan Mitchell was off the charts. Here are the actor’s responses to some of the more, um, impassioned Reddit reactions:
“I love how [Ewan] doesn’t give af about people’s expectations and just does what he feels is right for him.”
Ewan: “It’s a collaboration at the end of the day. We all lift each other up. Aemond certainly doesn’t give an f about anyone else. Or maybe he does. Who knows?”
“I want to see him as Joker, a Bond villain and a character that’s all sunshine and rainbows but I doubt it because I feel like Ewan wants those types of anti-hero roles.”
Ewan: “Any challenge, I’m up for it. Sunshine and rainbows? If it’s a good character. Comedy? Definitely.”
“[Ewan] seems like a full on sigma personality [‘a dominant introvert who is self-reliant and independent’].”
Ewan: “I’ll be whatever the fans want me to be! So long as they keep me in a job, that’s the deal! As long as they keep tuning in and buying tickets, then I’m in!”
HAIR Roxy Attard MAKE-UP Elaine Lynskey using MAC Cosmetics SET DESIGNER Jack Appleyard TALENT Ewan Mitchell PRODUCTION Noir Productions EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS Greg Smith and Javier Alejandro PRODUCER Ella Kenny ASSISTANT PRODUCER Katie Hackett PHOTO ASSISTANTS Callum Su and Joshua Onabowu STYLING ASSISTANTS Kit Rimmer and Talulah B HAIR ASSISTANT Elin Jones SET ASSISTANT Nicolas Rodgers PRODUCTION ASSISTANT Rebecca Cassin