We love a blood-driven performance – one that is unequivocally celebrated as ‘visceral’. But it’s people that animate those formidable frames and scenes. It’s people from which the aura of a moment emanates. Three episodes in, HBO’s House of the Dragon (HoD) is currently enthralling the viewing public with its rendering of the teeming worlds created by George R. R. Martin, the writer and creator who birthed Game of Thrones, the bestselling epic fantasy series on which the eponymous television series – widely hailed as one of the all-time bests – is based. But as one of its leading men Fabien Frankel, who plays Ser Criston Cole, attests, HoD is its own moment – its own beast. And that it does and will invoke the gravity of the literature that is its source material.
In all the excitement surrounding the show and the spectacles it proffers, amid the dragon-speckled panoramas and battle scenes, the calling of acting, the choice made by people to become actors, must be acknowledged and lionised.
In this exclusive interview, Frankel carries a torch for the craft and its mountains-moving power.
How do you feel now that House of the Dragon is out in the world?
I feel relieved that it's out. From what we're hearing – obviously, our friends are a bit biased – people seem to like it, which is really good. But there are more episodes to go, so there's still a feeling of anticipation. The difference between streamers and our show is that it's a weekly thing; you want the audience to feel the same way about the rest of the episodes as they do about the first.
This is the biggest production of your career. What was going through your mind when you got the call for this?
Man, you know that feeling when you're going up on a rollercoaster, but it never goes down? That's how it's been since the day I got the call. I'm incredibly excited, and anxious that they've made the right choice.
What about the Ser Criston Cole character speaks to you?
More than anything, if it's made by HBO, I'm in! If it's HBO, it's pretty much impossible to say no to.
But on a character level, I felt so wrong for the part that I felt I should do it. The character is so far removed from myself, as a person. Genuinely, other than the fact that we're both young men – young men, that, to some extent, are trying to prove themselves and trying to find their place society – there was almost nothing that I could align with on a level that included surroundings, upbringing or anything.
I have this a fair bit with characters, where I feel that I'm really wrong for this. But those are the ones that serve me well, in some way.
We wanted to make our own show. We didn't even talk about Game of Thrones when we were making our show.
That's fascinating. If a character is so alien to your orbit, where do you draw from to do it justice?
In the end, it's all about putting yourself in their shoes. That's what I find works best for me. It's imagining what it's like to say the things they're saying or have to do the things they're doing, and what it all means. Obviously, I don't know what it's like to ask for someone's favour at a tournament but I know what it's like to ask out a girl whom I've a crush on. I know what that feeling is. I know the nerves that come with it. So, a lot of it involves putting yourself in as close to their shoes as possible.
It's about humanising the character, isn't it?
That's exactly what it is. It's about making it feel like it's a possibility in your own world. As opposed to something that feels so far removed from you that you can't put yourself in those shoes.
What you just said accounts significantly for why Game of Thrones is the mythically popular cultural moment that it is. At the same time, one can't deny the public's dissatisfaction at how it concluded. Were you apprehensive about taking on the role for House of the Dragon given the backlash that GoT faced?
You know, we didn't even talk about it. It wasn't even a conversation. Our show was our show. We wanted to make our own show. We didn't even talk about Game of Thrones when we were making our show. It was just an awareness that it pre-existed our show. But there were no references to it. In fact, the only time it was brought up was when our stuntmen would say something along the lines of, "Kit Harrington was happy to do that, so you better do that".
One thing that the screen makes you do that the stage doesn't, is that you can't fake it on screen
It's known that you made your acting debut with The Knowledge. How has the transition from stage to screen been?
I really see them as completely different things. People say it's all under one umbrella, but I'm not sure it is. The only umbrella it's under is that they're both trying to tell a story. One is a longform version of a story – our show spans 25 years and 10 episodes – and The Knowledge spans a year-and-a-half and took place in 90 minutes. They are completely different things.
Also, I find the pressures of the stage far outweigh the pressures of the screen. You feel the latter only when the show comes out. With the screen, especially if you have a good relationship with the director, they'll really let you give it a good crack. On stage, you've done all the work beforehand and once it's done, it will exist in the minds of people for the rest of their lives, as one thing, one moment in time, that they experience. They don't have a video or voice recording to prove it. That lives on as experience.
As a performer, is there something the stage demands of you that the screen doesn't?
That's a really good question but if I could reverse it, what I'll say is that, one thing that the screen makes you do that the stage doesn't is that you can't fake it on screen. The camera's so close to your face and audiences are really smart. They can see, very quickly, whether you're being truthful or not, and whether what you're experiencing is genuine.
On stage, because you've learnt it so precisely, on the rare days you're not feeling it and the emotions aren't necessarily true, your voice and your body have learnt what it is when you're actually feeling it and can replicate that, to some extent. It's muscle memory: Roger Federer knows how to hit a forehand, no matter how well or badly he's playing.
That's how it is on stage: By the time you've done the 80th performance of the same thing, you know how to hit a forehand.
You graduated from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. Would you say that sharpening your swords in an academic setting has given you an edge over your peers who aren't classically trained?
I don't think it's given me an edge at all. I look at actors like Milly Alcock, Matt Smith and Paddy Considine, who aren't trained in the way I was, but are so instinctive, so naturally gifted. It's really taken me a long time to feel comfortable doing it and to trust that what I'm doing isn't terrible.
What coming from an academic institution has given me is a family of friends that I feel incredibly lucky to have known since we became actors eight years ago. They understand, to some extent, the trials and tribulations of what it means to try be and become an actor.
As an artist, as someone whose work brings people joy and keeps them coming back to pop culture as a life force, what is your own source of inspiration that keeps you anchored to your purpose?
It's right there in front of you. It's the stuff that's on the TV, it's the stuff that's in the cinema, it's the filmmakers your love, it's going back and rewatching films you haven't seen in a long time, it's rewatching films from your childhood and trying to understand why those films meant so much to you.
What's interesting is that, on this press tour, I've found it difficult to sit down and watch anything, to focus on anything. I've missed it. A massively integral part of my routine has been taken out. I haven't sat and watched a film all the way through for the best part of two months. And that's really weird!
House of the Dragon is now streaming on HBO GO.