Interview: Daniel PortmanFeatures
We sit down for an exclusive chat with the Game of Thrones actor.
Image: Christine Hayter Photography
Way back in October 2012 we holed up in a London boozer to have a chat with up and coming Scottish actor Daniel Portman.
With Game of Thrones Season Three back on our screens the hugely amiable 21 year old is thrust back into the public eye as Tyrion Lannister’s (Peter Dinklage) loyal squire Podrick Payne but there’s more to this young actor than Game of Thrones alone as he is proving by wowing audiences onstage in Black Watch; a powerful play based on interviews conducted by Gregory Burke with former soldiers who served in Iraq.
Far from having a lifelong ambition to act, Portman stumbled into the profession when he suffered a setback playing rugby, “I was about 16 and I'd been playing rugby at quite a high level and that's what I wanted to do but I injured myself in a trial match that was probably going to determine whether or not I was going to play professionally. I broke my leg really badly, dislocated the knee and broke the knee cap as well. I found I was getting pretty frustrated because I couldn't really do anything for the next 6 months. I liked doing drama at school, I'd been told I was a half decent actor so I spoke to my drama teacher and she got me involved in doing a musical.” But he was uneasy about taking her up on the offer initially, explaining, “A lot of the people I played rugby with weren't happy about it, to the degree that they don't really speak to me anymore.”
Fortunately for Portman the show was a big success and after a bout of pneumonia that kept him out of action for two months his drama teacher informed him of the casting for the film Outcast. “I went and auditioned for it on my 17 birthday with no expectations of getting cast. I got a call back on Valentine’s Day, which my girlfriend at the time wasn't happy about! My best friend Joshua auditioned as well and we both got cast in it alongside James Nesbitt (The Hobbit) and Kate Dickie (Prometheus, Game of Thrones).” While the film came and went it did further fuel his desire to act, “Outside of school I did another couple of shows and started auditioning for drama schools but was considered too young as I was still at school. I spent time working on short films and plays and the following year began the process of auditioning for drama school again.”
It was during that time that he landed a part in revered director Ken Loach’s film, The Angel’s Share. “If I'm honest I didn't have much to do with Ken Loach. I totally admire what he does but it's different from any other directing I've ever experienced. For me, I didn't entirely feel the benefits of working in that way. He's a fantastic cinematographer, the way he picks his shots he spends so much time finding the perfect lighting and he's fantastic at that but for my experience I didn't have any one on one time with him to chat about stuff." Did it feel like Portman was thrown in at the deep end, having to find the character for himself? “It felt like we a lot of the time were maybe left to make a lot of the decisions. Maybe by myself I am ok with that amount of pressure but when it's five or six actors in a scene and he just goes, "There you go, do your thing." He's very much about the real person and there were a lot of people who weren't actors in the scenes and he sort of asked us "What would happen in this situation?" So we explained it and we went, "Ok, go on." Which I suppose has its benefits but sometimes in cinema maybe it's better to have a little bit more structure.”
After his role in The Angel’s Share how did the audition for Game of Thrones come about? “I wrote to the producers because I knew that they were casting people my age. I'd watched the first season and I'd read the books so I knew that they would need cast around my age. As with most auditions for big shows it wasn’t an easy ride, “[The audition process] to start off was pretty intense because I had one audition and then I went back up and I was phoned the next day saying we need to go back down to London the following day for a recall. I didn't hear anything for a while then I went down for another reading and about two weeks later I heard I'd got the part.” I had originally auditioned for two other parts in the show but both those characters died in the second season so I like to think that maybe they saw I was better off sticking around for a little bit longer! That's not to say the other parts weren't great, they were fantastically written parts but I feel lucky that I've got a slow burner of a part."
Portman goes on to describe the feeling of getting the part, “It was weird. I was actually on set doing a short film when my agent phoned me. She said, "How’s it going? How do you feel about playing Podrick for HBO?" I was kind of speechless. It was crazy because I was working with my friend who's an independent director and I walked back into the room and all the crew were there with him. I sat down, did a couple of takes and said, "Yeah I got this part in a show...." They'd all watched the first season and it got pretty mad. I phoned around family and friends and it never really sunk in until mid-way through season two! It's still pretty surreal to think about it.” He continues, "I've not really felt a massive change, I think I've managed to stay more or less the same [laughs]. It's crazy and not just because it's a fantastic success but because it's such a well written show, the actors are all of such a high standard that it's rewarding because you think you must be doing something right to be doing something on screen with them.”
Image: Christine Hayter Photography
The differences in making a show like Game of Thrones to anything he had done before took Portman by surprise, “For starters there's a massive budget. I remember getting picked up because I had one day [filming] and then I had 6 weeks. So on my first day all I had to do was pour wine and I was really nervous. I'd been over the day before to do costume and hair fittings and stuff and we'd been driven into the Paint Hall [in Belfast] where they shoot a lot of the series. As soon as we'd gone through the gates where they shoot a lot of the series, it's a big warehouse, massive. We drive along, go around the corner and there's an even bigger warehouse! I was like, "Ok, I might be onto something pretty big here."
After his initial day of wine pouring, Portman was thrown in at the deep end with the filming of the tense, battle heavy episode, Blackwater. “When I came back for a stint of 6 weeks we went straight into shooting for Blackwater (episode 9). It had a massive budget, like a cinema style episode and that was pretty breathtaking. I was on set with Peter Dinklage, Jack Gleeson, Eugene Simon, Rory McCann - Rory the Scottish Porridge Oats guy I remembered as a kid! He's the perfect example of a gentle giant - and the Roy Dotrice walks up the stairs; when I was kid and started getting into acting I wanted to be a classical actor, I wanted to be like Olivier and Gielgud and I wanted to be like Roy Dotrice and he's walking up the stairs and I think, "oh fucking hell." He was just such a lovely bloke.” Despite not knowing his fellow cast members the intensity of the shoot helped them to bond. “We did about three weeks of night shoots on that episode alone, just on the battle sequences and I was quite nervous because I didn't know anybody but there's nothing like 12 hour night shoots to break the ice. You're in a quarry in the middle of nowhere with the rain pissing down and everyone's off their heads through lack of sleep - the amount of nonsensical patter that was passed around that really helped me feel much more part of the company. Obviously it's a big, important episode for my character. It was great.”
Blackwater saw The Descent direct Neil Marshall take the helm. “Neil Marshall did a phenomenal job on the Blackwater. He got pulled in at the last minute and had little time to prepare and he just knocked it out of the park. And it's not just the battle sequences, there are more intimate moments in the episode, there's the stuff with Cersei and Sansa and all the stuff leading up to the battle. He was efficient, quick, friendly. A really nice guy and a joy to work with. He was always up for a laugh as well; I'd love to work with him again.”
Although Podrick Payne is still in the books, Portman is aware that anything can happen in the world of television and takes nothing for granted. “The fact that they wanted me back for Season Three was really rewarding because I think they could've dismissed the character, they could've just chucked him. That's all I can say about Season Three [laughs], apart from the fact that you're all going to enjoy it! I've read up to the fourth book. I don't think about what's ahead I just play Pod in the here and now which is really more important because the writers can change what they like. It's nice knowing that he may go certain places but if that doesn't happen then I'm sure they'll have something equally good lined up.”
Asked if he is a fan of fantasy he replies, “I like swords and sorcery and all that shit! I think it's great and I think it's every boys dream to be on a show where you get to stab somebody through the face, you don't get to do that every day at work and get away with it [laughs]. I've read things like Lord of The Rings and stuff like that and I love all that kind of stuff and some sci-fi but I wouldn't really say I was a massive fantasy fan. I don't do any of that World of Warcraft, Dungeons and Dragons stuff! You don't often fine me in a basement at five in the morning role playing, I'd much rather be out in the sunlight.
Fans of the books at the show are vocal, “I'm the kind of guy who if you've got 99 people saying your great and one person saying, "I don't like him" I'd start think about that, "Why doesn't he like me?" I was sort of worried about it to start with because I'm not exactly how Pod is described in the books, he's very skinny and very nervous and I'm neither of those things and I've never really played a part like that before I am usually very energetic and outgoing. There's a lot going on inside Pod, it's been interesting trying to convey things just through his eyes really. Last year I decided that in order to avoid getting slapped about by the fans that I would let myself go a wee bit and get out of shape for the part - I did it again this year - because when I got cast I was in really good shape and that's usually what I like to do with myself, I'm keen on fitness but it wouldn't fit with the part so I thought, "Fuck it why not?"
Despite Portman’s confidence there was one cast member that he was nervous about sharing the screen with, Peter Dinklage, “I was terrified. I was also a big fan before of The Station Agent and that's really what I knew him from before the show had started. I thought he was a great actor and I was disappointed that I hadn't seen him in more things and this has just been a great launch pad for him where he's finally been seen for being a fantastic actor rather than being an actor stuck in a certain category. Which I think is something that happens with a lot of actors on this show like Rory and Gwendoline [Christie – Brienne of Tarth]. People who are outside of the normal casting range but are just exceptionally talented. I was very, very nervous [about working with Peter] and I think the night shoots helped a lot with me and him getting to know each other and by the end of the season we ended up being really good pals. He is so funny, so, so, so funny and just a sweet guy. He's a really nice bloke and I think our relationship throughout the series had grown so much that it was noticeable onscreen and it works that way because at the start of the season I'm meant to be new to him and then by the end of it our relationship has grown like it had in real life. It makes everything much easier that we're so relaxed on set together.” Dinklage is happy to help the younger actor professionally, “I'll ask him questions, he doesn't mind at all. Most of my stuff is with him and Jerome Flynn and he's incredible to watch too. I've learned so much from them. I feel like I've improved from last year going into Season Three.”
How is easy is it to get to know other cast members on the set of Game of Thrones when they do not have scenes together? “Most of the time there are two units shooting so there'll be maybe stuff in Kings Landing being shot and there'll be stuff in the North being shot so most of the time you'll drop somebody a text and say, "Are you over? Wanna go out to dinner?" and everyone will congregate in the hotel bar at night and it’s great. I keep in contact with quite a lot of the cast and because if you go over to Croatia or somewhere you all get sent there at the same time and even if you have no scenes with somebody you bump into them in the hotel and have a chat. It's great because they've managed to get a great group of people together as well as being people who suit the parts. Everyone seems to get on with one another, there's no hostility at all between anybody which can happen on jobs where people are a little less than nice but everybody's great and everyone has time for one another.
The big Celtic fan is ambitious but not at the expense of quality. “I want to end up where most people what to end up. I want to be working and recognised for my work. I'm not one to think about being a movie star or anything like that, I would love to work in America but I would always respect the integrity of something rather than the pay cheque. I'm not stupid though, I won't turn down something if someone offers me 25million! But I would like to think that I would always rather work for the sake of personal development and the project rather than the money.” Currently appearing in the international touring production of Black Watch he adds, “I love being on stage. It's a completely different ball game because it is so in the moment. I am a big experimenter, I'm always thinking on my feet. Every part I get on stage I change my body type for the part, I will always work to mould myself into the character in a kind of methody way - that's as far as I'll go with method acting, I won't go and live in the woods or anything!”
Portman’s acting heroes range from the golden era of Hollywood to the more contemporary. “You can't look much further past Brando, the guy was incredible. I like a lot of the golden era actors like Jimmy Cagney, Spencer Tracy, Jimmy Stewart. But more recently I'm a huge fan of Michael Fassbender, I think he's got a great deal to offer. Same with Tom Hardy, I think he's really excellent. But it is to his former drama teacher’s that he looks to credit with his success. “Chris McClane was a massive influence on me. I was a bit of a dick at school really, I remember she sat me down and I was being lazy and she said to me, "You’ve got a lot of potential, don't piss it up the wall. Don't be stupid, you could do this if you wanted to." I told her to piss off, I wasn't interested and then six months later I was [fakes crying] "Take me back!" I don't think I will ever be able to thank her enough for it. I went to college in Paisley to do a year long course and one of my lecturers there, Gavin Sinclair, was a huge influence on me and helped me out big time but I didn't have any formal training. He worked so closely with me that it was almost like what a drama school would be, it was only 2 and half days a week. He spotted something in me but I was in most days that I didn't need to be just reading up on things, keeping myself fit, practicing things and working on my voice.”
On a personal level the fun loving Scot has an eclectic taste in music, “Right now I'm into a lot of house music but I've always been into a lot of different kinds of music. The only thing I can't be bothered with is pop music and chart R n' B stuff, that stuff is just pish! Chris Brown, what a dick! I wish he'd just be a dancer and shut his mouth. Things like X-Factor keep people like me away from the telly." And what would Podrick be into? “I think Pod would be a death metal kind of guy! My friend Brian Vernel had his 21st a year or so back and had a 50 - 60 hour party, which by the end left me and him and a girl we both know as the last ones standing. It was incredible. The night before that we were out playing chappy where you knock on someone’s door and run away, the eve before his 21st. Mature of us! We know how to enjoy ourselves [laughs]. If you've not been to Glasgow I recommend it for a night out.” Staunchly proud of his Scottish roots he is however happy to lay his hat elsewhere, “I will move to wherever the work takes me, I'm planning on moving to London quite soon. And I'd like to live in the States for a while but I would, if my career is successful, when I am older move back to Scotland because it is home and I'm incredibly proud of being Scottish. I would much rather be out of work pursuing what I love than stuck doing something that I don't like.”
Season Three of Game of Thrones continues on Monday’s at 9pm on Sky Atlantic and Black Watch is running until the 13th April 2013 at SECC Glasgow before moving to the Norfolk and Norwich Festival and then on to Seattle and San Francisco. Information can be found here.
Image: Christine Hayter Photography