Alfie Allen explains how he got so damn good at acting

Alfie Allen is up for his first-ever Emmy, for his work as Theon Greyjoy in the final season of Game of Thrones. “I’m glad that we got to say goodbye to the character as he finds honor and redemption,” Allen told SyfyWire. “And to have people like it, that’s a great feeling.”

But there were times when it must have been hard for Allen to believe he’d ever be at this point. He came into the role still pretty new to the world of acting, having decided to get into the craft after his original plans to be a snowboarder — or teach snowboarding, it’s unclear — fell through due to an injury. Seeing a production of the play Doubt made him reorient his life, and at 21 he replaced Daniel Radcliffe as the tortured teen Alan Strang in a U.K. production of Equus. It was his performance in that play that convinced Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss to bring him in to read.

You might be surprised to learn that Allen actually read for several parts, including Robb Stark, Viserys Targaryen and Jon Snow. “They said that there was an intensity in that role of Alan Strang that they wanted me to bring to Theon,” Allen remembered. “There’s a struggle there, an identity crisis that he has from the start.”

Thankfully for all of us, he got the part…and then showed up to film his first scene on the wrong day. “It must have looked like I was being Mr. Diva or Mr. Egomaniac, wanting to be there when everyone else was,” he remembered. “I can’t remember why I didn’t understand, because I’ve seen a bloody call sheet before. But I was so nervous.”

But it ended up working, because as long as he was on set, the producers decided to throw him into the scene they were shooting anyway — it was the one where Rodrik Cassel alerts Ned Stark that someone had deserted the Night’s Watch. “I think it helped set up that I was Ned’s ward, or a kind of servant, but wasn’t treated as such since I was given the run of the castle,” Allen said. “It helped set up the dynamic between me and Ned.”

Allen also remembers helping to calm the nerves of Isaac Hempstead Wright (Bran Stark) and Kit Harington (Jon Snow) both of whom were new to being in front of a camera. “None of us really knew what was going on,” he said.

But they found out soon enough. Although he was often unsung next to some of his castmates, Allen has long been one of the show’s performers, modulating the way Theon speaks and his facial expressions as he went through a number of huge changes. “I know it sounds f***ing cheesy, but it is all in the eyes, you know? I think if you can harness that — and I’m not saying I have — but if you can, you’re onto a winner.”

Oh, I think you’ve harnessed that.

Image: HBO/Game of Thrones

Allen even walked Syfywire through a couple of the choices he made throughout his time on the series. Remember when he killed two farm boys and burned their bodies to try and pass them off as Bran and Rickon to cover for the fact that he’d lost track of them? In that scene, Theon’s bravado turns to disgust the second he sees the results of his handiwork. But that wasn’t always his intention. “I kind of thought Theon would enjoy playing a trick, that he would enjoy the moment a little too much,” Allen remembered. “But David and Dan shut that down, and rightfully so because when I look back on it, it’s that moment that gives you a window into Theon’s shred of humanity.”

Or how about at the top of season 6 when Theon saves Sansa and kills a Bolton soldier, but still looks at the ground instead of meeting Sansa’s gaze? “I remember making that choice and not being so sure about it at the time,” Allen remembered. “But those little things can sell a whole journey. It’s so minuscule, but I think those kinds of moments happen spontaneously, and it’s always the best stuff when it’s unplanned.”

Yeah, it’s kind of a miracle it took him this long to be nominated.

We’ll see if Allen wins the Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series when the awards ceremony airs on Fox on September 22. Also in the category are Peter Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister) and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jaime Lannister). It’s a tough call, but if Allen walked away with the gold, you won’t hear complaining from me.

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