How Alfie Allen Is Moving on From Theon Greyjoy in a Post-'Game of Thrones' World
Alfie Allen, the man best known as Game of Thrones'Theon Greyjoy, is at a crossroads. For eight seasons, fans watched him transform from the asshole son of the Iron Islands into Ramsay Bolton's tortured captive, only to redeem himself as a sacrificial hero. It's varied, impressive work that nonetheless took its toll. "At first it was great, it was brilliant," he says. "And then my character started to get tortured. So it got a little little bit dark." Just a tad.
Yet Allen exudes a sort of jovial, but nearly uncontrollable energy when we sit down to talk in the corner of a Toronto hotel room about the next phase of his career. One of the movies he's in at the Toronto International Film Festival, the coming of age story How to Build a Girl, has premiered, and the other, Taika Waititi's WWII satire Jojo Rabbit, is set to be feted later that night. Allen accidentally drinks out of my water glass, apologizing profusely and claiming that's something he always does. (In all fairness, it was just sitting there, and I didn't pour him a glass. My bad.) Later he admonishes himself for incorrectly using an idiom -- even though it was totally fine in context. "Why do I get in the habit of saying that? It's so dumb," he says offhandedly before immediately continuing his sentence. He seems hardly contained by a chair.
That energy is evident in his latest work. In How to Build A Girl, he's a heartthrob rockstar who sings sad songs and wins the affections of the heroine, a budding music journalist in the 1990s played by Beanie Feldstein. (Yes, Allen does actually croon.) His role in Jojo -- the winner of the TIFF audience award, the fest's highest honor -- is smaller, but makes an entirely different impact: As Finkel, he's the shrieking lackey to Sam Rockwell's disaffected Nazi Captain Klenzendorf in Waititi's story of a young boy who idolizes his imaginary friend, Hitler. As these two parts, Allen oscillates between warm and funny -- two traits that Game of Thrones didn't always afford him the opportunity to project.
But Allen is wary of thinking of his career as any sort of trajectory. Before Thrones, Allen had small roles in films like Atonement, but he was probably most identifiable as the sibling of Lily Allen. (Her song "Alfie" begins: "Oh, deary me. My little brother's in his bedroom smoking weed.") I mention that he comes from a musical family when asking about his turn as John Kite in How to Build a Girl -- which features a Lily cameo -- in which he sings a soulful tune written by Gus Garvey of Elbow. He deadpans, "My mum's a great singer," and then bursts out laughing. (His mum, Alison Owen, is a producer who worked on films like Elizabeth, The Other Boleyn Girl, and Suffragette. She has a credit on How to Build a Girl as well, making it entirely a family affair.)
Sarcastic asides pepper Allen's conversation, but he gets serious upon discussing how meaningful it was that Garvey was responsible for that John Kite moment. He turned to Elbow's "Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver" frequently when he played Theon. "I just thought that kind of encapsulated Theon's position, being alone in this world and also being at the behest of this huge machine but not really knowing what to do with it. Also just looking at things from a bird's eye point of view, just down on low and everyone being out of reach but seemingly within reach. You know what I mean?" he says, before adding another bit of a verbal wink: "Deep man. Deep and profound, innit?" He course corrects again: "It really did help me, that song, so then to be able to do another project and work with Guy Garvey who really did play a part in getting me to that place for that role it was great."
The role in How to Build a Girl is not a romantic lead exactly -- without spoiling too much, it's a bit more complicated than that -- but even Allen admits to feeling a tug at his heartstrings watching the movie: "Even me myself objectively watching it the other day, there's something primal within me that's watching these two characters and going, 'When are they going to kiss?'" He finds that eventually it becomes "shrouded in this kind of amazing, honest energy."
It's a different vibe entirely than Jojo, a wacky take on Nazi Germany that immediately ignited debates following its first TIFF screening. Over the course of the movie, the titular Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) grows disillusioned with Hitler's hateful ideology when he finds that his mother has been hiding a Jewish girl in their home. Allen's Finkel and Rockwell's Klenzendorf are more buffoonish than terrifying. "Already people have been going on about, 'Does it humanize Nazis and all this stuff?' But I think we are making fun of a group people that do kind of exist until this day."
It's "harrowing," as he says, but as an actor it was an opportunity to flex improv muscles that had laid dormant during Thrones. "No disrespect to HBO or any of the directors I worked with -- after a while because it's such a juggernaut of a show, you owe more to the words that they write than the kind of character that you think that you've created yourself," he says. "You kind of have play this game of respecting what they're doing, but also respecting what you need to bring to it as well."
On September 22 he'll head to the Emmys, where he's nominated for Supporting Actor in a Drama, an honor for which he submitted himself. It's still kind of "surreal," he says, which figures given that he had long thought a nomination was something of a pipe dream. "Way back when we started doing Thrones, I'm not going to try and pretend I'm totally naive to the Emmys, but I thought about it," he says. "I was like, wow, maybe one day I'll be up there but it disappeared. That dream disappeared a long time ago." He describes the self-submission process, which ultimately costs $225, as a last-minute enterprise, performed about 10 minutes before the deadline. But the payoff was stunning. He was picking up a gift at a shop in the West End when his agent texted him to tell him he got a nomination. He thought it was recognition for Thrones as a whole. When he realized it was individual honor he was taken aback. "I just sat down on the pavement," he says. "I went inside and talked to the lady who had just been serving me and we just had a glass of champagne together. It was great."
Despite the pomp and circumstance that happened over Emmys weekend -- Allen ended up losing to his costar Peter Dinklage -- Allen seems content that Thrones is over. He brushes aside fan anger over the last season, saying that comes with the territory for a cultural phenomenon. "I'm sad that I don't get to spend as much time with all the people," he says. "That is something that I really, really, really am going to miss. But we all keep in contact, we've got a WhatsApp group going. We all kind of went through those muddy fields and gas heated lamps just huddling around them. We'll always share those experience together, but in terms of missing doing Thrones, I think I'm happy that it's over."