In and among the ever-increasing cast list of HBO's smash drama Game of Thrones is one that may be familiar to 90s pop culture die-hards. Paul Kaye first made a name for himself as faux American reporter Dennis Pennis, a BBC microphone brandishing insult machine, whose popularity grew the more he offended the stars who crossed his path on red carpets.
But two decades on, and after a series of dramatic roles (including the wonderfully wistful BBC production Two Thousand Acres of Sky and a turn in the RSC's Matilda the Musical that earned him a nomination for the prestigious Olivier Award), as well as an MTV show starring his eponymous anarchic New Jersey lawyer Mike Strutter, this die-hard punk rocker and one-time Tel Aviv resident is more in the spotlight than ever before. He talks to The Jerusalem Post about his career, his time living in Israel, and his love of all things artistic.
How did you come to be cast in Game of Thrones? Had you read the books or seen the program beforehand? We've heard about actors actively campaigning for a role, did you?
No I’d not read the books or seen the show. I’m not a big TV watcher to be honest, Match of the Day on a Saturday if Arsenal win, and Antiques Roadshow on a Sunday is about it for me. I had five auditions to play Thoros of Myr. David Benioff and Dan Weiss the executive producers were present at most of those, and I was pretty intimidated by them I have to say. They are truly amazing guys.
Then it all went quiet for a few months, so I thought it had gone away. And then suddenly out of the blue, I heard I’d got it and I was off getting horse riding lessons in Milton Keynes the very next day. I was also given express orders by the production to go to Toys R Us and buy a couple of Nerf swords to practice with. My 10-year-old son Geffen was hugely impressed with that! He trained me up in the back garden.
Dennis Pennis would surely have had plenty to say about the very impressive cast you have joined, including such stars as Charles Dance, Lena Headey, Ciaran Hinds and Peter Dinklage. Which of the cast would have been his main red carpet target, and what would he have asked them?
The thing about Dennis Pennis is that I only did him for about a year and a half, we only made three half-hour shows and once I’d knocked him on the head I knew I’d never do anything like it again. I’m quite shy really. I always liked the idea of doing him a lot more than actually doing him. He was my two heroes combined, Woody Allen and John Rotten.
Kaye as Dennis Pennis, 1996 (Photo: Courtesy)
I don’t think about "Pennising" people anymore, although I’d be lying if I said it didn’t cross my mind when I saw Charles Dance emerging from portaloo in a leather cassock on the Game of Thrones studio lot. In some ways the 1990s was the last truly rock 'n’ roll decade, and it was great to be part of that scene. It was pre-internet and things still had time to gestate before going overground. You could also behave appallingly and nobody had camera phones or twitter to grass you up.
Pennis was always going to be a difficult character to shake off, I get the feeling that some people resent me for having a career at all after doing him. I remember the whole Pennis thing fondly as a little art project on celebrity, nothing more. My ethos was ‘get into a really privileged position and then waste it.’
When I was doing Dennis Pennis, I lived in South London and I used to walk past the Royal Shakespeare Company rehearsal rooms in Clapham on my to the station. I’d see actors like Anthony Sher sat on the steps outside smoking and I remember vividly thinking, “that’s where I really want to be”. When I was rehearsing Matilda the Musical with the RSC in Clapham a couple of years ago, I was sat on those very steps having a cigarette feeling immensely pleased with myself when someone came up to me and put five pounds in my hand because they thought I was homeless.
As Mr. Wormwood in the RSC production of Matilda the Musical
Thoros of Myr is a drunken, fighting and carousing priest who is shaken out of his lack of faith by the sudden discovery of his power to resurrect the dead. How does a nice Jewish boy from London feel about taking on the role of such a heathen character?
I love Thoros, he’s such a dude. I love his humor and his tragedy. He wears them well. He certainly enjoys a drink; every day is like Simchat Torah
to dear old Thoros. As a priest, there’s something beautifully non-judgmental about him because he’s been an extremely naughty boy in his time and he wouldn’t have missed that for the world.
All this religious stuff which he’d been so drunkenly cynical about over the years has turned out to be true and rather than quitting the booze and becoming all pious about it, he’s become drunkenly reverent instead. Thoros is a rebel and a survivor and I guess if I’m honest I like to think I can relate to both those things. I used to enjoy a drink as well.
The series deals with a multifaceted conflict, and has famously been compared to the War of the Roses. Do you see any correlation between the events in the story and the conflicts going on in the world today, and if so, in what way?
I still haven’t seen seasons two and three, but I imagine that the writers can find plenty of inspiration from the general carnage being reaped around the world in the name of power, greed, politics and religion. Same as it ever was.Game of Thrones is massively popular in Israel, and was even parodied in the top satire show here. You seem to have very fond memories of your time on kibbutz, where you met your wife. Didn't you ever feel the urge to make aliyah?
I first came to Israel on an organized group when I was 16 and then met my wife two years later when I landed on her kibbutz. In 1984 I formed a punk band there with fellow volunteers called ‘Stoned in Gaza’. The name was provocative but based in truth. Gaza was just down the road and we used to go to the market there on our days off to try and find hash. The Gaza border was open back then and Palestinians were regular visitors to the kibbutz refet
(cowshed -SM) where I worked. They used to trade stuff in exchange for cow dung, which they used for fertilizer. We all used to sit and drink coffee together and I’d have conversations translated to me. The memory of seeing Palestinians and Israelis getting on in such a neighborly way is one I treasure and still gives me hope to this day.
We turned one of the bomb shelters on the kibbutz into a live music venue and it was a pretty debauched scene. The members of the kibbutz got very concerned that Stoned in Gaza were corrupting the youth and they used to picket the gigs! Between songs I’d be preaching at these 14 and 15 year olds to become conscientious objectors and stuff like that. I was only 18 and it felt like we were acting out a mini-revolution. The kids on the kibbutz hadn’t had any access to punk music at that time so we basically played all my favorite Sex Pistols, Stooges and Joy Division songs which I pretended I’d written myself.
Fronting "Stoned in Gaza" on kibbutz, 1984
(Photo: Courtesy of Paul Kaye)
I also lived in Tel Aviv during the early ‘90s working at the Beit Zvi Drama School as their resident theater designer, which is what I trained to be. I had a flat on Ben-Yehuda Street which didn’t have any glass in the windows. When a motorbike came up the road it sounded like it was driving through my room.
Game of Thrones is such a high profile program, watched all over the world. Have you now been inundated with job offers, and what's next for Paul Kaye, the actor?
I don’t really know. I’m hoping it will lead to good things. Thoros has felt like a really grown up part for me, and the kind of character I’d waited a long time to play. My cast number on the show was ‘47’ and I was 47 years old when I did it. That felt hugely significant to me!
After every job finishes I usually think my career's over but, the really important thing is to keep busy when you’re not working. Acting is one of those things you simply can’t do if you’ve not got a job, so I paint and make music which keeps me sane. I just had an exhibition of my artwork at the West Bank Gallery in London, which was really exciting. I hadn’t exhibited anything since 1991, back when I was still trying to become an artist. I’m recording music with my new band Zang, and I still do the occasional gig as the Mike Strutter Group when I feel the need to be Sid Vicious. Thankfully that need seems to be finally abating, I always seem to end up in A&E getting my head stitched up after we play.
Paul Kaye, through the eyes of his son
(Photo: Jordan Katz-Kaye)
I’ve just came back from six weeks in Malta making a film called The Whale about a 19th Century whaling voyage for the BBC which was great fun, and I’ve been playing a Millwall hooligan out in Norway for a show called Lillyhammer. I’ve got a huge beard at the moment which seems to be keeping me in work. I wish I’d grown one years ago.