Game of Thrones star Miltos Yerolemou talks to James Austin about his upcoming role in Star Wars VII and how he brought tears to the eyes of his students in Thailand
IT’S a hot, oppressively humid summer evening in Chiang Mai, Thailand’s northern capital. British actor Miltos Yerolemou, who plays Syrio Forel, master sword-fighter in Game of Thrones, and will play something, or someone, in the upcoming Star Wars film, has just sat down with me at a wine bar off the city’s recently requisitioned trendy hub, Nimmanhaemin.
Yerolemou has a prepossessing sort of look; he actually could be someone straight out of a fantasy flick. His hair is a shock of chaotic black curls that looks like a nest of springs hanging out of a recently whacked-with-a-mallet cartoon cuckoo clock; he has a mild, disarming demeanor, is somewhat boyish in appearance, and so with the mad hair and the black beard he might best be described as looking something like a cherubic pirate.
“Your name please,” asks the young girl serving us, so she can separate the bill.
Game of Thrones is big in Thailand, but not that big.
“I think my mum had a dream that I would be born at sea,” says Yerolemou, whose mother was due to give birth when she and her husband took a two-boat journey from Cyprus to Southampton. His mother’s dream didn’t come true, and Yerolemou was born in South London. During his childhood he says he had no ambition to be an actor, his parents wanted him to be what he calls a “good Greek boy”, envisioning their son as a lawyer at some later date. “My dad owned a fish and chip shop,” he says, “which I worked in from the age of 12 to 21.” A job, he adds, that was hard, but the sweat, tears and cooking fat were somewhat alleviated by his regular trips to the cinema with his dad to watch Bruce Lee films.
Although he never saw himself as an actor he explains that he always had a fondness for acting and drama, but it wasn’t until a university professor, and actor, convinced him to quit his law degree and study Performance Arts that he decided to change course. He was first awed by experimental theatre, admiring the likes of Polish director Jerzy Grotowski and French playwright Antonin Artaud, both of whom he says, “Blew my mind”. It wasn’t until he made a play with David Harewood (CIA’s deputy director in the series Homeland), in Molière’s The Misanthrope, that Yerolemou says he had ever acted on a stage set with props. “I’d never done a play with furniture,” he says laughing, “with ashtrays, diluted Coke.”
At this juncture in his career he started working with the Royal Shakespeare Company, at times playing characters that tried to kill people with swords, something that would serve him well in the future. “I was already friends with Nena Gold, the casting director for Game of Thrones, and Star Wars. She had followed me around the fringe circuit when I was doing little plays.” Gold asked him to read for Game of Thrones, although at first for the part of Lord Varys.
“They were looking for a lot of actors,” he explains, “I was asked in the audition if I could do sword fights… That was one time in an actor’s life that he wasn’t lying about what he’s put on his CV.” Yerolemou landed the part of Syrio Forel and trained with choreographer William Hobbs, who he has a great admiration for. “I had a natural aptitude for dancing,” explains Yerolemou, but Hobbs helped personalize Forel’s style of fighting. “He comes from a character’s point of view,” he says of Hobbs, explaining that Forel’s style of fighting had to be congruous with the character’s personality. The decision was to have him fight in an “effortless” way, and at no point, says Yerolemou, did he, or his student Maisie Williams (Arya Stark), ever use stunt doubles.
Coming out of theatre and working on a film set was a big change for Yerolemou. “Film is slow,” he says, “it’s very technical… on stage once the play starts the director has no control at all. You learn to pace yourself in film, go through make-up, put on costume, maybe sit for hours, waiting, and waiting, playing games on your phone, watching TV, and trying to stay focused, stay in character. It’s one of the hardest things to do, to stay focused during the wait and the repetition.” He says that many actors know there won’t be a wrap on the first take, and so often bring their A-game to the third or fourth take, “cooking it up” as he calls it, until what occurs is, “that moment of truth”.
Life after Death
“We knew the books were successful,” he responds when asked about the popularity of the series (HBO’s most popular show ever), “but no one knew it would become the phenomenon it did.” He reflects, and adds, “I guess when you’re name-checked in The Simpsons you know you’ve gotten into people’s subconscious.”
Speaking about his Star Wars gig, Yerolemou says: “It’s not really a job where you ask any questions.” He didn’t divulge if he’ll be wielding a lightsaber instead of a sword in seventh part of the franchise, because he can’t say much about it. He does say however that the film, “Lives up to its expectations,” and that it’s in, “very safe hands,” explaining that director J.J. Abrahams has, “gone back to emotional storytelling.” Many of the actors not only won’t say much about the script, but actually don’t know much, as they were only given their parts of the script to read.
“We shot at Pinewood. I’d be sitting on set next to aliens, animatronics; only a little bit of blue screen was used.” He called the experience a “mouth opener… a virtual reality adventure ride,” in which he felt like he was inhabiting another world, a fantastic environment, replete with, “tiny little thing strutting past my feet.”
Yerolemou has been working with Prem Tinsulanonda International School (PTIS) in Northern Thailand, leading acting workshops while extolling the importance of creativity in education, after being invited by an old friend from his theatre days, Alex Soulsby, the programme’s director.
When asked before in interviews if he would be up to the task of being a teacher, the short-lived profession of his character Syrio Forel, he replied that he is maybe a little too “unconventional” and “easily distracted”, but tells me he has a passion for sharing his acting knowledge with children, especially opening their minds to Shakespeare. So passionate in fact that a rendition of a Capulet scene he performed for the kids in Chiang Mai had some of the children in tears.
“I get carried away sometimes, wanting them to understand powerful emotions; the emotional truth… I scared the shit out of the kids.” It’s not just a play, he tells his students, “It’s alive!” His workshops are unplanned, unconventional, he says; his persona in the classroom is intermittently, “strict, generous, like a dictator, playful, weird”.
He says of teaching, “You have to go with them, find a way to help them express themselves, to lose their inhibitions. You have to take risks; the most important thing is to approach life with fearlessness”, mirroring the gestalt education Forel imbues his student Arya Stark with, concerning that most precious and tenuous gift in GoT – life; ‘Not Today’. Does he relate to his Forel? “Oh, there’s no doubt about it. There’s a lot of synchronicity. I believe everything my character talks about,” he replies.
And with that we talk about Thailand and his, “chili fetish”, to which his fearlessness might have recently been compromised after he made the mistake of asking a local street food vendor for a spicy Papaya salad pet mak tam hai salop (so hot it will make you faint). “What was it like?” he asks rhetorically, “Do you remember that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark with the Shrine and the burning face.”
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is due for release December 18.