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‘House of the Dragon’ Hunk Fabien Frankel on Emilia Clarke’s Birthday Party and Matt Smith’s Rehearsal Injury: ‘I Take No Responsibility’

Fabien Frankel
Rachell Smit/HBO

Ask Fabien Frankel about his favorite “Game of Thrones” character, and the actor drops his head seemingly in agony.

“Where to begin?” he says with a groan. “Oberyn Martell. Tormund. Jon Snow. Mance Rayder. Brienne of Tarth. Arya Stark. Oh mate, I love them all.”

Soon enough, Frankel could join their ranks, as Ser Criston Cole, the dashing, Dornish hottie who turns multiple heads in HBO’s impending “Thrones” prequel series, “House of the Dragon.” The series — which traces how the Targaryen dynasty rips itself apart roughly two centuries before the events of “Game of Thrones” — boasts a starry ensemble, including Paddy Considine (as King Viserys), Matt Smith (as Viserys’ brother, Prince Daemon), Rhys Ifans (as Ser Otto Hightower, hand of the king), Emma D’Arcy (as Viserys’ daughter, Princess Rhaenyra), Olivia Cooke (as Otto’s daughter, Lady Alicent), Eve Best (as Viserys’ cousin, Princess Rhaenys), and Steve Toussaint (as Rhaenys’ husband, Lord Corlys Velaryon). Author George R.R. Martin created the series with Ryan J. Condal (“Colony”), who also serves as showrunner with veteran “Thrones” director Miguel Sapochnik.

Among that company, Frankel is by far the least known: He appeared in a small role in the 2019 romantic comedy “Last Christmas,” played Theo Sipowicz in the ill-fated 2019 sequel pilot for “NYPD Blue,” and had a supporting role in the 2021 BBC/Netflix limited series “The Serpent.” So stepping into Ser Criston’s armor could launch his career in the same way “Thrones” made stars of Emilia Clarke, Kit Harington, Sophie Turner and Maisie Williams.

Frankel talked with Variety about his well-publicized tussle with Smith while rehearsing their big fight scene in the pilot, finding himself at Clarke’s birthday party, and how hard it was to get over being in Westeros at all.

So did you feel that Bran deserved to be King of Westeros?

Oh God. Whatever I say here is gonna live forever in the eternity of the “Game of Thrones” universe. So I’m going to give you no comment on whether I felt that he deserved it. Look, I’d like to have seen Tormund, as someone who never had any potential to be. I think that would have been very interesting. But I also think that they did the best they could to end the show that was so beloved.

You were in “Last Christmas” with “Game of Thrones” star Emilia Clarke, so did you call her up when you were looking at the prospect of starring in “House of the Dragon?”

It’s very kind of you, Adam, to bring that up. But unfortunately, I was subsequently cut from the majority of the film. I don’t think my performance was quite up to scratch. So, no, I didn’t. Weirdly, a friend of mine, Jenna, is old friends with Emilia, and we ended up at [her] birthday party, I guess, like, six months ago or something. She was lovely. And [“Game of Thrones” executive producers] Dan [Weiss] and David [Benioff] were there and some other great “Game of Thrones” alums.

Did they know that you were in the show?

I think someone told them. I think that Jenna might have said, “This is Fabien, he’s doing ‘House of the Dragon.'” They were lovely. You know, they were very excited and they were talking how well Miguel had done on his episodes.

So how would you describe your character? In the book, he finds himself in the middle of the fight between Princess Rheynera and Lady Alicent.

He’s the common-born soldier from Dorne, son of a steward in Blackhaven. We describe him as a solitary man, and one who doesn’t come from this world, this world of excess, and this world of greed and money. He’s principled, a soldier. Fought in the Dornish marches.

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Your first scene on the show is an extended jousting tournament in which Ser Criston spars with Prince Daemon Targaryen. Was that the first scene that you shot?

It was the first thing I shot with Matt. It was very early on in the filming. It was very intense, but we had a laugh. We went to the pub after and had a drink or two and celebrating the fact that we’ve managed to get through it remotely unscathed.

You did say at Comic-Con that the rehearsals had a different outcome, in that Matt got injured.

I’m learning fast that I shouldn’t have said that it happened, because everyone wants to know how Matt got out of that. Very, very unfortunately, his sword rebounded off my shield and hit him sort of square in the head. He had a little little cut, but I think he was fine. He is a brave man.

So it wasn’t your sword that did it. You were protecting yourself.

You know, you’re right, and I think we should set the story straight for the fans out there that, actually, this is Matt Smith’s fault. I take no responsibility.

This season takes place over decades — how does that manifest for your character?

I wish I could tell you that there was some kind of amazing transformation that occurred, but the truth is I had an extension piece on my hair and my beard got longer and shorter here and there. But truth be told, I found it tough, because we don’t shoot chronologically, and I come from theater where everything is chronological, and stories tend to follow a set pattern. In this case, we shot everything all over the place pretty much throughout filming. Actually, Miguel and I were speaking about that, and he said he’d love it if we did get to a second season that we potentially shoot more in some form of order. We had an incredible script supervisor who I would go to kind of keep me on the straight and narrow when I would lose my way.

What were the sort of biggest surprises for you in that process of seeing something be made at that scale?

I think the main thing for me was watching just how different everyone’s process was. You had some people who are very quiet and would sit in a corner ruminating and writing in their diaries and then some people who wanted everything to feel incredibly instinctive. I look at someone like Rhys, and then someone like Emma, and they’re similarly incredibly talented actors, but have completely different processes and are completely different people. So, you know, I just picked up a lot from from working with all of them.

So who was the brooder and who was spontaneous?

I can’t reveal their secrets! It wouldn’t be fair.

You’ve never made a show on this scale, so how challenging was it to step out of our real world and into a world as fully realized as Westeros?

It’s really weird to walk around Leavesden Studios where “Willy Wonka” is shooting on one stage, “Aquaman” is shooting on another. You’ve got mermaids milling around drinking coffee and on TikTok. It was surreal. But you just find a way. The sets are so incredibly detailed. And when you’re there, I found it quite easy to disassociate myself from the world. It’s part of the job, isn’t it? The last thing you want to do when you’re faced with Paddy Considine in a scene is be on your phone, waiting to go.

Two weeks after this show premieres, “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” premieres as well.

Yeah, I can’t wait! I’m a massive fan of “Lord of the Rings.” We got to meet a bunch of [the cast] at Comic-Con. They were great and we were all equally excited for each other. I think that there’s no reason why these shows can’t coexist.

Did you happen to audition for that show as well?

I didn’t, actually. I remember it was going around. My mates were all auditioning for it, and I was like, What the hell’s going on? I’d be seen for anything in “Lord of the Rings.” I’d be an orc, you know?

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Courtesy of HBO

Your late father, Mark Frankel, was also an actor — was that part of what led you to acting?

Yeah. My brother and I grew up with such a love of cinema. That came from our mum and our granddad. My mom took us to the cinema once a week. We’d watch everything and anything. But I think that there was definitely a feeling of, oh, well, it’s a possibility. I know so many kids who grew up in a world where the possibility of becoming an actor seemed incredibly far away.

Did you do school plays as a kid?

Sadly, Adam, I was terrible in school plays. I was always given the worst role. The one time I ever even got close to playing a part, they gave me Photographer No. 2 in “Singin’ in the Rain.”

So if you were getting all of the shit roles, when did you actually decide that acting was something you wanted to pursue?

I can’t pinpoint a time. It just sort of happened. I just remember saying to my mom, “I want to be an actor.” And my mom saying, “Well, have you seen all these films?” And I was like, “Well, no, I haven’t.” At that point, I must have been 16, and I hadn’t seen, you know, the greats, the “Midnight Cowboys,” the “On the Waterfronts,” the “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfs.” So I got to spend the latter stages of my teens watching everything I could, and that informed certainly my desire to go into it. Then I got into drama school on my third year of applying, and that was my last year I was going to apply. That sort of cemented at least the possibilities of having a career.

Are there other artistic pursuits that you enjoy?

Yeah, I would really love to direct. I actually think that in some ways, I’m more meant to direct than I am to act.

Did you talk with Miguel Sapochnik or any of the other “House of the Dragon” directors? Did you shadow them on set at all?

No. I watched them meticulously, and I’ve learned so much.

Finally, did being a big “Game of Thrones” fan make it a challenge to remain present while making “House of the Dragon?”

Yeah, it’s impossible to walk onto a set like that and not go, “Holy fuck.” I’ll tell you, the very first day, I just, I didn’t know where I was. I couldn’t tell you my left or my right, what was up, what was down. And there was Rhys Ifans and Paddy Considine and Eve Best and Matt Smith and Steve Toussaint. It takes a minute to get used to. But eventually, you got to just do your job — well, I hope. I guess we’ll find out in the next two months or so.

This interview has been edited and condensed.