The many, many sides of Matt Smith and his 'House of the Dragon' villain

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New York, NY - September 16th, 2022: The actor Matt Smith posing for a portrait at the HBO offices at Hudson Yards in NY
"He's way more sensitive than he lets on," Matt Smith says of his Prince Daemon Targaryan character in "House of the Dragon." "That gives you something to play against on screen." (Vincent Tullo / For The Times)

Matt Smith seemed like such a nice fellow.

He was the 11th (and, at the time, youngest) actor to play the hero in the venerable BBC sci-fi series “Doctor Who.” The English actor then went on to earn an Emmy nomination for portraying royal consort Prince Philip in “The Crown.”

But then something happened. Smith, now 40, took to playing very bad guys in such movies as “Terminator Genisys,” “Last Night in Soho” and “Morbius.” Last year in “House of the Dragon,” HBO’s prequel to its hit medieval fantasy series “Game of Thrones,” he embodied the violent, charismatic Daemon Targaryen. No Mountbatten, this cruel, selfish and libidinous prince isn’t the sort a monarch would want getting close to his teenage daughter. Not that King Viserys (Paddy Considine) can stop Daemon from doing whatever he feels like, even if he is his brother.

Don’t confuse the character with pure evil, though. Smith doesn’t, and the unpredictability that generates makes Daemon the show’s most riveting character.

“Actually, Daemon’s a hugely complicated creature,” Smith says via phone on his way home to London from Warner Bros. Leavesden Studios, following a day’s work on the prequel's second season. “He’s way more sensitive than he lets on, and that gives you something to play against on screen. You can sort of invert it.”

Which Smith does, eventually. But we’re introduced to “The Rogue Prince” — also the title of “A Song of Ice and Fire” creator George R.R. Martin’s 2014 novelette that supplies much of the first season’s narrative — as the brutal head of King’s Landing’s City Watch, decapitating defenseless civilians. He soon proves not a very good sport after losing a joust. And when Viserys declares his only surviving child Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) heir to the throne, his volatile brother is clearly not happy. Acting out, for Daemon, is a blood sport.

“There’s a lot going on with his brother that he’s coming to terms with,” says Smith, who noted that scenes with Considine really helped him define the character. “Viserys ostensibly brought him up, and for Daemon it’s either try to piss him off or impress him.”

So it’s more Freudian than just plain pervy when Daemon corrupts, and almost seduces, underage Rhaenyra? Or is he truly in love with her, as it often seems? After all, Daemon even marries Rhaenyra years later (when she’s played by Emma D’Arcy); typically, he murders at least one of his other wives in the interim.

“Well, in the land of the Targaryens, it’s more commonplace to be with your immediate family,” Smith explains with a slightly nervous laugh. “I think he’s quite a solitary creature, really. But he’s also quite a political one. There’s a sense that his brother and Rhaenyra particularly, are the two people he would go to war for. It’s like he’s got this very weird sense of loyalty. To him, sometimes he’s doing the right thing even when he’s really doing the wrong thing.”

Just so you know, Smith seems the cordial opposite of Daemon Targaryen. Ten minutes into a trans-Atlantic conversation, he’s calling you brother like you’re an old pub buddy. His leisure interests are what you’d expect from someone with a common English name: Guinness, football, traveling. “I can’t play polo,” he points out, lest he get too stereotyped. Smith declines to discuss his love life, which has included fashion models and investment bankers. The British press got excited when he was seen in public with ex-girlfriend Lily James in February.

Matt Smith posing for a portrait standing on an office space windowsill.
"It's just about trying to find the truth on the day," Matt Smith says of acting in genre series. (Vincent Tullo / For The Times)

Much more than locating the man inside the monster went into creating Daemon. It takes the better part of each morning to get the Targaryen clan’s identifying silvery-blond, chest-length wigs on just so. There were lessons in horsemanship and broadsword handling. Smith also learned multiple dialects of Valyrian, the Latin-like language Westeros nobles use among themselves, which he often employed to bring out Daemon’s more thoughtful dimensions.

And of course, there was dragon riding. Daemon has his own flying fire-breather: Caraxes the Blood Wyrm.

“They built this huge plinth that you have to get up on, then they move you around by remote control,” Smith says of the dragon rig. “Last year, they did it on a volume stage, which is like a reality stage [it surrounds actors with immersive sky visuals as opposed to blank bluescreens]. It’s quite high in the air and it’s like a bucking bronco, essentially. You’re sitting on what looks like a massive motorcycle, a low-slung Harley-Davidson.”

Smith applies classic British dramatic training to these high-tech fantasy jobs. A drama teacher at his hometown Northampton School for Boys steered him into the National Youth Theatre, where among other plays he appeared in an adaptation of his favorite book, Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita.” The supernatural Soviet satire gave Smith an early taste of the kind of challenges he’d encounter in “Doctor Who,” "House" and genre movies. The likes of “The History Boys,” “Swimming with Sharks” and “That Face” on London stages tempered more realistic, character-based chops. All of it appears to have gone into Daemon.

“Is there any kind of special approach to acting in fantasy shows?” he ponders. “No, it’s just about trying to find the truth on the day, really, and understanding what you’re in. Another thing that I think is important, what’s required of you: It should be simple but no simpler. It’s a question I’m still trying to find out about within myself.”

Regardless, he’s figured out how to take Daemon Targaryen beyond just evil.

“I mean, look, I’ve played Patrick Bateman on stage,” Smith says with perfect comic timing (he headlined a musical adaptation of “American Psycho” at London’s Almeida Theatre). “No one’s quite as f— up as him. I think it’s interesting to find what makes people tick. They’re all the letters of the alphabet essentially jumbled up together, and you can take different versions of them out at different times.

“Daemon sort of thrives on chaos. There’s an element of him that’s walking on a tightrope made of glass, and he loves that he could fall off at any time. He operates on his own sort of strange and often violent plane. But to him, the violence is not gratuitous. He’s not doing it clumsily, he’s doing it with purpose and precision. Now, whether that’s right or wrong is for other people to debate.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.