Shortly after arriving on the set of his new TV drama, Joe Dempsie found himself simulating masturbation in front of people he’d just met.
“It was quite an exposing thing, but I soon realised the crew were about four weeks into the shoot, so no one cared,” the actor tells me from his south London flat. “They were like, ‘You're gonna have a w*** in the corner? Don't worry – we’ve seen far worse.’ It actually made it quite liberating.”
Scenes like this are clearly par for the course when your series is called Adult Material. The Channel 4 show, one of the year’s most eyebrow-raising dramas, whose final episode airs this week, is an unflinching exploration of the porn industry. Dempsie, best known for his work in Game of Thrones, plays the husband of Hayley Burrows (Hayley Squires). She’s a volatile yet well-meaning mother-of-two and when the camera’s on, she is the immensely successful adult star Jolene Dollar. In between the school pick up and getting the car washed, she fakes sex moans in videos for her horny social media followers.
Adult Material is certainly Dempsie’s most striking project yet, and inspired an amusing realisation: sex, like in the show, has pervaded many of his career choices, starting with his breakout role as beloved party nut Chris Miles in the mid-Noughties teen drama Skins. “If I look back at my jobs over the last few years, nearly every single one has a sex scene in it,” says the 33-year-old. He acknowledges that they can be “traumatising” for his poor mum. And yet, in the years since, he has also become one of UK television’s brightest stars. Look at his CV and what springs out is how many revered homegrown dramas he's appeared in, such as Shane Meadows’s This Is England and the relentlessly bleak Southcliffe. Dempsie brings not only a naturalistic charm to these roles, but a fearlessness – he’s very much an actor unafraid to tackle the gritty elements of the job (for the spy series Deep State, he was waterboarded for real, stating in a 2019 interview: “There's no question that is torture”).
That’s not forgetting Game of Thrones. Having appeared as the directionless blacksmith Gendry in the HBO behemoth’s first three seasons, Dempsie was absent from the show until returning in the fantasy drama’s penultimate run in 2017 – just in time for some boffing. Four episodes in, his character has pre-battle “we might be about to die sex” with the youngest Stark daughter, Arya, played by Maisie Williams, which caused controversy online.
Shortly after broadcast, Twitter was flooded with posts from viewers questioning her age (Arya was 18, Gendry 22). This particular confusion stemmed from the fact Williams was 12 when the show began and, for Dempsie, it’s a matter that had reared its head years before.
“It was an odd transition purely because I’d seen Maisie grow up,” he admits. “I’d met her when she was a child and, during the course of the first three seasons, it was something I was asked regularly because [George RR Martin’s] books suggest there’s a possible romance. It always made me slightly uncomfortable.”
He continues: “I know we were recreating fantasy, but we as actors have to make it very much in reality, and they were asking me to comment on whether I – at the time, a 25-year-old man – would like my character to hook up with a 14-year-old. I always avoided answering the questions. But it was something I then had to think about.”
Dempsie ultimately found shooting the scene “absolutely fine” as Williams was 22. “When we were doing season eight, Maisie was a grown woman. Also, putting that initial discomfort to the side, I didn’t wanna patronise her. She’s an incredibly capable young woman who commanded the respect of that set, so to play up about doing the scene would have been doing her a massive disservice.”
Thrones as a whole was mired in controversy when the final season proved to be one of the most divisive in television history. Many fans complained that the conclusion was rushed. Some even accused showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss of speeding up the process so they could start work on their now-cancelled Star Wars trilogy. Dempsie calls this suggestion “bonkers”, although he does freely admit to “having sympathy” with those who criticised the final season’s pacing. “Watching it back, I think they could have maybe taken a little more time,” he acknowledges. For the record, he liked the final episode and its message that “the human race can put their differences aside to defeat a common enemy”. “That is something we could all do with addressing,” he adds.
One show whose legacy is not in question is Skins, the groundbreaking Channel 4 drama that launched him, as well as actors Dev Patel, Nicholas Hoult, Jack O’Connell, Daniel Kaluuya and Kaya Scodelario in the late Noughties. But unlike those actors – and his GoT costars Kit Harington and Richard Madden – Dempsie is yet to find his way into Hollywood. Does he ever look at his peers and yearn for stateside success?
“I’m friends with a number of people who are hugely successful, Oscar-nominated movie stars, and yes, there are times I want that,” he admits. “I sometimes crave the industry recognition that comes with an award nomination and the professional freedom that then affords you. I do envy that.” Then again, the “day-to-day recognition” that big stars experience is something he’s more than happy to be free of. “That's probably an inevitable by-product I could do without,” he says, relieved.
Adult Material will find itself on many a best telly of 2020 list by year's end, and it certainly shows a more serious side to Dempsie’s range. It sees him reunite with Skins writer Lucy Kirkwood, whose script is sharp and bracing yet sobering in its depiction of trauma. Dempsie’s character Rich is a springboard for some of the show’s ever relevant themes. “Would you feel emasculated if your wife had sex with other people on camera for a living?” is just one of the questions the actor asked himself while reading Kirkwood’s pages. “It’s the main reason I found Rich so interesting,” he says. “He’s seemingly accepting and supportive of Hayley’s career, but she’s also quite clearly the breadwinner. I wondered how these things would make him feel.”
The industry’s darker side is drawn to the fore when newcomer Amy (Siena Kelly) is asked to stand in for a contentious anal scene. Despite hesitation – and against Hayley’s orders – she’s talked into it by her male bosses, an event that ricochets through the series with as much conspicuousness as a vibrating sex toy. Dempsie takes those issues seriously. “What I hope the show does is make people think about the human beings that are involved in this industry,” he says. “Pornography does provide a living, but there need to be guidelines and duty of care in place. In its current guise, there’s far too much opportunity for the mistreatment and abuse of women.”
It’s a tough concept to broach and one Dempsie believes Kirkwood has dealt with “bravely”. It’s also a subject he thinks writers shouldn’t shy away from. After all, millions of people regularly view pornography every single day (porn sites account for three of the 10 most-visited websites in the world).
“It’s becoming so accessible that it’s part of our lives whether we directly consume pornography or not,” Dempsie says. “And in ways you don't even realise.”
As of now, Dempsie is waiting for Netflix to resume production of a mystery project he'll star in. Due to the pandemic, the streaming service ceased production on all of its forthcoming projects the night before he was due to leave for the shoot in Vancouver. Fortunately, while he can't tell me any specific details (“I’m sorry!” he says, “It's frustrating, but it's not been announced yet”), he's been assured it will go ahead.
“For most actors, the reality is the second you finish a job, you're immediately having to chase the next thing, so it’s been nice not having to chase anything,” he says. “And, yes, I’m very lucky to have something on the horizon.” That recognition on the street could come sooner than he thinks.
Adult Material is on Channel 4, Monday, 10pm. All episodes are on All 4. The series arrives on DVD and digital on 2 November