Remember that moment in Game of Thrones when the tyrannical Tywin Lannister was shot by his own son with a crossbow while on the loo? Well, Charles Dance, the actor behind the monstrous monarch, is managing something that’s just as incongruous if not quite so ignominious. Today, he calls me as he approaches a local dump, a location that, despite his versatility as an actor, must feature on any top 10 list of things one can’t picture Charles Dance doing.
Perhaps it’s his aristocratic baritone. Or perhaps casting directors are to blame. We’re accustomed to seeing Dance in posh circles, whether in the diplomatic corps in Plenty, as the reigning king in stoner comedy Your Highness, or as Lord Mountbatten in The Crown.
“Appearances can be deceiving,” laughs the actor. He is not, despite many turns as a toff and an OBE, anywhere near in line for the throne. His friends call him Charlie. His mother was a parlourmaid who started work at 13. He attended Widey technical school for boys in Plymouth. In 2016 he and other working-class actors voiced concerns about the lack of opportunities for state school-educated actors.
It's more fun being the villain. And if the writing is good and the villain is three-dimensional, well, that's the most fun. The hard work is done for you
He attributes his screen and stage grandeur to something about the way his “face is put together”. A 2016 episode of Who Do You Think You Are? – which revealed that his great-great-grandmother, a laundress, had seven children with his great-great-grandfather, a laundryman, despite being married to other people – confirmed his lack of courtly ancestry.
Just to add to the sense of anomaly that comes with imagining Charles Dance at a dump – then reckoning with him not being especially high-born – we begin to consider the matter of Oliver Cromwell.
“The English did not behave very well, I’m afraid,” he says. “We made a bit of a habit of that actually.”
I should explain. Hailing from the same tradition as Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England and 1970s folk horrors, Witchfinder General, Winstanley and The Blood on Satan’s Claw, Fanny Lye Deliver’d is the latest film to wreak havoc on dour theologians in capotains.
The third film from cult director Thomas Clay (The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael, Soi Cowboy) derives its thrills and horrors from the heated pitch of the English revolution. A 17th-century home invasion drama, the film stars Dance as ex-soldier John Lye, a brutal patriarch given to beating his wife Fanny (Maxine Peake) and boasting about his soldiering days in Ireland. One Sunday, a young, naked couple (Freddie Fox and Tanya Reynolds) take refuge at the Lye family’s Shropshire home. They are pursued as licentious Levellers by a sinister poppinjay (Peter McDonald) and his cronies. Wild twists and psychedelic turns ensue. Radical ideas fly.
“Oh yes,” agrees Dance. “It’s about Levellers and Roundheads. But at that time we had just chopped off a king’s head. So there were an awful lot of debates basically trying to decide how they were going to run the country. And there were very strict Bible-thumping people – and I play one of those – and then there were people who decided we should behave like people did in San Francisco in the early 1960s.”
It’s an impressive film but it’s more impressive that it exists at all. Fanny Lye Deliver’d is nothing short of a minor miracle. After a lengthy development period and the 2013 death of director Clay’s regular producer Joseph Lang (aged just 33), the film began shooting – in a house built by the crew – in February and March of 2016. Terrible weather and flooding plagued the production. A score, performed using 17th-century instruments sourced all over Europe, required an additional year of composing and preparation.
“All films are difficult, but yes maybe this one was more so,” says Dance. “It was a very difficult film to shoot. We were shooting in England in March and the decision had been made to shoot with natural light. Which is always a very brave or stupid thing to do. We don’t have very dependable weather. So sometimes we’d start a scene on the Monday and then the weather would change and we wouldn’t pick it up again until Thursday. It was cold. It was wet. It was muddy. But I think the end result is a rather remarkable, highly original film.”
It is, in fact, the second highly original Charles Dance project of the Covid crisis. Early in April, he starred alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jackie Chan and Jason Flemying in the Russian-Chinese lockdownbuster The Iron Mask aka The Mystery of the Dragon Seal aka Viy 2: Journey to China.
“Oh my God!” he gasps. “Did that come out? Was I any good? I didn’t even know Arnold was in it. Well, that’s the second film I’ve done with Arnold Schwarzenegger.”
It certainly is. In 1993, Dance played the chilly assassin-hunting Arnie’s meta-cop in John McTiernan’s po-mo adventure, Last Action Hero. “I do remember going to Los Angeles for interviews,” says Dance, who has previously made cheery remarks about the quality of catering on Godzilla: King of the Monsters. “And I remember they spent so much money on that alone, it could have paid for a dozen British movies.”
Dance was a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1970s and had a steady TV career in such staples as Father Brown and Play for Today when he took his cinematic bow attempting to kill Roger Moore on ski slopes in For Your Eyes Only. (The actor would later play Ian Fleming in Anglia Television’s Goldeneye: The Secret Life of Ian Fleming, but would turn down an audition for James Bond.)
As the hot, young star of the 1984 Raj-themed melodrama Jewel in the Crown, Dance had to, according to tabloid stories, quit jogging in order to avoid his more ardent female fans. And yet, For Your Eyes Only marked the start of a movie career that veered toward the dark side. A Hollywood hitman, in addition to Last Action Hero, he hunted Eddie Murphy and the titular demi-deity in The Golden Child, he connived against Sacha Baron Cohen in Ali G Indahouse, and he commanded the Cairo Gang in Michael Collins.
“It’s a terrible cliche but it’s true,” says Dance. “It’s more fun being the villain. And if the writing is good and the villain is three-dimensional, well, that’s the most fun. The hard work is done for you. I’ve played a few rogues. It’s something you have to get used to as an actor. If you do something well, they want you to do it again. But you keep working. And I like working.”
He laughs: “To think I used to get cast as the romantic lead.” These days, Dance is most likely to get recognised on the street for his work on Game of Thrones. He has admitted to being “confused” by the infamous final episode, but he remains a cheerleader for the franchise.
“I haven’t seen the notorious pilot episode,” he says. “But HBO saw something in it and decided to put money in and brought in great writers. And that’s what made it the most successful television show of all time. That’s quite an achievement.” Over the past four decades, Dance has worked with an extraordinary array of film directors including Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, Robert Altman, Neil Jordan, François Ozon, Woody Allen, and David Fincher. In February, just ahead of lockdown, Fincher completed work on his second collaboration with the actor. Mank will also star Gary Oldman as screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies and Tom Burke as Orson Welles.
Fincher previously directed Dance in the unfairly maligned Alien 3. It was a troubled production, characterised by unwarranted studio interference and script changes.
“When you walk on to a set with a director like Robert Altman, you can feel it immediately,” says Dance. “They have that sense of authority. And David Fincher, who had only done a couple of commercials at that stage, already had that on Alien 3. I’ve just finished Mank with him which is about the making of Citizen Kane. He’s a dream to work with. He knows what he wants. He’s demanding. But I’d rather have that than a director who doesn’t know what they want.”
Dance should know. He has previously directed Ladies in Lavender, starring Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, and is scheduled – epidemiology permitting – to start shooting a second feature later this year. The Inn at the Edge of the World concerns five people who respond to an advert to escape Christmas and retreat to the west coast of Scotland, and will star Celia Imrie and, returning from Fanny Lye Deliver’d, Freddie Fox. The production will bring him to Ireland, where he has previously worked on Game of Thrones, Your Highness, Michael Collins and – oh yes, Space Truckers. He has fond memories of the latter and anyone who has viewed the scene wherein Dance’s steampunk, metal-buttocked, intergalactic pirate attempts to impress Debi Mazar with his “electrical wang pulse” can confirm he is having a ball.
“I remember having great fun making that film,” he recalls. “And I remember having great fun watching it. But then it came out and everyone decided it was crap. Oh well.”
Fanny Lye Deliver’d is released on digital platforms on Friday