By Alix Norman
It’s a long road from London to King’s Landing. Especially when life began in the family chippy. But then, don’t all good Cypriot stories originate in the family fish and chip shop? And that’s how Miltos Yerolemou started out: serving behind the counter, dreaming dreams of another plaice entirely…
Known globally for his portrayal of Syrio Forel, the master swordsman in HBO’s hit series Game of Thrones, Miltos is probably amongst the most recognisable actors in the world. So it’s a complete coup for Cyprus Comic Con to have secured his presence at their second annual convention. But then Miltos has a strong affinity for the island and its people and returns, he reveals “as often as I can. I spent a great deal of my childhood on the island; my family is here, and despite my nomadic upbringing – I feel Cypriot in the UK, but British when I’m here – it really is home.”
Both delightful and enigmatic, Miltos is a master of charm, his rambling repartee and self-deprecation designed, one feels, to deflect from the fact that his is an incisive intellect. His lines may appear throwaway, but this is a man whose emotional capabilities have been fine-tuned by a profession that thrives on the carefully-maintained persona. But Miltos is impossible not to like.
His first class – he’s conducting two today, instructing a chosen few in the art of ‘water dancing’, the special technique of swordsmanship for which Syrio, his character, is renowned – warm to him immediately as he hands round the broomsticks and laughingly requests that his pupils “resist the temptation to immediately start swinging them around. Find your space,” he instructs. “Close your eyes, and root yourself to the ground. There’s no right or wrong, no self-consciousness. This is about simplicity of movement. Technique.”
As a former member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Miltos admits (humbly) to being fairly accomplished in the art of fencing. But what he doesn’t say is that he also has a natural bent for teaching, controlling the room in the same way he commands a stage. Or scene. Later, during our interview, he tells me that teaching these classes (something for which he’s in high demand at conventions all around the world) are a learning process for himself as much as the students.
“I’m constantly reading about swordsmanship,” he explains, “and every time I do these lessons I learn something new, and they evolve. I’m even in the process of planning on writing a book with a friend of mine in America about sword fighting; but in a much more contextualised way. It’s kind of crazy, because duelling and so forth is illegal, there’s no call for it, and nobody’s allowed to carry a sword unless you live in – I don’t know – Mongolia or somewhere… But loads of people are setting up schools for this sort of thing, and historical recreations are becoming very popular, so I think there’s a market for a sort of handbook. Similar to Bruce Lee’s philosophy of kung fu, that sort of thing.”
Despite his effervescent veneer, Miltos appears rather zen at times (he’s a Buddhist, and talks about seeing “true seeing, with all the senses”), flickering from sparkling wit to contemplative introspection. Andin a meditative moment he shyly admits that of all the characters he’s portrayed, perhaps Syrio’s is closest to his own. “He’s the archetypal unconventional teacher, like Mr Miyake or Obi Wan. The noble hermit – even more noble than Ned Stark – there I’ve said it! Let HBO sue me!” he guffaws – “who’s the trigger for the protagonist’s story. I mean, Arya” – one of the main characters, and Syrio’s pupil – “would basically be dead if it weren’t for Syrio.”
That’s not to say that Miltos ever expected to get the part. Originally, he was up for Lord Varys, the skilled spymaster who commands a network of informants across two continents. “And they liked it, but they didn’t think I was right. So they gave me Syrio to read instead. Then I went away and didn’t think about it at all – because you can’t afford to have false hope when you’re an actor – and about three weeks later I got a call-back. And I thought: ‘Oh! That’s interesting!’”
By the fifth reading, he says, “I was told ‘The Americans are coming; they want to meet you in person’. And that’s when I basically lost it! It was probably between me and someone else, and I was just hoping that if I lost out it was to someone like Ben Kingsley, who would have made a brilliant Syrio. Though,” he grins, “maybe he was just too expensive…”
Speaking of other actors, I remind Miltos that he once said he’d love to see Gary Oldman appear in the series. “Oh yes!” he exclaims, imagination lighting the room. “I can see him showing up as a Night’s Watchman who’s been trapped north of the Wall and hasn’t spoken to anyone for 25 years. Or maybe he’s Jon Snow when he’s resurrected: older, dirtier, gruffer, less ripped…” Is this a clue, I wonder? Does Miltos have inside information when he talks of Jon coming back to life? “It’s only my conjecture,” he says quickly. “Though I don’t for a second believe we’ve seen the last of him…”
If Jon Snow isn’t gone for good, who then was Miltos most surprised to see written out in a series that’s noted for unexpected deaths of its major characters? “Stannis,” he responds immediately. “I felt there was still a lot more of his story to be played out, and I really did want to see him kill Ramsey Bolton!” Fans, however, will be most relieved to hear that the plotline Miltos least expects to see played out in Season 7 is “the death of Tyrion”. Phew!
From Game of Thrones to Star Wars. And though he’s not allowed to say much – “my confidentiality agreement is longer than my contract,” he jokes later, during the public Q and A session he will admit the experience is “amazing! JJ Abrams has created this brilliant, brilliant world which is real, literally real. You get dressed up in costume and you’re on the set and everything you pick up and everyone you look at is so real! I mean, this is Disney and they’ve got the money to get every scene exactly right,” he adds. “You’ve got the designer from Blade Runner, the writer from The Empire Strikes Back, you’ve got JJ Abrams himself… what could possibly go wrong? Ha yes!” he exclaims with one of his sudden bursts of energy. “Write that down! Famous last words!”
Joking aside – and his next engagement looming – Miltos is keen to let people know about his upcoming projects, a couple of cameos: “One in Tulip Fever, directed by Justin Chadwick, and the other in Tom Hooper’s new film The Danish Girl. That one’s got Eddie Redmayne in it, and it’s going to win all the Oscars!” he says, nodding sagely. “I play a really horrible French psychiatrist who Eddie goes to when he’s a bit conflicted about his sexuality. And I basically say ‘He’s nuts, put him in a strait jacket’!”
From eastern-sounding guru to a character from another universe and now a French psychiatrist: Miltos possesses the ability to switch nationality, accent and personality at will. And one wonders, when he goes home at the end of the day, who he really is underneath it all.
“It’s a weird thing,” he muses, quietly, “but I would actually consider myself an introvert. I mean, I come across so gregarious, and I do these workshops and conventions and acting jobs, and I can talk to anyone. And then, when I’m not working I’m really quiet; quite reflective. I don’t need to go out socialising with friends; I unwind by being solitary, reading, being in nature. It’s very cathartic. I put so much of me into what I do, that ultimately there’s a cost. And you have to go away and recharge your batteries and be private.”
And that, I think, as we thank each other profusely, is as close to the truth as I’m going to get. Because for all his charm and sociability, I have a strong feeling that I’ve just interviewed someone who has revealed exactly what he wanted – nothing more, and nothing less – while keeping me entertained for hours. And coming from a world where nearly everything is public knowledge, that takes a great deal of ingenuity. I applaud Miltos Yerolemou – not just for his outstanding acting skill, teaching capabilities and incredible energy – but most of all for his intelligence.