Charles Dance played one of the most recognizable villains of the past decade as Tywin Lannister on Game of Thrones. But even though Tywin’s no longer with us, having been killed by his son while sitting on a Westerosi toilet, Dance is keeping up the act. In the new film The Imitation Game, Dance plays Alastain Denniston, the real-life British codebreaker who, onscreen, stands directly in the way of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Alan Turing.
Turing ended up practically winning World War II for the Allies through his breaking Axis codes, but his methods were so revolutionary that, at least onscreen, they need to run into resistance. That’s where Dance, with his practiced glower, comes in, perpetually complicating situations and taking sadistic pleasure in doing so. It’s Dance’s specialty as an actor, though he insists he can do more than play the villain: “I’ve got a range as an actor!” he says. “There was a time I played dramatic leading men.”
TIME: How does filming a period piece change the climate on the set?
Charles Dance: To be honest, it doesn’t differ that much. How one does it is quite simple — I just pretend. It’s as simple as that. We’ve got a very good script to work with, and it’s been written with a careful eye as to the idiosyncracies of period speech. There are no contemporary slang terms in it. So all that work is done for you—and we just put on the right costume and tell the audience we’re in 1930-whatever, and they believe it.
Was it difficult to build a relationship with Cumberbatch in which you were menacing him?
We all have our own way of working. I don’t stay in character: The minute I walk off the set, the character is left behind. I’ve worked with Benedict before, and we live near each other in London. I have the greatest admiration for him as an actor. Both he and I have a similar attitude as we don’t carry the character around with us. As a character, I treat him with contempt, but as a person, I don’t.
Did his presence in the cast induce you to sign?
Yes and no. The first inducement is the quality of the script, as ever, who the director is, and I thought we’d get on. At that time, I don’t think I knew it was Benedict Cumberbatch, but I do think he is the nearest to perfection one can get with casting. The end result is a phenomenal performance. If he doesn’t get at least a nomination, there is no justice.
How does your time at the Royal Shakespeare Company, at the start of your career, inform your performances today?
I guess it does have a bearing on it. I’ve done maybe twelve of Shakespeare’s plays. I was with the Royal Shakespeare Company for years. Whatever influence that has never leaves you. If you learn to drive a car, and you learn the right way if there is ever a right way. You learn the good aspects, you learn to drive properly. And that never leaves you. If you have a foundation of working with the greatest writer ever, I suppose that must have a bearing on whatever you do after that. To be honest, I’m not aware of it consciously, but I’ve been doing this for about 40 years.
Are you relieved you’re able to focus on a broader set of projects now that your time on Game of Thrones is over?
It was an ignominious end, but long overdue, with the way I treated people — or the way Tywin did. I had four and a bit years on it, and it was great being part of a global phenomenon, which no one knew it’d become. Now I can do more things. In this business you never know what’s around the corner — I’m hopeful there are a few good things around the corner for me.
You’ve been on sets including Alien 3 and Last Action Hero, what have you taken away from big-budget extravaganzas?
On big-budget franchise things, invariably the catering is better, the trailers are bigger, and there’s craft services. And you get more money. But you’re working with a lot of people and they’re all doing the same job wherever it is you go. You get less fringe benefits, simple as that.
So does that make working on a project like The Imitation Game a sacrifice?
No. Absolutely not. Unless I’ve got no money and monumental debts that are going to drive me to suicide, my first consideration is the quality of the script and who the director is, if the script is really, really good, and I think we’re all going to get on. The fringe benefits are things I don’t consider until later on. One doesn’t think that way. Each board game has its own rules and you know them when you go in.
Why do you think it is that you keep ending up cast as villainous or menacing figures?
I’ve got a range as an actor! There was a time I played dramatic leading men. Now I get offered these characters, who are as you describe them. We’re dealing with a medium that’s visual, based on how you look, how your face looks on film. My face lends itself to austere characters, and unless they’re two-dimensional, I will do them. Any actor will tell you that an interesting villain is much more interesting to play.
If you get a bad script, then you start expending energy trying to make a silk purse of a sow’s ear. When the script’s as good as those on Game of Thrones, say, I don’t think there was a single occasion where any of us thought there was a bad scene.
How’d you feel about the way you went out on Game of Thrones? It was a bit demeaning.
I had never read any of George R. R. Martin’s books, as we weren’t filming books—we were filming their adaptations. It was not until someone told me on the street, “You got this great death scene.” And I said, “Oh really, what is the manner of my death?” He replied, “You die on the s—-er.” And i said, “Oh…?”
I went into a bookshop and got hold of the relevant book and said, “Oh, that’s quite a good death scene.” It was fine, and it was a well written scene!