This interview includes spoilers for the first two episodes of “House of the Dragon.”
Legendary explorer, naval commander, lord of a noble house that has long earned its living from the sea: Corlys Velaryon, a.k.a. the Sea Snake, is a boat guy, through and through. Steve Toussaint, the British actor who plays him on “House of the Dragon,” is not.
“It’s a weird thing,” he said, laughing. “The last couple of times I’ve been on a boat, I suddenly started getting seasick. I’ve never had that in my life, but just recently it started happening.”
Whatever Toussaint’s shortcomings as a sailor, Lord Corlys’s prowess on the sea is so formidable that even the dragon-riding scions of the ruling monarchy, House Targaryen, must show him deference. In the show’s second episode, he even rage-quits the Small Council led by King Viserys (Paddy Considine) — he’s one of the few people in the Seven Kingdoms who can turn his back on the ruling monarch and live to tell the tale.
Corlys’s in-world untouchability makes for a salutary counterpoint to the racist reactions Toussaint has faced in some quarters. The actor, who is Black, portrays a character of direct descent from the fallen empire of Valyria who is assumed to be white in the source material by George R.R. Martin, the book “Fire & Blood.” In the world of the show, created by Martin with Ryan Condal, Corlys’s power and prowess are presented unapologetically, without caveat.
“I guess some people live in a different world,” Toussaint said of the controversy. “I’m very lucky that I have friends who are of all persuasions. I’ve got Caucasian friends, East Asian friends, South Asian friends, Black friends. That’s my world, and I want to be in programs that reflect that world.”
In a phone conversation last week, Toussaint spoke from London about the forces that drive Corlys and knowing which rules to follow and which ones to break. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Corlys has a cool factor that even some of the most charismatic characters lack. He just seems comfortable in his own skin in a way that many others aren’t.
That’s one of the things I like about Corlys. Of the people he’s around, he’s the guy who went out and made his fortune by himself, with his own bare hands, as he says late in the episode. That gives him a sense of self. It’s one of the things that’s key to who he is.
Funny enough, when I had the initial meeting with Ryan and Miguel, the co-showrunners, all we talked about, really, was fatherhood and his feelings about his family. He’s got this desire to cement the Velaryon name in history. He feels the slights to his wife [Princess Rhaenys, played by Eve Best], the fact that she was passed over [for the Iron Throne], more than she does.
And when he’s realized he can’t get her back on the throne, the next thing for him is get the family as close to power as possible, i.e. marry off the kids in some way or other.
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How does Corlys feel about going through with this ritual of having his 12-year-old daughter, Laena [Nova Fouellis-Mosé], court the king? Does he have second thoughts about this system at all?
The thing about Corlys is he is a stickler for the rules. Despite the fact that he felt that his wife is the more capable person to be on the throne as opposed to Viserys, that is what [the Great Council] chose. He thinks they made a mistake, but: “These are the rules that I’ve been given. This is how we have decided power dynamics work in that world. OK, well in that case, I will do this.”
So in Episode 1, when Otto Hightower [Rhys Ifans] says to Viserys, “We’ve got to talk about your succession,” it is Corlys, despite the fact that he wants his wife to be on the throne, who says: “No, no, we have an heir. It’s Daemon [the king’s younger brother, played by Matt Smith].” Now, it may not be to everyone’s liking, but that’s what the rules are. When there is a dispute about [the king’s daughter] Rhaenyra’s position, he again is like, “Well, her father chose her, and so we have to go with that.”
I think he’s like, “I don’t like these rules, but these are the rules. What can I do to thrive in them?”
It’s not just that Corlys built his family’s fortune — he did so by making nine legendary voyages to distant lands, putting himself in great danger. Is that in the back of your mind as you play him?
Yes. I remember saying to Ryan at one point, “It would be great to have some sort of write-up so that I’ve got a memory of them,” basically. Ryan was good enough to come back with a whole dossier of stuff, because Ryan is a supergeek. [Laughs.] It’s a huge part of Corlys’s very being, what he did.
It’s interesting that you said he put himself in great danger. I don’t know if, at the time, he would have thought of it that way. He just had an adventurous spirit. He wanted to get out there and see what was beyond the known world at that time. Certainly when I was in my teens and early 20s, there was no fear — I was going to live forever.
Obviously, being an older man and sitting around these people who like to talk so cavalierly about war, there’s a part of him that’s like, “No, I’ve seen it, you haven’t. If you’d seen it, you wouldn’t be talking this way.”
The thing about battle is you either succeed or you don’t — there’s no gray area. He likes that. He’d like it if life were like that, generally. That’s one of the reasons he’s not always entirely comfortable in the Small Council with diplomacy and so forth. “If something is right, it’s right. Let’s just do it.”
Did that make it difficult to play those Small Council scenes?
In terms of the character, the resentment that Corlys has for what he considers these privileged people helps me a lot. In fact, there were some points where Ryan would have to rein me in and go: “If you spoke to the king like that, you’d have your head cut off. You’ve gone too far.” It would be more difficult for someone like — and I didn’t have this discussion with them, so I don’t know — Paddy or maybe Gavin Spokes [who plays the Small Council member Lord Lyonel Strong], whose characters have to be mindful of not upsetting people and trying to keep the balance. I never felt that way with my character.
There is a side to him that is, as far as he’s concerned, above the rules. Also, he knows just how valuable he is for the realm, because he controls the majority of the navy. So he knows he’s got a little bit more leeway.
You’ve talked about the racist backlash that you initially faced from some segments of the fandom when you were cast. Has that improved?
There are still trickles coming through, but generally, it’s been great. The overwhelming majority of people have been very welcoming and supportive.
Some people have gone out of their way to find my timeline so they can explain to me that “It’s all about the books” and so forth. My view is this: There are shows on TV that I don’t like — I just don’t watch them. There are actors that I don’t find interesting — I just never feel the need to broadcast I don’t like them. There are some people who don’t like my appearance and don’t think someone like me should be playing that particular role because when they read the book, they saw it a different way. All of that is natural. My objection is to people who have racially abused me.
For some reason, the responses that I’ve been getting recently seem to have overlooked that, as if I’m just going, “You don’t like me, and therefore you’re racist.” That’s not what I’m saying. I don’t know what people’s motivations are. But I do know the motivations of somebody who calls me the n-word. I know what that means.
Were you a “Game of Thrones” guy before you got this part?
Yes, I was. It had been going for about three or four seasons before I actually watched it because fantasy is not really my genre. I was staying with a friend in L.A., and he said to me, “Have you seen this ‘Game of Thrones’?” And I was like: “No. It’s got dragons, why the hell would I watch that?” [Laughs.] He said, “Just watch one episode.” And it was so much more gritty and, for want of a better word, realistic than I was expecting. I was hooked.