For years, Steve Toussaint has carved out a niche as one of television’s most reliably anonymous character actors. Since his first major TV role, a bit-part in the mid-90s police drama Backup, he has appeared in pretty much everything going. He was in The Bill. He was in Casualty. Doctor Who. Midsomer Murders. Death in Paradise. Line of Duty. It’s a Sin.
To see Toussaint’s face appear on screen is to go: “Oh hey, that guy,” safe in the knowledge that you’re in good hands. And yet the man himself is a mystery. He has fewer than 2,000 Twitter followers. His Wikipedia entry lists only his year of birth and his professional output. In an age when everyone knows everything about everyone, he’s a complete enigma.
But that might be about to change. This week sees the launch of House of the Dragon, HBO’s long-awaited Game of Thrones prequel. It will, one suspects, very quickly become the biggest show on television. And Steve Toussaint happens to play Corlys Velaryon, one of its leads. What’s more, as one of the few Black actors in the show (and more about that later), spending every scene bearded in a huge, grey, dreadlocked wig, his presence is felt even more keenly. As such, when I chat to him over Zoom from his home in north London – positioned in front of a giant Pam Grier poster – it’s hard to shake the feeling that this will be the last interview that Steve Toussaint will ever give with his civilian status intact.
He has already had a taste of what his future might look like, since House of the Dragon had the rare distinction of being A Big Thing since the moment it was announced. And that meant filming the series (in Leavesden in Hertfordshire, Cornwall, Portugal and Spain) had to take place in a vacuum of total secrecy.
“Our code name was Red Gun,” he reveals with a kind of bemused glee. “When we first went down to Cornwall, during the second or third week of shooting, our faces and costumes had to be covered in these black cloaks. We were like: ‘No one cares,’ but then the next day in the Daily Mail there were these photos of us on the beach. We realised: ‘Oh wow, no, this is a bigger deal than we thought.’”
Was the scale of the potential viewership something he had to grapple with while filming? He shakes his head. “The job doesn’t change, whatever else is out there. We still have to learn the lines, look into each other’s eyes and try and be convincing. You can’t really play to people’s expectations. And the fact is, when they started announcing our casting, there were an awful lot of people who were quite keen to let us know what they thought. So, either the positive or the negative, you can’t really let it affect how you do the job.”
Yes, about that. When George RR Martin first wrote the character of Corlys Velaryon, he was a middle-aged white man. So, when news emerged that he would be played on television by a Black actor, it caused the worst fringes of the internet to heap racist abuse on Toussaint. This is something he’s spoken about in the past, and you sense he doesn’t necessarily want it to be the defining aspect of his role, but there was something grimly inevitable about the reaction. After all, the same toxic fandom went after John Boyega when he was cast in Star Wars, and Moses Ingram when she appeared on Obi-Wan Kenobi. Was he briefed about how to handle all the negative attention?
“No, no, we had no idea,” he says. “When my first photo came out on Twitter it was: ‘Oh, wow, this?’
“But it’s been so interesting,” he continues. “I mentioned this the other day to my white friends, and they were all like: ‘Oh my God!’ But when I mentioned it to my friends of colour, they were like: ‘Well, we knew that was coming,’ you know? We were just: ‘I wonder how long it will take?’ And it was minutes. None of us were surprised.”
It’s so weird that this sort of racist abuse tends to primarily happen in the world of fantasy and sci-fi, I tell him. He probably didn’t encounter it after he was cast in, say, Line of Duty. “It’s funny, because you go: ‘You don’t have a problem with flying dragons, but a Black guy who’s a nobleman?’” he scowls. “But I don’t hate. Listen, those people are best left to themselves. To those things.”
Born in Birmingham in 1965 to Barbadian parents, before moving to south-east London – his father worked on the London Underground and his mother was a nurse – Toussaint had a long and circuitous route to acting. While studying politics at the University of Sussex, someone offered him a role in a play. “He said: ‘Look, the lead in this play is this conceited guy. He’s arrogant. He thinks he’s God’s gift to women. You’d be great,’” he recalls. “And I was like: ‘Thank you, I think?’”
After graduating, Toussaint enjoyed spells in merchant banking and hospital administration before deciding to give acting another crack. “I rang up drama schools,” he explains. “And I told them: ‘Look, I’d love to come and audition.’ And they said: ‘Great, bring your cheque.’ I was like: ‘What, you have to pay? Will I get the money back if I don’t get in?’ And they laughed. I thought: ‘That’s a racket,’ so I did evening classes instead.” This quickly led to his first paid role, as the Genie in panto in Bromley.
Three decades later, he has become an integral part of the biggest show of the year. The likelihood of him becoming a household name is increased by the fact that House of the Dragon is very, very good. Taking place two centuries before Game of Thrones, it’s a smaller story about a power struggle within House Targaryen. The narrowed focus allows for deeper storytelling and, if the first episode is any indication, it has the potential to be spectacularly intense. Which is good because, as I tell Toussaint, I was getting worried that it would be crap.
“When we started, the one thing that [showrunners] Ryan [Condal] and Miguel [Sapochnik] kept saying was that we can’t continue making Game of Thrones, because Game of Thrones did that extremely well,” he replies. “So we’re trying to do something that’s recognisably the same world, but a different story. You get to concentrate a bit more on each character, so that when things develop later on you’re a little bit more invested – because you’ve spent some time with them.”
A second season of House of the Dragon has yet to be officially commissioned. But that seems a formality, I posit, since a show like this is too big to fail. At this point, Toussaint pulls a bit of a face.
“At a meeting for a Steve McQueen thing I did a couple of years ago, I bumped into a lovely actress who had made a pilot for a Game of Thrones spin-off,” he recalls by way of explanation. “I said to her: ‘Oh my God, I’d love to be in that.’ She goes: ‘Well, don’t worry, when it goes – when it goes – there’ll be lots of great parts.” However, that spin-off turned out to be Bloodmoon, a notoriously expensive experiment that HBO filmed before panicking and hiding it away from the world for ever. “And they had spent somewhere like $30m on that,” Toussaint says. “I’d love to believe that something’s too big to fail, but nothing is.”
You sense this level-headedness has been hard-won over the course of a career full of false dawns. Towards the end of our chat, I reinforce what I have decided will be the theme of the interview: that he is about to become very famous indeed. As a parting shot, I ask how that must feel.
“Generally, I’m quite sanguine, to be honest,” he replies. “When I first started, there were many things that I thought would change everything. The first time I was at the RSC, the first time I was at the National, the first time I was on TV. At the premiere of Prince of Persia, a couple of producers said to me [affecting the voice of a cigar-chomping Hollywood type]: ‘We’re going to make a lot of these, and you’re going to be in them all, because you’re fucking amazing.’ And then, of course, it didn’t make the money that they wanted, and that was the end of it. I did a pilot in the States years ago, and CBS were like: ‘We’re your friends at CBS! We want you to be part of us,’ and then the show didn’t get picked up. So I’m just enjoying today, right? I decided a long time ago, I’m not gonna spend my time looking over there. If it does well, and people like what I do, fabulous. If it doesn’t do so well? Well, I still had a great time making it and I met some lovely people.”
And as for the prospect of his life changing? He wouldn’t be so sure. He starts naming a procession of his younger, photogenic new castmates. “Those guys?” he laughs. “The young, sexy guys? Their lives are going to change. I get to wear this huge wig and a big beard. I’m going to be fine.”
• This article was amended on 19 August 2022. Toussaint was born in Birmingham, not south-east London as an earlier version said.
House of the Dragon starts 22 August, 9pm, Sky Atlantic