Jacob Anderson on His Musical Career and Playing Grey Worm on Game of Thrones

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Jacob Anderson. Photo: Greg Doherty/Patrick McMullan via Getty Image

If you watched the breathless seventh season of HBO’s Game of Thrones that ended in a climactic haze of blue flame (or any of the very stressful episodes before it), you’ll likely recognize U.K. actor Jacob Anderson as Grey Worm, the “Unsullied” slave turned soldier gradually learning love and trust in the service of dragon queen Khaleesi. Pay closer attention, and you’ll find the Grey Worm gig is only a facet of Anderson’s true ambitions. The London native stumbled into acting on the way to a singing career. His soulful songwriting as Raleigh Ritchie brought him a measure of success overseas, where the rousing “Stronger Than Ever” hit the U.K. singles charts in 2014, and flowered on collaborations with Odd Future associates the Internet, Kendrick Lamar collaborators DJ Dahi and Sounwave, and grime sensation Stormzy. Last year’s scrappy, underrated debut full length, You’re a Man Now, Boy, teemed with lushly arranged electropop, warm vocals, and confessional writing. With the Thrones gig winding down — there are only six episodes left now — Anderson is looking to grow his profile as a performer. He dropped by our New York offices in late spring as his first headlining American tour came to a close to chat about the finer points of balancing acting and singing careers, breaking through in the U.S. as a British artist, and working on a show where you never know which episode will be your last.

How’d your first New York City show go?
It was amazing. It was awesome. I didn’t really know what to expect. I’ve been told it was like a London show, where you have to win New Yorkers over. Actually it was a really warm crowd. By the end we were jumping around together, singing together.

I guess part of what makes New York hard to win, especially as a U.K. artist, is that there’s this weird disconnect between the U.K. hip-hop and R&B stuff and the American stuff. A guy like Drake can put [grime rapper] Giggs on a record, and the U.S. thinks it’s hilarious, but overseas it’s popular.
[Laughs.]

Does that work both ways, or are you guys more receptive to our stuff, and we’re just being morons?
No, I don’t think people are being morons about it. I think maybe the thing with Giggs is that people didn’t necessarily realize that he’s got a sense of humor about himself. There’s definitely a sense of humor to his rhymes.

I think [Americans] take you guys very … by the word.
Yeah, and I don’t know what it is. I don’t know if it’s a cultural thing, like tea and top hats. [Laughs.] I think we have adopted American music culture a lot more than maybe you guys have [adopted U.K. music] so far at least.

I’ve watched three generations of grime attempt to break through over here, and it never really pops. But I feel like it has more respect now than ever before. How is it, breaking through that barrier?
I don’t know. I think for me it’s kind of a weird one. I wouldn’t categorize myself as R&B or hip-hop. I don’t really know how to categorize myself. I’m still working out where I fit with that stuff. I kind of think of myself as pop.

I would as well. Did you start out dreaming you’d be balancing acting and the music stuff, or did one come first?
Music was something I chose that I came to as a kid, and acting was something that was suggested to me. I was kind of like, “Okay, I’ll take a risk on that and try it.” I really enjoyed it and fell in love with it, whereas music has been something that has been a part of my life for a long time. My parents were very loud — both households [were]. My mom listened to a lot of house music. My dad listened to a lot of roots and dub. I’ve got a lot of bass. It’s been in my whole life. I feel like music is an emotional outlet for me, and acting is the opposite. It’s a way of not having to think about things I want to get out.

At the same time, it helps that you do both, since you make arresting music videos. 
Yeah, but it’s weird because it never helps. I understand you have to wait for a long time. When I’m doing videos I know how a set works, so I know that it can be a bit boring and stuff. I’m a bit of a control freak so I can never relax on a music video or shoot. I’m always asking “What’s going on?” and “How does it look?” and “What’s this?” and “Why are we doing this?” It’s a completely different thing, whereas with Thrones I can completely relax. I see videos as part of the whole thing. I think everything should be telling the same story, like your visuals and what you’re saying and how things look and your artwork. It should all be saying the same thing, and that’s maybe why I’m a little more confident to be like, “What are we doing? What’s come up with treatment ideas and stuff?”

Which video is your favorite?
My favorite music video is maybe “Stronger Than Ever.” I have a real person attachment to “Stay Inside,” because that’s the first time I ever wrote something down and then it was translated to visual.

That’s the first one I saw as well.
Yeah, it’s weird. By no means is it perfect. I wrote that [treatment] down after I wrote the song. I wrote the treatment myself, and then I worked with the director, who’s a friend of mine. That process was new to me, so I have really fond memories of that video … I think “Stronger Than Ever” is my favorite video to watch.

What inspired you to get into songwriting? I know you said it’s kind of a release. How did you get from being a kid who’s in love with music to being someone who wants to start creating it?
I think it did come out of loving music and not having much of a social life and being a music nerd.

That’s how I ended up doing this.
I just spent hours and hours finding stuff, finding music, choosing what I liked, and finding that actually I liked a lot of things. Something I really responded to was [artists] showing a level of vulnerability, like there was a confessional nature to their music and to their lyrics. [I was like] “This is interesting, because I write stuff down a lot. There’s a similarity between what I write down and what Amy Winehouse is saying about how she feels about the world. Maybe this can be an interesting outlet for me.” And I like to, like, mess about on the piano and stuff and make beats. I started on eJay. Do you remember eJay?

Yes! I was college friends with a dude who’s a cousin of the guy from Phantogram. I remember him back in the day starting out on the same thing. A lot of people were getting careers going.
eJay was amazing!

They had a producers’ contest called “The Beat Off.”
I had eJay, and then I had Acid Pro. I had a crack of both of them, and I would just make little loops, and then I’d hum along to them. I used to spend a lot of time on a computer looking for music and making beats and stuff. I worked out that I could write songs if I basically did the same thing I was doing when I was journaling or whatever, but just turn them into songs. It felt really natural. Having that outlet and physically being able to say things out loud, I found it really cathartic and helpful. The feelings I had were gone once I wrote a song.

That’s cool. My favorite songs of yours are kind of like that. Like, you’re expressing being a work in progress and coming to terms with not being okay.
I’m working it out. I’m still working it out.

Is that how the album came to be called You’re a Man Now, Boy?
Yeah, but it comes from a really ridiculous, unglamorous source. The first time I heard that phrase, me and the band were in Burger King in a service station, and I ordered a triple Whopper. My keyboard player at the time said, “Ah, you’re a man now, boy.” I was like, “That’s amazing!” It just stuck with me. I had other titles for the album, but then when I looked at it in the end — and the song “You’re a Man Now, Boy” obviously — I felt like it really encapsulated how I feel. People are constantly telling me, “You’re 25. You should be a grown up now. You should understand the world, and you should do this.” I feel like I’m regressing into childhood. I’m more excited about comic-book movies now than when I was 12.

Are you going to survive through the end of Game of Thrones? We just need you to live. The culture needs the black guy to survive.
[Laughs.] Sometimes I’m like, “Okay, that maybe isn’t going to keep me safe.”

You had that scrap with the Sons of Harpy, and I was like, “Mmmm!”
Me too. I remember someone telling me something when I first started the show. Like, “If they call you in for prosthetics, assume that’s it.” I remember I had a special costume fitting and they were like, “We’re going to put a stab rig in.” I was like, “Ugh, no one comes back from a stabbing!” Not in those days. That was a big surprise, to come back from that. They give us episodes in pieces. I had read all the episodes basically up until that scene, so I didn’t know if I was coming back or not. I didn’t know if I made it.

You get the episodes “in pieces,” meaning you’ll act a bunch of it out, but you don’t necessarily know how it ends?
Yeah, well, we do eventually. Normally you get half [the] season, and then you get the other half a few months later while they’re still finishing it I guess. But yeah, I had no idea. Cliff-hanger.

Stressful. How intense is the Thrones fandom?
It’s not that intense for me. I’m pretty low-key. I don’t court attention in that way. I wear a hat every day, because I like wearing the hat. Also I figure it helps. I haven’t had any really weird things. The only thing that’s ever been really disconcerting was in New York on the subway.

What happened?
I’ve told this story so many times and I feel like it’s starting to feel really unreliable for me, like, “Did it happen? Am I sure this happened?” I was on the subway, and this guy shouted, “Fuck yeah, Grey Worm!” I looked up and I’m pretty sure it was this one guy reading his newspaper. That was it.

He didn’t even make eye contact?
No, no eye contact at all. I think he was looking down when he said it. That was the weirdest experience I’ve had. Apart from that, people are really nice. Generally it’s cool.

What’s the next plan for the rest of the year and next year? Are you coming back with more music?
Difficult second album. [Laughs.] That’s where I am at the moment, trying to work out what it’s going to be. We’re going to go on a little retreat. We’re going to go away and write and try to finish it there. I want to have it out by the end of the year. I hate it when artists leave years and years and years [in between album releases]. I’m like, “What happened in those years?” I want to know what happens every year.

It’s like a cliff-hanger.
Yeah, it’s like a TV series. I want to know. I don’t want to leave it. I think for everybody in the world, particularly here and definitely in England as well, we’ve got a lot to think about at the moment. I am trying to work out what my place is in all of that stuff. I feel like at the moment that’s what I want the album to be. You can never plan it. If I learned anything from the first one, you can’t plan what it’s going to be.

Game of Thrones’ Grey Worm Makes Music, and It’s Really Good