Iwan Rheon has spent much of his career being asked his preferred form of superpower. (Teleportation, if you're wondering.) He made his name as a juvenile delinquent granted invisibility in the bawdy E4 cult classic Misfits. That was back in 2009, but with a major role in Marvel’s latest TV project, Inhumans, the superpower stuff has resurfaced again.
“After all these years I've gone back to that,” says Rheon over coffee in a modish Peckham cafe. (Is there any other type?) He chuckles. “It's quite funny how those things happen – but in something completely different.”View on Instagram
It’s certainly a graduation of sorts. Inhumans trades in the type of comic-book lore which Misfits so joyously subverted. The series centres on the Inhuman Royal Family, a group of superpowered beings who live on the moon. Although they rule over a peaceful society, it is far from perfect – a rigid caste system bestows higher social status on those with the strongest powers.
Although Rheon had never heard of Inhumans, the audience is certainly there. “When you speak to the fans of Marvel comics and stuff, you immediately see that it's a story that everyone's been waiting for, and I'm surprised it's never been done before.’
Rheon is Maximus, powerless apart from his formidable intellect and rhetoric (which count for little), but brother of the king (which counts for rather a lot). Although his royal blood affords Maximus a life of luxury, his literal humanity remains a handicap – especially considering his kingly brother, Black Bolt, has a voice so powerful even a whisper can cause untold destruction. Black Bolt is rubbish at dinner parties.
“He's looked down and belittled all the time,” Rheon says of Maximus’s lack of powers. “Bullied for it basically.”
Inevitably, Maximus triggers a coup against his family, and the Inhumans escape to Hawaii – well, if you must be exiled somewhere… Anyone wishing to know more will have to watch the show.
His career might be bookended by superheroes, but Rheon attained global fame in another form of fantasy, playing the malignant Ramsay Bolton in the cultural phenomenon that is Game of Thrones. A dream role, for sure, but one that spawned a difficult question – how do you follow playing the most hated character of the biggest TV show on Earth?
Obviously everyone says, 'oh, you're just playing another villain.' That's something I have to battle with
Even if you’ve never watched an episode, you’ll know Game of Thrones. You can’t not know Game of Thrones and be a sentient human in the year 2017. However, if you don’t know Ramsay – in a show crammed with bad eggs, young Master Bolton stank worse than anyone else. He murdered more or else every character he came into contact with (including his father and infant brother), raped his wife on their wedding night, and never missed an opportunity to feed people to his dogs. (Animal lover, though: nobody is irredeemable.)
Rheon knows comparisons between Ramsay and Maximus are inevitable; he nearly turned down the Marvel role due to his reluctance to return to villainy. The fact Maximus bears the sobriquet ‘the Mad’ in the comics hardly suggested a departure from the psychotic Ramsay.
“I pretty much almost said no,” Rheon admits. “Because I felt that it was just going to do the same thing again that I'd already done.”
Inhumans showrunners Scott Bucks and Jeph Loeb gave their assurances that the TV Maximus would be a complex creation, and a new challenge. Rather than cackling sadist, Maximus is a flawed politician convinced in the rightness of his cause. His desire to abolish the caste system should win plenty of viewer sympathy.View on Instagram
“That's what Marvel do really well: it's not as plain who's the baddie and who's the goodie. It's not quite like that. Hopefully people will maybe be torn and say, 'you know, actually this guy is saying some pretty sensible things.’
“[Maximus] always felt that he'd make a better King, and he probably would. He'd have made a great leader.”
The distance between Ramsay and Maximus is neatly encapsulated by Rheon’s inspirations for the two characters. Ramsay famously channelled a combination of Heath Ledger’s Joker, Dennis the Menace and Liam Gallagher “for the walk”. To prepare for Maximus, specifically his oratory prowess, Rheon studied the speeches of John F Kennedy.
“It was a very interesting thing for me to watch. When you listen to Kennedy's speeches, he's a wonderful speaker, and he's got that real passion – you feel like he's almost singing it.”
He even copied JFK’s hand gestures while speaking. “I nicked his hand thing!” He grins. “I did do that, yeah.”
Anyone expecting to see a reprisal of Ramsay Bolton will be in for a shock.
“It's a very different role,” says Rheon, “although obviously everyone says, 'oh, you're just playing another villain.' That's something I have to battle with. That's my personal battle.”
I suspect it is one he will win.
Marvel’s Inhumans is out on Sky 1 this autumn.