Jacob Anderson talks music, mental health, and life after Game of Thrones
Whether on screen or in the recording studio, actor and musician Jacob Anderson gets it right. Meet a man with more than one creative streak
- By Henry Tobias Jones -
Raleigh Ritchie? Jacob Anderson? Er, Grey Worm? What am I supposed to call him? This is the question I’m confronted with a dozen times before he even arrives on set. It doesn’t matter that he’s instantly recognisable to the hundreds of millions of people who watch him in the most popular show on television. Nor that he collaborated, and is on first name terms with Stormzy, the crowned prince of British music (real name: Michael).
The problem is that Raleigh Ritchie AKA Jacob Anderson AKA Grey Worm from HBO’s Game of Thrones (GOT) seems to have as many personas as he does careers.View on Instagram
He’s best known to GOT’s 30 million viewers as Daenerys Targaryen’s stoic military commander, Grey Worm. But a not-insignificant six million listeners a year on Spotify may know him by a different name: Raleigh Ritchie. The name is, in his own words, ‘disappointingly shallow’ and stems from his love of two characters in Wes Anderson’s film The Royal Tenenbaums (2001).
But as a musician, his album You’re a Man Now, Boy (2016) earned Jacob (as I shall now call him) widespread critical acclaim and resulted in he and Stormzy featuring on each other’s albums. Stormzy raps on ‘Keep it Simple’, while Jacob offers soulful vocals to ‘Don’t Cry For Me’ on the hit grime album Gang Signs & Prayer (2017).
With so many successes in different fields, under different guises, you can see why people don’t know what to call this many-faced man.
It’s true Jacob has been climbing up his ladder for many years, but despite his collected career baggage, he really is still just Jacob.
In fact, if you were just to observe him from afar, you’d have to conclude he’s a chirpy 27-year-old Londoner, riding high on not one but two industries that most people his age can barely survive in. His witty lyrics, colourful songs, and hilarious music videos present him to the world as a natural-born entertainer.
But this is the problem with personas – they often just put a mask on reality.
It’s important not to whitewash Jacob’s story. It really is true to say that unlike many who have found success at a young age, he doesn’t appear to have paid a pound of flesh for binding himself to the biggest cultural phenomenon since Harry Potter.
While he’s on set he jokes around, he laughs with the crew, and he talks proudly about getting a mortgage and proposing to his fiancée.
But, unsurprisingly, Jacob is more complicated than either Raleigh Ritchie or Grey Worm. In reality, he has an issue and he wants people to know about it. Jacob struggles with his mental health.
I certainly didn’t expect to be stood outside a Tesco in north London talking about mental health to a man I’ve seen joking around with Peter Dinklage on the blooper reels of GOT DVDs. But that is precisely Jacob’s point. It would do him a disservice to over exaggerate the way he talks about it. He talks determinedly and intelligently about his issues, but he also laughs, jokes, and messes around on set. Outwardly, he seems to be better than fine; he’s stronger than ever.
That’s why he doesn’t want to claim he suffers from “this or that condition”.
“You’re right, my instinct is to hide it,” he admits. “It is a completely personal experience. Part of the reason I don’t like talking about specifics is that I’m still working it out, I’m still going through it, and I’m still in the middle of it. If I’m being brutally honest there is still a lot of stuff that I’m struggling with right now.
“But I feel like the worst thing that we can do, in terms of mental health as a society, is to tell ourselves that our own things aren’t as bad as other people’s are and to say: ‘I didn’t go that far, so I’m alright’ because it can be a whole spectrum of stuff.
“But you can’t say to other people that it’s important to look your demons in the eye and accept them if you aren’t doing that yourself.”
Jacob came to this realisation on a farm in rural Oxfordshire where he retreated to write his second album. “I wrote a song and I’ve said to my manager he has to force me to share it with people. It’s personal stuff. Stuff about my mental health and my family and friendships and things I haven’t really talked about in any detail before. This time round I have and it is a scary experience.”
“I want to be a person who talks about it with a sense of confidence and knowing exactly what I want to say, because I feel like it can be just as irresponsible for me to spontaneously go into stuff that could be damaging for other people.
“I’m almost reticent to talk about them myself,” he says, trying to describe his own particular ailment, adding, “it’s not that I’m not comfortable talking about them with you personally, but I think my way of working through my issues is writing songs.”
He continues: “I’m not the most articulate person in terms of talking to people face to face but I am when I write things down. I’d be worried about saying something wrong if I were to say to you now, in this interview, I have this thing and I get tightness in my chest and blah, blah, blah, because it is very easy for that to become something sensationalised. I can sensationalise it for myself, if I want to. But I think everyone should be allowed to talk about their mental health in as much or as little detail as they want to.”
Cue Jacob’s musical counterpart, Raleigh Ritchie. As a songwriter he has managed to find an outlet for his feelings that allows him to “work some things out.”
Jacob’s decision to discuss his personal issues through his songs has undoubtedly given his music a raw, personal feel. It sounds exactly like what it is; his thoughts aloud. He writes about conversations he’s had, what he and his friends are thinking, how he feels about the news that day.
“I was just completely exhausted,” he explains. “And I didn’t know what I thought or felt about anything anymore.
“Most [songs] are like diary entries,” he says. “It was just what I was feeling that day – to get it off my chest. That’s the only important thing: to give the things above you an outlet. That’s not just making songs or art, it can be boxing or even a person who you talk to. My outlet is writing songs.”
Despite claiming to find the process therapeutic, until recently Jacob was struggling with a fatal bout of ‘second-album syndrome’. “I found out that it’s more real than I ever knew it could be,” he says.
After the release of his debut album, he confidently believed he would be straight back in the recording studio working on the next. Instead it has taken him 18 months.
“I was just completely exhausted,” he explains. “And I didn’t know what I thought or felt about anything anymore.”
After 16 months of fretting over his writing process, Jacob was whisked away to a farm-cum-recording studio in most rural Oxfordshire called Angelic.
“It’s next to a lambing field so there are a load of lambs there,” he says, joking that all of the songs are “agri-counter-cultural.”
When I tease that this isn’t very rock’n’roll he concedes that it’s not exactly what you’d expect, but, he says, “it’s kind of the opposite of that, which is perfect.”View on Instagram
“In London, you can get distracted by fancy studios and noise,” he explains. “Instead I went there and just worked for two weeks and from just doing that I’ve got the bulk of the album. Going from thinking that you’ll have nothing to say again to realising there’s all this stuff that I do want to talk about, in that small period of time, is exactly what I needed.”
Since then the album has come a long way. Working closely with producer Chris Loco, someone who Jacob cites as being instrumental to the success of his first album, this one is beginning to take shape.
“There’s stuff I want to do. I’ve already got an idea for the art direction of it, and I want to do some things with the vinyl release, because – and I can say this now because it’s sold out so it won’t affect sales – I was a little bit disappointed with how the album artwork for the first album and vinyl ended up.
“Maybe that’s what I’ve discovered over the past few months: the difficult second album is all the pressure you put on yourself to make it bigger and better. Actually, it doesn’t need to be anything. It just has to be what it is.”
Simply listening to the passion with which he talks about his work, it’s safe to say music fans have something to look forward to.
However, just as Jacob prepares to welcome his new album into the world, he will be saying a final farewell to another persona in his life: Grey Worm.
After its eighth series, and nearly a decade of mesmerising the world, GOT is drawing to a close. I ask Jacob if he’s at all concerned about leaving behind such a massive influence on his professional life.
“I don’t feel responsible for its success,” he explains. “I feel like it’s more on the shoulders of Dan [D.B. Weiss] and David [Benioff] or Kit [Harrington] and Emilia [Clarke]. It wouldn’t be a bigger or smaller show if I wasn’t in it, so I don’t feel the pressure.”
Fans might think that this is selling his performance short. As Grey Worm, Jacob has added a personality and warmth to a character that, in less accomplished hands, might very easily have been as drab and lifeless as the name suggests.
“I’m just glad that I get to be in something that I really, really like,” he says. “I enjoy going to work, I like the people I go to work with, and that’s the most important thing.”
I ask if he has any acting projects lined up after GOT ends and he shakes his head calmly. “When I was younger, I did quite a lot of acting jobs for money because I needed to pay my rent. I was going to quit acting before I was cast in GOT. I wasn’t enjoying it anymore, so now I’m not going to do things for money anymore, because it doesn’t make me happy.”
It’ll take one hell of a role to live up to the standard set by GOT, but he is optimistic.
He cites the example of Donald Glover AKA rapper Childish Gambino, an actor who he has rather a lot in common with. Jacob explains that when Glover quit his hit show Community in 2013 to pursue his music career it, “broke my heart because I loved the show, but now I completely understand.
“I like making things. So I may as well just go and make my own film or TV series. I don’t know why I’d sign myself up for somebody else’s project, unless it is the person or story that I think is really great. I don’t care if it’s not a big thing, either; it just has to be good.”
In short, even Jacob doesn’t know what he’s going to do next. Yet, over the course of our interview, he doesn’t seem to lack ambition.
First, he wants to improve on his first album, even though it was met with wildly positive reviews and totally shattered any fears that he wouldn’t be taken seriously as an actor-turned-musician. Then, as an actor, all he wants is a role that is as fun and professionally fulfilling as Game of Thrones, the biggest show in the world.
He might play a eunuch on camera but there’s no doubt the man’s got balls.