Richard Dormer on Playing Sam Vines in BBC America Drama


From lead writer /executive producer Simon Allen and inspired by the Discworld novels by Sir Terry Pratchett, the fantasy series The Watch follows a group of misfit heroes who are forced to fight their own demons to prevent the destruction of life as they know it. Fighting an evil plot to resurrect a great dragon that will quite literally burn everything to the ground, The City Watch captain Sam Vimes (Richard Dormer) and his rag-tag team of Lady Sybil Ramkin (Lara Rossi), rookie Constable Carrot (Adam Hugill), werewolf Angua (Marama Corlette) and non-binary forensics expert Cheery Littlebottom (Jo Eaton-Kent) must do everything they can to stop it.

During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Richard Dormer (Game of Thrones) talked about the show’s anarchic humor, Sam Vimes’ “gloriously good heart,” how the character’s look evolved, the experience of shooting in Cape Town, becoming inseparable with his co-stars, and his hope that he’ll get to return for a second season.

Collider: This show is my kind of batshit crazy, in the best possible way. When this show came your way, how was it described to you? What were you told about the series and who this character would be?

RICHARD DORMER: When I received the scripts, I got the first two episodes. It’s very rare that I read something and laugh out loud, but I did. I got the humor, immediately. There was a show in the UK in the ‘80s, called The Young Ones, and it had that anarchic, crazy, off-the-wall humor. It was a massive hit in the UK in the ‘80s, and that kind of batshit crazy, like you say, is all the way through the script. It was just refreshing to read something that absolutely crazy.

Is there also a freedom in playing a character where it feels like there isn’t anything you couldn’t get away with?

DORMER: Yeah. I probably wouldn’t get away with everything on this show, but as an actor, it’s lovely to inhabit that type of character. But ultimately, why I love him is that you have to have empathy and be human, and he’s got a gloriously good heart, which is why we forgive him for being so irascible and frazzled, most of the time.

Had you been familiar at all with the Discworld books that inspired this, or did you make the decision not to read any of them?

DORMER: I read the first eight or nine books when I was a teenager, and then I went to drama school at RADA in London when I was 17 and I bought Guards! Guards! to get me through my first couple of weeks, but I gave it to a classmate. Ironically, that was the introduction of Sam Vimes. So, I never got to know Sam, but I got to know the world and I fell in love with the world and all of these amazing characters. I knew them and I knew the style of humor.

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Image via BBC America

How do you think the younger you, who was reading those books then, would react to you now being in the show that was inspired by them?

DORMER: Everybody who was in drama school — there were 20 in my year — maybe two of those people were going to have a career, three tops, so if you had told me that I would be playing a character from the Discworld novels, I would’ve cried with joy. I’m fortunate that I’ve had played some great characters, and this one is up there with them.

How did you get a real sense of this guy, as far as how he would look and how you wanted to carry yourself, physically? Was that on the page, or was that just how you saw him and how he came across to you?

DORMER: It’s just how I saw him. The producers wanted me to do it in a Northern Irish accent. I’m basically playing my mother. She’s very, very, very, very beautiful, but she has a great sense of humor and she’s from right on the border of Northern Ireland. So, I thought I would make him earthy because he’s of the earth and the city. He’s covered in grime and the dirt of the city. Really, I hit the ground running, as soon as I had my boots on, which is a big part of Sam Vimes. As soon as I had the boots on, the voice came, and then the cigar and the stubble. It’s a mix between Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen, Lee Marvin in Paint Your Wagon, and Harrison Ford in all of the original Star Wars films. There’s the swagger and the bug-eyed madness. It’s the grizzled, world-weary, resolute man who’s forgotten that he actually has a good heart.

Weirdly, when I finished, after six and a half months, I had to go get five chiropractor sessions to put my spine back into line because it developed a curvature, which is very painful. I’ve got back problems. That’s who he is. He prowls. He’s a man of the night. He knows the city. That all came from the boots up and a nice cigar.

Is that all very helpful, as an actor?

DORMER: Yeah. The cast, pre-COVID, would go out to dinner. We loved our characters so much that everybody would get together. It was just fun. There are some characters that are really grueling to play and physically very, very tiring, but I love the ongoing hope that’s always in his eyes and the sparkle of humanity. No matter how low he is, there’s a glow about him. That’s me, as well. I’m an optimistic person, even in the darkest of times. I like to smile, I like to laugh, I like to tell people silly jokes.

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Image via BBC America

How was the experience of shooting this in Cape Town? Before you had to deal with COVID, what was it like to shoot there and be there?

DORMER: It was amazing. My body got hard. There was no fat on me, just muscle and sinew. But it was lovely. For the physical part, we were in deserts and forests, and there was a lot of running and a lot of heat. I enjoyed getting my strength back into my sinews and the fibers of myself. That was great fun, finding that again. I’m not a young man, but it’s great to get in shape. It’s such a physical show.

Was it hard to have to stop shooting because of COVID, and then have to go back and still finish up the show? Was it hard to get back into that mind-set?

DORMER: It wasn’t, at all. The characters are so well-drawn and realized that we just hit the ground running. It was the end sequence that we still had to shoot. We did it in London against green screens, but it was lovely to get back into it. It was very easy to remember the dynamic and who these people are.

This is a fantasy series, but it’s less serious than Game of Thrones. After doing something like Game of Thrones, was it important to you that, if you were going to do something fantasy again, it would have a bit of fun to it and wouldn’t be so serious?

DORMER: No. I’m led by character and story. I don’t care what world or universe it is, or whether it’s past or present. If the character speaks to me and I think it’s a good story, the two most important things are character and story. As an actor, selfishly, I’ll always go for character, but if the story is good, that’s a big bonus. I’ve done a lot of comedy on stage, over 23 years in the theater. I haven’t done any on TV or in film. It was only the last nine years that I’ve gotten into TV and film. It’s just character and story. If it’s a comedy or a tragedy, it doesn’t really matter to me. I like to push myself and disappear, as a person, inside of a character. If I can do that with truth, then I’ve done my job.

After you go so big and do a show that’s as massive in scope as Game of Thrones, is it hard to adjust to going back to doing like a regular size production after that?

DORMER: Simon Rogers, our brilliant production designer, is responsible for the look of the thing, along with Craig Viveiros, the first director. It’s a fast world and very, very ambitious. I’ve actually found myself saying to a few people, “Not since Game of Thrones have I seen that scale of production and originality and a designed-from-scratch world.” In a way, it was like walking out of one big set and onto another big set. Some of these sets are stunning. The backdrops and exteriors, like when we were in the South African desert, were epic. It looks like a movie.

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Image via BBC America

I absolutely love this whole family of misfits. When did you meet the other actors that would be playing this team and what was it work with them? How did your relationship off set compare to your relationship on set?

DORMER: We became an inseparable little bunch. All of the elements that are in those characters are in the character of the actors. It was very easy to work with them because they’re all great actors. I’ve gotten to a point in my life where I’m one of the older actors, but it’s lovely turning up every day and they’ve all got a great sense of humor. It’s lovely knowing that they know what they’re doing, so you’ve got more confidence to do what you wanna do. They’re very generous and there’s a lot of humor, so it was beautiful. We all met on the first read-through, when everything had been cast. That’s make-or-break time because you know instinctively, as soon as you meet everybody, whether it’s going to work or not. I just had a warm feeling where I thought, “This is going to be fun. These guys don’t take themselves too seriously, but they’re fun and they’re good actors. We’re going to have a blast.”

They’re very different from each other, but they accept each other.

DORMER: Yes. The nature of the show is that, no matter what you are, what color you are, what size you are, what you believe in, or what your sexuality is, there’s a place for you. Sam Vimes gathers orphans and damaged souls around him. I don’t think he even realizes what he’s doing, but he’s damaged himself and he wants to take them out of the world that rejected them and give them a place and a sense of worth. Ultimately, that’s what he achieves.

I also really love that you have a fair amount of scenes where all of you guys are together.

DORMER: Sometimes when you see that on the page, you go, “Oh, no, that means seven hours for one scene,” because the more actors there are, the more set-up, angles, and shots there are. But we were like, “Well, we’ll have more time to have fun and tell jokes.” There was a lot of laughter and a lot of fun.

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Image via BBC America

What happens over the course of the season seems like it will be a real test for your character, in particular. How much will the events of this season really affect him and this team?

DORMER: Hugely, I think. I think there should be another season because we know the world now and we know the characters, and at the end of the story, they will have found a hope and a strength in themselves. Whatever they tackle next, they’re going to be much better place because they’ll have more confidence to tackle it, head-on. It will still be as fun because they make mistakes. And Sam is coming out of an alcoholic haze of 20 years, so he’s starting to remember what he looks like. They’re all starting to flower. In that first season, you just start to see that little tulip open. They’ll be a glorious bunch of flowers, I hope.

It would definitely be a shame to not see these characters again. Have you had any conversations about the possibility of continuing this for more seasons? Is that something that you would want to do?

DORMER: I think we all hope to. I can’t really say anything, but I think there’s a good possibility. I know everybody wants to do it because we had so much fun. These guys are just starting, so I hope we get to do it again.

The Watch airs on Sunday nights on BBC America.

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