IAN WHYTE: A BIG, BIG STAR

Ian Whyte has a seriously big role in Game of Thrones having been catapulted into the hit series through a journey taking in sport, stunts and now showbiz. Elysia Agnew catches up with Ian and his wife Amy near their Tynemouth home
Ian Whyte

Sitting down to lunch with the giant from Game of Thrones is every bit the surreal experience.

It’s a low-key Monday afternoon ‘back home’ on Tyneside for basketball star turned fantasy giant, Ian Whyte.

On the opposite side of the table he may be sitting down but still he towers. Ian is a mighty 7ft 1ins tall. A big guy with a big story.

These days his job in the staggeringly successful blockbuster series Game of Thrones means time spent in an animatronic mask, body suit and stilts, so today is a welcome breather.

“The suits are enormous”, laughs 46-year-old Ian. “First thing in the morning, you go on set and it takes about an hour and a half to get into costume. There’s a whole team of artists to help glue you in.

“So no suit today I’m afraid. It’s just me,” he laughs.

Ian’s story has its own touch of fairytale. A professional sportsman who found himself swapping fixtures for film sets.

Just how do you make the leap from shooting hoops in the BBL to shooting Harry Potter scenes with Frances de la Tour?

“You often hear actors say, I was in the right place at the right time, I just ran into someone, or the phone just rang. That’s exactly what happened”, he says. “It was summer and I was in the process of deciding that I was only going to do one more (basketball) season before retiring.

“The phone rang, it was the secretary from the Newcastle Eagles – she said ‘we’ve had a casting director on the phone, she wants to talk to you…’

“My first reaction was, ‘oh dear, nobody wants to put me in a movie!’ But I passed on my number and moments later the phone rang again – it was Suzanne Smith, she was casting for Alien vs. Predator and asked me if I would audition. I’ve since found out that audition invitations are very rare.

“I went down to London on the hottest day of the year, and arrived in a tiny little parking space near Kings Cross. I was given a wetsuit and a balaclava helmet. I said, ‘OK, what do you want me to do?’ They said ‘just start running’. So that’s what I did. I was running around in circles for about 45 minutes.”

Perhaps not your average casting call, but whatever Ian did that day, he did just right. This was the summer of 2003, and what followed was a surprising career change for the athlete.

“The following day I met the director, Paul Anderson.

“We had common ground as Paul grew up in the North East and went to school in Newcastle. I met him at his hotel in London. It was just a quick briefing, enough time for him to put his dry martini down and say, yes ok – let’s do this.

“Two weeks later I was invited to go to Prague to meet the creature designers, Tom Woodruff and Alec Gillis. It was about a month later that I heard from the producer who said, ‘listen, we’ve got a job and we’d like to offer it to you’.”

Ian was thinking about retirement from sport, but Hollywood had other plans. He was poached from his playing days at the Newcastle Eagles and whisked away into the wonderful world of movie making, with a debut in creature-thriller film, Alien vs. Predator.

“We started filming in Prague in 2003,” says Ian. “We were only supposed to shoot for three months, but as soon as we started they doubled the budget, so we shot all the way through to Christmas, had two weeks off, then came back in January and shot until about April.”

From the glory days on the court, to days spent in front of a camera on set, just how easy was it to adjust?

“It was unusual to begin with. The first step in the process is a body cast. You have to go to the workshop and they basically take a plaster cast of your whole body, so they can work on you while you’re not there,” he explains.

“I think there’s an Ian all over the world now,” Amy laughs.

“At its heaviest, the Alien vs. Predator suit weighed about 45 kilos. So yes, it took a bit of getting used to – but soon became part of everyday working life,” Ian says. “It’s much, much easier to just stay in the suit all day. On one occasion, we were on nights and got wrapped up at around three o’clock in the morning. It was about a half an hour journey back to the hotel and about twenty minutes in, the phone rang, ‘can you come back please?’,” he laughs.

But it was worth the blood, sweat and tears. Ian’s first gig as a movie giant quickly led to new (and very exciting) projects with some of the biggest stars in the film industry.

“When we were shooting Alien vs. Predator, some of my colleagues had previously worked on the Harry Potter movies and said, ‘listen, when we’ve finished shooting, why don’t we give Nick Dudman a call?’ Nick is the head of the creatures department.

“So I sent an email, I introduced myself and wasn’t expecting anything to come of it. He got straight back to me and said, ‘ok, when you’re back in the UK, come down and we’ll have a little chat’.

“They were going into the fourth Harry Potter film, The Goblet of Fire. Hagrid, the giant, becomes besotted with another lady giant who is played by Frances de la Tour. She is the headmistress of a visiting school of magic called the Beauxbatons Academy.

“Madame Olympe Maxime is 8ft 6in tall, so they wanted to explore the possibility of doing it for real. They made stilts in the form of an elegant ladies’ high-heeled shoe, lifting me 18 inches off the ground and I had an animatronic mask, which was an exact replica of her head.

“I had to basically learn how to be a woman on stilts. I understand everything now,” he laughs.

Ian even had his own female coach: “Every morning I would come in and we would go through femininity routines. It was great fun.

“When she wasn’t doing her close ups, Frances de la Tour was there – you know – keeping an eye on me.

“Every time you see her in full length, that’s me. There’s one scene where the Beauxbaton girls come sweeping into the Great Hall. I’m walking behind them in my stilts and Michael Gambon, who plays Dumbledore, takes me by the hand (which must’ve been very weird for him), and greets me with a kiss.

“Frances wasn’t there when we shot that particular scene because she was working in the West End at the time. So the following day she  came up to me and she said, ‘how did I do yesterday?’. I said, ‘well,  you had your hand kissed by a knight of the realm!’ She said, ‘oh… did  I enjoy it?’”

The Harry Potter gig scored big time with Ian’s seven-year-old son.

“The credibility on Harry Potter with our little boy is great. It’s one of the films he can actually watch,” says Amy.

Madame Olympe Maxime is somewhat easy on the eye in comparison to the ice monsters and zombie giants, among many other characters his dad has portrayed in the award-winning Game of Thrones shows.

The world has gone crazy for the hit HBO series with the backstabbing and bloodletting show soaring through the ratings since it first aired back in 2011. Now, it’s one of the most anticipated shows out there, capturing fans from all spectrums (excluding seven-year-old boys, of course).

So, just how did this basketball star bag the Game of Thrones role?

“The part I auditioned for in season one was The Mountain. I didn’t get that part, but three months later they called back and said they had something for me.

“Amy was just about to give birth. I went to Belfast and shot there for two days. The scene was the second beheading in Game of Thrones.”

Reflecting on his GOT gig, he says: “Game of Thrones has been great because I’ve been in every season. I’ve been very, very lucky.

“I played White Walker in season one, very briefly in season two (don’t look out for me though, it’s almost impossible),” he laughs. “In season two I played The Mountain, and in season three I started playing the Giant. The Giants are really, really interesting characters. They are very aloof; they sort of keep themselves to themselves, yet, when you start to really get into their characters, in season five and six, they really start to show some humanity.”

Last summer, season seven bowed out in an epic blur of dragons, death and deceit – leaving us hungry for more. But GOT fans will be pleased to hear that season eight is on the horizon, expected to hit TV screens in 2019. Ian is not one for giving away scoops or spoilers; in fact, sometimes the actors themselves don’t know the full story.

“When I’m filming, particularly with Game of Thrones, I have no idea what’s going on.

“They give you the scripts that you need and when you’re on set, you can pick other stuff up, but it’s not always that clear.

“I’ll say, ‘remind me why I’m looking in this direction?’ and they’ll say, ‘oh, because so and so is standing there…’”

“It all starts with the written word. So whatever you need is there in front of you. But when you’re in a costume, the makeup is on and you’re on set talking with the director, you have other ideas, and the creative process only gets better.

“You never really know how it’s going to work until you’re on set doing it. Watching the show once it’s all been pulled together several months down the line is another experience in itself.”

On secrets, scoops and spoilers, Amy says: “He’s really good at keeping secrets.

“He’ll be filming for something and I’ll try and get it out of him, but he won’t tell me what’s happening. I’ll be reading the newspaper and it’ll say that ‘so and so’ has been spotted in Belfast and I’ll be like, ‘What? No way! Really?’”

As a professional basketball player with 80 caps for England, Ian’s job has always been about being on the move – on and off the court. Something his wife Amy, a business development manager from Newcastle, has always supported. “We’ve always managed with Ian working away,” says Amy. “Although I have to say, I always thought he was going to retire and get a normal job,” she laughs.

“We went to the first Eagles game of the season after Ian got the phone call. He said his goodbyes and then literally jumped on a plane to Prague.

“In those days, there were regular flights from Newcastle, so it was really good – I could fly out and see him every couple of weeks.

“It was very different to watching Ian at the Eagles, but I loved it.

“It was a bit of a Geordie hangout at the time,” she adds. “The director, Paul Anderson, was from Newcastle, and so was the assistant director, so you’d be getting out of the trailers and there would be jokes flying around about it feeling like we were down the Hoppings and things like that. Of course, nobody else got what was going on!”

It was Ian’s success as a professional basketball player that brought him to his adopted home of Tynemouth, where he has since settled with wife Amy and seven-year-old son, Seb.

His sporting success stemmed from a love of basketball in school. A 13-year-old with big dreams to be king of the court.

“I grew up in Brighton and started my playing career at a local team in Worthing, West Sussex,” says Ian. “I played for the under 17s a few times and then I went to America to take up a college scholarship.

“I was out of the country for four years and then I came back and played for the London Towers, followed by a spell at the London Leopards. I then went off and played for teams in France, Portugal and Belgium.

“I just bounced around Europe for a couple of years – no pun intended! I was just having fun.”

Ian returned to the UK in the late 90s and through visiting old colleagues who had moved to play in the North East, he joined the Eagles.

“At the time, Sir John Hall bought the sports club, so everything was under the umbrella of Newcastle United, but as a European-style sporting club.

“So we had the football team, the basketball team, the rugby team and the ice hockey team – I believe they also had a Le Mans 24-hour race car as well, which sounds really indulgent.

“I came up to visit some of my colleagues during the summer and ended up signing.

“It seemed to be a nice place to settle and I was with the Eagles for five years.”

Newcastle soon became his adopted home, a place he could settle with Amy – and as far as first meetings go, theirs doesn’t get much more ‘Geordie’…

“It was an eyes across a crowded nightclub moment,” smiles Ian. “At Legends on Grey Street. I think I was the tallest girl in the place,” recalls Amy.

Growing up by the sea, Tynemouth seemed the perfect place for the couple to settle down. A comforting base to return to between filming.

“Whenever Ian goes away, he comes back, we have a walk along the seafront and very quickly realise we wouldn’t want to move anywhere else,” says Amy. “We tend to hang out in Tynemouth. There are so many lovely places. We go to the Buddha Lounge on weekends, or you’ll find us having breakfast at the coast,” she adds.

“It very much feels like home now,” says Ian.

Being an on-screen giant means being on the move. Ian spends many months out of the year on location, on set and away from his home in the North East. But coming home and spending time with the family beats playing any beast, says Ian.

“Our son is seven now, so when I’m home, his schedule pretty much dictates our schedule.”

When Seb was small he’d make visits to see his dad on set with Amy.

“I mean, he’s getting older now, but there was always the concern that he would unplug something he shouldn’t, or drop a spoiler somewhere – and also, some of the films just aren’t suitable. The set of Game of Thrones probably isn’t the set to take him onto, as you can imagine”, she laughs.

Ian’s two very different career paths have meant a life on the road, whether it’s going on tour with teammates or treating cast members and creative teams as your adopted family. Ian shares some of his fondest movie making memories…

“Guy Pearce was an absolute joy to work with,” he says. “We were shooting Prometheus and the timescale of his ageing makeup was comparable to my own – about five hours. He was going through the same process himself, and there was one scene we were shooting together with a lot of technical adjustments to be made, and so we started a conversation. The scene itself took much longer than anticipated and an hour later, we were still standing there, chatting away in the middle of the set.”

Going from basketball star to movie star is a big move. It’s hard to come up with any similarities, but for Ian it was just another day job. It’s all about being prepared, turning up, doing your bit and making sure you do everything you can to put on a good show.

“I’ve been in the industry for fifteen years now – I’ve learnt a thing or two.

“I’ve always been able to move things, this is just finding a new way to do so. It’s all in the execution.”

Believe it or not – beast costumes aside – a strict fitness regime is something he’s had to keep up. Wearing the suit is a workout in itself, and it takes real persistence, determination and strength to do so.

“On some of the big productions they will have personal trainers. It depends what is required from you as an actor,” says Ian. “I stay at a high level just in case I have to go and do something tomorrow. But when you’re on a production, you could be training for a very specific thing, or rehearsing for a very specific fight scene. So that sort of training is taken on by the stunts team or the fight coordinators.”

In some ways, Ian’s career reads like a film script. The story goes like this… a boy lives by the coast and dreams of becoming a professional basketball player. After travelling the world to pursue his dreams, he relocates to the North East coast where he meets his other half and settles at a successful club.

Sounds like a pretty happy ending. It doesn’t stop there… an exciting opportunity arises and the boy with the basketball dreams goes on a whole new journey. A giant journey from the BBL, to body suits and big movie moments.

A story of heights, Hollywood and hot-blooded heroes.

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