We recently sat down with Elyes Gabel, the star of the hit show Scorpion and everyone’s favorite Dothraki on Game of Thrones, to talk about the things that matter to him, the trials and tribulations of his career, and his support of the ALS Association Golden West Chapter in honor of his grandmother.
What matters most to you (besides the obvious family & friends)? What are the things that get you out of bed in the morning?
I’ll start with my interest in creativity that guides me. At this point in my life and career, what really motivates me is creating content that combines the creativity with a purposeful intent. I don’t want to be moralistic about it. It’s been an evolution for me but it’s about involving myself in “good things”. By good things, I mean servicing areas that might be in need where I can purposefully contribute.
Take us back a bit. Where did this love of creativity and acting start? You were born in the United Kingdom?
That’s right but I moved around a bit. I was born in London, moved between Manchester and Montreal until I settled back in London when I was 16.
Did your family have a background in theater or acting? Was it something they steered you towards?
No No No. I think that’s the reason I love it so much. I wasn’t pushed into it. There was also a selfish aspect why I liked it originally. A formative experience happened when I was 10 and had just moved back to the UK. We were doing a Nativity scene in school, the fable where the rich man asks Jesus how to get into heaven. I was the rich man and put on this mad voice and all the kids started laughing. There was a sense of validation and a feeling of community.
Did you go into any formal training after that?
I started performing in theater and drama but up until age 14, I was just very good at imitating because I lived in different places. That could be from the way people speak, the rhythm, the cadence, all the way to someone’s gait. I was just a good observer. After that, I started to develop my craft more, did a lot of young theater and then enrolled at Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art. Shortly after, Webber merged with Central School of Speech and Drama.
So you’re developing your craft and then your first big break comes along in television.
Yes, my first job on a regular basis was in television when I was 21. I ended up doing around 147 hours of TV on a show called Casualty.
Some people spend years toiling away at a career, business, etc., before reaching a tipping point. Others gradually gain momentum like a snowball going down a hill. The lucky few, it just works right away. What did that process look like for you?
I left Webber Douglas after a year to do this children’s TV show where I played a mummy. I ended up spending 4 months out in Toronto filming it and it was a pain. I spent every single day getting wrapped up in bandages; I had face makeup on and cooling fans on me 24/7. But like a lot of work at the beginning of a career, you’re just trying to get your stripes and build a body of work. It doesn’t matter how talented you are, you just have to start somewhere and get something on your resume. The show wasn’t a mad success, it was a children’s show on YTV in Canada and BBC in the UK. There’s an element of working hard and putting in the time as well as fortune. I tried to do jobs that didn’t sacrifice my integrity. I worked on my music, lived in a warehouse for a bit, saved my money. And then something hit.
Game of Thrones? The Borgias?
No. I hit some truth. I didn’t want to do odd jobs and work on the things that I didn’t want to. Ultimately, I think it made me work harder on the things I did want to work on.
What did that “working harder” look like to you?
For me it comes down to working harder and an aspect of discipline. Very successful people talk about the focus they administer and finding the happiness in what you’re doing rather than looking for places to relax. That really rings true. It’s the value of discipline – that’s what got me through. That’s what led me to the proceeding jobs. Even people with a lot of stock in the public community, they still have to audition for roles or if not, they need to work really, really hard to create those jobs for themselves.
Back to Game of Thrones, you joined this show quite early as Rakharo, the bloodrider of Khaleesi. There are so many questions we want to ask. Are dragons real? How does it end? We’ll leave it more open-ended, just tell us about your experience with the show.
There was a lot of buzz about the show. I was doing The Borgias at the same time, flying back between Budapest, Malta, and Dublin. Rakharo was very much a peripheral character in the narrative. I do remember David Benioff and Dan Weiss being really lovely guys. For the size of the cast, there was a sense of inclusion and willingness to involve people from a creative standpoint.
Were there any skills you needed to learn for the show, Dothraki? Whip skills?
I actually had to ride a horse for both Game of Thrones and The Borgias. They asked me, “Can you ride a horse?” I said yes…I could not ride a horse. I went for riding lessons a few times though and did a decent job. We also had a stunt coordinator named Buster. For one scene, I sat on his shoulders, bereft of any poise, and whipped the Viserys character. It’s all about stability, mate!
Have you ever had people come up to you shouting Rakharo or some other Game of Thrones reference?
I have people come up to me from various roles but recently something funny happened. I was in London with a friend and I see three girls. All of a sudden, one girl goes, “Oh my God, that’s the guy from Casualty!” Then the next girl goes, “Oh my God, that’s the guy from Scorpion!” And the last girl goes, “Oh my God, that’s the guy from Game of Thrones!” They were like dominos, one by one shouting out a show, and they were all surprised each person named a different show!
Speaking of Scorpion, that’s been one of your more recent and longer running roles as the genius superhero Walter O’Brien. Shooting a show for 4 seasons is much different than other roles. Is there anything that makes it more challenging?
Scorpion was a lot more concentrated. There was more complicated line learning in a much shorter shooting time. The episodes were about a wealth of different subjects and it’s difficult to be an expert in a myriad of scientific topics. I would beat myself up at the start because I really like to get into the language and subtext, what do the scenes mean, etc. It was definitely challenging.
We’re now at the current point in your career. You have this desire to give back and bring awareness to various causes. Is this something you’ve always wanted to focus on?
I like to think that I’ve always had this intent to give back but it really comes down to execution. Practically, I think it’s when you have the ability to do something. I try to be discerning on what I share because audiences can get bored of people splashing themselves out there.
You’ve partnered with the ALS Association Golden West Chapter to help in the fight to end ALS and raise awareness for this terrible disease. Why is this something that’s important to you?
Many years ago, my grandmother, Noreen, found out she had MND [motor neuron disease] which is how they refer to ALS in the UK. This was a few years before she passed away in 1999. We were incredibly close. She is the closest person to me who has died of a degenerative disease or illness. When the people you love pass away, you’re obviously touched by it but I think the manner in which ALS affects people can magnify those feelings.
A lot has changed in 20 years regarding our knowledge of ALS. Yet, there are still a lot of unknowns, from diagnosis all the way to treatment and potential cures. Did you, your grandmother, and your family, feel like it was hard to understand what you were fighting?
Yeah I think you hit the nail on the head. We went to the hospital with my Grandma when she was in a wheelchair. She had experienced atrophy but her neurons were still firing, she still had some movement. It was still an aggressive stage of the disease. The disease felt like an enigma though, like you didn’t know what you were fighting. Even now, raising awareness to this horrible disease allows me to dive deeper into new medical advances and try to educate myself on the disease.
How do you think awareness can help people like your grandmother who are currently living with ALS?
I think the more ideas that are percolating around a certain issue, the more energy, the more focus, and the better chance of finding a cure. It also helps create a culture of caring when people are talking about it and are more aware of what people are going through with this horrible disease. I’ve realized through my experience that people are committing their life to care. This includes everyone from employees who work in hospitals, hospice, ALS facilities to friends and family. The more awareness around the disease, the more we can do to try and help everyone that’s affected by it.
In honor of Noreen, we created an ALS Patch to help raise awareness to this horrible disease and help support a culture of caring. All profits from the patch (retail price minus the cost of shipping and manufacturing) are donated to the ALS Association Golden West Chapter. Patches sell for $15 and can be found by using this link: https://larkshead.com/products/als-patch
For more information about ALS and how you can help, please visit alsagoldenwest.org