'Dream Horse' star Owen Teale on the inspiring story behind the film, his acting start, and the bloody legacy of 'Game of Thrones' (exclusive)
Dream Horse feels like the unlikely story of hope we all sorely need after a year of bleak news.
Based on the award winning 2015 documentary Dark Horse: The Incredible True Story of Dream Alliance - which was itself inspired by a real Welsh community who all chipped in to support a horse that went on to give the racing elite a run for its money - it’s a wholesome and inspiring tale of overcoming the odds that, racing fan or not, kind of embodies the misty-eyed spirit of what makes going to the movies so great.
At its heart is the ever-brilliant Toni Collette who stars as Jan Vokes, the listless supermarket clerk who finds a new lease on life by adopting Dream. Flanked by Owen Teale as her gruff husband Brian, Damian Lewis as racing fanatic Howard and an ensemble cast of community misfits, Dream Horse - Directed by Euros Lyn and hitting cinemas this week - might be light on Infinity Stones or star wars - but it’s the perfect hero story following an extended break from cinema.
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“That’s the beautiful thing about it,” Teale tells Yahoo Movies UK, “it’s not a complicated film. It’s about how it surprises and engages you, and how you end up rooting for that horse.” The 60-year-old star of HBO megahit Game of Thrones and BBC One’s social-media-fodder Line of Duty has a geographical link to Dream’s origin story thanks to a childhood spent in rural South Wales. When producers first approached him to star as Collette’s salt-of-the-Earth, tattooed husband Brian, it was a role he felt an instant connection to.
“I knew people like him,” says Teale. “My grandfather was a game keeper and my mum had eight brothers and they all lived and worked very close to the land - not so much with horses but with other animals - so I guess I felt comfortable [in that world]. I’ve never had a gun in my hand or reared horses,” he says of his experience with farming life, “but I guess that’s acting, isn’t it?”
Still, there were elements of Brian - a gap-toothed former boxer and larger-than-life local - that, on paper, struck the star as slightly eccentric. “Brian was a huge challenge,” admits Teale. “He’s got arthritis, a body covered in tattoos, no teeth, a lovely sense of humour, an acceptance that he’s not the young man he once was and he adores his wife - it’s a huge mix, which we all are.
How do you know if you can pull something like that off? I thought if I’d come up with him as an invention, everyone would have said ‘No, no that’d be indulgent - you’ve gone too far’. I was asking the Director ‘do you think we can get away with wearing three different sets of false teeth?’” he chuckles. “Brian was the only one of the group who knew anything about horses - and what he knew had nothing to do with horse racing.”
Watch: Dream Horse trailer
However it’s this level of grounded, off-kilter detail that makes the improbable story of Dream Alliance and his rise to the big leagues such a heartwarming watch. “It’s inspiring stuff. When we watched it at Sundance, the crowd started to stand up and really get into it, shouting ‘Come on Dream!’” remembers Teale with a smile. “Sundance tends to be eclectic, esoteric, small and odd films that give new visions a chance to shine through, whereas this was a full-on potential blockbuster about a community. It’s a collective experience,” he reasons. “People root for the hero, cry at the failure and pain, and are moved by this story - it’s simple.”
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Teale’s talk of heartwarming blockbusters and feel-good flicks feels miles away from his humble beginnings in small-town Wales. His acting career - which started with a brush with Colin Baker’s Doctor in a 1975 episode of Doctor Who and has taken him to all the way to Castle Black as (spoilers) Jon Snow killer Alliser Thorne in Game of Thrones and the (potentially) bent copper Philip Osborne in Jed Mecurio’s Line of Duty - may be full of successes but it was far from guaranteed.
“I was living on a fairground in Barry Island dressing up as a bear,” he reveals, casting his mind back to the moment he first realised acting was his dream job. “I’d completely messed up my A-Levels and sort of ran away from that and didn’t know what I wanted to do. I met these people who were drama students working to get some money and a girl said to me ‘you’ve got to go to drama school’. I didn’t think it was possible,” says Teale candidly. “I didn’t understand that there was a process - I thought people were just plucked from behind the counter at Boots and made into stars. I believed the myth around it. I didn’t feel entitled that you could actually work at it and earn a living doing it,” he continues. “I’m very fortunate to have experienced that in my life.”
Joining the cast of David Benioff and D.B Weiss’s sprawling adaptation of George R.R Martin’s fantasy novel series in 2011 was a key moment in Teale’s journey. However he’s the first to admit that he had doubts as to whether the whole thing would pay off: “I’ve been very open about how I didn’t think Game of Thrones would work. I thought it was too huge - too much,” he explains. “I thought the general public would never hold any of its stories in their heads and it was too much like a history lesson. I knew it would be great for geeky people - but in terms of popular entertainment, people in the street and everybody knowing about it? I never saw that coming. I’ve talked to Dan and David about this and they’ve laughed at me,” adds Teale.
“History has proved me wrong - and thank God it did. I had no idea what a difference it’d make to my career. I’m utterly grateful.”
Of course, starring in such a ubiquitous hit did come with some unexpected side effects - especially when his character betrayed one of the show’s most loved stars. “It’s weird. I don’t get anger from fans - they love it,” smiles Teale, sharing fan-reactions to the moment he (temporarily) killed Kit Harrington’s Jon Snow. “Maybe they were angry at the time - especially when I said ‘For The Watch’ - but I get in the centre of Australia, Japan, everywhere - somebody will come up to me with a knife in their hands and a look of excitement in their eyes and say ‘For the watch! Will you say it for me?’” he laughs. “Young guys come up to me with phones saying ‘can I record you swearing at me?’ I’m like ‘What?’ They say ‘Be horrible to me like you do to Jon Snow!’. People love bad guys.”
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According to writer Jed Mercurio, Teale’s bad streak may very well continue in future series of viral copper hit Line of Duty. However in the meantime, he’s content enjoying the brief moment of cockle-warming levity provided by Dream Horse - and open to whatever might come next.
“My roles tend to be varied and if anything, they’re getting better as I get older - which is surprising,” says Teale. “When I was younger, there were roles I didn’t get and you’d think ‘perhaps I’m not establishing myself sufficiently as an actor.’ Somehow that feeling has gone and now I get offered lots of things. It’s a challenge and I love what I do” he adds. “I love acting, I love storytelling and if I can make somebody believe in what I’m saying so that the story is alive, that gives me such a kick. I’m a very fortunate man.”
Dream Horse is released in cinemas on 4th June.