After spending years clawing his way up Hollywood’s greasy pole, Dean Jagger has landed a role in the planet’s biggest television show. “It’s all a bit surreal,” he tells Grant Woodward.
IF there were such a thing as a patron saint of Yorkshire actors, you would have to think Sean Bean would be in with a shout. One of Britain’s finest exports he may well be, but he’s never been known to stray too far from his earthy Sheffield accent.
This, as it turns out, has proved to be something of a golden ticket for those from the Broad Acres who have followed him on to one of the planet’s biggest television shows.
Leeds-born Gemma Whelan and Ralph Ineson are known to the legions of Game of Thrones fans around the world as Yara Greyjoy and Dagmer Cleftjaw respectively. Mark Addy, from York, played King Robert Baratheon and Holmfirth-raised Lena Headey fills the key role of Cersei Lannister.
Now they’re joined by Dean S Jagger, from Wakefield, who can be seen in the current series, its sixth, as Smalljon Umber, his broad West Yorkshire accent fitting the template set by Bean for inhabitants of the North, one of the Seven Kingdoms of the fantasy world in which the series is set.
Sitting outside a coffee shop in his home city, Jagger admits he’s struggling to take it all in. He was filming a cameo appearance on Sky One comedy Trollied when he got the call that the part was his. Since then, life has been slightly surreal.
The other night he was offered free food at a restaurant in return for letting slip some plot lines. As we talk, a succession of passers-by do comedy double takes and a couple find the courage to say a quick hello.
“My mother’s terrible because since I joined the show she’s become the biggest fan ever,” he laughs. “If she’s not whistling the theme tune she’s asking me what happens.
“I can’t tell her, obviously, so I keep teasing her and winding her up about it. I tell her she’ll just have to wait and see like everybody else.”
The bad news for devotees of the series is that owing to “a really big” non-disclosure agreement with its makers HBO, Jagger is unable to say pretty much anything about what the future holds in store for his character.
“It’s the same for everybody on the show,” he says apologetically. “Nobody actually knows other people’s storylines. We’ve all got NDAs and we have to respect that, so we don’t spoil it for the fans ultimately.
“It’s the biggest show on the planet and the most anticipated thing in their week, you don’t want to ruin it.”
What we do know is that Smalljon was last seen delivering Rickon Stark to Ramsay Bolton, striking a deal that looks set to pitch him into bloody conflict with the show’s hero Jon Snow. None of which will mean anything to those who aren’t avid followers of the blockbuster US series.
Suffice to say, Jagger’s character is a northern lord who commands his own army, the Umbers. He comes equipped with a hefty beard and doesn’t mince his words. A perfect role, you might think, for any proud Yorkshireman – and Jagger isn’t about to disagree.
“Smalljon is a savage but he commands his own army, so he’s got a brain,” he says. “He’s a really fun character to play because of his unpredictability. All I can say is that he’s still alive and kicking and that it’s going to be a really good season.”
Ask him about the Sean Bean Effect and he chuckles over his cappuccino.
“It’s funny actually. Right now they’re shopping round the world for these actors and they’re all coming in with Yorkshire accents. It’s nice to hear, they’re doing a good job.”
It was his dad, a film fan, who named him after the late American actor best known for his roles alongside Bing Crosby in White Christmas and as an impotent local sheriff in Bad Day at Black Rock. Jagger promptly developed an interest in the profession while at Ossett School, where he describes himself as something of a daydreamer.
He enrolled in a youth theatre company in Bradford but it ended up taking a backseat to another passion, rollerblading. In the early nineties, he and brother Ben, a year younger than 37-year-old Dean, became the poster boys of the fledgling sport in Britain. At 18 he turned professional and it took him around the world.
By the age of 25 he’d decided to give acting a proper go and bravely took himself to Los Angeles in a bid to catch a break. Feeling out of his depth and inexperienced, his agent suggested he offer his services for free in a series of tiny independent films in order to get a showreel together.
Game of Thrones had been on their radar for a while, and Jagger readily agrees that it’s the biggest part he’s landed to date. But alongside it, he and Ben are also working on their own films.
He recalls how the brothers would bond with dad Steve, a builder, over movies growing up – “Spielberg stuff, The Goonies and what not” – which gave both the film bug. Ben started out as a stuntman (youngest brother Lee is a skydiver to complete the sibling trait of quirky career paths) and then moved into directing.
The two of them write and produce together as StarTree Productions and have just been shooting vampire thriller Corbin Nash. Dean plays the title character, a New York cop who transfers to Los Angeles to hunt for his parents’ killer.
The cast includes fellow Tyke Malcolm McDowell, originally from Horsforth in Leeds, as well as Corey Feldman, who the brothers spent their evenings watching in The Goonies. But it was the addition of Blade Runner star Rutger Hauer that really got Jagger excited.
“The first day he showed up in this big SUV and I was geeking out anyway because it’s Rutger Hauer,” he says. “Later I was in the make-up trailer when he walked in and sat at the side of me. He got out the lines for one of our scenes and said, ‘Dean, what do you think about changing this line, how would you feel about this?’.
“I said, ‘You know what, do whatever you want to do.’ After he’d left I got a bit emotional. I grew up watching this man’s movies. At one point he even did a bit of his speech from the end of Blade Runner. It made my day.”
Jagger will also be seen early next year in apocalyptic action pic Scorched Earth, directed by Peter Howitt of Sliding Doors fame. A couple more opportunities are in the offing.
But whatever happens, he doesn’t seem the type to get carried away. Dividing your time between Los Angeles and Wakefield is, after all, a pretty decent leveller.
“It’s the upbringing and being from a small town,” he reflects. “Between acting jobs I do building work with my dad because it gives me perspective. It helps me know who I am and who I’m going to be.
“None of this has been easy, mate. Everything I’ve got I’ve had to fight for. Me and my brother funded our first short film by eating porridge for two months. But I think people from Yorkshire appreciate that. I’m just a regular guy from a small town who wants to do something good.”
Right now, the hard graft and sacrifice seems to be paying off.
How show took the TV crown
Game of Thrones is an adaptation of A Song of Ice and Fire, George R. R. Martin’s series of fantasy novels, the first of which is entitled A Game of Thrones.
The series is set on the fictional continents of Westeros and Essos and follows a civil war among several noble houses for the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms.
Co-creator David Benioff, a former showrunner, pitched the idea for the show as “The Sopranos in Middle-Earth”.
The winner of scores of awards, the show has millions of fans around the world, although it has been criticised for some graphic scenes of sex and violence, clocking up an average of 14 deaths per episode.
Currently in its sixth series, each episode costs around £7m to film.
Follow Dean online at: