Not long ago Raleigh Ritchie, real name Jacob Anderson, was accosted on the New York subway by a man yelling, “F*** yeah, Grey Worm!” Such is life for those who juggle music and acting — a jumble of identities, time zones and strangers asking, “Aren’t you that guy from that thing?” But this year the 23-year-old Game of Thrones actor from Bristol has picked a side and it’s the music world that will benefit from his dark, inventive soul sound.
“Acting was a happy accident and it’s been really amazing and cool. I’ll still go back to it at some point, but I’m not doing it at all right now,” he tells me, lounging in his dressing room at the Charing Cross nightclub Heaven prior to a prestigious support slot with New York rapper Angel Haze.
As an actor he’s hardly A-list but you’ll have seen him all over the place: a dodgy boyfriend in ITV’s hit crime drama Broadchurch, up to no good with Plan B in the London gangs film Adulthood, on stage in King Lear at the Old Vic and the National’s War Horse, and the elite soldier Grey Worm in Game of Thrones.
In HBO’s heavily hyped fantasy series he leads an army of perfect soldiers called the Unsullied — physically flawless specimens apart from the fact that they’re eunuchs. Little chance of an appearance in the show’s raunchy sex scenes then but the part does require him to speak the fictional language Dothraki.
“Learning it was quite hard but funnily enough it’s the one thing where the singing and acting worlds meet, because I saw it like remembering a melody,” he says.
Actually, the two worlds meet in other ways too. His singer name, Raleigh Ritchie, is a compound of the forenames of his two favourite characters from Wes Anderson’s film The Royal Tenenbaums.
His dramatic flair also means that his music videos are strikingly different from the usual smoochy, shirt-off R&B shtick. Look up Stay Inside, his remarkable debut single from last summer, in which he’s alone in a shed building a horrifying puppet army out of junk. On Stronger Than Ever, from the start of this year, his internal struggles are visualised by an overpowering wind that affects him and no one else.
He’s charming in person, with a rich, warm speaking voice, apologetic about being a bit dazed and sleepy after staying up late to pack for LA, where he’s finishing his debut album (due in late summer). But those videos suggest a troubled individual.
“I think that’s fair to say,” he admits after a long pause. “But believe it or not I don’t really like airing my dirty laundry in person. Writing is therapy for me.” He says he has a line in a new song called Never Better: “Even my f***ing therapist couldn’t get my name right”, which is drawn from real life.
“I didn’t have a great experience with [therapy],” he says. But he’s found that music has helped his mental wellbeing since he started writing songs in his mid-teens, before his acting career took off. He mostly sings in smooth tones but raps too when the music heats up.
“It was a really good way to talk, because I was pretty quiet at school. I don’t talk to people about how I feel but I can turn it into a song.”
His school in Bristol had a new music suite, where he was able to learn how to create beats using the computer software Cubase. Initially he was writing songs for a girl to sing, but they fell out when she wasn’t doing it the way he heard it in his head, so she told him in far from polite terms to sing his own material. He picked up a manager as a teenager, who saw him supporting the soul singer Terri Walker in his home-town.
At the same time, his drama teacher was pushing him to attend open auditions. “I kind of slept through school. I wasn’t engaged at all. My exercise books were empty at the end of the year. But I didn’t sleep through drama, probably because there wasn’t a desk, so my teacher sent me to this audition.”
He started racking up the traditional small roles — The Bill, Casualty — and moved to London at just 17 because he was so busy. Now he’s based in quiet Golders Green with his girlfriend, Mr Selfridge actress Aisling Loftus.
He was writing songs all the while, developing a concert persona that’s as compelling as any role he has played. He could be a rock star, bouncing and thrashing until his baseball cap flies off, straining at the microphone and visibly giving it his all.
“I can’t even believe that anyone’s paying to see me,” he says. “It’s so weird that there’s a good possibility that at least 10 people I don’t know have bought my music.”
Now some significant people are taking an interest too. Urban soul duo The Internet, a spin-off from the controversy-baiting US rap crew Odd Future, loved an early song of his, so have reworked four of his tracks for a free mixtape, to be given away online next Wednesday. They’ve given an edge to his emotional sound, smudging it with woozy electronica to put it in the same drawer as the acclaimed futuristic R&B of Frank Ocean and The Weeknd.
As with his support slots with hot LA rapper Kendrick Lamar last year, it’s an impressive connection that sets him apart from his Brit-soul peers. Of his many roles, Raleigh Ritchie is definitely the name to remember.
Move to the music: Actors-turned-singers
The sex symbol went all out for musical credibility on her debut album, Anywhere I Lay My Head, in 2006. It was produced by Dave Sitek of TV on the Radio, featured David Bowie and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and contained 10 Tom Waits covers. Her smoky voice was no embarrassment either.
While we can’t seem to shake our image of him as a posh comedy buffoon over here, in the US his biggest hit is as the gruff doctor in House, which has allowed him to pull off being a blues musician too, with two recent albums behind him. If you still can’t take him seriously, rest assured he knows more about the form than you do.
As a general rule, musicians are allowed to do a bit of acting without becoming a laughing stock but not the other way around. Yet while Russell Crowe, Bruce Willis and Keanu Reeves grunt away making bad rock, occasionally someone turns out to be better at music. Look at Drake, who’s gone from a long-running role in Canadian TV series Degrassi: The Next Generation to become one of the biggest rappers in the world.
That’s the rap alter-ego of Donald Glover, best known as geeky Troy in the hit US comedy series Community. He’s also popped up in Girls and 30 Rock, which he helped to write. Today he’s rhyming full-time, with two albums of angsty, modern hip-hop to his name.
The comic actor has downplayed his abilities with the banjo but has played since his teens and has increased public interest in the bluegrass sound since he started releasing albums. He won a Grammy in 2010 for Best Bluegrass Album but still plays his Seventies novelty hit King Tut too.
Raleigh Ritchie plays Club NME at Koko, NW1 (0870 432 5527,koko.uk.com); tonight and Wireless Festival, Finsbury Park, N4 (wirelessfestival.co.uk) on July 6. Black & Blue Point Two by Raleigh Ritchie vs The Internet is available free fromraleighritchie.com on April 16