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Baldur’s Gate 3 actor “still thirsty to play Astarion”

We caught up with Baldur’s Gate 3’s Astarion (AKA actor Neil Newbon), who talks about fame, sex, diversity – oh, and Dungeons and Dragons.

Baldur's Gate 3 art of Astarion, played by Neil Newbon

Nobody is more thirsty for Astarion than the actor who plays him, Neil Newbon. Well, not horny thirsty like many of the vampire’s fans. But he is still passionate about the character – and he sat down with Wargamer to tell us more about his experiences with acting, the internet, and Baldur’s Gate 3.

WG: Congratulations on the BAFTA nomination! How does it feel to be nominated alongside so many of your fellow Baldur’s Gate actors?

NN: Thank you very much. It’s a full circle moment for me in many ways because before I met games, I was about to quit acting. From 2007 to 2008, which was probably one of the lowest moments in my career, to this has been quite a trip.

I’m thrilled to be nominated alongside Samantha Baos, Amelia Tyler, Tracy Wiles, and also Andrew Wincott, who’s amazing as Raphael. It’s glorious to see so many of us together, being considered amongst the top of our work.

As a gamer, I think every decade or so there comes a year filled with phenomenal titles. This [2023] was definitely one of those years, with incredible releases one after the other. With so many phenomenal games by amazing teams, it’s extraordinary to be considered amongst the top by your peers. Awards aren’t the reason we do it, but to be recognized is quite humbling.

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Baldur’s Gate 3 – and Astarion’s story in particular – features one of the most meaningful and nuanced portrayals of sex that I’ve ever seen in gaming. And the game made history as one of the few to hire intimacy coordinators. Do you think Baldur’s Gate has much to teach the gaming industry going forward?

As an actor and director, from my point of view, it’s a great precedent to set – if it is a precedent, I’m not sure if it is or not. I hadn’t been on other games with an intimacy director before, and for me, it was a real breath of fresh air to see such care and joy that Larian and Pitstop [Productions] had with working with actors, and allowing that safe space.

It was done without much conversation. The intimacy director was brought in and discussed openly with the actors very early on. It was made available to those that felt they needed it, and it didn’t hinder those like myself – who felt I didn’t need an intimacy director.

I’ve done all kinds of scenes that I feel comfortable with – sex scenes, rape scenes, violent scenes, and all kinds of horror scenes. I didn’t feel I was working beyond my safety level, but there were other actors that definitely needed an intimacy director, and it was a wonderful experience for them. I think [intimacy directing] is incredibly positive and should be standard across all entertainment – not just games, but film and television.

I also think the story that we told was a very mature, considered one. I’ve never seen a story about sex and relationships realized in this way. That’s a testament to Larian and the amazing writers. I was very blessed with Stephen Rooney, as well as the other writers who contributed to Astarion.

They handled it so maturely and realistically. I think it is a very faithful story about somebody who’s gone through this kind of trauma and is a survivor. I get to honor those kinds of stories, and people have made such incredible connections with not just my character but all the characters. What Larian has done sets the bar very high.

Baldur's Gate 3 Astarion holding hands with a dwarf Tav

I remember when Baldur’s Gate 3 came out, it got a very strange reaction from the industry. Some people were saying “this isn’t the norm, this shouldn’t be the norm”. Well, obviously it’s not the norm. It’s a really special individual game – a masterpiece, I think. But it can be a source of inspiration for where to go next, it can push games forward.

[Baldur’s Gate 3] is really telling about the industry, and also the audience. I read recently that LGBTQ+ players make up around 15% of all gamers, and yet there’s not that kind of representation in games yet. Games like Baldur’s Gate 3 – which is niche but mainstream at the same time – normalize sexuality and gender in a way that we maybe haven’t seen quite so openly.

There was Mass Effect, where you had a non-binary character and could choose your sexuality. It was limited, but still available. Dragon Age also had a bisexual character in it. Lots of games have done this, but the level of openness Baldur’s Gate 3 has expertly crafted hasn’t been seen before on this level.

It’s something that’s received a lot of praise – and some criticism from a minority.

The thing about the negative comments is, I don’t really give a shit. I’ve had cyber-bullying and trolling, but I don’t really care. I play a character, and I play him as truthfully as possible in a fictional circumstance. People don’t like him, and that’s entirely their prerogative. If you don’t like what you see, don’t play the game. I think it’s strange when people platform negatively – especially if it’s homophobic rants.

Baldur's Gate 3's Astarion, played by Neil Newbon

I’ve been called woke and all sorts of stuff, but I don’t really care. I’m anti-racist, and I’m anti-homophobia. If you think I’m woke, it doesn’t make a difference to me.

Astarion is one of many very traumatized characters in Baldur’s Gate. How did you protect yourself as an actor while exploring these topics so intensely?

I remember to love the character. I’m here to support, with great love and without judgement, whatever they do, whether it’s morally bad or good. A big part of that is making sure you’re not trying to tell your story – you’re trying to honor theirs.

I remember that it’s also not me, my life is not a part of that character. When you’re dealing with something like trauma, if there are any similarities to your own life, you have to go in there knowing that you’re telling their story, not yours. I don’t reference any trauma I have that’s similar to [Astarion’s]. Instead, I use substitutions, personalizations of things that are safe to use.

You and several of your fellow companion actors have spent a lot of time with the Baldur’s Gate community – social media and platforms like Twitch and Cameo mean we’re more connected with you than ever. What are the ups and downs of that relationship?

I do Twitch [streams] with the amazing writer Tom de Ville; we’ve been friends for decades. We present this as a comedy show and a safe, inclusive space where everyone, regardless of background, is welcome. But it’s very much a comedy show and not an invitation into mine or Tom’s private life – it’s more like we’re doing a presentation.

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We entertain people and educate people about acting. We spread inclusivity and try to be allies to the trans community, the LGBTQIA community, and people from different ethnic backgrounds. We’re also just trying to give people a good time in a safe space.

But I keep details about my life private – primarily because I think it’s boring to share what I eat in the mornings, but also because I think it’s the only way that you look after yourself as an actor. My private life is not for sale.

I’m told you’re something of a D&D enthusiast – can you tell me more about your relationship with the tabletop RPG?

I mainly got into roleplaying games with a friend of mine from when I was much younger, who was into Dragon Warriors. [D&D] was very much a gateway for all the things that were innate in me – adventure and imagination. I was always a storyteller, and by 14 or 15 I knew I wanted to be an actor, and that was it.

[Roleplaying] wasn’t about competition; it was about who could make the group laugh hardest, or who could tell the most compelling story. For me, D&D was an escape and a release.

It also helped me build strong, lifelong friendships. I was bullied at school for quite a long time, primarily (I believe) because I was different, a bit of an oddity. But I found my closest group of friends through Dungeons and Dragons. I still have my childhood friends who I started playing D&D with, even if they’re scattered all over the world.

Baldur's Gate 3 Astarion character creation screen

Why do you think Dungeons and Dragons is becoming so popular, particularly with gaming fans?

It’s so expansive – you can do anything in all kinds of settings. You’ve got Spelljammer, the classic high fantasy of Faerûn and Dragonlance, and the dark and sinister Ravenloft. It can be whatever you make of it.

I think this world is very fractured right now, with so many terrible things going on at the moment. And there’s something about sitting around and telling a story that’s incredibly ancient and human. There’s definitely a need for people to connect right now. People are scattered all over the planet, but technology allows us to jump on a computer and play with friends. They can have a few hours away from life to take stock, and then they go back with the courage to face the challenges of life.

That’s why I think [Baldur’s Gate 3] came at the right time. A lot of people found connection through this game, and they didn’t feel so alone. That’s one of the most beautiful experiences of my career – to have been a small part in a game that allowed so many to find strength and solace.

All our stories as actors, whether you’re playing an alien, a rock monster, or an elf, are all about humanity. They’re about our hopes and dreams and fears, our sorrows and joys, and how we see ourselves.

Baldur's Gate 3's Astarion, played by Neil Newbon

Stories can entertain, but they can also be political and teach people to cut through all the political bullshit. Art is the quickest way to change people’s minds or educate them. That’s why it’s the first thing destroyed by those terrible people that try to undermine democracy and freedom.

Wise words on what it means to be human, from a man who plays a vampire.

Listen, I love Astarion. I adore him – I’m one of the thirsty fans. I’m still thirsty to play him, and I haven’t really let go of him. His rhythm is still very much a part of my daily life.

It must feel great to know Astarion is a contender for the most famous vampire in D&D.

I think he gives Strahd a run for his money.

Who wins in a fight between Astarion and Strahd von Zarovich?

That depends on what they’re fighting with – great style? Otherwise, I think that’s best left up to the players to decide, not me.

For more on last year’s incredible CRPG, find out why we gave it a 10/10 Baldur’s Gate 3 review. Or, for more Dungeons and Dragons, here’s all you need to choose your next character’s DnD classes and DnD races.