Kit Harington, Emilia Clarke, Sophie Turner and MANY more Game of Thrones cast members look back on the long life of the show.
The readers over on Digital Spy have voted Game of Thrones the best show of the 21st century, and considering the impact it’s had on popular culture, it’s hard to dispute that. In honor of the accolade, Digital Spy has put together a splendid oral history of the show, stringing together older interviews with the cast with brand new ones where they look back on the early days, the explosion of popularity, and the show’s legacy. We recommend reading the whole thing, but we can hit some of the highlights here!
Game of Thrones gets started
Several actors remembered getting cast for their parts, including a couple who very nearly missed the boat. Jerome Flynn, who played Bronn, came this close to missing out on the role:
I hadn’t been on screen for about 10 years, I was thinking I might leave the business behind, but I’d also poured all my savings into renovating an old farm estate in Wales. My agent called – there’s this thing called Game of Thrones, American, medieval, I was like, ‘Oh god really, that sounds dodgy’. And I had a lot of resistance going down to London to audition.
I opened up a kitchen cabinet onto my eye and gave myself a kind of black eye. I didn’t look at the script, but I put my hair back and I suddenly felt like ‘Oh, I could be a badass’. They just saw the face and they saw that and thought, ‘Ooh yeah, he’s a bit of a killer’. I think it helped also because Dan [Weiss] and Dave [Benioff] said they had no idea about my past, about Robson and Jerome or Soldier Soldier.
Somebody sent me some blog when I got cast, from English fans of the books… and then when they found I got cast, some were desperately upset, one guy couldn’t believe that Bronn could be played by me. And one guy actually said, ‘This is the worst day of my life’… they just couldn’t put those two, Bronn and Jerome, together.
For those who don’t know, Flynn was a pop crooner back in the day, and probably wasn’t the first person people thought of to play the hardened, laconic Bronn. It worked out, though. That might also be a lesson to fans who worry that Matt Smith isn’t the right choice to play Daemon Targaryen on the Game of Thrones prequel show House of the Dragon.
Other actors seemed determined to get a role no matter how many times they were rejected. Joe Dempsie auditioned for three roles, including Jon Snow, before getting Gendry. “It just seemed like the creators had identified people that they wanted to work with, and then it was just a case of which piece of the jigsaw you fitted.”
Once filming began, first-time actors like Kristian Nairn (Hodor) were introduced to a whole new world.: “There was a huge sense of anticipation. No-one really knew how the show would be received, but one thing that was clear was how much effort HBO was putting into it. When you walk onto these sets, the sort of level of detail they have gone to, all the research they had done, you just knew this was going to be something special.”
People were working so hard. As I said it was my first acting job, but I would see other actors saying, ‘Oh my God, I haven’t seen anything like this, this is going to be something different’.
What made Game of Thrones popular?
Game of Thrones was a hit from the jump, although it wasn’t yet the phenomenon it would become. Why did it resonate so strongly? Let’s ask the cast:
Charles Dance (Tywin Lannister): “The writing is really, really good. The production values are phenomenal. It’s a very classy piece of work.”
Michelle Fairley (Catelyn Stark): “I think it’s the humane satires, it’s intrigue, it’s deception, it’s honour. I think if you take away the setting it’s stuff that everybody deals with in their life. It’s about family, it’s about honour, trust, it’s about betrayal.”
Liam Cunningham (Davos Seaworth): “A lot of people have gone, ‘I’m not into fantasy’ – it’s not about that. There are extraordinary characters in extreme situations with their lives, their loves, their hate, their betrayals, their jealousies and set against this backdrop of fantasy.”
Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen): “You can take the magic away and it stands alone as a compelling drama with complex characters. And it’s got themes running through it that people can relate to. Family and jealousy and rivalry… but then you put the magic on top of it and it makes it something even more special.”
The show also received a lot of attention (good and bad) for its explicit content. The cast had plenty of opinions on that…
Sex and nudity
Right in its first episode, Game of Thrones was pushing the edge of what kind of sexual content could be shown on TV, even on a famously risqué network like HBO. “You start out in the extreme, after episode one where [Jaime] has sex with his twin sister and he tries to kill this innocent, sweet-looking boy,” said Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who played Jaime Lannister. “It questions your moral beliefs, that’s for sure.”
I think usually as an actor you… build on your own experience. This particular aspect of his character was different. Having a relationship, an intimate relationship, with your own sister… it’s a mouthful. But what is interesting and I think what you can relate to is that you fall in love with someone you shouldn’t fall in love with, or someone it would be really inappropriate but you can’t help yourself.
Of course, also it is a different world. If you go back a couple of hundred years, the whole idea that royal families would marry cousins – it’s not that far [away].
Nevertheless, Coster-Waldau got some grief for playing such a lascivious character. “A friend of mine sent me a link to this website, about concerned parents, it was more or less a hate letter to me. ‘He will always be known as that actor. Incestuous’. It was very hateful. So that was a great thing to click on.”
There are so many people that get really passionate about this. ‘There’s too much sex! There’s too much violence! They killed a dog! Ahh!’ It’s just amazing, because it’s just fiction and we’re very serious about it.
You might not like [it], but it is what it is. [Showrunners] David Benioff and Dan Weiss, it’s the way that they chose to tell their story. And it’s in the books, it’s the source materials. It’s the way he [George RR Martin] wanted to describe this world…Do we really need to see that Hodor has a huge dick? I don’t know. But that’s the choice.
Yes, there’s a lot of sex, but I don’t think you find any of the sex scenes if you look at them, that don’t also tell a story about the characters.
All that said, you were careful about with whom you watched Game of Thrones. “I didn’t watch the first couple of episodes with my parents, my dad in particular,” remembered Emilia Clarke.
Michelle Fairley, at least, found a way around some of this: “I got a no-nudity clause so I always get to keep my clothes on… The producers put it in, not me!”
The Game of Thrones set was known for being very welcoming and professional. The cast felt comfortable enough to have some fun with each other, and with the showrunners. “I sent them an old picture where I had a buzz cut,” remembered Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. “I sent a long letter where I explained I’d taken control of my character and I want to be respected. I said that my integrity as an artist was at stake!”
I was in the car from the airport. The first AD said, ‘Do you have any hair?’ Then he explained how poor Kevin – who is the head of Hair – had been frantically trying to build a wig with what he had, which wasn’t a lot.
I said, ‘It’s just a joke! Did you really believe it?’ They all believed it. They’d also called my manager. HBO had started to talk about suing me and it had gotten out of control.
Isaac Hempstead Wright (Bran Stark) remembered filming a cut scene from the pilot, where he and Callum Wharry (young Tommen Baratheon) had a sword fight in the Winterfell courtyard: “There was a scene in the pilot where Bran and Tommen had a little sword fight and they put us in these absolutely ridiculous big sumo outfits and we were trying to have this non-choreographed sword battle. It was hysterical. Still haven’t seen any footage of it.”
That scene is actually in the books, too — Cersei is afraid that Tommen will get injured in a fight, so he’s put in way too much protective gear, which means that Bran must be too. If footage exists, I would pay to see it!
As for Kit Harington (Jon Snow), he fondly remembers the time the actual Queen of England came to visit the set, although she declined to sit on the Iron Throne. “I think it’s in her royal contract that she’s not allowed to sit on any other thrones, fictional or real. So I don’t think she was allowed to, even if she wanted.”
Richard Brake, the first actor to play the Night King, had a unique problem: he was so thoroughly made up that his castmates didn’t recognize him off the set. “I was covered in prosthetics – massive fingernails; false teeth; literally the biggest contacts you could put in a human eye – they were agonising,” he remembered. “So obviously the last thing I really felt like doing was sitting around and having chitchats between takes. I would just stay very quiet.”
On one of the first nights we were shooting ‘Hardhome’, everyone was gathering in Belfast to eat, all the actors. I showed up a little late, of course, because it takes two hours to get the make-up off. And then I sat down, and, of course, Kit and everybody went, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’ They thought I was a homeless man on the street that just popped in to have a free meal. I said, ‘No, no. I’m the Night King. I was the guy who was chasing you off the pier all day’.
And then he got on The Mandalorian. Really.
Game of Thrones blows up
Game of Thrones was always a popular show, but starting around the time the Red Wedding aired, it began to grow into something more. After Jon Snow was killed at the end of season 5, it became a full-blown force.
“It didn’t happen overnight, and I think for us that was a good thing,” said Kristian Nairn. “I mean it was always immensely popular, I just think as the seasons went on it moved from a really amazing TV show into a kind of phenomenon. It sort of turned into that thing that everyone talks about, people say over the watercooler at work.”
It’s crazy, because every TV show you watch these days, every single TV show or movie, they all reference Game of Thrones. It always blows me away. I watch a show I love and there’s a reference to Hodor, there’s a reference to Khaleesi. It’s become such a huge part of the public psyche. I don’t think we ever dreamed before season one was out that that would happen. It still happens!
It kind of grew, it really doubled per season. But we grew into it, which made it kind of easy. The cast was really down to Earth. I can say hand on heart we’re all really down to Earth. I think that’s a really nice thing. Just the whole Hollywood thing, we’re all kind of aware of that… Game of Thrones is so brutal and real. It’s important to keep it real.
But with increased fame came increased scrutiny. On set, that meant more security, with Sophie Turner (Sansa Stark) confirming some of the more extreme measures taken: cast members were given code names on call sheets, the show itself was dubbed “Face of Angels,” and the scripts self-destructed. “We wouldn’t get physical [scripts],” she said. “We would have it on an app. We would get sent sides for the scene [we were shooting] the next day. So we would have to learn it all the day before. And once you’ve read it, it disappears 24 hours later, and you can never access it again. It was tighter than the White House security!”
This also meant that there were a lot more eyeballs on the show when it messed up, and fans were happy to air their grievances when they didn’t like something. The ending, especially, stirred up a ton of controversy, but the cast themselves sound like they stand by it:
Gemma Whelan (Yara Greyjoy): “I respect and like the fact that it came to an end as and when it did because things can’t go on forever and for me, a very good ending and a place where the showrunners always wanted to end the show.”
Sophie Turner: “I was satisfied with how unpredictable the show’s ending really is. It really is so unpredictable the way that it ends up. I’m very satisfied with that.”
Although he’d since been replaced as the Night King by Vladimír Furdík, Richard Brake was also a big fan: “I really thought they did a great job with the ending,” he said. “I particularly liked the way they ended my character. I thought having Arya kill the Night King was just genius. Her character, and the way they developed her from a little girl who watched her father murdered, to the greatest assassin in the world who saves the world, was just genius storytelling.”
I kind of sensed before the season began that there would always be a group of people who would be disappointed, because no-one likes things to end. So it wasn’t surprising there was a bit of a backlash. What I found going to Comic-Cons… almost unanimously, everybody’s loved the ending. Some people wished it was longer. They may have wished for a certain person to have not died, or died. But everybody’s loved it. The backlash is often a small amount of voices making a whole lot of noise.
Although that’s not to say the cast members weren’t surprised by what happened, as Isaac Hempstead-Wright remembers:
When we got the scripts. I can remember, I was at university in Birmingham, I was reading the scripts in my student halls, and I had to double-lock the door, I was reading through them and then… I think it was episode six, I had to actually pace around the room a little bit, and go, ‘F**k!’.
Well yeah, it’s not everyday you flip to the last page and discover you get to be king.
After Game of Thrones
By all accounts, the last day on set was emotional, even for cast members like Isaac Hempstead-Wright who thought they’d be fine. “The day we wrapped was a real moment,” he said. “I mean, we were all in floods of tears and I didn’t think that I would do that. I thought I would hold it together. It was a beautiful day. I remember walking back from set, actually, rather than getting in the car, because I just wanted to enjoy the sunset. It sounds so cheesy! But I just wanted to enjoy that moment at the end of it.”
Sophie Turner, too, was broken up about moving on. “It’s like a divorce, or a death in the family, leaving Sansa behind, and leaving people behind. I think the divorce from the character is the hardest thing for me, because my adolescence has just been ‘Sophie and Sansa’. Sometimes, you get both worlds mixed up. So leaving Sansa behind is like leaving a big part of my growing up behind.”
When I wrapped in Belfast with the crew that we worked with so often, it was in the Winterfell courtyard. I wasn’t even shooting there, but the director, David Nutter, called me into the courtyard, because he knew it was my last day on set. He said to the whole crew, ‘Sansa Stark is leaving Winterfell for the last time’. As you can imagine, I bawled my eyes out.
Jerome Flynn (Bronn) was touched, as well. “There was a sense of everybody really being aware and valuing the time we had left together after sharing such an extraordinary nine years together, to be part of something that had been a phenomena. And the fact it was all coming to an end it had a deeper sense of poignancy and celebration if you like.”
So does the cast still keep in contact? “Not all of them,” Flynn said, “but as with any job you tune in with certain people and make friends with certain people, there’s not a cast WhatsApp – that would be quite a big one – but for sure I’ve made some lovely friends on it.”
Kristian Nairn had a similar response. “Not as much as I would like to because I’m always traveling and everyone else is always working too. But I still hear from Isaac [Hempstead-Wright] a fair bit. There’s sort of a handful that I was closer with. But yeah we always do stay in touch and it’s really nice.”
And no matter where all the cast members go from here, they’ll be proud to have worked on this game-changing show. “I think it’s going to follow a Star Wars/Star Trek category, in the sort of cult annals of TV history,” Nairn said. “Hopefully it will be spoken about in years to come, especially with the sequel. It will keep it in peoples’ heads. I think it will go down in history as really a game-changer in TV and movies. It really has changed how we watch TV shows and what we expect to happen.”
Gemma Whelan, too, will always feel proud to have been a part of Game of Thrones. “I look back on it with enormous fond memories. I learned a lot. I met some of my best friends for life and it would be so silly to complain about any part of it.
We just had such a great time and if you’re on the Antrim Coast freezing cold, covered in icy seawater, it was still enormous fun. A job like that doesn’t really come along very often and I think the obvious answer is the correct answer, and the cliched answer is I’m very lucky and I look back with great fondness.
Feel free to read the rest of this wonderful oral history at Digital Spy!