Entertainment

After eight years and 90 hours of blockbuster television, the cast of Game of Thrones says goodbye

Liam Cunningham was standing in a livery yard in a small town in Northern Ireland, damp and miserable. The respected Irish actor, who appears in Game of Thrones as Ser Davos Seaworth, was here with Kit Harington, who plays the heroic Jon Snow, to shoot what’s known as the Battle of the Bastards — a colossal skirmish in the muck and mire that was the bloody centrepiece of the show’s sixth season. They had 25 long days of work ahead of them. Almost a month of laboriously choreographed swashbuckling and exhausting fights in heavy armour. It seemed dire.


Jon Snow.

HBO/National Post

“There’s one thing we’re going to need to get through this,” Cunningham told Harrington, as they prepared to begin on the first day. “A big f–king sense of humour.”

The Battle of the Bastards “was a pain in the ass,” Cunningham says now, from the comparative comfort of a hotel room in London, England. Extravagant action sequences such as these are to Game of Thrones what song and dance numbers are to Hollywood musicals. And they are always, whether staged on the shores of Blackwater Bay or mounted on the frozen tundra beyond the wall, the same arduous, back-breaking challenge for the cast and crew. “It doesn’t matter if it’s the Veil or Vietnam,” Cunningham explains. “It’s cold. It’s wet. There’s mud. There’s guys running by you with swords. They’re a pain in the ass to shoot, and the more of a pain in the ass they are, the better they look on screen.”

So he’s learned, like most of the rest of the cast, to adopt an attitude of good humour. It’s essential, when things are looking especially grim. “When it’s a pain in the ass, the only way to do it is to have a laugh at the misery you’re going through.”


Dany.

HBO/National Post

As Game of Thrones enters its eighth and final season, concluding a series already assured of landmark status in the history of TV, it feels appropriate to take stock of what the show has done for modern television. HBO determined, with Thrones, to make a series on the scale of a blockbuster movie — and it can be easy to forget, binging seasons at a time, how much work it takes to make something of blockbuster calibre that’s 90 hours long. It can be hard enough to shoot one movie. In terms of time and effort, the men and women behind Game of Thrones have made a dozen of them.

“The camera’s rolling for 10 hours a day,” says Kristofer Hivju, who plays the bushy-bearded Wildling leader Tormund Giantsbane. “Then you have two or three hours doing makeup, sometimes more for some characters. You have to get there and leave. A normal day could be 14 hours. It’s around the clock.” So it goes for the stars: tough stuff. But it can be harder still for others. “We’ve got the easy job,” says Rory McCann, who plays Sandor Clegane, better known as The Hound. “Think about the caterers, the extras. Christ — they’re getting picked up three in the morning to come in, even sleeping on set in cars.”


Cersei Lannister.

HBO/National Post

Given this strain, the ending comes as something of a relief for those involved. “I’m glad it’s over,” McCann admits. On the show, he’s stuck with a prosthetic burn covering most of his face. Now, he says, “I’m glad I’m not walking around with half a beard.”

Long hours can make anyone a little crazy. It’s camaraderie — a little giddy horsing around, maybe — that keeps you sane. Emilia Clarke, the breakout star synonymous with her on-screen counterpart Daenerys Targaryen, tells me she spent a lot of her time on set writing in her diary, recording memories and impressions. But what she cherishes are those moments when the actors simply hung out and goofed off. “There was a long day when everyone was filming in the studio,” she remembers. “We started playing football with a plastic water bottle that was lying around. And it turned into a full-on football match between the stars.”

Jacob Anderson and Joe Dempsie — who play the eunuch soldier Grey Worm and the bastard prince Gendry, respectively — seem to have had quite a lot of fun on set, to judge by their jocular air now. The two tease and kid each other like schoolmates in the back row at detention.


The Night King.

HBO/National Post

“It wasn’t just physically demanding stuff, but emotionally demanding, too,” Anderson says of Season 8. “A lot of really early mornings.”

“There’s also a lot of late nights,” Dempsie puts in. “And not because we were out drinking.” A pause. “It’s not Season 2.”

Which sets Anderson laughing. “Lies!”

Anderson knows how to paint a picture of the struggle. “There was one night when I watched, like, 10 episodes of The Simpsons,” he confesses. “And I thought, like, wow, I just got paid to watch 10 episodes of The Simpsons! While other people are working outside!”

“If only your career advisor could see you now,” Dempsie teases him. “They said it was impossible.”

It will be eight years this week since Game of Thrones premiered in April of 2011. The cast’s long-time regulars are inured to the demands, for the most part; but some have been facing up to them before the show even hit the air.


Arya Stark.

HBO/National Post

When the English actress Gwendoline Christie read for the part of Brienne of Tarth — a brawny knight whose oscillating allegiances bring more trouble than luck — she knew, from her years of formal training as an actor, that the main thing was to identify with the character. Brienne was a physical role. Not being particularly physical herself, Christie sensed that this was what she ought to focus on if she hoped to land the part.

So she worked. Hard. “I did a lot of physical training. I lost a lot of weight. I gained a lot of muscle,” she reflects of the time. “I did horse-riding, sword-fighting. I trained with a stuntman. I knew I had to push myself, and do more than was demanded of me.”  

The real demand, though, was on her self-perception. She had to think about herself differently — and indeed embrace aspects of her personality she’d learned long ago to shun. “I had to remove my vanity,” she says. “To cut my hair. To gain muscle. To accept my own physicality. To accept my androgyny. Society told me those were the things that made me unattractive. But I knew that if I could accept those things — even if I wasn’t successful with the show — it would be a positive change.”

“If nothing else,” she laughs, “I figured I might be able to run a mile at the end of it.”


Jaime Lannister.

HBO/National Post

(Christie has a voluminous, almost maniacal laugh, by the way, the kind that causes people in earshot to shoot up in alarm, or wince. “She has the biggest laugh you’ll ever hear,” as McCann put it to me later. He does an impersonation that sounds like a supersonic jet engine.)

The early days of Thrones were gruelling for everyone, though for some more than others. It’s hard to believe today, as they grace magazine covers, walk red carpets in Givenchy gowns and gather to talk to journalists from around the world at a press event hosted by HBO, but when the first season of Game of Thrones was in production, nobody had ever heard of many of these young stars — and many of these young stars had never really acted.

Clarke remembers well how she felt. “I was petrified. Oh my god. Petrified,” she says. “I was an absolute child when I started this. Not only did I not know what the impact of the show would be, I didn’t know what the show even was. I didn’t know what being an actor was. I didn’t know what Hollywood was. I had no idea what it would be like for women, for young people. I just didn’t know anything. I’d come from a day job, you know what I mean?” In any room, at any time, she felt like she didn’t belong there. “I was like, okay, I’m just gonna go! Easier if I leave! Imposter syndrome. You’re always gonna have it.”


Tyrion Lannister.

HBO/National Post

Iain Glen, who plays the well-intended Jorah Mormont, has spent much of his time on Thrones by Clarke’s side. A career actor himself, he sympathized with the newcomer’s plight. “She had huge pressure on her,” Glen says of the beginning. “All that, plus a silver wig on her.” Yet Glen is effusive in his praise for how she handled it. “She’s f–king amazing, Emilia. Invariably amazing. She’s an amazing girl.”

But even actors with a ton of experience often found their time on Game of Thrones revelatory — not least because Game of Thrones made every single person in it more famous, the already-acclaimed included. Jerome Flynn, who plays the roguish Bronn, has been acting steadily since the mid-1980s, and what’s more, in 1995, he had a number-one pop single in the UK as one-half of the duo Robson & Jerome. He knew what fame looked like, to some extent, but the attention he enjoys in the wake of Thrones is incomparable.

Last year, after his character shot and nearly killed a dragon, his postman refused to deliver his mail to him. (“He said, Oy, I’m not talkin’ to you!”) People routinely stop him in the street. “The amount of people who say to me — literally — ‘I hope you get your castle!’, I’ve lost count. They seem to really care.”


Bran Stark.

HBO/National Post

“My postman still talks to me,” kids Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, the Scandinavian actor who plays softie-scoundrel Jaime Lannister. He reports that the biggest difference Game of Thrones has made to his day-to-day life are the pictures. “Selfies. A lot of selfies. Selfies are the big thing.” But he is occasionally surprised by, say, a free meal. “Last year I was in New York with my daughters, and we went to a deli. They didn’t charge me. I got a free meal, the restaurant owner said, because the Kingslayer was in town.”

Being from Westeros has benefits. Others among the cast, though, delight in their fortuitous anonymity. For instance, you would be hard-pressed to recognize Conleth Hill or Carice Van Houten as Game of Thrones stars at a glance. The former, calculating aid Varys, is totally bald on the show, but has a full head of white hair now; the latter, as the nefarious witch Melisandre, has a blazing shock of red hair, but is a brunette in person. Van Houten thinks it’s “great that people don’t recognize” her. “This is my anonymity,” Hill says, indicating his head. “Sometimes I can see people wondering why the wine man is so close to the cast, or why the security guy seems so familiar.”

Sophie Turner and Maisie Williams look quite different today than eight years ago, too; Turner done up in designer clothes, Williams with her hair bright pink. Still, one doubts they’d be mistaken for anyone else. These two have benefited more than anyone else from their time on Game of Thrones, which has seen them transform from unknown child actors to worldwide stars. They have, they are quick to point out, spent half their lives as their characters. (“We’ve been spoiled,” Turner says.) But with the show at its end, one gets the sense that their careers are poised to begin for real.

“This is the first time in 10 years that we’ve been out of the contract,” Williams says, palpably relieved. “It’s nice to just, like, be 21. Go on holiday. Dye your hair pink — couldn’t have done that before.” Williams insists there are “so many things” she wants to do with her life creatively, so many avenues she hopes in the wake of Thrones to pursue. First, though, she wants to be a person independent of her spot on Game of Thrones. “People always said to us that we’re gonna finish this and be 21 and have so much opportunity. It took a while for that to sink in.”

But Thrones was at least an extreme lesson. And having endured it all as kids, there’s not much for them to experience now that can shake them. “It was the best way to be thrown into the industry. We have so much confidence going into other projects,” Turner says. “It’s like, yeah, we saw our father get his head chopped off, I think we can handle this. We got our sex education pretty early on.”

It seems certain that Williams and Turner — still kids, really — will have long and fruitful careers with Game of Thrones behind them. It’s the older actors, the stalwart bit players with a few memorable scenes, whose prospects are perhaps less bright. No actor, of course, knows what the future will hold. But for most of those who made Game of Thrones what it is, one thing seems likely: there won’t ever be another project quite like it.

“It’s all f–king downhill from now on,” McCann says, not entirely joking. “Surely we’re gonna get at least one more job out of it — I can say, hey, remember me? But I don’t think I’ll be on a better job with a better cast or better crew. There’s no way. I bet it’s true for me. It’s f–king downhill.”

Show More

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Close