STAR EXCLUSIVE: The Game (of Thrones) is on
- Scott R. Garceau (The Philippine Star) - April 6, 2014 - 12:00am

The rains came down on London town the day we met up with the cast of HBO’s Game of Thrones, but they were not the Rains of Castemere — no treachery or bloodshed at royal nuptials; just a few muddied Doc Martens as journalists from around the world gathered in the Corinthia Hotel for sitdown interviews with cast members preparing to launch Season 4 of the fantasy series (which premieres locally on Sunday, April 13, 10 p.m.).

Well, fans know Game of Thrones is more than just “a fantasy series.” Described as Shakespearean by some, Dickensian by others, and “The Sopranos in Middle Earth” when it first aired, writers Dave Benioff and Dan B. Weiss have constructed an elaborate real-life allegory from George R.R. Martin’s fictional book series, full of political intrigue, shifting allegiances, and as much nude female flesh as HBO will allow. The Seven Kingdoms of Westeros may be imaginary, but it’s the kind of fantasy that GOT’s actors — and fans — throw themselves into, season after season.

Filmed in disparate locales such as Northern Ireland, Morocco, Croatia, Iceland, with budgets upwards of $60 million per season, it’s a vast undertaking, one in which some of the actors hardly see each other until the show gets its proper media kick-off at this posh London hotel.

Sadly, the Kingdoms of Westeros are not down with social media, so photos were not allowed of our engaging chats with the actors; but it was a serious kick to find ourselves seated at round tables where the stars played “speed date,” moving from room to room in pairs every 20 minutes to field our various queries. Also a kick: to see the very wicked Melisandre (the Red Woman) demurely attired, eating a banana while talking about her breasts being viewed by President Obama (who’s a fan of the show); watching Jaime and Brienne spar over who has the more grueling workout regime; and trying to get Shae (actress Sibel Kekilli) to reveal if her love affair with the Imp has a happy ending.

So join us, stout GOT fans, as we sit down with Jaime Lannister and Brienne, Littlefinger, Arya Stark and The Hound, Brandon Stark and Jojen, Davos and the Red Woman, and the Imp’s Whore for a round of meet the press.

Carice van Houten (Melisandre) and Liam Cunningham (Davos)

They play King Stannis’s black magic mistress and his trusted right hand — ironically, missing his fingers. But off-set, they’re a lean joke machine, finishing one another’s gags.

PHILIPPINE STAR: Anybody can die on this show. Are you scared that your characters might get wiped out?

LIAM CUNNINGHAM: Absolutely. Yeah, my bank manager’s quite scared.

CARICE VAN HOUTEN: When you see the writers in a hotel, you kind of go (worried): “Am I…?” You never know. They might not like you anymore. And we’ve heard they sometimes have dinners with people they kill off. I had dinner last year with one of the writers, and going there in a taxi I was thinking, “Wait a minute… Does this mean I’m going to…?”

L: Breaking it to you gently over Philip’s Steak.

C: It turned out to be just a nice dinner, but you never know.

L: With this show, you can have your eyes on the good guy and the next scene, his head’s off. And somebody who you despise, like Jaime’s character, you can see the humanity in him, perhaps there’s a good guy trying to get out.

We’ve heard Barack Obama is a big fan?

L: Yeah, Ben Kingsley said that Scorsese is a fan, too. And Jack Nicholson. It’s really weird knowing these people are watching the show.

C: Wait. They’ve seen my breasts!? (Laughter)

Melisandre is quite a nasty character. Tell us about her.

C: Well, yes, in Disney films she would be the bad witch. But in this world we’re creating, it’s more complex. Yes, her methods are cruel, but to play her character, you have to justify what you’re doing. So in her head, she’s doing the right thing. Which is dangerous, because that’s how people with evil plans justify what they do.

L: She’s f**king dangerous, this one. The women in this show are f**king dangerous. (Laughter) Well, we couldn’t have the extremities of violence and sex on the show if we didn’t have fully formed characters, both male and female. And that’s one reason people have taken the show to their hearts: women are not patronized in this show. Even when they get up to no good, as Carice says, it’s justified.

How far do you see into the future of the show?

C: As a character? You mean, like in the flames? (Laughs)

Because the show is so intense, how do you get out of that world?

L: Alcohol. (Laughter)

C: Such an Irish answer. Well, we joke around so much. I’m worried about the moment that he might be killed or I have to kill him…

L (to Carice, worried): Did you hear that? Do you kill me???



Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jaime Lannister) and Gwendoline Christie (Brienne of Tarth)

Jaime Lannister is the kind of rakish, swashbuckling character you’d expect in a fantasy series. Brienne is a tower of strength cloaked in armor — who happens to be a woman. The two actors who play them have fun sparring over who works out the hardest for their very physical roles.

Nikolaj, you do a great job of making someone who sleeps with his sister and pushes Bran Stark out a window into a sympathetic character. How do you manage that?

NIKOLAJ COSTER-WALDAU: It’s the writing. It’s a great character. Jaime has an honesty about him you can relate to, even when he does sleep with his sister. And even when he’s in captivity, he has a wit about him, which is so much fun to play, but also based on honesty: he’s always hitting his target. Very good at sussing out people.

As to Brienne, he’s never met somebody like her, he’s not used to spending as much time with a woman, and losing his hand, he realizes he’s met somebody he can actually trust. The trick is, even though he has a huge change, you don’t want it to seem like a whole different person. And that’s the writing.

What can you say about Tyrion and Jaime coming together in Season 4? They’ve both been brought pretty low…

Well, I think the one other person he’s always been able to trust is Tyrion. They spend a lot of time together this season. Tyrion hasn’t many friends left in King’s Landing; his sister just wants him dead. It’s quite significant that Jaime comes back, it’s interesting to explore. Though difficult to talk about without giving anything away!

Were you ever scared that your character might get killed off?

GWENDOLINE CHRISTIE: Yes! But it’s all part of the fun of the fair. You just don’t know when it’s going to end. And each series you embrace it and play it in the moment, because whatever’s happening with the character, they don’t know either.

Gwen, your role is very physical. Are you very athletic in real life? How hard is the training?

It depends what I’m doing. I can train for months on end for something specific … eight hours a day, three, four days a week.

N: (Incredulous): Eight hours a day? She trains eight hours a day? That’s not exaggerating just a little bit?

G: Well, there are breaks.

N: Eight hours a day of training!? I don’t even know any actors who train eight hours a day!

G: Well, you are naturally gifted at these things; I’m not.

N: I’m not saying you’re lying…

(They dissolve into arguing)

I’m beginning to get a picture of how you two are on the set. Gwen, some fans in the Philippines are asking, would you have a crush on Jaime Lannister in real life?

G: As an actor? I’d really like to play his part. His part in the show, not in real life.

Thanks for clearing that up. We hear the show will be faster-paced this season, with a lot of climaxes?

N: Multiple climaxes. You can’t ask for more than that, really.

G: Certainly not from a TV show! (Laughter)

Maisie Williams (Arya Stark) and Rory McCann (Sangor Clegane, “The Hound”)

An unlikely pairing that McCann described as “a bit of a Scooby/Scrappy-Do road trip,” fans are drawn to this relationship between a king’s menacing guard and the teen girl he’s transporting for ransom. With her peasant blouse and longer hair, Williams looks more feminine than her armor-wearing character, but no less strong. And McCann looks every inch the towering swordsman.

Maisie, your character is already kind of a feminist icon.

MAISIE WILLIAMS: I’m so thrilled that Arya has been so popular with people around the world. What I love is that she doesn’t need beautiful dresses and tight-fitting clothes and gorgeous hair and makeup for people to like her. It’s solidly about the character, and that’s what people love.

RORY McCANN: Go, girl! (Laughter)

What have you learned from your relationship?

R: The Hound can help his companion to survive: “This is how you dodge that sword blow or kill that person.” So a few lessons along the way, a bit of mentoring going on.

M: They’re learning from each other, because they both have assets the other needs. And if Arya is stuck with him for the foreseeable future, she may as well learn something. And he’s definitely doing something right, because the whole of Westeros is petrified of him. She’s picking up on how brutal the Hound is, maybe.

You ended up at the aftermath of the Red Wedding in Season 3. Will there be more shockers in this coming season?

R: It’s Game of Thrones, so of course. There’s no way it’s going to flatten out. They’re wracking their brains, trying to make it bigger, better, madder.

So Maisie, are the Starks ever, ever, ever getting back together?

(Laughs) Three kids left… I hope so. I would love to work with the other actors. It’s been so long (Season 1) since I’ve seen them. For the story, I don’t think that’s Arya’s direction right now, she’s given up on controlling her future, and I feel she’s just saying, “Whatever happens in this world.” I don’t think Arya thinks she’ll see them again. But for the audience, it would be great.

Maisie, you’re 16. What was it like to become part of this global phenomenon?

This is going to sound like a sob story, but I was always quite weird at school, I was bubbly and hyper, but people were, like, scared of me. I was never “the popular one” or “the pretty girl.” So when GOT happened, my mom said, “Be careful that people aren’t false friends.” And it went completely the other way: “Now you’re the weird girl who’s on a TV series.” So I have the same friends I had then, I’ve lost a few along the way, unfortunately. But it happens. I feel like I’ve grown up extremely quickly being on the show, I’m now working in an adult’s world at 16 years old. I can’t even book into a hotel because I’m under 18, but I can book a flight to North Ireland. So it’s this strange limbo where half the world is like, “Grow up,” and half the world is, “You’re still a child.”

It was hard to deal with at times. When I was 14, it was the worst year of my life, I struggled so much at school to fit back in after filming, because you have to catch up. People would ask about the show, but I just wanted to be normal again, because you live and breathe Game of Thrones. And all I wanted to do was fit in. I was okay with that, but the rest of the school wasn’t. We politely came to an agreement that I should leave — because you can’t stay in school if you don’t learn. So I was homeschooled for a while, still keeping in contact with friends.

What do you think you’ll do after the series ends?

I always wanted to dance, that was my dream, where my passion really is. I’d love to do Broadway shows or something; that would be amazing. I’m 16, I could change my mind. 

R: After Game of Thrones, I’m planning to take a bit of time off. Maybe step away from swashbuckling and cutting heads off.

Isaac Hempstead (Bran Stark) and Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Jojen)

Playing the crippled young Stark heir and his wildling mentor Jojen, Hempstead resembles a bespectacled, mop-haired Harry Potter, while Brodie-Sangster bristles a bit when asked if his parents allow him to watch the violent scenes on the show. “I’m 20,” he points out (probably not for the first time).

Tell us about your characters’ journey this season.

ISAAC HEMPSTEAD: You find out a bit more why Bran is perhaps more important than even he knows. And now we’ve moved north of The Wall, the stakes are higher. And even though Bran has glimpses of the future, he doesn’t quite know what’s out there, so there’s perhaps more threats.

THOMAS BRODIE-SANGSTER: Jojen came along in Season 3, and Bran wasn’t sure how trustworthy or useful he was — until he guides him as a sort of guru character. And in Season 4, we get further guru-ing.

I: More guru-ing, more guidance.

Your powers are also more on display?

I: Well, what’s great about the magical element of Game of Thrones is that it isn’t such a huge part of it. The characters are very skeptical — “Oh, no, there’s no such thing as White Walkers, all the dragons are dead.” And that adds an extra realism, because the magic is more interesting and more exciting. And Brandon starts to look at his powers more and more; this season they’re almost fully explored.

One of the show’s themes seems to be physical loss — Jaime loses a hand, Davos loses his fingers, you lose the use of your legs. What’s that like for your character?

I: I think Brandon has learned to deal with loss. He lost his dad, his brothers, his sisters, his home and his legs. He’s had to become hugely strong, but he would have become strong not only because of the physical loss — it’s just another knock on the head. And what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Is working with a CGI dire wolf difficult?

I: Well, we have a big stuffed version of him on set — we call him Stuffy, or Fluffy. I suppose you just use your imagination. It’s not such a bad thing, because Brandon is supposed to be seeing through the eyes of the creature, so that probably requires an internal thing.

T: I think, despite how silly it looks, it does actually help having that fluffy thing. If it’s propped up in the scene, it does remind you that there’s a wolf there. Because it’s easy to forget.

Aidan Gillen (Peter Baelish, or “Littlefinger”)

Irish actor Aidan Gillen went from playing the canny Mayor Carcetti on HBO’s The Wire to playing a more nuanced political creature on Game of Thrones. In real life, he’s a bit cagey, but relaxes when discussing TV in general.

Your character is probably the shadiest on the show. We can’t tell if you have any allegiance or if you’re just a survivor. How do you see it?

AIDAN GILLEN: As far as allegiance, I don’t tie myself too closely to anything or anyone, knowing how turbulent a world it is. While I will “play” as many people and glean as much information as I can, generally I will be looking down the road ahead, maybe even generations ahead.

Is there a political element to your character, like the Baltimore mayor you played on The Wire?

Initially, I thought, “Oh, this guy’s a politician.” But he’s not. He’s definitely a player. He could be a politician. There was probably some through-line with the character in The Wire, they do share some traits, although Carcetti developed a conscience, then lost it, became more cynical, which is probably the way political careers go.

Do you see the series as almost Shakespearean — high life, low life, fate and destiny?

Yeah, Shakespearean more than Dickensian, which is how The Wire got described a lot.

Or more like The Sopranos?

David and Dan lightly referred to it as “The Sopranos in Middle Earth” — but I’m not sure I’d see that straightaway. Just the theme of power and retaining it. But Tony Soprano was really the center of The Sopranos, and in GOT there is no center of power.

And the central character often dies.

It was groundbreaking in that respect. To have Ned Stark be that central, and his story ends in episode nine (Season 1) — it kind of reflects the real world. Being good doesn’t essentially mean you’re going to make it to the end and be the hero. Though you might have that effect on others. 

You met with series author George R.R. Martin one time. What did you say to him?

I said, “Hi, I’m Aidan. I play Littlefinger.” And he goes (deadpan), “Yeah. I know.” (Laughter) And we talked a bit about The Lone Ranger.

In terms of awards shows, is it hard for fantasy shows to get any respect?

Well, The Wire never won anything, ever. But it is regarded as one of the best shows. Probably The Sopranos was groundbreaking, and HBO is responsible for a lot of that. But I’d go back even further, to Twin Peaks, 10 years earlier. 

There definitely is a golden age of television now. There used to be a snobbery between TV and film, but now you can probably be more adventurous and less mainstream than film.

How does Littlefinger react to all the chaos around him?

When Littlefinger’s in his element is in times of chaos. Things are becoming more chaotic, and Littlefinger’s becoming more relaxed and more himself, and getting ready to roll it out, you know. We may see in Season 4 a more gentle, parental Littlefinger in terms of his relationships to Rob and Arya and Sansa Stark.

Why is GOT such a massive hit?

I think it took people by surprise. It’s done in a different way from other fantasy shows. Its scope is huge, its commitment to character and people; it’s not about dragons. The stakes are high.

The dragons are introduced very cleverly, very slowly for a fantasy series. It isn’t until the end of Season 1, this amazing moment when they’re hatched. Because you’ve built up this whole world that’s very real, and this happens. You suddenly go, “We believe in this,” because you believed in it all along.

Sibel Kekilli (Shae)

In halting English, the German-born actress, whose parents are Turkish, tackles questions about playing a prostitute on the HBO series.

You play a strong woman who happens to be a prostitute. How did you approach this character?

SIBEL KEKILLI: I had a great chance to improve the role, which was very small. Even if it’s a small part, she has so many parts in her — loyalty, love, being honest. There is always a secret in her eyes: you never know, is that real love? You cannot read her like a book. There are a few lines that give her story, like, “I was nine when my mother gave me away,” I can play with it.

There are rare writers who write those kinds of stories for women. Many times, the women characters are just like cherries on top of the ice cream. Here, they’re vulnerable, they’re strong, even if they’re prostitutes, they have power for themselves.

Shae has to be strong to survive?

The more rough your life is, the stronger you have to be. For women at this time, it was really, really hard to survive. The good thing for Shae is that she still has not lost her heart. That makes her a strong character.

What’s it like working with Peter Dinklage (who plays Tyrion Lannister, The Imp)?

He’s very witty, he has an intelligent humor. He’s really empathetic when he’s with you, like he’ll see me two minutes and ask me the day after, “Was everything okay with you? You looked sad.” It’s amazing. And this is also how he acts; he reacts when you act. He’ll listen to you. He acts with his eyes.

What about King Joffrey, who’s the most despised character on the show?

The actor who plays Joffrey, Jack Gleeson, is the sweetest guy. People laugh about that when I say it, but he’s so charming and really clever! He’s so young and doing so good, and it’s not easy being the most hated person on the show. And he’s a really, really good actor.

* * *

Game of Thrones Season 4 premieres on HBO and HBO HD on Sunday, April 13, 10 p.m. HBO GO, the network’s broadband streaming service, is also available in the Philippines exclusively through SkyCable, where the first episode premieres 12 hours after its US debut.

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