Playing the game

Game of Thrones stars (from left, top row): Jacob Anderson, Jonathon Pryce, Carice van Houton,...
Game of Thrones stars (from left, top row): Jacob Anderson, Jonathon Pryce, Carice van Houton, Bella Ramsey; bottom row: Isaac Hempstead Wright, Gemma Whelan, Iain Glen and John Bradley. Composite: HBO
The final season of Game of Thrones finally begins on Monday night after a two-year hiatus. Here, 10 of its stars, including Carice van Houten, Jonathon Pryce and Gemma Whelan, tell Killian Fox, Kathryn Bromwich and Michael Hogan what the show has meant to them. 

Carice van Houton as Melisandre. Photos: HBO
Carice van Houton as Melisandre. Photos: HBO
CARICE VAN HOUTEN

(Melisandre)

Now filming Sky series Temple and a film called The Glass House. Has had a child with partner, fellow actor Guy Pearce.

When Carice van Houten goes out in public, she often notices people giving her searching looks, as if they can't quite place where they've seen her before. When a woman came up once and asked her that, van Houten replied with the words, "The night is dark and full of terrors" - a key line from her terrifying fire priestess Melisandre. "The girl almost screamed," she recalls with satisfaction. "Not just because she recognised someone from TV, but as if she really thought I was scary. Which was fun!"

Prior to Game of Thrones, the Dutch actor was best known for her smouldering performance in Paul Verhoeven's 2006 thriller Black Book, playing a Jewish singer who joins the resistance against the Nazis. She joined the show at the start of season two, having turned down an opportunity to audition as Game of Thrones character Cersei Lannister a year earlier.

Melisandre, she admits, "was a struggle in the beginning. The things I'd done before, in film or theatre, were tragicomic roles where the focus was on human flaws, fears and doubts. This confident, religious, extreme character seemed to lack all of that. So I really had to work hard."

By season five, Melisandre reveals her frailties, but not before engineering some of the most horrifying scenes in the series. "When I had to kill the little girl Shireen [the daughter of Stannis Baratheon, whom she burns at the stake], I thought, `OK wow, this character has gone to the next level.' I was quite shocked reading that, but at the same time I thought, this is such a bold, daring scene to do."

A lot has changed for van Houten since she joined Game of Thrones in season two. She got together with the Australian actor Guy Pearce after starring with him in the film Brimstone and gave birth to their son Monte in August 2016. ("I'm happy I did the Shireen scene before I had my own kid," she says.)

As for her career, "the show definitely has opened doors," she says. "Everyone knows Game of Thrones. I had a role in The Simpsons, which was my biggest dream when I first came to LA" - she voiced Milhouse's cousin Annika van Houten in 2015 - "and that wouldn't have happened without Game of Thrones, I'm 100% sure."

John Bradley as Samwell Tarly
John Bradley as Samwell Tarly
JOHN BRADLEY

(Samwell Tarly)

Bradley is shooting two films later this year including Tale of the Wet Dog. He is dating a journalist who interviewed him about the show

"Game of Thrones was the very first audition I ever did," says John Bradley, who was fresh out of drama school in Manchester, where he's from, when he went up for the role of hapless but loveable Night's Watch recruit Samwell Tarly. "I just wanted to make a good impression on my agent, I wasn't even thinking about getting the job," Bradley recalls. Now the 30-year-old is one of the longest-surviving members of the Game of Thrones cast.

While his character fell in with Jon Snow in Castle Black, Bradley struck up a "lifelong friendship" with Kit Harington, who plays Snow, over eight years of shooting in Northern Ireland. They bonded over football (Bradley is a diehard Manchester United fan) and Alan Partridge and, during one 10-day hiatus, they retreated to Bradley's Belfast hotel room to binge ​watch "a DVD compilation of Michael Parkinson's greatest interviews while shar​ing a bottle of pink champagne​.​​ It was like Harold and Maude. We didn't get cabin fever at all​." Last year, he attended Harington's wedding to their co-star Rose Leslie.

Bradley also credits Game of Thrones with kickstarting not just his career - he appeared alongside Stanley Tucci and Natalie Dormer in Patient Zero last year and will be filming Tale of the Wet Dog in New York this northern summer - but his own love life, too: he got together with his girlfriend, entertainment writer Rebecca May, after she interviewed him about Game of Thrones. "Thrones took up my entire 20s, which is a formative time for anybody, but to spend it with amazing people doing this amazing show was just a dream," he says.

Isaac Hempstead Wright as Bran Stark
Isaac Hempstead Wright as Bran Stark
ISAAC HEMPSTEAD WRIGHT

(Bran Stark)

About to start university for the second time, studying neuroscience

Like many 19-year-olds, Isaac Hempstead Wright is off to university this year - but in his case, not for the first time. He's tried once already, but found that he was simply too famous for student life.

"I ended up being assigned a campus police officer," he recalls. "It was really full-on and I felt completely overwhelmed. I couldn't walk out of my halls without being mobbed or having to take selfies." Everyone knew where I lived. Because you're on the university email system, I'd log on to get my lecture notes and have 40 messages from random strangers saying: `Hi, Three-Eyed Raven!'."

Hempstead Wright dropped out early. Older now, and a lot wiser, he hopes this time will be different.

He was just 10 when he was cast as Bran Stark, and says: "It's been a unique upbringing, growing up on the world's biggest TV show. But I stayed at school the whole time rather than leaving and becoming a full-time stage kid, so still had a relatively normal existence. Game of Thrones just became six months of the year where I'd go and do this totally different thing: horse-riding, climbing, archery - it was like summer camp."

When it comes to keeping the show's secrets, Hempstead Wright is an old hand. "I've got good at saying absolutely nothing with a lot of words," he laughs. And what of his own clairvoyant character, last seen dropping the bombshell of Jon Snow's parentage? "Bran's story arc is fantastic," he says. "He's a disabled kid in the harshest environment, yet he doesn't just survive, he triumphs. He's not traditionally glamorous, he's not an action hero, but he could save the world."

There were tears when Hempstead Wright wrapped his last scene. "Those people have watched me grow up," he says, "so it was like saying goodbye to family."

Gemma Whelan as Yara Greyjoy.
Gemma Whelan as Yara Greyjoy.
GEMMA WHELAN

(Yara Greyjoy)

Next seen opposite Suranne Jones in forthcoming BBC period drama Gentleman Jack. Has had a baby daughter with her husband

Game of Thrones ruined Gemma Whelan's meat-free diet. "It was my first day on set, I'd never done anything that big before and I was terrified," she recalls. "I'm a pescatarian, but in the stage directions for my first scene it said: `Yara is gnawing on meaty bones'. I was too nervous to let them know I don't eat meat, so ended up eating chicken legs all day. But hey, I got a huge protein rush and grew an inch overnight. Who knew?"

Pre-Game of Thrones, Gemma Whelan was best known for comedy, performing her Chastity Butterworth character on the standup circuit and appearing in various British sitcoms, so she was delighted to diversify into a dramatic role: "It's difficult to straddle both, because people tend to pop you in a box. I'd been hoping to do drama, so it all happened serendipitously. Game of Thrones changed my career in terms of being taken seriously."

Yara Greyjoy didn't arrive until the second season, so before her audition Whelan decided to see what the fuss was about. "I thought, `Oh gawd, dungeons and dragons, not a big fantasy fan, but let's have a look.' I ended up watching 10 episodes in two nights and was hooked. Seventy actresses were up for the part. I was certain they'd hire some big name. So I was surprised when it went my way."

Described by Whelan as "a salty pirate in smelly leather trousers", Yara is a fierce seafarer whose role in the show has steadily expanded. "She's strong and empowered. I did some fight training, but it's the stuntmen who make you look really badass."

Now Whelan is about to set sail for the last time. As she says: "Yara was last seen beaten and bloodied after being taken hostage by her Uncle Euron, never to be seen again. Or is she?"

Whelan took her baby daughter with her while shooting the final series: "She knows how the show ends. If only babies could talk, she could spoil it all."

Like everyone we speak to, Whelan compares the show's cast and crew to one big family. They stay in touch on a WhatsApp group, and after our interview she's off to meet Alfie Allen (who plays Yara's brother Theon) on London's South Bank for a coffee and a catch up.

"It's a little Greyjoy reunion," she grins. "Me and Alfie hit it off immediately and remain very dear friends."

Iain Glen as Jorah Mormont.
Iain Glen as Jorah Mormont.
IAIN GLEN

(Ser Jorah Mormont)

Next appears in films The Flood with Lena Headey and What About Love with Sharon Stone

After Iain Glen came back from an audition for the pilot episode of Game of Thrones, he tried to tell himself it was just another casting, but "I couldn't stop thinking about it", he says.

Almost a decade later and his character, Ser Jorah Mormont, the exiled northern knight in the service of Daenerys Targaryen, is one of the few who have survived.

Glen was one of the more established actors going into the series, with acclaimed roles in film and theatre (he was nominated for Oliviers for both The Blue Room and The Crucible) along with a part in Downton Abbey. But his turn as the steadfast, valiant knight devoted to Emilia Clarke's Daenerys, or Khaleesi, saw him catapulted to worldwide fame. (He is familiar with the fan nickname Ser Friendzone - because of his unrequited love for Daenerys - though he says, diplomatically: "I am such a dunce when it comes to social media I don't fully understand what it is.")

There is one particular memory of the show that Glen will always cherish, he says. They were filming in a bullring in Spain and his family had come out to visit; his daughter Mary was then 8 or 9.

"The Game of Thrones family took her and dressed her up like Ser Jorah, put her in a little kilt and put blood marks and cuts on her, made her all really dirty, gave her a wee sword and sent her off to the set. The director got her to sit beside the monitor and call `Action!' and `Cut!' in a tiny little high-pitched voice, as a massive fight sequence was brought to life. That's a very fond memory and she still talks about it."

Jacob Anderson as Grey Worm.
Jacob Anderson as Grey Worm.
JACOB ANDERSON

(Grey Worm)

Currently recording his second album under the moniker Raleigh Ritchie, trying his hand at screenwriting

The first time Jacob Anderson saw himself on Game of Thrones he was mortified. Before joining the show, he had loved the first two seasons. "So I was watching the third, really enjoying it, and then my little baby face showed up and I was like `Oh, weird - what's he doing there?'."

Anderson (28) grew up in Bristol, and juggles twin careers in acting (his credits include Adulthood, 4.3.2.1. and Broadchurch) and music (he released his debut album You're a Man Now, Boy under the alias Raleigh Ritchie in 2016). When he auditioned for the part of Grey Worm, commander of the Unsullied, the warrior-eunuchs, he was surprised to be handed some sheets in a made-up language to learn. Later, shooting the first scene in an oasis in Morocco, he was convinced he was going to get fired. "I thought I was going to mess it up."

Instead, he's one of the longest-running members of the cast.

When he's not being quizzed by strangers in the street about eunuchs - "I'm not an expert" - Anderson's main concern is music. Inspired by musicians including Amy Winehouse, Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway, he started writing songs at 14. "It was an outlet to express myself, since I didn't really have people to talk to about stuff when I was growing up," he says. "I've always responded really well to confessional songwriting."

In the future, he hopes to get a part in a Marvel Cinematic Universe film ("dream big") or, at least, some roles in English. But he'll miss Thrones, even his unwieldy costume, which was so heavy it left scars on his skin. "On the last day," he remembers, "my dresser, Jade, took my armour off and I realised it was the last time I was ever going to wear it. I said, `Please, could I leave it on for just a few more seconds?' I didn't want to let go of it. And I hated wearing that costume. It's really uncomfortable."

Bella Ramsey as Lyanna Mormont
Bella Ramsey as Lyanna Mormont
BELLA RAMSEY

(Lyanna Mormont)

Can be seen playing Mildred Hubble in the UK series The Worst Witch

When Bella Ramsey was cast in Game of Thrones, she wasn't allowed to tell anyone about it until the episode that she appeared in came out. "And then," she says, "madness happened." Then aged 12, she portrayed Lyanna Mormont, head of House Mormont of Bear Island, who stands up to powerful male rulers with courage and conviction. The Hollywood Reporter called her "season 6's breakout star". People in the street started to call her "M'lady". Not long after, she was cast as the lead in The Worst Witch.

This was Ramsey's first screen role, so she thought the huge set was normal: "The first day, we filmed on horses, just before the Battle of the Bastards. That was amazing. A member of the crew pointed at the grass and said, `You know someone got employed to place those tufts of grass in very specific places?"'

Lyanna came naturally: "I like how tough she is, she doesn't take any nonsense from anyone. She's a badass, and I also like the fact she's never condescending or mean without a very good reason."

Looking back on Thrones, the thing she'll miss most is her costume.

Hannah Murray as Gilly
Hannah Murray as Gilly
HANNAH MURRAY

(Gilly)

Starring in Charlie Says, a film about the Manson family, out in May

When the first season of Game of Thrones came out in 2011, Bristol-born Hannah Murray was studying English literature at Cambridge and didn't own a TV. She hadn't seen the show when she got the audition for wildling Gilly, but realised she was on to something big when she started practising her lines: "I realised just how good the writing was from that scene, which was Sam and Gilly sitting round a fire - it was so rich and complicated and meaty."

On the first day on set she had to do CGI [computer-generated imagery] work, which she had never done before: it was a scene with Ghost, the direwolf, so she was essentially acting opposite a tennis ball on a stick. There were donkeys and pigs in the background, and she was holding a skinned squirrel.

Murray credits Game of Thrones with getting her cast in Detroit, directed by Kathryn Bigelow: "I know she's a really big fan of the show. Game of Thrones is something I'll always be grateful for - it was such an amazing, intense experience."

Kristian Nairn as Hodor.
Kristian Nairn as Hodor.
KRISTIAN NAIRN

(Hodor)

Nairn is DJing at immersive-themed spectacular Rave of Thrones

Game of Thrones was Kristian Nairn's first proper acting job. The much-loved role of Hodor - the hulking stable-boy named after the only word he is capable of saying - wasn't a bad place to start.

"I was working as a DJ and in musical theatre," says the Northern Irishman. "I didn't have any real aspirations to act, but my agent put me up for a role in Simon Pegg's film Hot Fuzz. Another one-worder, oddly enough - that was `Yarp'. I didn't get it, - by coincidence, it went to Rory McCann [who plays The Hound in GoT] - but the casting director remembered me, and four years later, called me back for Hodor."

Hodor might have had a single-word vocabulary but Nairn developed 70 ways of saying it. "There's a soundboard in a Belfast studio with me doing dozens of variations," he laughs.

"Game Of Thrones enhanced my life in so many ways. It enabled me to buy my mum a house, which is all I ever wanted to do. It taught me the craft of acting and gave me the confidence to just be myself."

Jonathon Pryce as the High Sparrow.
Jonathon Pryce as the High Sparrow.
JONATHAN PRYCE

(the High Sparrow)

Will star as Pope Francis opposite Anthony Hopkins as Benedict XVI in Netflix film The Pope, out later this year

Due to an aversion to dragons, Jonathan Pryce almost passed up the chance to be in the world's biggest TV show. "Nearly a decade ago I was sent an early script and said no, because swords and sorcery wasn't a genre that appealed to me," recalls the Welsh actor. `Without me, of course, the show went on to become this huge international success. Thankfully, they came back to me a few years later with the role of the High Sparrow."

Once called "the busiest actor in Britain", Rada-trained Pryce has played most of the greats on stage, won two Olivier and two Tony awards, starred in Hollywood hits and been a Bond villain. But he's never been more recognised than for Game of Thrones.

"It happens on a daily basis," he says, "so when I leave the house I think, `Oh God, I'd better look presentable.' Otherwise there's going to be that classic Daily Mail pic, looking unshaven, leaving the off-licence with two bottles of wine clutched under my arm. It happens in the strangest places, too. I was touring The Merchant of Venice in China and got to a remote fishing village. As I stepped off the boat, people were pointing and going `High Sparrow! High Sparrow!"'

With the High Sparrow's bare feet and simple tunic, Pryce was one of the lowest-maintenance cast members. "Mornings were easy," he says with a smile. "I'd come in, slip on a bit of sackcloth and they'd throw dirt at me. That was my makeup regime. Going barefoot wasn't great when filming in a dank, dirty cave just outside Belfast, but it was fine in Croatia and Spain."

Despite his initial scepticism, swords and sorcery grew on Pryce. "I knew I was only there for two series, but by the time it came to my death I was really enjoying it and regretted being blown up."

Season 8 of Game of Thrones premieres Monday at 1pm on SoHo. It is repeated at 8.30pm. It is available same day on Neon.

 - Guardian News and Media
 

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