Everything you need to know about Game of Thrones season 7 - from the mouths of the stars themselves
As the long-awaited season seven of the cult TV series draws near, the loyal global audience is on high alert for any hint of what's to come. PAUL WHITINGTON meets the Game of Thrones cast to find out whether he can unearth any spoilers - and discovers it's the actors themselves who are the show's biggest fans
By my count, well over 100 foreign journalists - including your correspondent - have gathered at London's Corinthia Hotel for a pre- season interview session with some of Game of Thrones' stars. My round-table group includes journalists from Chile, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Croatia, Germany, Holland and Taiwan: evidence, if any were needed, of this show's spectacular global appeal.
Everyone's all a-twitter about the impending launch of season seven, the penultimate run, and actors are incredibly careful not to unwittingly drop a spoiler. All the journalists want them to, of course, and a jovial game of cat-and-mouse punctuates the surprisingly good-natured interview sessions. Everyone seems very proud of their association with this series, which demonstrates how television has matched, and even surpassed, the movie world in its ability to find and hold a massive global market.
Season six of the show was viewed by more than 25 million people, an incredible achievement for a formidably complex drama that's shown exclusively on pay-per-view channels. Since it first aired in 2011, Game of Thrones has won five Screen Actors Guild awards, 38 Primetime Emmys and countless rave reviews. The statistics are endless, but what most impresses me, as I listen to journalists who sound suspiciously like fans quizzing the actors, is the genuine affection in which the drama is held.
This, mind you, is the show that kicked off by giving us an incestuous sexual relationship between brother and sister Jaime and Cersei Lannister, which would later escalate to a rape. Horrific assaults, deaths and tortures are commonplace: Viserys Targaryen was killed by having molten gold poured over his head; Sansa Stark was raped on her wedding night; her father, Ned, who seemed like a major character, was shockingly killed at the end of season one; Stannis Baratheon sacrificed his own daughter, and Theon Greyjoy had his flute lopped off, the poor chap.
Game of Thrones is grim, no question, and yet, to hear this lot talk about it, you'd think they were discussing episodes of Little House on the Prairie. What gives? And how come something so epically violent has won over so many hearts?
The show's success was not instant. In 2006, a decade after the first Game of Thrones novel had been published, George R.R. Martin's agent sent copies of the first four A Song of Fire and Ice novels to screenwriter David Benioff. He was instantly hooked, contacted his friend and collaborator Daniel Weiss, and suggested they adapt Martin's stories into a television series.
A fantasy genre that would cost as much as $10 million per episode was not an easy sell, but HBO decided to back it. Although George Martin wrote a single episode for each of the first four seasons, his overall involvement was minimal, and Benioff and Weiss's drama has now diverged from Martin's novel cycle, and will finish long before the writer's novel cycle - he still has two left to write.
When the first season aired in the spring of 2011, not everyone was impressed by its unique mix of gritty reality, fantasy elements and shocking violence. There were an awful lot of characters, the plot was labyrinthine, and actor Stephen Dillane, who played Stannis Baratheon in the show, said the frequent sex scenes reminded him of "German porn from the 1970s".
But the show's appeal turned out to be cumulative. Solid viewing figures during season one would creep ever higher thereafter, and by the time season two got under way, a social media buzz had gathered around Game of Thrones that has since become deafening.
Sophie Turner, who plays Sansa Stark, essentially grew up in Game of Thrones, having worked on the show since she was 14. For her, the fuss around it was easy enough to deal with, because it felt "gradual". "The show didn't become a success overnight," she tells us. "It was successful enough, but it wasn't till around season three or four that it kind of really took off."
That success, she believes, has come "because they've got the balance between fantasy elements and the human elements just right. It's fantastical enough that it provides a sense of escapism, but not too far-fetched that we miss the human elements and the human relationships. And if you put dragons and white walkers aside, it feels like a very real show."
That may partly be because in creating it, George Martin was inspired by real history as much as fantasy. He has been called 'the American Tolkien', and the TV show has been described as 'The Lord of the Rings meets The Sopranos'. But the plots of Shakespeare's history plays also hang heavy in the air, and Martin has said that the War of the Roses inspired the rivalry between the houses of Lannister and Stark.
Cersei Lannister, one of the drama's most compelling characters, was in part modelled on Isabella of France, the scheming wife of Edward II; Martin's 'Wall' echoes Hadrian's Wall; and the Crusades, the Hundred Years War, the Renaissance and the Sack of Rome are all seamlessly woven into the fabric of Martin's compellingly convincing alternate history.
Liam Cunningham, the Dublin actor who plays the grim-faced knight and former pirate Davos Seaworth, has always seen the drama as "a study of power, and the corrupting nature of power, and what it can do to reasonably good people".
"Take Cersei Lannister as an example," he continues. "This is a woman with multiple murders to her credit, and all sorts of bad stuff, but because she has power, and because she's deranged by her love for her children, she's transformed into a kind of monster. I find all that interesting - this drug of power, what it does to reasonably-minded people, and the drama that ensues from that."
He believes that Game of Thrones' unpredictability is key to its success. "What's wonderful about the show," he says, "is that it's open to interpretation. An audience wants to work; they want to speculate, you know: 'Where's this going? Why am I being shown this?' If you're sitting there doing the ironing while you're watching it, that's what soaps are for, whereas you need to pay attention with this."
The show certainly is gloriously hard to second-guess, and viewers who become attached to particular characters are always taking a risk. John Bradley, who plays Samwell Tarly, tells me that in this regard David Benioff and D.B. (Daniel) Weiss set out their stall very early on.
"When you saw Ned Stark getting beheaded before the end of the first season," he says, "you realised that that was such a breaking of the rules that anyone could be next. It set a precedent that the appropriate people won't always die at the appropriate time. It's just like life - some people survive and some people don't, and it's mainly down to luck."
This willingness to throw even well- established major characters under the bus certainly keeps the actors on their toes. "I suppose it's not that unusual, in a way," Liam Cunningham says, "I mean, in soaps people go in every week not knowing what's going to happen to their characters. But it's kind of interesting to work like this, where you're just kind of thrown stuff.
"The day the scripts arrive, that's a big day in my house: I get a big pot of coffee and here we go - 'Am I dead?'"
Sometimes, the showrunners play mean tricks on the cast. Scottish actor Rory McCann, who plays the furious, mountainous knight Sandor Clegane, recalls the time when Alfie Allen (Theon Greyjoy) got sent a fake script in which his character died. "Mind you," McCann says, "Alfie deserved it. I think it must be horrible, though - you think you've been killed off and then they go, 'We're only joking.' They've got a funny sense of humour, Dan and Dave."
Carice van Houten, aka the shadowbinder Melisandre, finds the build-up to a new season similarly unnerving. "Any time anyone says 'winter is coming'," she says, "you worry. In the beginning, I was frustrated about not knowing the arc, because as an actor you feel you need to know where it's ending. But then I got used to not knowing and now it's a really nice surprise when you get the script, and that's a really great moment now, because it's like life. Nobody knows what's going to happen tomorrow."
When Liam Cunningham was first approached about Games of Thrones way back in 2010, he had his doubts. "My agent rang me up and said, 'Look, there's this series coming out with dragons,' and I said, 'Let me stop you there,' and they said, 'No, no, no, it's HBO,' and I went, 'Okay.' So they sent me the first script, and they did talk to me the first year about another role, then they came back and they said, 'We're going to go another way with it but we've got some really interesting characters coming next year.' And I kind of thought, 'Yeah, that's Hollywood letting me down gently.'
"But sure enough, true to their word, they came back and said, 'We'd like to talk to you about this Davos Seaworth character,' and 10 DVDs were sent to my house, which I watched. So before I started, I could see how good it was. But, I mean, people have said to me, 'Did you know it was going to be this big?' Nobody knew it was going to be this big."
Fellow Dubliner Aidan Gillen - who's unforgettably good as the scheming courtier Petyr 'Littlefinger' Baelish - agrees. "None of us knew it was going to have such mass popular appeal," he says, "and the fact that it's such a pop-culture phenomenon, that sets it apart. You can have a conversation about this pretty much in any part of the world, which I think is quite stunning, and I don't know how many times that happens in performers' lives, but it's nice to embrace it. It's nice to be part of it, and the fact that you don't know what happens next is pretty exciting."
His character is sly and underhanded, but Gillen plays him with a twinkle in his eye and sees it "as part of my job to get the audience to like Littlefinger. Recently, I decided to list all the despicable acts. I thought, 'I just want to weigh this up and see am I good or am I bad?' And, you know, overall, I like the guy.
"People tend to think of it as a villainous role, and you can have fun playing the villains, but I think it's beyond that - I've always been trying to bring a bit of warmth to it, and just fun, and trying to make someone who commits despicable acts likeable, and sometimes it makes the audience feel kind of funny."
Throughout our long day of interviews, journalists keep looking for clues about the coming season - the penultimate one - which will consist of only seven episodes rather than the usual 10.
For Aidan Gillen, season seven will be "a continuation of that evolution of the relationship with Sansa Stark, which has been building up over the last five seasons, because that's what he sees as the most amenable route to power and serenity. And I think by the end of season six, he declared honestly to her what he was about and what he wanted, and it's kind of 'do you believe it or not?'."
"The rhythm of the show is very different this year," says Liam Cunningham, "and I don't think it's because of the seven episodes. Without giving anything away, if you remember where we left it at the end of season six, the threat of the Night's King and the huge zombie army that he has got are heading our way, so no one army is going to be able to take care of all that business - so it doesn't take much imagination to work out what has to be done."
Questions keep coming up about Ed Sheeran, who will apparently be making a cameo this season, and Danish actor Pilou Asbaek handles them best: "Ed Sheeran? Who? Is he in this season? I think the biggest surprise is going to be Elton John."
Anyone who watches Scandinavian TV dramas will be familiar with Asbaek's work. Before taking on the role of ruthless pirate captain Euron Greyjoy in season six, Asbaek had starred in the hit Danish shows Borgen and The Killing. But nothing quite prepared him for the hysteria that surrounds Game of Thrones.
"Fame is a weird thing," he says, "because it's not what you strive for - it's not why you do your job. When you're staying at a hotel and 3,000 crazy people are standing outside screaming every single time you have to buy cigarettes, it's… strange."
Aidan Gillen recalls a more intimate sign of how Game of Thrones would change his life. "It was early on in the show, and I was in a shop in Dublin buying some groceries. I said to the guy, 'Can I have a bag?' and he said, 'Whatever you desire, Lord Baelish,' and he produces this crisp, brown paper bag - and I knew I was in business."
Game of Thrones Season Seven begins on Sky Atlantic on July 16