'F*** fame. I don’t need fame or fortune' - Liam Cunningham talks fame, challenging directors, and getting on the wrong side of the tax man
Liam Cunningham opens up about the end of Game Of Thrones, the tax man, God, Steven Spielberg, Trotsky, Hollywood, Michael Fassbender and the possibility of open-top buses passing his house in the future.
How do you keep your head straight?
“I have a f***ing wife and three kids who would kick the s**** out of me if I got ahead of myself. And I have got mates who don’t give a f*** about what I do, that I have known forever. Besides, I started when I was 29. Listen, I have been up before and forgotten about, and up before and forgotten about. That’s an actor’s job – to be forgotten about. If you are not being forgotten about, you are doing it wrong. And a couple of years after Game of Thrones finishes I will be forgotten about again.
"But my ego is enormous. I can put up with being forgotten about. I don’t need to be validated by magazine covers," he laughs.
What is the longest the phone hasn’t rung for between acting jobs?
“I got myself in trouble with the f***ing tax man after The Wind That Shakes The Barley came out [in 2006]. I was on my high horse and I said, ‘I’m only doing good stuff.’ F***ing nothing came in for ages. And I ended up spending my tax money. I got in s****! It took me ten years to get the f****** off me back! I nearly had me house taken off me! People were saying ‘multi-millionaire actor!’ I was f***ing broke! You have to laugh, but there was all that.”
There was a kernel of truth in what you were saying, because if you take the wrong role, you might never work again.
“You want nerves of steel. It is very difficult when you have young kids and there is stuff coming in and you don’t have much money and [the part] is s**** and it is not as good as the stuff you want to do. “
The English writer Cyril Connolly said that the enemy of creativity is the pram in the hall. You had three prams in the hall. [Liam junior, Sean and Ellen.]
“That is absolutely, 100 per cent correct, especially when you are looking at your wife and kids and think that they have nothing invested in this and I am getting up on my f***ing high horse about ‘it’s not good enough for me to do’ and you are looking at the mortgage and your bank account. But I have managed to do along the way, as my manager use to call them, a couple of faceless crimes where I got a couple of quid together. They haven’t been as awful as they could have been! And I have paid the bills!”
Are you massively wealthy now because of Game Of Thrones?
“My hole! [Laughs] You must be joking. No, no. A few of them [the actors] are because they started in Season 1. I started in Season 2. I didn’t earn the big bucks.”
Am I allowed ask you are you alive at the end of Season 8 of Game Of Thrones?
“I am alive going into the start of Season Eight, because I was alive at the end of Season Seven.
“All I want to do is prevail. I am a tortoise. I have seen a lot of young boys running by me, going mental and thinking they’ve made it. And I have plodded along for thirty years. My ambition is to prevail. That’s all. F*** fame. I don’t need fame or fortune. F*** that. I live in the same gaff I’ve been in for thirty f***ing years. Suits me. And besides if you keep it simple, you can tell anyone you like to go f*** themselves. If you start relying on strangers for your mortgage you are compromised."
People would l be driving by on a bus taking pictures of your house!
“An open-top! ‘And here is the house of that guy who used to be in Game Of Thrones! What’s his name? Hang on, I need to look it up. Cun? Cunning? Ham? That’s where he lived.'”
“If we don’t aside our enmities and band together, we will die,“ Davos Seaworth famously declares at one point in Game of Thrones. “And then it doesn’t matter whose skeleton sits on the Iron Throne.” What was going through your head when he delivered those lines?
“I had the pleasure of speaking beautifully written words. It’s all an actor can hope for. You just hope you can do them justice.”
When Melisandre says “the great victory I saw in the flames, all of it was a lie. You were right all along. The Lord never spoke;” Davos replies: “F*** him then. F*** all of them. I am not a devout man obviously. Seven Gods. Drowned Gods. Tree Gods. It’s all the same. I’m not asking the Lord of Light for help. I’m asking the woman who showed me that miracles exist.”
How did you prepare for that speech?
“Davos is a very practical man, full of common sense. Acting-wise, I didn’t have to dig; just say simple truths.”
Are you a devout man?
“I’m not religious. I’d be with Karl Marx on that one.”
Do you see Game Of Thrones as like The Godfather meets Middle Earth?
“Somebody described Game Of Thrones as Lord Of The Rings meets The Sopranos but I have thought Davos is a little like Robert Duval’s Tom Hagen character in The Godfather.”
How do you feel that Game Of Thrones is finished?
“The show has been incredibly positive for everyone involved but it’s important not to over-stay your welcome. The story had a beginning, a middle and an end. It wouldn't be right to push it further than that. It was an unrepeatable experience, I miss it with a smile.”
What did you learn about acting – about life – from your time on Game Of Thrones?
“If you build it, they will come.”
What do you learn from your time at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1996?
“How beautiful and tricky Shakespeare is to say and transmit. And also, what panic attacks are like.”
You and Michael Fassbender won a BAFTA in 2012 for the best short for Pitch Black Heist. What are you two like when you get together? What is the chemistry between you?
“Myself and Michael enjoyed the odd sherry and some work we’re both proud of, but I haven’t seen him in a good while. “
What is the biggest misconception people have about Liam Cunningham?
“I do like the quote: ‘What other people think of you is none of your business.’ I remind myself of this, regularly.”
What was the lowest point in your life?
“The lowest point of my life hasn’t happened yet.”
What makes you angry?
“Injustice makes me very angry. People in power making decisions to drop bombs on innocents. I could go on but I won’t."
You went to South Sudan last May.
“World Vision asked me. I have done a few things for them and they said that they had an operation over there. It wasn’t some light that went on over my head. Also, I was kind of intrigued because it is the world’s newest country. 2011, I think, it got independence. And also because if we can’t get that right. It is bit of a mess. God love them, they are sixty different languages spoken, because they are sixty different tribes.
"They have about three times the population of Ireland, and about two and a half million of them have gone to northern Uganda or the surrounding countries. But the schooling has been knocked on the head. You are losing a f***ing generation of people. If you have teenage boys who don’t know how to read or write, they are easy prey for extremists. This is what the danger is, with Syria and all these places. It’s elongating that problem. The last figures in Italy said that there were over 10,000 unaccompanied minors went missing. They don’t know where they are. Now the first person to show them any generosity of spirit at all; it doesn’t take much for any evil-doer to start feeding and a year down the line, ‘You know who the problem is here? Here’s a bomb. Here’s an AK47.’ Because these people are being denied education. We’re not taking care of business here. It is not just in their interests to help the poor, to help, as we used to say growing up, the old black babies, it’s not that at all. It is protecting your kids’ future. My kids’ future. It is crucial that these kids have somewhere to live and have a decent education.
“Some of them are economic migrants, of course they are. But there is this ridiculous mindset that is really worrying, this right wing, populist thing. An economic migrant is not allowed work unless they go through the paper work. It is different when you are a refugee. This is what pisses me off about media. They try to equate economic migrants with refugees. They are two totally different things. Under International Law, refugees are entitled to sanction. The same way as we were during the famine and went to America. That wasn’t even a legal thing then. It is now. An economic migrant, even in America, they just need to be processed and they are deported if they don’t pass it. It is completely different, that’s what worries me. The media in a lot of cases blur the lines between it because they want a bit of drama for 24 hour rolling news.”
What’s your favourite book?
“You could count the number of books I’ve read on the fingers of a mitten. Scripts, I adore; books, I have problems concentrating on.”
And your favourite film?
“Apocalypse Now was my audition for acting school. It holds a special place in my heart.”
What kind of movies did you like as a kid?
“I loved every f***ing thing. Occasional French movies. Good drama. Ken Loach and all that. Play For Today. Kitchen-sink stuff. I had a voracious appetite for it. I was enthralled by it. But I didn’t think it was....[acting] was way out of my socio-economic bracket." [He grew up without a bean in Dublin's East Wall and then Coolock.]
But did you realise that, like punk with music, you didn’t have to go to Trinity College or have a posh accent to be an actor?
“It was a bit worrying early on when you walk into your acting school and a lot of them are university educated and they were talking about Ibsen and Strindberg. And I didn’t know who the f*** they were talking about. ‘Were they actors?’ I have never heard these words – Ibsen and Strindberg. But in a very short amount of time, I was like, ‘What the f*** is this? [in awe]’. I just had a voracious appetite for it.”
How did you know?
“Because I found it no problem to be working… I basically worked seven days a week for two years. I was working in ESB during the day and then in the evening I was hopping on me motorbike and driving around to the other students, getting pieces learned off. Investigating. Digging. And then on Saturday and Sunday we would do the pieces.”
What kind of stuff was it?
“Everything. I knew nothing. I had to do everything. Fucking Shakespeare. Mannerism. Kitchen-sink realism. Everything was knew. There was nothing not new. My missus brought me to three or four plays.”
You were a blank page. If you had gone to Trinity, you wouldn’t have been a blank page.
“Exactly. I was an impressionable young man. Because there was f*** all that I had done. The most enjoyment – and it still is – is the problem solving of getting a script and going: ‘How do I make that work? How do I make it believable?’ You bang it out. There is a conveyor belt thing initially in your head. Then out of somewhere it comes. Its creativity, isn’t it? I did Cracker [in 1995] with Paul Abbot. He’s a f***ing brilliant writer. Paul Laverty [The Wind That Shakes The Barley, 2006] is a brilliant writer. He is very clever how he writes stuff; makes you bring your own stuff to it.”
How do you bring your own stuff to it?
“You recognise the spirit of it, particularly in a scene. You are looking for the truth in something. Sometimes something on the page has to be overwritten to explain and sometimes, usually, it is better to play it than say. So, you try and go to your director or your producer and say: ‘You don’t need to be saying all this s****. You are giving too much away.’ People can go to the cinema or watch TV to speculate. ‘What’s going on here?, What’s she at? What’s he at? Blah bah blah.’ My job is to make people work but at the same time give them an opportunity to be enormously involved. And hopefully when I am playing a part, people will go, ‘What would I do in that situation?’ I try to do stuff that doesn’t patronise an audience. There is so much stuff that is done that is just f***ing condescending and I try to avoid that as much as possible. Although I can be bought! [Laughs] No, I’m only joking. A bit! But I refuse to patronise people. I will have stand-up rows over this. I will go [to a producer or director] ‘Do you really think your audience is that stupid that I need to say that? Really? Is that who you are aiming this for?’ I will humiliate them. I will go, ‘You better explain it to me, because if I have to say something stupid there better be a good f***ing reason for it.’"
You sound like you have talked yourself y out of a few parts...
“I have talked myself out of millions! Millions!”
Is that the true character inside of you coming out?
“I consider myself a character actor. I have done a few leads. They don’t really interest me that much, to be honest. I get bored very easily, with that sort of carry-on. But the writing on Game Of Thrones is f***ing beautiful. We get those scripts and there is virtually no re-writing of anything, which is virtually unheard of when you are doing drama, where everything seems to be a work-in-progress.”
You don’t seem like you’re acting when you are playing Davos.
“I’ll take that as a compliment. That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to let people not see the joins. I try to avoid doing trailer acting or chewing the scenery acting. Because people switch on, they are investing in you and trusting in you. So I try as much as possible to give them a good reason for pressing the button on the remote. I’m not saying you have to be worthy and clever - I’ve done a few comedies; I love a good comedy – but I also love the drama stuff. I also love the informative stuff, that’s why the Ebola thing [The Hot Zone] that I’m doing is kind of interesting.”
Do you essentially have to work out your stuff psychologically to be a good actor?
“That’s the joy of it, doing the psychological stuff. People don’t see the boring stuff when you are locked into a f***ing hotel room every evening to try to get the lines for the next day’s work. It looks great on paper. ‘Where are your filming?’ ‘South Africa.’ ‘Fair play to you!’ ‘In a f***ing hotel room learning me s*** for the next day. ‘It’s not glamourous.”
But it is more than learning lines! It’s going inside the character you are trying to convince you are.
“It is burying. And digging. All the time. Because you should never trust yourself because it makes you lazy. You always got to have doubts. So every time you do something – every time – it’s like, I’m not good enough.’ You want to get it right. I always think – and it is not false modesty here – this could have been anyone else that whatever happened to me has happened to. So, you have got to f***ing pay back. You’ve got to pay back, either people’s confidence in you, taking a chance on you.”
By not being s***.
“I’m not allowed be s***. I try not to. I try and repay the luck. Just because I would be riddled with guilt if I phoned it in... I can’t do that. I’d feel like a fraud.”
But no actor has ever seen a script and gone, ‘This is a s*** movie. I must do it.’
“F***ing right they have! [laughs] They didn’t go in thinking the script was s*** but it has certainly ended up s***. I have had that. I have come across scripts that could have been a lot better but the story is good. The dialogue might be s****. But you can sit down with your director and go, 'You happy with this?' And if they are and they think it is The Bible, Shakespeare, then you go ‘Goodbye’. That’s an indicator of what you are dealing with. That’s f***ing brutal and they are oblivious. They are oblivious to how bad it is. So you avoid them like the plague. But sometimes you can sit with a director and say ‘The dialogue is all over the place and are you giving me a bit of room to fix this in collaboration with you and they say, yeah?' That’s the journey. That can be great fun.”
What directors have you enjoyed working with?
“I have worked with fantastic people. I have worked with Spielberg. Ken Loach [The Wind That Shakes The Barley]. Ken Loach is f***ing genius. A f***ing genius. He is so good that I was sitting there thinking I am here with the master. I will walk away with loads of good directing things here. And I still don’t know how he did it. I still don’t know. He is a f***ing magician . He doesn’t even watch during a take. If you are talking to someone over there, he’ll say, ‘Off you go’ ."
He trusts you?
“No! [Laughs] He listens. He just listens. He is an anarchist. He just lets you off the f***ing leash. That’s why a lot of his stuff is improvised. He is a genuine…not the right-wing definition of anarchist."
Do you share his politics?
“Quite a bit, yeah. He is an old Trotskite. A Trotskist. They are the only politics you should have. I have always been left-leaning. You can’t trust the Right when your dad was a f***ing docker. I have got a very healthy mistrust of authority.”
Your dad is dead?
“Eighteen years ago. My mum is still alive”
Did he get to see you become an actor?
“He got to see me do a few bits and pieces. I dragged him along to see me when I was doing Passion Machine. Remember Studs? I brought him along to that. The funny thing is, when I went up to the gaff; it is the first play I brought him to because it is about football and I thought I would be safe with that. And it is funny. He used to roll his own fags. It killed him in the end. I was in the gaff. He couldn’t afford f***ing smokes. He had to move on to the roll-ups. He had this tin of them full of cigarettes. I said to him, ‘what are you doing? What’s all the fags in the box?’ He said to me, ‘Well, I’m hardly going to be able to roll them in the dark, am I?’ And I went, ‘What? You can’t smoke in the f***ing theatre!’ He said, ‘’Are you f***ing joking me!’. Apart from a couple of bands, I am not sure he had ever been to a play at all. That might have been the first play he ever went to – the one I was in."
Did you look out from the stage and see your dad there?
“He was grand. He knew it. He knew all those boys who used to play football on Sunday morning. I just thought it might be more accessible to him. A gentle introduction to his son’s chosen new profession. He was a great guy.”
What’s your mother like?
“Ah, she’s a f***ing legend. She is 84 in February. She’s still f***ing smart as a whip. We had her down on Christmas Day. I cooked for her on Christmas Day. I did dinner for ten. Six of us, plus me ma, me youngest sister and her son. I love it.”
You weren’t bleeding out your eyeballs like the wedding meal in Game Of Thrones?
“No, it was good grub! We make good grub. My son – he is still in secondary school – but he is going to be a chef.”
Does your mother ever say to you anything about Game Of Thrones?
“I don’t think she watches it. I don’t think she’s seen it. I don’t think me ma watches it. Which is kind of weird. I don’t think she has Sky.”
What do you think you have inherited from your mother?
“Oh, Jesus. I don’t know, maybe a bit of femininity. She’s clever. She’s an incredibly clever woman. She kind of hides her light under a bushel. She is a very intelligent woman. I would go to her for advice. She is just sound. She is f***ing that height [holds up hand]. She is five foot, one and a quarter. Or she used to be. She is now 84, so she is probably under that now. She is regal. She is gorgeous. She is probably the most incredible women I have ever met in my life.”
Did she teach you to be in touch with your feminine side?
“I think she probably instilled a respect for women in me, yeah."
How did she do that?
“By being a fantastic woman. And being there for me. And being lucky enough that she didn’t have to work to feed us. She was there every evening when I came home. She never gave me any grief. She was totally un-interfering and at the same time was very observant and sympathetic and allow you to make your mistakes. She is a fabulous lady.”
What was the first professional role you did?
“Apart from a couple of extra on stage just to get a feel in front of an audience, I did a thing called Dermot Bolger's The Lament for Arthur Cleary [by Dermot Bolger. It is a take over, somebody pulled out and I ended up playing the lead in that. It was about a bloke who had been away, drove motor bikes, was Dublin working class.”
Remind you of any one!
“Yeah! I had done the research! [Laughs] I remember Gene Kerrigan came down when they were putting the whole thing together. It was about thirty years ago. I was in the right place at the right time a number of f***ing times. I went in and auditioned for Paul Mercier and I had never even seen a f***ing Passion Machine play. I think I might have seen Home with Brendan Gleeson. So I auditioned for him and he gave me two plays, Studs and Wasters. Then somebody from the Royal Court in England came over and saw me doing Studs, and six months after I turned professional, I found myself on a stage in the Royal Court in Sloane Square in London. I had never been in a theatre in London. Never mind on a f***ing stage. I was playing a two-hander for six months. I had this 45 minute one act play, just me and an actress. I did well with that. Then I did Billy Roche’s The Wexford Trilogy and there was a producer from the BBC at that and they saw me and gave me a very big part in Rough Necks , about oil rig workers. That was my first foray for the BBC. Then my first movie, a speaking part really was for David Putnam, in War Of The Buttons . And on the back of that I was asked to audition for A Little Princess . I found myself going over to Hollywood.”
What is Hollywood like?
“It doesn’t hold any interest for me at all. It’s a bit like if you work for Ford. It’s a bit like living in Dagenham. I have no interest in living there. The city is too big. It feels like everyone is a transient. They are only there until they can get the f*** out."
Is that the way you are when you are in Los Angeles?
“Oh, I cant get out quick enough. I don’t want to sleep in the factory. And there is not really any point in being there. There are very few movies that are actually made in LA any more.”
You want to be an actor, not a movie star...
“A movie star is b*******. I have known people who are movie stars and I don’t see the attraction. It is a gilded cage. It is a horrible gilded cage.”
And the key is lost.
“And you don’t own the key. Someone else owns the key to the gilded cage.”
Couldn’t Game Of Thrones have become a gilded cage for you? If you don’t get out you would be forever known as Davos Seaworth?
“I will be known forever as Davos Seaworth. It will be Liam ‘Game of Thrones’ Cunningham for the rest of my f***ing life. But prior to that, I won the Palme d'Or [at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival] for The Wind That Shakes The Barley and then Hunger came out. [Liam also won an Irish Film & Television Award three times: Best Supporting Actor in a Film Award in 2006 for The Wind That Shakes the Barley and then in 2008 for Hunger as well as Best Supporting Role Drama for Game of Thrones in 2018, as well as numerous international awards for his acting.]
“I’ll just have to shave the beard off and play someone else!”
Some actors are always playing the same person.
“They are movie stars! They are appointed. No one becomes a movie star because you decide to be one. A group of people sit in a room and bestow you as a movie star. You don’t earn being a movie star. You are chosen. I don’t want to be under that cosh. I don’t want to be known as anything. I don’t give a f***. I am my own harshest critic. Sometimes I have had people come up to me and say ‘you were great in that’, when I wasn’t and I know I wasn’t. And then some people have missed something that I really worked hard on."
What was Steven Spielberg like to work with on War Horse in 2012?
“Steven Spielberg knows what he wants. Very workman-like. You wouldn’t want to be going in having never done anything before. You’d have to get the cut of his jib. He gets the measure of you. He asks simple questions to check you have done your homework. He is watching you like a f***ing hawk. You have to have your f***ing wits about you."
And did you have your wits about you?
“Of course I did. I gave him what he wasn’t expecting. That’s my job. I read the script and said, ‘What can I do with this? How can I f*** him up?’ [Laughs] I had a couple of plans if he wasn’t happy with what I did. This is what preparation is. Give him a couple of options. He make decisions very quick.”
Have you worked with any horrible directors?
“There are always a few dickheads.”
The Dignity photo exhibition showcasing photographs taken by Game of Thrones actor Liam Cunningham on a recent trip to South Sudan with World Vision will be located in the Powerscourt Townhouse centre from 11th Jan for three weeks .
World Vision’s humanitarian programmes in South Sudan are funded by the Irish people (via a grant from Irish Aid), so the purpose of this exhibition is to raise awareness for this work and to show the Irish public how their money is being put to use. www.worldvision.ie
Liam Cunningham will appear on tonight's Late Late Show on RTE One at 9.30pm