The Irish star of History’s epic series Knightfall talks opportunities missed and opportunities grasped in a successful career spanning TV, film and theatre
Pádraic Delaney is currently playing a starring role in the History Channel’s epic, big-budget historical fiction series Knightfall, but he could well have found himself immersed in another epic TV series had fate not intervened a decade ago.
The Wexford actor's film debut, and breakthrough, was Ken Loach's Palme d'Or-winning The Wind that Shakes the Barley and his performance opposite Cillian Murphy, who played his brother, earned him a prestigious Shooting Star Award at the 2007 International Berlin Film Festival. Three years later he was asked to audition for the role of Jaime Lannister in HBO’s upcoming fantasy series, Game of Thrones. When the call came from his Dublin agent, however, he was in Turkey, sitting on the jury of a film festival.
"They called me and said, ‘Pádraic, there are two guys here and they’re only seeing five or six people for this new TV show and they want you to read for the part of Jaime Lannister.’ I said, ‘I’m in Turkey, I can’t come back. Can I put it on tape?’. They said no, they wanted to see me so I said I couldn’t do it."
Six months later Pádraic (41) found himself filming Blackthorn in Bolivia alongside the late Sam Shepard. Pádraic was playing the role of a young Sundance Kid in the film's flashbacks and the actor playing a young Butch Cassidy was none other than Nicholaj Coster-Waldau.
"Nicholaj said, ‘I’ve just made the first season of this show called Game of Thrones, playing Jaime Lannister. We’re not sure if it’s going to take off.’ I said, ‘I was meant to audition for that role!’. But now you couldn’t see anyone other than Nicholaj playing that role."
Game of Thrones became one of the biggest TV shows in history, outrunning the book series by George RR Martin on which it was based and ultimately ending spectacularly after eight dramatic seasons. There was always a possibility Padraic would be called up for another role, but it never happened.
"That was my only opportunity and I wasn’t there for it. But that’s how it goes!" he says. "You take one job and it leads you in one direction or you turn down something or you don’t get something – all you can do is make the best choice at that time that’s best for you."
Six years later, however, he landed a key role in History series Knightfall, which charts King Philip IV of France's persecution and ultimate burning at the stake of the Knights Templar on October 13, 1307. It's not unlike Game of Thrones in terms of scale, production values, and gritty action sequences, and the second season kicks off on History on July 2.
While Tom Cullen plays lead character Landry, a senior brother of the Knights Templar, Pádraic plays Gawain, the greatest swordsman of the Templar Order who, having sustained a leg injury while protecting his master Landry, is told by him that he can no longer fight, and is tasked instead with training the Order's new arrivals.
This does not sit well with Gawain, who struggles to remain loyal to the Order, his allegiences shifting throughout the first season. It's this struggle that drew Padraic to the role.
"When you see Gawain in episode one of season two he's pretty much a lost soul. He's failed in his task at the end of season one as the leader of the Red Army. He failed to beat the Templars and so he's been cast out and he's part of this underground medieval fight club scenario, having sex with prostitutes, drinking the whole time, literally taking the Templar template and smashing it into the ground," explains Padraic.
"He doesn't care about his own life, whether he lives or dies, and then a familiar figure in season one comes calling and offers him another change and a renewed sense of purpose and he takes it with both hands.
"So there's a lot happening with him and just when you think he has pinned his colours to the mast he changes again half way through the season and it comes as a big surprise to people. You think, yep, he's a bad guy, that's it, then something happens and he's got a conscience and he takes us on another turn which is fascinating."
A new addition to the cast for the forthcoming season is Star Wars legend Mark Hamill, who plays veteran Templar Master Talus, a role not too far removed from Luke Skywalker in many respects.
"Mark Hamill is great in this role. I don't think people will recognise him for one thing. He's adopted this physicality, he sounds like a medieval drill sergeant barking out orders. For him he says it's the role of a lifetime but obviously Luke Skywalker was the role of a lifetime!" laughs Pádraic.
"Most people born in the 70s grew up watching Star Wars films so I'm a big fan of his and he arrived out in Prague and he's just gorgeous. When we started filming we had a reunion dinner with myself and Tom [Cullen] and Simon [Merrells] and we were looking at each other going, 'working with Mark Hamill is dream come true stuff'.
"It's lovely to discover he's actually a really nice, normal man who has happened to have this extraordinary life, and he's full of anecdotes and chats. It's great to chat to someone like that who has lived his life in front of the camera."
Hamill is one of several additions and changes for the second season. While the first was predominantly warmly recieved, it was not without its flaws. This time around there is a new showrunner (Aaron Helbing replacing Dominic Minghella) and team of writers and the look and feel is noticably darker and more brooding.
"It's almost like a soft reboot," says Pádraic. "They said to the designers to take out their darker colour palettes and they're reflected in the set design and the production as a whole, in the hair and make-up and costumes.
"It's all reflective of the mood of season two, like there's a dark cloud hanging over everyone from the fallout of season one and there's that sense of foreboding leading up to Friday the 13th at the end of season two. And there are more hand held cameras so it's gritty and realistic."
Reviews in the US, where the second season has already aired, have been more positive than for the first. Indeed it can take several seasons for a series like this to bed in. GOT, for example, only surpassed The Sopranos' ratings records in season 4. However, not all shows are afforded the luxury of time.
"I watch shows that don't really kick off until the third of fourth season," says Pádraic. "You can do that nowadays with Netflix and Amazon and History - sit down and watch 10 episodes in a weekend, let it grow on yor, and see if it's for you or not."
One of the factors working in Knightfall's favour iis the recent end of Game of Thrones, as well as the fact that History's other big-budget series, Vikings, is also nearing its conclusion.
"For anyone who has withdrawal symptoms from Game of Thrones we've got a dose for them!" laughs Pádraic. "And also with Vikings winding up we're History's only historical scripted drama at the moment and there's a massive appetite out there for this kind of drama. I think that's what's going to keep Knightfall going."
Pádraic is happy to continue with Gawain's journey. A decade ago the prospect of signing on the dotted line for a six, eight, ten season series would have been "quite overwhelming", he says, but it's part and parcel of life as an actor now.
"We have all these platforms and there's more of this kind of work. It's not like doing a TV show in the past - these things are like making a movie over 20 or 30 episodes so you get to flesh out a character in the same way as a film. The production values are just the same," he says.
"What is daunting, of course, is that you're at the mercy of the audience. You may not get those six seasons. It's a business at the end of the day so you need those bums on seats to sign up."
It has been four years since the actor, who is based in south east London, performed in theatre, having originally launched his career on the stage. He performed alongside Pat Shortt, Daniel Radcliffe and Sarah Greene on Broadway in Martin McDonagh's The Cripple of Inishman. The year before that he did A Midsummer Night's Dream with Sheridan Smith and David Walliams.
"I have the itch again," he says. "I'd like to maybe do something Ireland - I haven't done anything on stage in Ireland in over a decade, maybe even 15 years!"
Knightfall season 2 premieres on Tuesday 2 July at 9pm exclusively on HISTORY.