Monday 11 December 2017

Game of Thrones star Liam Cunningham talks season five, fame and spoilers

As fans eagerly await series 5 of the hit fantasty series, talks to Dublin actor Liam Cunningham about fame, spoilers, the level of violence in the show - and whether his character will live to see the next series…

Game of Thrones star Liam Cunningham
Game of Thrones star Liam Cunningham
Liam Cunningham in Game of Thrones
Sophie Turner in Game of Thrones
Joe Dempsie and Liam Cunningham in Game of Thrones

Shilpa Ganatra

It's one of the biggest television sensations in decades, and on April 13, tens of thousands of people across the country will be eagerly tuning in to see what the fifth series has in store.

Yet, for all its success - first as a series of books by George RR Martin and later as a must-watch box set - the frequent depictions of brutal violence and graphic sex have led many parents to question whether they should let their children watch Game of Thrones. And if they were to encounter the real life Davos Seaworth, played by Irish actor Liam Cunningham, they might well end up asking themselves the same.

Sophie Turner in Game of Thrones
Sophie Turner in Game of Thrones

Unlike the steely Ser Davos, Liam is warm and affable when we meet. However, his colourful language is peppered with expletives - or to put it a way befitting of his GoT character, he swears like a sailor.

Take, for instance, his assessment of Twilight star Robert Pattison, with whom he is currently filming historical drama The Childhood of a Leader in Budapest. "I'd love to say he's a pig, but he's a really, really sweet, self-effacing guy," Liam says enthusiastically.

"I don't know how he's still sane after that s***. That monster of a thing happened to him, but he's an absolutely delightful guy and he's lovely to work with. A handsome f***** too." Hailing from north inner city Dublin, Liam worked as an electrician for the ESB before deciding to try his hand at acting in 1989. Since then, he's contributed to some of our biggest movies: The Wind That Shakes The Barley, Hunger, The Guard, Noble. If it's a celebrated Irish drama, you'll find his name in the credits.

Read more here: Preview for Game of Thrones fans

Sophie Turner in Game of Thrones
Sophie Turner in Game of Thrones

His international reputation is firm too, with the likes of Clash of the Titans, Safe House and Jude under his belt, as well as a stint on stage with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

And, of course, Liam now has his own monster of a thing too. Since it began airing four years ago, Game of Thrones has continually multiplied its success - not only does it rake in tens of millions of viewers a week, but it has the fifth largest Twitter following of a TV show.

Last year, Queen Elizabeth mentioned her visit to the Game of Thrones set in Belfast in her Christmas speech and there are even a new generation of Aryas and Sansas, according to BabyCentre's research into names in the UK and US. But the 53-year-old - and, indeed, the rest of the cast, which includes Peter Dinklage, Emilia Clarke and Love/Hate's Aidan Gillen - refuse to dwell on the outcome of their work.

Read more here: Let the Games Begin: Game of Thrones Liam Cunningham 

Liam Cunningham in Game of Thrones
Liam Cunningham in Game of Thrones

"You can't think too much about how big it's become - the responsibility would weigh too heavily," Liam explains. "We get our scripts, do our scenes and just make sure we don't mess it up."

He certainly doesn't. Playing Ser Davos, he rose from the slums of King's Landing to become the key advisor to potential king Stannis Baratheon. Unlike most characters in the show, Davos is a loyal man of strong morals, his passion visually expressed in Liam's famous furrowed brow.

"I think it's fair to say Davos is one probably one of the most noble characters in the show," he notes. "He's principled and decent. This guy comes from the lowest of the low and mixes with guys who are educated and have power, status and money - so he shows how none of it can make a man, or a woman, of you."

Read more here: Game of Thrones season 5 - why I won't be watching this immature cosplay convention for sociopaths

Joe Dempsie and Liam Cunningham in Game of Thrones
Joe Dempsie and Liam Cunningham in Game of Thrones

It's a drama of epic proportions, where the tense plot - revolving around different factions in the land of Westeros vying for control of the Iron Throne - is reflected in the magnitude of the production values. It helps that makers, HBO, have thrown big budgets its way. At €5.4 million an episode, Game of Thrones is the third most expensive show of all time.

A reported €14 million of the series budget is paid for by Northern Ireland Screen, which they recoup with an estimated €100 million injection to the economy. Most of Liam's parts are filmed in Titanic Studios - a handy 90-minute drive to and from his wife and three children in Dublin - but he suggests that the financial incentives aren't what steered HBO's decision to set up its HQ in Belfast.

"Everywhere offers deals -Wales, Scotland, there's a lot of places," he says. "I think it was ultimately because the studios and the locations were really close, so they weren't having to travel for 15 hours to get to location - it's the fact it's condensed there."

Read more here: Game Of Thrones star Maisie Williams joins Doctor Who 

Still, the investment in the production means that illegal downloading is a salient issue, particularly as Game of Thrones had the dubious honour of being the most illegally downloaded show last year.

"My opinion is neither here nor there, but there is a lot of publicity that comes on the back of the downloads," says Liam. "But there's a danger. If you and your mates buy a four-track for $300, do a song and put it on the internet and it's shared around, you're at a loss for $300. When you have a thousand people working on something in five countries and with 5,000 extras, it's a different matter.

"If everybody illegally downloads it, there's no Game of Thrones. It finishes. So it's a dangerous game to play. I'm not telling people not to do it - that's up to them - but there are consequences.

"It would be really good if it could go out all over the world at the same time. If they could work out the business mechanics of doing that, and it costs you a dollar to see each episode, when you've got 50 million people watching it, you'll earn your money back real quick. It could make things a lot better."

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More than for most programmes, its online popularity is a double-edged sword - something Game of Thrones knows all about. Apart from the pirating issue, it's also made the show synonymous with the word 'spoilers', especially as the series largely replicates George RR Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice novels faithfully.

"There's a sense of ownership with people who have been into the books," Liam says. "So you are always going to get a few idiots who want to spoil the fun for everybody. But it's not a scoop to get a spoiler. It's destructive; you have to be particularly stupid or evil to spoil it. One of the great things about the show is the surprise element."

He harks back to the major drama of the Red Wedding (we'll say nothing about it, to spare Liam's wrath), for which a YouTube video of readers filming the 'priceless reactions' of their partners has reached 11 million views. "These are people who have read the books and are getting a great deal of enjoyment out of these people being shocked. They're there going, 'yeah it's pretty bad. And it's going to get a whole lot worse'. It's a weird thing."

Read more here: Game of Thrones TV show will soon overtake the books 

Liam points out that the cast and crew are fans too, who are just as eager to watch the show in suspense. The new series was filmed by three units - in Belfast, Seville and Dubrovnik - running concurrently and in isolation.

Many of those involved choose not to read the scenes they're not in, so they can watch the action unfold onscreen. "We see the work at the same time as you guys, so there's this nice camaraderie between us, but also with the audience and with the fans. It's a win-win thing," he explains.

Has he read the books himself? "I've never opened the book. A book. Never mind the book," he says. In any case, the spoilers will be minimal from now as this series is set to merge Martin's last two books, A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, with more deviation from both. After that, it's a great unknown.

"We're about to overtake the books, so nobody knows what will happen," Liam says, with unmistakable satisfaction. "All the smug book-readers will be in the same position as their friends. It's going to make it more interesting.

"God knows when we'll be able to read the scripts, but [series producers] David Benioff and Dan Weiss went down to Sante Fe, where George lives, to spend a week with him. He rolled out the end of the story, so there's only a few people on the planet who know what's going to happen."

Read more here: Game of Thrones season 5: Kit Harington compares new episodes to 'horror film' 

Who does he think will claim the Iron Throne in the end?

"It ain't going to be who you would expect," he grins. "If this was being made by a $200 million film studio, it would be obvious that Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) would win it, but the beauty of the show is that with George Martin behind it, you're completely in the dark."

That includes Liam himself, of course. Given that no one's safe from a gruesome murder, if he was to go in the next series ("don't say that!" he faux-cries) how would he like to go?

"I'm trying not to think about going. But it would be interesting if it was really unexpected and caused some stink. Dramatically, it's got to be the equivalent of being hit by a bus. Do you know what I mean? Stepping out [mimes being hit by bus], and people will go 'f*** me, he got hit by a bus'."

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His rather colourful language takes me back to the issue at hand for parents across the country. As a father of three, you'd have to wonder whether Game of Thrones' extreme violence and sexual content ever bothers the real life Ser Davos?

"All you guys quite rightly would be complaining if the sex and the violence were taken out," Liam says emphatically.

"You'd think it's patronising, which it would be. The violence and sex is sometimes is horrific. It's not an easy watch. I've watched it and found myself turning my head at times - that is the nature of violence. The guys try not to shirk away from responsibility of that."

Game of Thrones begins exclusively on Sky Atlantic on April 13

Stark starlet

Sophie Turner is 19, and shouldn't be contemplating her mortality. Yet it's impossible to avoid as for the last six years, she's embodied Sansa Stark, the young noblewoman of Winterfell, for whom death is always just around the corner.

"When we part, I don't think I'll ever leave her behind," she contemplates. "When you spend six years going in and out of this character, you take pieces of her with you and you put a lot of yourself in that character as well. So in that sense, she'll always stay with me."

One of the youngest stars of the show, she's grown up in the spotlight, but her warm smile, fashion-conscious style and shy demeanour suggests she's a regular teen - only world-famous.

Luckily for her, the slow-build of Game of Thrones meant she was able to avoid the trappings of child stars and learn to take its success in her stride. "I never had that moment of 'oh my God', where it just hit me how many people watch the show and love it," she says. "It just gradually came to me. I don't think I will actually appreciate how big it is it until it's over, because meeting the press and flying for premieres is kind of a normal life for me for the past few years. I'll only appreciate it when it is all gone."

She may have to wait a while yet - she's already confirmed to play a part the title role in Mary Shelley's Monster as well as a coveted part in the all-star cast of X-Men: Apocalypse, in which she stars opposite Michael Fassbender.

For the moment, she's forming a close bond with fellow Irish actor Aidan Gillen. Continuing from the last series, the new episodes see Sansa leave the centre of the action to go into hiding with Gillen's Lord Baelish, meaning the two have forged a close friendship both on and off screen.

"I loved working in big scenes with lots of people and different things going on, so moving on to do scenes with just Aidan was different. But I am not going to complain, as we got along so well - it was just a big change. I felt I really had to step up my game, because he's always on point, and there was no distractions."

If there was any difficulty, it was in their 27-year age gap when it came to the inevitable kiss. "He has a daughter a year younger than me, which is kind of awkward for some of the scenes," she laughs, only alluding to the moment. "But I feel he is a little protective of me, which is really nice. He's a lovely person and an amazing actor."

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