If you’re reading this article, you’re one of two Games of Thrones people: either you just finished watching Season Six and are already eagerly in wait for Season Seven, or you missed an episode and have been waiting for the entire season to be downloadable so you can binge it all at once. If you’re in the latter category, you’ll be able to do that from today! And rest assured this interview with John Bradley (who plays Samwell Tarly) – which was conducted before the series aired – doesn’t contain any spoilers. But for people who have seen the series already, you may understand some of his more cryptic hints as to what happens in Season Six.
In this interview, John reflects on Season Five and looks ahead to Season Six as he talks about what it meant to throw the book out the door (given they’re now ahead of the source material), what it’s like working with Hannah Murray and the show’s signature “shock moments”, ultimately admitting, “we just don’t know if we’re playing good guys that are doomed, ultimately.”. Read on:
Where did we leave Sam at the end of season five?
The end of five was the culmination of a lot of hard work for Sam. Over the course of season five, you see him really coming to the fore in his manipulative, conniving best, really – in all the good ways. The first time you see him in season five, he’s talking about how if Sir Alistair becomes Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, he hates wildlings, so that means Gilly would probably be banished from Castle Black.
From that point on, his whole season five arc was about getting Jon [Snow] into a position of authority where he can then have authority over Sam and Gilly and maybe send them away. So over the course of ten episodes, it was about getting Jon elected. I think the moment when he gets beat up in the middle of the season and finally makes love to Gilly – I think that was a huge moment as well, in terms of, ‘this relationship is so important and there’s nothing left for him there, really.
There’s only Jon and if I get Jon’s blessing to leave, then nothing is keeping me here.’ So you find him at the end of season five having completed that journey, having got into a position where he’s not only going to leave Castle Black, a place he hates, but he’s going to the best possible place he could go to. He’s going to fulfil his lifetime ambition. He’s always wanted to be a maester, and he’s always put a lot of store by the importance of knowledge and academia, and how that can be applied for good, and as a result of that, you see him at the start of season six, probably the happiest we’ve ever seen him.
So where do we find him in season six?
He’s on his way to the citadel in Oldtown, which is the seat of all the maesters. You could think of it as a kind of Westeros equivalent of Oxford or Cambridge – those big seats of learning – it’s one of those. It’s what people with a vaguely academic bent in Westeros aspire to, and he’s on his way.
It’s also a shot in the arm for the father who told him that could never happen, told him it was a waste of time, told him that if you couldn’t fight physically or if you couldn’t be a great military tactician, then you have no worth at all. He was told that education and learning was just a folly, just a pastime, and that eventually he’d have to snap out of it and come into the real world. Now he’s off to devote his life to that, and not only devote it to it in the academic sense, but to learn how to apply it for the greater good. I think he feels that he can do that, through playing on the strengths that have been undermined in all his life.
You must have become close with Hannah Murray. What’s it like working with her?
Me and Hannah, we’ve got very different approaches to acting, because Hannah did Skins, obviously, which was such a high profile drama, so she was a professional actor while I was still in drama school. That creates a different process. I’d like to rehearse, which is the biggest difference between us. The night before, I’d like to really run it and explore it, and think of all the different ins and outs of it and shed light from as many different angles as possible, and try and almost arrive on the set with the finished product, which it never is, because it gets changed.
I’m realising more and more as time goes on that it’s a waste of time, most of the time, because if you and the director arrive at all of these choices independently then that’s an amazing coincidence and it’s probably not going to happen, but I just like to show that I’m doing work, I think. I’ve always been like that. I like to arrive, and I don’t want people thinking I was in the bar until three – I want people thinking that I’ve been working.
How does Hannah’s approach differ?
Hannah has a much more instinctive approach to it, where she’ll rehearse not really thinking of anything, and just seeing how she feels. It’s a difference between thinkers and feelers, when it comes to acting. Somebody asked me this in an interview for something else, about what made me first decide to be an actor. The first things I watched were comedies and stuff, sitcoms like Dad’s Army.
We never went to the theatre and we never really watched dramas either, so I was brought up on these actors who were a cross between actors and entertainers. They were actors in terms of how they really did immerse themselves in the part, and you’re seeing the character, but they also have an eye on entertaining an audience, and doing a turn, and I think that I bring a little bit of that into things. I quite like to get timing right.
Hannah might think it’s a bit too surface, because she likes to react instinctively to emotional responses from stimuli, but I like to have bits of timing worked out. This show is dark enough, and it would be nice to lighten it with these little tiny moment where the phrasing is slightly comic, in a stylised way. I put more of a light on that approach than Hannah who is very instinctive and very committed to putting truth on screen. But I think it works! I think the good thing about having writers that are so compassionate and sensitive is that they will find out what your strengths are and they will write for that, and David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss] have made it feel like a genuine collaboration from day one. There’s never been an iron fist approach. They like to challenge you but support you as well.
How far ahead do you know what happens to Sam?
They tend to deliver episodes in batches, so you’ll get three, and then you’ll get three, then maybe three and the last one. When you start shooting you do know the narrative throughout the season, but the great thing is that none of us really know ultimately what is going to happen. We don’t know if any character is just walking into oblivion, which is nice to play really, because that’s life. The way I describe it is that people are alive right up until they die, and especially if they die violently.
People who have accidents and car crashes and things, they never had any portent of that, so sometimes things just shut down. It’s nice to play that because life is about walking into oblivion, and also because we don’t know how the story ends. We don’t know who wins, if anyone wins at the end of it, and so you don’t really know what kind of story you’re telling. You don’t know if you’re telling an inspirational redemptive story about how the underdog will triumph, or if it’s an indictment of the fact that doesn’t happen, and bad guys do finish first sometimes. It’s nice to have that question in the back of our heads. I’m sure George has got a plan for how it ends, but as far as we’re concerned, we just don’t know if we’re playing good guys that are doomed, ultimately.
With season six, you didn’t have a book for reference. How does that change things?
It’s good in a way, but we always try to be slaves to the script anyway. I decided that quite early on. I read a couple of the books, and then I thought, ‘If I read ahead, I may get attached to something that might not happen, and that would be heart breaking.’ The fact is that we’ve got these huge books and they have to be condensed into ten hours – things have to be changed, things have to be taken out – so what you just have to do is trust David and Dan are making the right decisions. Also it’s not something that’s going to necessarily upset George, because he’s so involved.
A lot of people say, ‘this is kind of annoying because it’s a change from the book,’ and you think, well yeah it is, but we’ve not wrestled the story out of George’s hands. George writes an episode, George is a producer, George is so involved with the show that he has his blessing on everything. Even if it does take a final diversion from the books, that’s all done with George’s blessing. Everybody knows now that they do exist somewhat separately. It’s almost like one of those arrow stories, where it says, ‘Turn left and this’ll happen, or turn right and this’ll happen,’ and you get two or three stories out of doing that. The fact is it’s still going to be the same story, and still faithful. If there are some differences then you’re always going to have the books anyway, but this is just an alternative for people who want the alternative as well.
Surely that unpredictability is part of the reason why fans love the show so much?
I know! Everyone wins. The books are crammed full of detail and that’s because your budget if you’re a writer is just a paper and a pen. The fact is that the books are always going to be slightly richer and slightly more involved, and will present more information, because they’ve got the space to do that.
Has the experience deepened and changed since those early days when you were fresh out of drama school? Do you chart it all in seasons?
I’d say so, yeah. I mean we do see it in seasons, because David and Dan’s writing is so economical and they achieve that mathematical balance, really, in giving all of these characters something interesting to do. The fact that there is a journey between episodes one and ten in any given season – you never end up in ten where you were in one, or even where you were in nine most of the time, because the characters are developing so quickly.
We do see them in blocks of development for the character – ‘He started here and he ended here’ – but the interesting thing that I find is because they do move so quickly, a new season starts and it’s not always clear how long after the end of the previous season that is, so you have to play a bit of unseen development that you don’t see on screen, just to keep that journey consistent, so there are gaps in it, if you like. It’s like muting a song for ten seconds halfway through: it still goes on, but you join at a later date. It’s interesting to play that because it’s all about the mental agility of that.
I found that very difficult at first, because coming out of drama school I’m used to doing plays, and I’m used to doing things where you start it and then you end it, and your journey concentrates into that two-hour or hour-and-a-half block and then the next night you just start that journey again. That has its own challenges and its own benefits. I learned how to be an actor in drama school, but I learned how to be an actor for camera on Game of Thrones. As far as the compassion of the team, the professionalism of the crew, the quality of the material, you can’t ask for any more.
The show is notorious for it’s shock moments. Can we expect more of those from this season?
There’s a lot of moments in it that I think people are going to love. As I’ve said before, David and Dan know after three, four seasons, that people are maybe starting to second-guess the formula. There might be people who think, ‘we’ve seen it, we know that there’s usually a high point here, it maybe goes a bit quiet and a bit chatty for a couple of episodes there, and then it comes back.’
But David and Dan know that people know that, and now they’ve got to double-cross and second-guess them a bit. It’s an old adage kind of, you give them what they want up to a point, but nobody watches drama for what they want. Nobody puts themselves through the emotional wringer, voluntarily, to get what they want. It’s all about giving them what they don’t want, and making them feel that pain.
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