Who Do You Think You Are?
By Eluned Thorne
It’s the biggest thing to have hit the small screen in the history of television and HBO’s flagship fantasy epic, Game of Thrones, shows no sign of letting up. The record-breaking series, which now makes up for a fifth of HBO’s entire yearly revenue, is about to enter its sixth season – and its penchant for unparalleled brutality has made sure that fans are as eager now as they were back in 2011 when we were first introduced to the bloodthirsty world of Westeros on the small screen.
Even if you are part of the dwindling minority that doesn’t watch the show, it’s highly unlikely – unless you have been living under a large rock for the last five years – that you haven’t heard about the series, based on George R. R. Martin’s series of novels, A Song of Ice and Fire. With twenty-six Emmy Award wins, and a $4.9 billion revenue each year, Game of Thrones has revolutionised the art of big-budget television. Incredible visual effects, wonderful costumes and expansive sets mean that each episode costs around $6 million to make – the trick being, of course, that with every increase of budget comes a fresh wave of devoted fans clamouring for more high-octane action.
Despite the vast majority of characters suffering abruptly truncated lifespans, there are some that have been lucky enough to have appeared in every season so far, including the cunning Queen Cersei, played by Lena Headey, who found fame in Zack Snyder’s stylised sword-and-sandals flick, 300. So how does it feel to be one of the select few to have been a part of the spectacle since its inception?
“It’s as exciting and demanding as ever. I don’t think I ever expected to be part of this series for so long or to have seen it become such a global phenomenon,” explains the 42-year-old star. “I don’t think anyone could have imagined how audiences have responded with such passion and loyalty. Very few actors get the chance to be part of a series this well written and directed. I feel blessed to have the opportunity to continue working on a project of this scope and quality.”
Very few television series have impacted on society in the way that Game of Thrones has. The opening episode of its latest season was the most viewed episode of an American show since the finale of the legendary Sopranos. To be part of something on such an unprecedented scale can be demanding, especially for the raft of actors and actresses for whom Game of Thrones symbolises their biggest ever role.
“I think all the cast are very aware the level of enthusiasm and commitment and devotion from the Games of Thrones fan base is incredible,” says 34-year-old Natalie Dormer, who plays Princess Margaery Tyrell. “You go to conventions and people are dressed up as your character. Even the detail that they’ve noticed on your costume is mind-blowing, they notice the colour of the stitch of your thread on your jacket. They know your family tree back to front. It’s amazing the level of support. It makes the world of Game of Thrones richer, that people do have the knowledge, and I’m sure to a certain extent, those fans know the backgrounds of it, the genesis of the script.”
Both Headey and Dormer’s roles are reflective of Game of Throne’s approach to casting strong, empowered female characters, despite the world of fantasy being more traditionally associated with men. “I like being part of the changing climate when it comes to female characters,” Dormer says. “Even though Margaery has had several husbands, she’s never allowed herself to be defined by any of the men in her life.” By showing how “women can lead interesting, engaging lives apart from their romantic relationships”, Dormer hopes that Game of Thrones can send a positive messages to “young audiences and young women in particular…”
…young women such as Maisie Williams, perhaps. The actress made her screen debut as Arya Stark and six years later, the huge global reaction to the series has meant that the 18-year old is now as recognisable as any established Hollywood A-lister. The phenomenal scale of Game of Thrones means that Williams and her young co-stars now have a promising career on screen ahead of them off the back of these roles alone, reflecting the series’ revolutionary status in the world of big-budget television.
When Williams auditioned for the role of Arya she was just twelve years old and, in her own words, “didn’t have a clue about the show at all.” Since appearing as a main character in all five seasons, she has had to adapt to the life of a bona fide movie star – including being recognised by fans in her everyday life.
“It happened pretty early on,” she says, discussing her newfound fame, “and it just grew and grew and grew from there. You know, it was nice at a young age having that power to make someone’s day by simply saying ‘Hi’ and posing for a picture – it’s the character they love and by me being nice and co-operative, that’s a good thing.”
Williams considers herself lucky to have taken the part of Arya for other reasons too. “She’s so likeable,” explains the young actress. “I can just be myself and people say lovely things to me” – which isn’t always the case for the raft of actors who get to portray “not so likeable” characters. One of these is Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who plays Headey’s on-screen brother and lover, Jaimie Lannister. Though Jaimie may well be portrayed as one of the main villains of the story, the sheer depth of showrunners Benioff and Weiss’ writing, and that of George R. R. Martin’s before them, ensures that no character is ever that easily definable.
“Fans often say things like, ‘Jaimie’s so evil, but we love him!’” says Coster-Waldau, “Even though there is this dark side to him, the writing is so good that audiences still find him very funny and charming to follow. There are so many interesting layers to him which owes so much to the books.”
For Coster-Waldau, Game of Thrones’ tendency to explore the grey areas inherent to all of its characters makes it “one of the most unique series you could possibly watch” – a sentiment that his on-screen sister Headey agrees with. “The beauty of this kind of series,” she says, “is that the characters are allowed to evolve in so many extraordinary ways”, paving the way for the multitude of “surprises and incredible twists and turns” that has become the show’s cornerstone of success. Headey describes her portrayal of the evil Queen as a wonderful catharsis.
“It’s a great way to release all your frustration and anxieties,” she says. “You get to be aggressive and manipulative and very relentless”, adding that, with the potential death of every character hovering on the horizon, “there is some epic drinking at cast parties” once the cameras stop rolling and every actor is free to celebrate making it through another season alive and (mostly) intact.
The upcoming season of Game of Thrones also marks the first time that the televised show will be overtaking the novels in terms of storyline “Now, it’s a free for all,” comments Maisie Williams. “We’ve all caught up with each other so anything that happens will be a shock. There’s always been a level of surprise, but this is going to be completely new.” To reflect this, the clandestine nature of the series has been stepped up to almost Fort Knox-levels of secrecy, but one thing remains certain: this season promises to be one of the biggest, bloodthirsty spectacles that the world of television has ever seen.