Seeing an actor, in the midst of a feverish media blitz, politely ask his publicist if he can please answer a few more questions is a bit like watching a mugging victim chase down his assailants to offer them his shoes, too—it’s not just rare, it’s practically unheard of. But that’s precisely what actor John Bradley, who plays Samwell Tarly on Game of Thrones, did on a recent afternoon, just days before everyone’s favorite fantasy bacchanalia of boobs, swords, and dragons returned for its third season. Then again, Bradley doesn’t act much like a typical rising Hollywood star.
Seated in a conference room at HBO headquarters in New York City, his mangy Game of Thrones mop of hair tidied up, Bradley exudes a friendliness and eagerness one doesn’t often associate with celebrities. He is, in a word, affable. That’s a far cry from the character he’s challenged with playing: Sam, Jon Snow’s lout of a sidekick who was introduced to audiences as so utterly defeated and so profoundly kowtowed that he’d probably feel out of place at his own funeral. You see, instead of being a fighter, Samwell Tarly yearns to be a scholar and a lover—that is, if he could only manage to lose his virginity. Unfortunately for him in the Game of Thrones universe, if you can’t swing a sword you’re about as useful as a one-legged man at an ass kicking party. So when his father threatens to end his life in an “accident,” Sam opts to join the Night’s Watch, a border patrol against the ghouls of the north, and prove his mettle to his fellow members of the Watch and ultimately, himself.
We caught up with Bradley and chatted about playing a coward, getting into fights, and which cast members he thinks would make the best king and queen.
Were you familiar with Game of Thrones before you joined the cast?
Literally the first I heard about it was when I got the audition.
But you’ve read all of the books by now, right?
I’ve read the books but I’ve deliberately missed out most of the Samwell chapters. We’ve got ten hours of screen time to condense these books into, so I don’t really want to get attached to any moments or events coming up for Sam that might not make it into the show. I just don’t want to be practicing anything in front of the mirror that we might not actually have time to shoot.
How closely do you work with George R. R. Martin?
Well, the good thing about any of this stuff is that when you’re adapting a series of novels, if you’ve got the head that this all came out of still accessible, and still around and still just an email away, that just provides you with such a foundation to stand on. You can ask George a question, like, “What’s Sam’s relationship to so and so?” And even if he doesn’t know the answer he can think of the answer like that, because it can’t be wrong.
As an actor, you must be an expert on the Game of Thrones universe.
No, I don’t feel like an expert at all. That’s the thing about an actor’s job on this show. If you try and play every line or scene with the whole weight of the epic-ness of the show on your shoulders, you’re going to get crushed under it all. You just can’t have it in your mind. If I’m doing a scene with Kit Harington, I have to play the Sam/Jon relationship in that moment, how Sam’s lines affect Jon and how Jon’s lines affect Sam, and how they listen to each other.
Sam isn’t necessarily the most glamorous character to play. For one, he’s a bit of a coward. Were you hesitant to take Sam on as your first major role?
I was delighted. The one thing I felt was important was when Sam first entered into the show in episode four [of season 1]. Even though he turns into a character that you should like, you shouldn’t like him at first. He’s arrived into the Night’s Watch with an expectation to fight, and he can’t fight. So, that should create a certain sense of frustration, because you don’t know why he’s there. You should be as frustrated with him as the other characters in the Night’s Watch are. And it’s only when he explains the situation that he’s in, that his father sent him there under the threat of death, that you realize how impossible his situation is. That’s when you start to empathize with him. Before that, he should be a complete mystery.
Did you see a bit of yourself in him?
You’ve got to bring yourself to a character. I think that people who think that acting is all about completely transforming into somebody else—I think that can be quite surface. You can plaster on as much as you want and put on a different voice and walk differently, or put a different costume on, but it should be based on your own emotions, your own history. It’s like a mixing deck. When you get a part you should take all your elements, maybe turn certain elements up, maybe turn some down, maybe level some off, until you get the right psychological mix for the character. But the question when playing Sam is, is he really a coward or has he just been told it for so long that he now believes it?
What do you think?
There are certain moments when Sam acts incredibly bravely or wants to do brave things. But because he’s been told for so long how worthless and how much of a coward he is, he believes it. I think Sam could face a lion in armed combat, beat it, and still consider himself a coward. It’s so imprinted on his psychology, that that’s the kind of man that he is, he’ll believe it no matter what.
As part of your training for the show, did they teach you to fight?
They give me no training. I did certain fight choreography and things at drama school. I was never very good at it. But I’m one of the only people in the show who has to play worse than I am.
You’re a better fighter than Sam?
Yeah. A challenge for a lot of the other people who play big physical parts is to make it look like they’re good fighters. I have to make it look like I’m an even worse fighter than I am.
Have you gotten into many fights?
I’ve gotten into fights in the past, yeah. I’ve never knowingly started a fight, but I’ve started fights not knowing about it. Just because of the things I say.
The show is shot in Iceland, Ireland, Croatia, and even Morocco. Have you met everyone in the cast?
There are certain cast members that I’ve never met, ever.
Most of the people mainly in season 3, actually. Daenerys encounters a lot of people where she is, and that shoots in Morocco. So I’ve not met the majority of that cast.
If you could choose two Game of Thrones cast members to be crowned king and queen of the Seven Kingdoms, whom would you choose?
I think somebody like Rory McCann, who plays The Hound. He’d be a great king: somebody who matches real physical presence and prowess with kindness, softness, and compassion. That’s a great combination. If you get that combination the other way round in any kind of formation, it’d be quite damaging. You don’t want the Napoleon complex—you don’t want a little guy who’s angry at the world—and you don’t want a big guy who’s easily manipulated.
What about a queen?
I think Michelle Fairley [who plays Catelyn Stark] would be a great queen just because she’s done so much. She’s got a wealth of experience and knowledge, not only about the business, but also about life and common sense. So to have her and Rory leading us in, I think we’d feel pretty safe.
Who do you get along with best on set?
Kit and I have always gotten on really well. Right from the first day I met him, oddly enough. And that’s the thing; I get on so well with Hannah Murray who plays Gilly as well. The two biggest, most important relationships I’ve had to perform so far have been with two people that I really love and feel a great professional and personal empathy with. I know its not always going to be like that.
Wait, isn’t that acting?
That’s acting! I don’t know what acting is! I’ve fluked it so far. The two people that Sam has a kind of bond with, be it a romantic bond or a friendship bond, I’ve felt that too with those people, so it just makes your job so much easier.
Hold on, you’ve felt a romantic bond with those two?
No, no, not a romantic bond. I felt a certain type of…its not something you can contrive. You can spend as much time with people as you like trying to forge a bond, but if you’ve not felt it in five minutes you’re probably not going to feel it.
What can we expect from Samwell Tarly in season 3?
Between episode 1 and episode 10, you’ll see the biggest emotional development and transition that you’ve seen Sam experience since his first episode. If you think he’s come a long way so far, then you’ve got no idea.