The Season 8 premiere of Game of Thrones was, for the most part, a table-setter episode, arranging the Starks, Lannisters, and Greyjoys in Winterfell and across the Seven Kingdoms, readying them for final season explosions. It was largely free of action, but the episode was not bereft of dramatic tension. And much of the drama involved Samwell Tarly, the studious young man who has made his way from the Citadel to the North, where he reunites with old pal Jon Snow.
**Spoiler alert: There are spoilers below for the first episode of the eighth season of Game of Thrones**
It takes a long time for news to travel in Westeros if you don't have a raven, so Samwell has yet to learn that his rotten father, Randall, and tragic daddy's boy warrior-brother, Dickon, were killed by Daenerys Targaryen when they refused to submit to her leadership at the end of Season 6 (he probably also doesn't know what a TV season is, but that's beside the point). At the same time, he is only one of two people to have sussed out Jon Snow's true identity — he's the son of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen — and its implications (Jon is the true heir to the throne).
Both of those knowledge drops come near the end of the season premiere. Daenerys, accompanied by Jorah Mormont, whose life Samwell saved in the prior season, breaks the news of his kin's fiery demise. (To be fair, she didn't know that Sam was related to them, but still, the only thing worse than having your family killed is having their murderer deliver the news.) Samwell, in turn, goes to drop a familial bombshell on Jon, who is less than excited to hear that he's been engaged in passion with his aunt (who, of course, murdered Samwell's dad and brother).
The episode put a lot of the shoulders of actor John Bradley, who plays Samwell, and earlier on Monday, he spoke about preparing for the scenes, Sam's mental state, and what it was like to finish his long run on Game of Thrones.
So, that was a dramatic opening episode.
Sometimes episodes one can feel like quite a gentle ease into it and the real action starts later. But it really peaked at that crescendo and we got into some major and meaty stuff right at the end of that episode and it was a pleasure to be a part of something so key. The scene with Jon and the imparting of the knowledge about his parenting, could one of the most the key scenes in the whole show. So to get that out of the way in episode one of the season, I think that really cold-cocked people. It was a real sucker punch.
Before you got the scripts for this season, did you have any theories for how Sam would both learn about his family and tell Jon about his parents?
My only theory or prediction was that they'd let it bake a bit longer, let it ferment a bit longer. I could see the scenes early on about Sam and Bran agonizing about when they should tell him. Agonizing about who should tell him and the way they should tell him. I thought they'd tell him at episode two at the earliest, maybe episode three. I thought they would keep some suspense in it and speculating about it and dramatic irony that these two characters know this huge thing but the one person who needs to know it, doesn't. I thought it was going to be much more spread out, much more paced. I think the way that it happened was so satisfying because that would have never have happened that way if Sam hadn't found out from Daenerys what he found out about his family.
That expedites everything. That gave him a motive to go tell Jon him this thing. He knows that Jon is the true heir to the Iron Throne, he knows that Daenerys is unworthy. Daenerys is currently the queen but she's unstable and volatile and violent, all of these things. Not only does she not have the right to be on the throne, but she's not got the qualifications. She's not got the moral fiber. She's not got the compassion that Jon has to be on the throne. And that wouldn't have happened if Sam wasn't a man on a mission and a man on his own moral crusade, and a man so hurt and so devastated by what Daenerys had done to his family. But no, I didn't see any of Sam's stuff happening so early. I saw it happening, but the fact that it was in episode one kind of cold-cocked everyone.
When did you get the script, and how did you prepare for the scenes once you knew?
We did a read-through in October 2017 and I got the script about three days before. So we didn't really have time to process it. The scene with Sam and Danny, that was the very first thing we shot in season eight. Day one of season eight. That's kind of a deep scene to start with, it throws you into the deep end emotionally and in terms of importance. It's a different approach for me because I have to access a lot of emotion in it and Daenerys arrives at a different point, Emilia [Clarke] is playing her in a way that she's not quite played her before because she's affected by Winterfell. And then Iain [Glen] has everything that Jorah carries around. So it was a pretty hard scene to do for our first scene, you'd like to ease yourself into it with a little bit of banter maybe, a little bit of a light scene, just to get used to being back on set. But that was the very last part of the first day.
I'd never worked with Emilia before. I'd met her before, but I don't think at that stage that I'd ever really seen her in costume before. And it's so weird because so many of the scenes in Game of Thrones that you're not involved in personally, you can watch like a fan. You can watch a Daenerys like a fan and you just feel removed from it. And then suddenly when Daenerys is in front of you, talking to you, then you're like, "F***, I'm in Game of Thrones!" It feels like that for a minute.
For me as well, after two seasons away from the main thrust of the action, at the Citadel and the journey to Horn Hill, you do feel a bit out of the narrative and a bit peripheral. But then you're right back into it, on the first episode of the new season you're doing a scene with Daenerys Targaryen. As an actor, you really feel back in the center of things and not back at the heart of the matter. I knew it was going to be tough and it was tough to shoot emotionally and all of those things that actors have to get to, but I was so excited when I read the script.
Samwell's response when he learns about his dad's death is a bit different from his response when he learns about his brother Dickon's death. He's heartbroken by the latter.
Yeah, one of the reasons why that reaction was so tricky to navigate your way through as an actor, I think Samwell could be forgiven for thinking at that point that he's over it, that he's left the trauma of his early life and family behind. They don't define him anymore, they don't represent him anymore, they don't mean anything to him anymore. I think that's what Sam thought his reaction was going to be and what the audience probably thought as well, but when he finds out that knowledge, of course it hurts.
I think that Sam is sucker-punched, and not only sucker-punched by the information but sucker-punched by his reaction to it, that he is feeling something. I'm so pleased that they did it the way they did it, I wanted to be able to maintain that shot and not cut away and wanted to try to play all the different emotions on Sam's face. I wanted to hold that shot for a long time. I wanted it to be excruciatingly long, so much longer than you think it's going to be, and I wanted to play these flashes of emotion across his face, like a flash of anger or a flash of pain or a flash of grief.
But also, a sense of embarrassment, that he's breaking down in front of the queen and he has to try to and maintain that decorum and keep that together. I just wanted to see flashes of a mental breakdown and a man in an extreme state of shock. I wanted all that to play it across the face and I thought I just had to be brave on the day and take my time with it and not just burst into tears instantly and then that's the end of it. I think that would be a cheap end of doing that.
There's not going to be any resolution to any of it now. Those scars are never going to heal now. On the day, the last thing David Nutter, the director, said to me before we went to the take that's in the show, he came up to me and said "This means you can never make it better. You can never make it better now. You can't resolve anything. Go into this scene and learn about Randall with that in mind." And so I did, and Sam's able to process that easier than he's able to process the news about Dickon. He even has that line, "At least I'll be able to go home now." He kind of justifies it to himself, he convinces himself in that moment that he doesn't care as much as he does.
Then the Dickon news completely cold-cocks him, completely sucker-punches him, and that's when all the different emotions start coming up. It was an interesting little change. You don't want to make it too big, you just want it to be a subtle difference in that reaction. I was so pleased and so grateful, not only that I got that scene to do but also that they held that and let me play all that. I was very proud of everybody for supporting me. Emilia and Iain were wonderful on the day. It was just a very tough but rewarding experience.
He has no reason to go home now.
When you're being charitable, and he was being charitable when Dickon died, I think he sees Dickon as just another victim of Randall's toxic masculinity. And Sam went into his shell and resisted and was a disappointment to Randall because of it. The only difference is that Dickon invested in it. He probably tried hard to be like Randall and tried hard to please him and believed like Randall did that showing any sign of weakness was a complete no-no and marked you out as less than a man. It marked you out as weak and a liability and somebody who is not to be trusted with anything. I think he's a victim of that masculinity and Sam sees that a lot of the time, he sees Dickon as another victim of that household. Just because Randall is more fond of Dickon doesn't mean he's not a victim in a different kind of way.
Was it tough to move on from this role and show? It was your first acting job and you've been doing it for the better part of a decade.
It was very, very tough to move on. I'm still mourning it, really. I'm still grieving over it. It's like Sam, you think you're over it and you think you've moved on and then you have to go all over the world and meet the entire cast again. You worked very closely with them and then you see them again and you're all friends and you talk about the show a lot and you talk about Sam a lot and that reminds you that you're not over it, you miss it. I think we have a healthy relationship with missing it. We are embracing the fact that we're going to miss it. None of us have denied missing it or protected ourselves from that vulnerability of saying goodbye to something after all these years.
My final day, it was beautiful really. That was a day where a lot of people wrapped as well, and because a lot of people finished that day, the shared sense of — grief is too strong a word, but there was a shared poignancy for it. There was lots of hugging, lots of crying. [Showrunners] David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss] came on to the set and gave speeches and gave us all souvenirs and stuff. I remember looking at them when they were making a speech about me. I thought you've really changed my life, you've given me the best start to a career that anybody could ever hope for. I don't know where I'd be without them and I'm eternally grateful.
Game of Thrones is my entire 20s. Nobody comes out of their 20s the same person that they went in. The fact that David and Dan made it possible for my formative years, my 20s, to be tied so closely to experiences and I've met so many wonderful people and got to play this part that I've carried around with me.