When Game of Thrones first aired back in 2011, no one knew it would become the huge, cultural phenomenon that it is today. Equally, once it reached the dizzying heights of one of the greatest television shows of all time, very few people would have predicted its end just eight seasons later. Most people wouldn’t walk away from the money-making machine that is Game of Thrones, but that’s exactly what creators David Benioff, D. B. Weiss, and the rest of the Game of Thrones cast and crew will do later this year when the final season of the show concludes in just six, incredibly anticipated, episodes.
The pressure is on for Game of Thrones season 8, and it’s safe to say that the cast is very aware that everyone is talking about it. “You want very much for everyone to be happy,” says Emilia Clarke, who’s played Daenerys Targaryen from the very beginning of the show. “But in the final season of every show, there’s going to be disappointed people; there’s going to be upset people; there’s going to be fights within friendship groups; there’s going to be: ‘Whose side are you on?’ All of those things.” Her co-star Liam Cunningham, AKA Davos Seaworth, couldn’t agree more: “Can you name me one show that satisfied anybody with the end of it?”
The end is nigh
It may sound like the Game of Thrones stars are setting us up for disappointment when the finale airs just over six weeks from now, but when they’re actually allowed to talk about the Game of Thrones ending, they have nothing but praise for the finale. “My reaction initially when I first read it was just enormous relief, actually,” John Bradley, who plays Samwell Tarly on the show, tells me. “You hear all those stories, all about those legendary, slightly weak endings that great shows have had before. Those endings that almost compromised the quality of what you’d seen before."
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“If you get your ending wrong, then you’ve kind of got the whole show wrong, and people can’t evaluate what they’ve seen before in light of this ending. So when I first read it, it was just an enormous relief that we weren’t going to be ashamed of this ending. We were going to be really proud of it. And we’re actually really happy for people to see this ending, and for this to be the ending that the fans deserve and that the show deserves.” But despite how the cast themselves feel about the show’s conclusion, they know not everyone is going to be happy…
“Listen, you’re never going to please everyone all the time,” says Iain Glen, who plays Jorah Mormont. “But I think they really managed to – I don’t know – satiate people’s hopes for a conclusion”. Cunningham adds: “It’ll annoy some people, it’ll satisfy some people. But I, having read it, and seen what we’re doing with it, I think it’s definitely an honourable ending to the story.” Cunningham adds: “The bottom line is, it’s a grownup show for grownups, written by grownups. And if we tied up everything in a nice bow, we would be accused of patronising everybody: you guys, the audience, everybody.”
Rory McCann, who plays fan favourite Sandor Clegane/The Hound, echoes this sentiment: “Sure, not everyone will be happy, because they’ll have their own theories that they’ve thought for the last few years on how it’s all going to end. And oh, whoopie doo, it’s not worked the way…” But when it comes down to it, that’s what Game of Thrones has been about from the very beginning; the unexpected.
The biggest show in the world
“When it came to the end of season 1 – I’d been following Ned Stark as the main hero, and then they kill him,” says Kristofer Hivju, who’s played Tormund Giantsbane since season 3 but watched the first two seasons as a fan. “It’s like Rocky dying in the middle of the first Rocky movie! It just changed the perspective of how they tell a story. But there are so many moments that are unexpected. It’s not normal in normal storytelling.” Talking to the Game of Thrones cast, Ned Stark’s shock death at the end of season 1 comes up again and again as a defining moment in the show.
“That set the tone for the show,” says Joe Dempsie, AKA Gendry. “And I think that it reminded me, or made me realise how subconsciously conditioned you are as a viewer to your heroes winning out, and for the good guys to survive. And then all of a sudden, that happens. It almost short-circuits your brain.” Maisie Williams, who plays Arya Stark, adds: “In terms of grabbing an audience, there was nothing like that first season. It was incredible what they did, and how different that was. We really owe it to that first season, even though the show has changed so much. I think it really put us on the map.”
From that very first season, Game of Thrones went from strength to strength to become one of the biggest series in the world and so much more than just a TV show. “I can’t really define it,” says Glen. “But just the whole scale of Game of Thrones was so massive that it was like being in the biggest, greatest movie, constantly, all the time.”
If those cast members who’d been in every season of the show felt that way, it was even more so for those who’d had a break. “That was what was so useful for me, with the three years out,” says Dempsie. “I got to take a step back and really appreciate it. So, going back in for seasons 7 and 8, by which point it’s the biggest television show on the planet, I knew very well what I was stepping back into that time around. And I made that pact with myself to make sure that I appreciated every moment. I mean, it’s such a phenomenon. Shows like this don’t come around very often. So to be involved in it – I still don’t think most people will fully appreciate its impact for maybe a few years to come.”
So, how do you possibly say goodbye to a show which has had such a huge impact on everyone who’s watched it? “It was kind of painful, yeah,” Cunningham tells me. “But the story has a beginning, a middle and an end. We’ve just got to the end of it. We kind of knew it was happening. We just had to suck it up, and get on with it.”
“From the beginning, from the first week, there was a sense of people marking the end of something, because it’s been such a massive part of our lives for such a long time,” Glen adds. “We had to be a bit careful in the first sort of few weeks of it. Everyone felt a bit depressed. I said, ‘Come on, we’ve actually got to make the fucking thing, rather than say farewell to it while we’re doing it.’”
For those who’ve been a part of the show from the very beginning, working on Game of Thrones has been a decade of their life. “Just saying goodbye to a character that you’ve played for six months of the year for eight years – it’s a skin… it’s a painful skin,” says Bradley. “There’s a lot of trauma there that’s sometimes quite difficult to embody. But when you play them for the last time, and it is the last time, and you’re never going to play them again; it’s a sense of when they say ‘cut’ and you know you’re never going to play them again; it’s just a sense of him slipping away.”
“10 years of anyone’s life is filled to the brim with big moments,” Clarke adds. “And so saying goodbye to the show; saying goodbye to Daenerys is, for me, saying goodbye to a lot of those massive moments. It’s just bittersweet. It’s the single most defining moment thing that has happened to me in my life. It took me from being a child to being an adult. It’s kind of just magic that that’s happened.”
Jacob Anderson, who plays Grey Worm on the show, feels the same way: “You can’t undo this show from your brain. This has been unlike anything that I’ve ever done, in any capacity before. The scale of everything, the craft that goes into making this show is unbelievable. It’s a really difficult thing to comprehend in your brain.” Cunningham adds: “It was the fact that we all kind of knew that it was never going to come along [again]. I mean, everybody felt that. It just felt like a unicorn, like it was the perfect storm of [a] brilliantly written… story, the best crew I’ve ever worked with, and probably ever likely to work with. And it’s all about to be taken off us.”
When it came to actually making the final season of Game of Thrones, the cast was in for a tough ride. Benioff and Weiss went big for the final season with a reported $90 million budget from HBO and a battle sequence “intend[ed] to be the biggest in television history," according to Vladimir Furdik, who plays The Night King. But it’s clear everyone on the cast and crew trusted the showrunners implicitly, especially after that infamous table reading...
“They got us all together, and we sat down, and we read through them. It was hugely emotional for us all. It was very strange,” says Cunningham. “I remember Kit Harrington outside the table read, as we were going in. I remember him going, ‘I haven’t read it. I haven’t read it’,” says McCann. “I was thinking, ‘You’re talking… There’s no way. You’ve had the script for two days now. You’re saying you haven’t read one script? That’s bullshit.’”
And then other people went, ‘I haven’t read it as well’. And then suddenly, there are all sorts of things going on, and people are getting all emotional. I’m like, ‘Bloody hell, I’m glad I read this because I knew it was coming.’”
“I mean, we all freaked out when we read the scripts,” adds Sophie Turner, who plays Sansa Stark. Gwendoline Christie, who’s played Brienne of Tarth from season 2 onwards, adds: “I cried [laughs]. I cried. I went up to Dan Weiss and went: [sobs loudly] [laughs] – just to say thank you. And just sobbed. Just sobbed.” Despite how emotional everyone felt about the end of the show, they all agreed Benioff and Weiss had outdone themselves. “It was a 10-minute standing ovation, just looking at David and Dan, and going, ‘Wow. Thank you.’ I don’t know how they’ve done it,” admits McCann.
The long night
Other than the emotional strain of finishing Game of Thrones, the cast and crew also found it physically difficult to give us the ending they all believe that we deserve. “The last season was a very long shoot,” says Christie. “It was a 10-month long shoot. I’ve done tours of theatre productions that have maybe been seven months long... I’ve not worked on something for this length of time before.” Then there were the gruelling night shoots, which every Game of Thrones fan has no doubt heard about by now...
When the cast talk about the 11 weeks of night shoots it took to finish Game of Thrones season 8, they all talk about them with the same slightly delirious horror of people who know how lucky they are to be doing what they’re doing but are also slightly broken by the process of it all. “We were all laughing and joking [on set],” Richard Dormer, AKA Beric Dondarrion, tells me. “Because it’s the only way you can get through the intensity and the cold and the misery and the exhaustion – you joke a lot.”
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Then there’s the fight sequences – Christie knows only too well how tough they can be. “I mean it’s very hard and difficult to fight for 10 hours,” she tells me. “Even when there are people helping you, it’s really hard. Because you’re also in a very heavy costume; you’re often fighting people who are stronger than you, bigger than you, have more experience than you; and it is really hard work."
“The beauty of Game Of Thrones is that those fight scenes are not merely an exchange of blows – they are narrative," Christie continues. "So you’re telling a story with your body. You’re telling a story with every gesture. So there’s a lot in there, and there’s a lot of potential to go wrong [laughs].”
The struggle isn’t even over once shooting is finished as the cast is beset by the media and fans alike, desperate for any bit of information about one of the biggest TV shows of all time. “I am genuinely waiting for the last episode of this thing to go out, so I don’t have to watch myself all the time,” Cunningham reveals to me. “I would be a terrible spy.” Understandably, HBO went to some serious length to keep Game of Thrones spoilers off the internet as Cunningham explains: “I mean, it’s maddening. We had a paperless production. Even the call sheets that we got… we had false names. We all had false names. So if anybody got a hold of the call sheets, they wouldn’t be able to identify who’s there and in the story and blah blah blah. So we had aliases on the call sheet.”
Life after Game of Thrones
But now, with the end in sight, most people are wondering what’s next for the Game of Thrones cast. “I’m reading scripts at the moment, and everyone’s saying, ‘What’s next?’ I’m like, ‘When I read it, I’ll let you know’,” says Williams. “We were spoiled so early on with incredible writing, incredible directors, incredible cinematography, incredible characters...” adds Turner. “You read a script, and you’re like, ‘Where’s the arc? Where’s the power?’ You get on set, and you’re like, ‘This looks like an episode of EastEnders. It’s terrible’. No shade on EastEnders. I love EastEnders. We were just spoiled.”
The same goes for the other cast members for whom Game of Thrones was their first job. “They set a precedent for me of commitment, and professionalism, and accessibility, and good humour, and kindness, and loyalty that everybody else I work with has to compare to now,” says Bradley. “It’s an untouchable, almost perfect job in so many ways, and it’s kind of spoiled me.”
While the younger stars are worried about comparing every job to Thrones, some of the older cast members have simply chosen to accept that it’ll never get any better than this. “For me, personally, I don’t think I’ll ever be in a better thing ever. I actually think it’s all downhill from now on,” McCann says. “I just don’t think I’ll be in such a massive show, a liked show, well-written and with a cast and crew all going… I just feel I won’t be as blessed as much. So I feel like it’ll never happen again for me. And I’ve heard other actors talking about that as well, going, ‘This is the best thing you’ll ever be in, by the way.’”
Being a part of such a well-known series also comes with its own problems of type-casting, something Anderson didn’t think he’d need to worry about. “I thought, you can't really typecast Grey Worm,” he tells me. “But I keep getting sent things like: ‘Stoic warrior. Robotic…’ And I’m like, ‘What?! I never thought this would happen!’ I keep getting sent all these eunuch things.” He adds: “I just would really like to play a part where someone smiles a bit. It would be really nice for me.”
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It’s safe to say that most of the cast will be steering clear of anything fantasy-related for a while. “I never say never to anything,” says Clarke. “As an actor, I think it’s important to keep doing as many different things as possible, to just find more textures to your life, and to hone your skills as an actor. And I think the only way you can do that is by trying everything on for size. So I’m not saying no. I’m just probably not saying that it will be my next thing.”
All the pain, the long nights and the hard work will surely pay off when almost the whole world tunes in for the season 8 premiere this Sunday, April 14 though. With such a big moment in television history on the horizon, do the Game of Thrones cast plan on watching it for themselves? “My fiancée used to have Game of Thrones viewing parties before he met me, so I was like, ‘I want a Game of Thrones viewing party’,” Turner reveals. “We’re only there when we’re shooting our own bits,” says Cunningham. “So when it comes out, we have an appointment. We record it, and then we all get— in my house, six of us sit on a couch and watch it together. I’m a fan. So I’ll be going, [claps] ‘Ooh, it’s on!’ I’m genuinely a fan. I love it. I really love it.” It seems everyone is a Game of Thrones fan and, with the end in sight, the only question that remains is, what will we do once it’s all over?
Game of Thrones season 8 premieres on April 14 on HBO in the US and a day later on Sky Atlantic in the UK.
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