U.K. blogger Adam Whitehead has written for years about genre fiction, sci-fi, and fantasy storytelling on big and small screens. As the seventh season of “Game of Thrones” heads toward its closing episodes — and as the series itself gets ready for a 2018 conclusion — Whitehead recalls the time he met the cast of the show, years before it became a cultural phenomenon. In November 2009, the actors were new to Belfast and shooting the pilot for the HBO show, and author George R.R. Martin happened to be in that city, too, promoting the book series on which the drama is based. Here, Whitehead chronicles that night eight years ago, where he got to tell the actors who’d go on to be very famous about the characters they’d be playing.
I first visited Westeros in the autumn of 1999. After three years of hesitating, I finally I picked up a copy of “A Game of Thrones” and dove into its world of scheming nobles, feuding houses, and quipping dwarfs. I wasn’t hooked by Eddard (Ned) Stark’s execution — as a British reader and viewer, I’m used to leading characters being killed off without warning — but by the depth of character, the venomous politics, and well-depicted battles. At the heart of the story was House Stark, a gruff family fated for a tragic end, but also a group of characters who contained the promise of redemption for their world.
Almost exactly 10 years later I was sitting in a bar in Belfast, Northern Ireland, talking to two young women named Maisie Williams and Sophie Turner, who had been chosen by HBO to star in the network’s adaptation of that same book. The actresses would be playing the two youngest daughters of House Stark, Arya and Sansa. They were so young — Maisie was 12, Sophie 13 — that their mothers wouldn’t let them read the books. Their mums even had to sit with them in the pub.
They agreed to let me fill them in on their character arcs from the later books, so I had the distinctly memorable task of telling Sophie that Sansa would become a player in Westeros’ complicated game of thrones, learning politics from the redoubtable Littlefinger. I also informed Maisie that down the road, her character, Arya, would become a face-swapping assassin suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
They reacted much as their characters would. Sophie was courteous, polite, and engaging. Maisie was excitable but a little laconic; it was clear she had taken being cast as one of the most iconic characters in a hugely popular novel series in her stride.
That weekend, I’d flown to Belfast along with a couple of dozen other keen fans of the books. We knew that the “Game of Thrones” team was filming the pilot episode at the Paint Hall Studios in the city’s Titanic Quarter, and that George R.R. Martin and his wife, Parris, were coming in from the States to see filming in progress and to also host a book signing at Eason’s, a big book store.
Lines stretching down the street confirmed that the “Song of Ice and Fire” saga was slowly becoming a bigger and bigger deal (sales before the TV show debuted reached 12 million, increasing by 700% since then). It’s hard to imagine now, but no one paid much attention to the cluster of actors, virtually all of them unknown, standing behind George’s throne-like signing table.
The actors were visibly shocked by the turnout, perhaps figuring out for the first time that for a lot of people, these books were A Very Big Deal. Maisie and Sophie hid in the corner for a bit before realizing that the assembled geeks were very polite, and the actresses agreed to co-sign everyone’s books.
Richard Madden, displaying the easy charm of the ill-fated King in the North, couldn’t stop grinning and shaking everybody’s hand. Alfie Allen, more used to people asking about his pop star sister Lily, seemed to enjoy being instead in an environment where he could talk about acting. He made some jokes about boats, and his character probably disappearing after the second season (since everyone agreed that HBO was never going to have his character doing nothing but being tortured for a whole season).
Ron Donachie, the seasoned old hand of the actors present, kept a careful eye over his younger colleagues, and had a ready supply of war stories from his time on the sets of “Titanic” and “Doctor Who.” Even without his mighty face-whiskers, he was every inch Ser Rodrik Cassel, the loyal protector and servant of House Stark.
Halfway through the signing, we were joined by a slight and bespectacled young man. Kit Harington had arrived from five solid days of all-day location filming. He could have gone back to his hotel, but he knew he should do his duty to his fellow actors and to fans, so he put in an appearance at Eason’s. I shook his hand and he told me how cold it was on location. “Better get used to that,” I remember thinking of the future Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. (Editor’s note: The picture below is of Kit Harington in 2009, but it’s astonishing how much resemblance there is between the young Kit and Isaac Hempstead Wright, who plays Bran Stark and who, at age 18, looks very much like his co-star at a similar age.)
After the signing and photos, George, the actors, and some of the fans present repaired to the bar. Some of the behind-the-scenes crew and extras joined us, along with Esmé Bianco, who played the role of Ros or, as she was known at this point, “Red-Haired Whore.” She was pleasant, charming and very funny. “Maybe I should give her a proper name,” George mused (and then did).
Fans held a raffle for charity, an American fan proposed to his girlfriend in front of the cast (she said yes), and people asked George how the next book was coming along. “Slower than I’d like” and “One word at a time” were his responses.
Then everyone went their separate ways, knowing there was a decent chance that no one would ever even see the show. This was, after all, just a pilot.
Eight years later, “Game of Thrones” is the biggest television show on the planet. The seventh season is getting almost 30 million viewers a week in the U.S. alone, and many times that around the world. It’s a pop-culture phenomenon of the type not seen since maybe the first season of “Lost” had people musing about polar bears or “The Walking Dead” re-awakened interest in all things zombified. But the undead, “Lost’s” Sawyer and “Breaking Bad’s” Walter White have now been supplanted by questions about whether Daenerys, Jon Snow, or Tyrion should end up on the Iron Throne.
The popularity of the HBO drama just goes to show what the book’s earliest readers knew two decades ago: It’s a phenomenally good story with rich, convincing characters and palpable dramatic stakes. Then or now, it never gets old to see viewers be inspired and provoked by what the talented cast and writers have wrought.