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Interview with John Bradley

One of the people I met when I visited Belfast was John Bradley, the actor playing Samwell Tarly. He was one of the actors we had discovered had been cast via a mention out in the wilds of the web (in fact, it was the website of his drama school), and then somewhere along the way he was on Twitter and was just rather hilarious with his acerbic, self-effacing observations. I remember asking him at Belfast if he was really like that in “real life”, after noticing that he seemed rather reserved at the party, and he admitted that Twitter was sort of a “release valve.”

Since graduating drama school, he’s landed a quick one-two punch of notable roles: not just Samwell, but also Giovanni de Medici in Canal+‘s Borgia. Below, you can read about his education as an actor, his views on how to approach a character, his particular talents, and what happened when he had his callback audition and was reduced to a pale, sweating mess after the train failed to run on time…

How did it feel to land a role in such a large production when you weren’t even out of acting school? Were you intimidated at all?

“Yeah, intimidated is maybe a bit of a negative word to use but I can’t deny that it was a bit overwhelming. Just to look down the cast list online and see people like Sean and Mark and people who I’ve watched and admired for such a long time was a kind of terrifying thrill is the only way I can describe it. However, I do believe that I was very lucky in still being at drama school when I got the part. It was quite daunting but I shudder to think about how much more scary it would have been if I’d have left drama school a year earlier and hadn’t worked and then to suddenly land such a role.

“When the audition for Game of Thrones happened I had been acting constantly for 3 years, my acting muscles were supple and trained and the techniques and skills that I had acquire were still fresh in my mind and ready to be used. It has invaluable too to have members of the teaching staff (experienced actors and directors in their own right) to discuss the whole business with. They were incredibly supportive and brimming with advice and encouragement. If I hadn’t had that anchor I would have felt all the more exposed and adrift. My friends were wonderful about it too but once all the congratulations, backslapping, hair ruffling and kind words had subsided, I realised that I actually had work to do. It was going to be an experience that I would never forget. That’s when the nerves set in.”

Did you already have an agent at this time who set you up with the audition, or did the school somehow facilitate getting students in touch with casting directors?

“The way the most of drama schools work in the UK (certainly the way my training worked) is thus: for the first two years of your three year course you study techniques and different theatrical disciplines such as naturalistic theatre such as Chekhov, surrealist/absurdist theatre in the Brechtian or Beckettian style and, of course, an abundance of Shakespeare in addition to intensive movement and vocal training. You rehearse each play you do in these first two years for around 4 weeks then perform it solely ‘in house’ which means for an audience consisting solely of staff and other students from the school. In the third year we let the public in and you perform 3 plays throughout the year to a paying audience. Agents are invited to come and watch these performances and are encouraged to approach students who capture their interest.

“In addition we performed one “showcase presentation” in a London theatre where we deliver one 60 second monologue and one 90 second duologue with another student. It was at this event that my current agent expressed her interest to sign me. I performed a monologue from Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist “The Lesson” and a duologue from a comic Neil Simon play. I was approached by several agencies but after meeting them all my current agent, shepherd management (the first agent to contact me after the showcase - 2 minutes after curtain-down) were my favourites. I signed with them with two plays left to perform.”

Game of Thrones was the first audition I was sent for. I had to ask for a day off from rehearsals for my final play (Joe Orton’s “Erpingham Camp”) to attend the audition in London. The director very kindly allowed me to go. I performed Sam’s scene atop the wall with Jon in which he explains his backstory and describes the relationship with his father etc. I was a little terrified but the piece was done to camera with only two other people in the room. As it was only the initial round there was no GoT representative there. It was the recall audition (of which I received word 2 weeks later) that was slightly more daunting as I was to meet producer Frank Doelger and writer DB Weiss as well as casting director Nina Gold herself. Despite my best made plans, Virgin Trains dealt me a duff hand and my train was delayed, re-routed, sluggish, slow and simply loathsome on the day. I arrived 20 minutes late and a pale, sweating and supremely stressed figure.

“I tried to not let my experience affect my performance and I somehow managed to regain my composure in time to deliver the same scene again. Calmed by Frank and DB’s kindness and understanding I emerged feeling confident and happy with my efforts. Rehearsals for Erpingham camp continued apace and the performances came and went. I officially left drama school and then played a waiting game for over a month. My agent gave me the news of my casting and I went about the business of telling everybody, worrying, researching, fretting, thinking, worrying a bit more and finally accepting and getting on with the work at hand.”

I find your showcase selections pretty interesting. Many absurdist plays are in a tragicomic mode, and you mention the other was a Neil Simon comedy. Is comic acting something you’re drawn to, or feel you’ve a particular knack for?

“Comedy is something that I have been pretty much obsessed with from a very early age. I’ve always found comedy to be the shortest distance between two people. I have used my own ability with it and knowledge of it to form the basis of a lot of the relationships I have established in my life. My tutors at drama school commended and criticised my use of comedy in my acting for a long time at drama school. They said I had a tendency to somehow perform the most tragic of scenes in a slightly flippant way. Genuine and perfectly valid but nevertheless I appeared to be searching for some form of humour in anything from Macbeth to Hamlet to…anything else. They provided me with a lot of scope to sharpen my comedy. Comic roles like Toby Belch in Twelfth night and Uncle Vanya. Restoration comedy. Shakespearian comedy, Brechtian comedy, Beckett, naturalistic comedy as well as physical clowning and comedy in movement.

“Samwell as a character, especially in the scripts moreso than the book, has a lot of comedy coursing through him. Quite a lot of the time he is the butt of his own life’s joke. Additional scenes were written in which Jon and Sam discuss girls and sex and it is almost a comic two hander. Some of the quieter, more conversational moments between Sam and Jon provided plenty of scope for humour. I think that’s what attractive about Sam to Jon. I think he sees Sam as someone with great humanity and a humour rooted in intelligence and self awareness. Samwell knows what he is and doesn’t fool himself into thinking he is something he isn’t. I think jon finds that quite appealing. I decided early on after reading the script that with such a lot of violent and unpleasant things happening elsewhere in the story, a comfortable and familiar atmosphere needed to be established when Sam and Jon are together to provide a little light relief. I think the writers and directors agreed as they latched onto mine and Kit’s relationship in this vein.

“Although I should point out that naturally the character cannot and does not arrive as a humourous one. The pain and misery and fear of Samwell’s introduction I attempted to perform with as much pain and misery and fear as I could muster. Its only when he settles into a rhythm with Jon and their ‘romance’ as I like to call it takes shape that his confidence grows and he allows himself to voice his opinions on certain aspects of his life, those are the moments of really nice human detail in the scripts and I tried to convey that as much as possible.”

Early on in the filming you indicated you hadn’t read the book, but relented somewhere along the way. Were you reading the novel while you were still filming? Did you find it helpful to your performance?

“I did read the book while I was in the later stages of filming. Mainly because I started to get very curious about the story in the broader picture. By that time there was nothing more I could bring to Samwell. Decisions had been made and I stand by those. Relationships founded and attitude and motivation set in stone. I knew the character from my research into it and from the multitude of clues that were in the script both in dialogue and directions. With writing that good, each sentence contains so many indications as to everything an actor needs to form a character and performance.

“I studied Samwell’s lines with the forensic attention to detail they deserved. The writers decided to keep, expand upon, disregard, tone down or refine different elements of the character as he appeared in the book. I trusted that they had made the right decisions with regards to these elements and I accepted their intentions for the character and set about working with what I had.

“As filming began to wind down I allowed myself to read the book properly eventually. I had never been privy to episodes one and two. I was not in them, never received them and wasn’t present at the read through. Being able to read it knowing who each of the characters were going to be portrayed by was a luxury that I reveled in. voices bounced off the page. Sean IS Ned and Kit IS Jon, etc.

“Because the books are obviously more detailed in description and exposition than the scripts, the decisions in casting especially were affirmed tenfold in my mind. The book really did make my mind melt at the thought of the size of the task at hand for the production designers and visual effects people. George’s glorious lack of restraint in terms of depth and number of characters, breathtakingly specific but at the same time sweeping and imposing geography and at the same time a deeply human and perfectly motivationally valid story can only be applauded by all who read it.”

“I’m glad that I didn’t get too wrapped up in the book before I took to the role because the scripts have all the power in terms of what is seen on the screen. I’m glad I finally read it because it does confirm that the choices made by everybody involved with the show appears to be correct. I will do the same with A Clash of Kings just to fill in the gaps for me. It is a genuine part of my method. All drama is in detail I think. Its about being clear in your intention and relationships. If you attempt to match the size of the story and world as a whole in your performance then you will appear arrogant and imposing I think. Draw every scene down to what is happening IN THAT MOMENT. That is my way of working.”

It must be amazing to go from one of the most expensive TV series ever filmed in Europe (Game of Thrones) to yet another high-end TV production (Canal+ France’s Borgia, not to be confused with Showtime’s The Borgias, especially when you’re at the start of your career. What role are you playing for this TV series, and what has the experience been like?

“I received word that I had been cast in Borgia very soon after filming began on Game of Thrones. October and November 2010 was spent almost constantly travelling between Belfast and Prague to fulfil filming commitments on both series. Borgia tells the story of the notorious italian dynasty that murdered, bribed and blackmailed their way to power in the catholic church and italian society in the 16th and 17th centuries. The series stars John Doman of The Wire in the lead role of Rodrigo Borgia, is written predominantly by Tom Fontana (of HBO’s Oz) and is directed in part by Oliver Hirschbeigel (Downfall).

“I play Giovanni Di Medici, son of the late great Lorenzo the magnificent. Upon his father’s death Giovanni is made a Cardinal at the age of 16, an unprecedented honour and achievement of the time. The series will be as uncompromising and, at times, as extreme as GoT or anything else you can mention. The work is intense and some of the moments hugely demanding but I had found it a hugely rewarding acting experience. Hirschbeigel is a phenomenal director (as anyone who has seen Downfall will confirm) and the scripts are top quality.

“I feel very lucky to be involved in two such prestigious projects and I can only thank everybody who has changed my life in the past year. David Benioff and DB Weiss, Frank D, Brian Cogman, GRRM and everyone else involved with GoT and in Prague Tom Fontana and Oliver H. I can’t thank them enough for trusting me with their characters and I hope that I have done justice to their marvellous work.”

Giovanni has some great things ahead of him in his future, I see! Coming back to Game of Thrones, if the show gets another season, do you have any inkling about where Samwell’s story is going?  Or, if you have purposefully tried to keep yourself in the dark on that, do you have any hopes as to where his story might be going?

“At this moment in time I have no idea. I think its far too early for me to start making decisions on how I am going to approach certain elements of the story, whatever they may be. At drama school they always told me that I arrived at decisions far too early in the process and stuck with them with no suggestion of experimentation or deviation after I arrived at these decisions. I know that if I started to read the story now I would start to make decisions and choices with regards to my performance and by the time the series (hopefully) comes around I will be bored of them- emotion and attitude would be stale.

“I’ve always been the same. I start to perform immediately as I start to read and then constantly revisit the moments in my mind so that I don’t forget them and, its a fact of the art, that every actor sometimes makes wrong decisions. If I was to sit at home basically directing myself with no consultation from anybody in a position to give valid and appropriate advice I might be making incredibly wrong emotional choice that then I would have to change.  It sounds strange but no way would I be able to read the book and not instantly prepare for the scenes and its just far too early to healthily begin to do that. Whatever it is I’m very excited. People tell me that Samwell has some interesting moments and themes to tackle as the story goes on, I have faith in the writing to make whatever it is fascinating and worth waiting for.”

I was at Magheramorne during some of the filming, and mostly what I remember—besides how amazing the set was—was how chilly and damp and muddy it was up there, but also the vibe, everyone seemed really into what they were doing, a sense of common purpose.

Just to wrap up this interview, what was a typical day on set like for you, and how was it to interact with this mix of actors—many rookies, and a few veterans—both on and off camera?

“Well I should probably start to answer paying an enormous tribute to the kindness and generosity of the more experienced actors. The ones we interacted with most were obviously owen, James Cosmo (Lord Commander Mormont) and Peter Vaughan (Maester Aemon). All of them just offered so much valuable advice. Not in a ‘let me tell you this…’ kind of way but just in conversation. They were so fascinating, funny and receptive to us.

“In addition to this their skill and ability as actors is simply staggering. You were there when Cosmo was giving his speech to the Night’s Watch and I’m sure you’ll agree it was absolutely breathtaking. So powerful. To meet Peter Vaughan as a man who’s health appears to be not the greatest in his later years and then to watch him act with such incredible intensity of focus is a sight to behold. I remember seeing him on television from a very early age and he has done a film with Sinatra for heaven’s sake. He is just one of the sweetest men you could hope to meet in any profession.

“The relationship that formed between the young actors in the Night’s Watch did so very quickly. We met for a fight rehearsal with Buster for the first time. I had heard a lot about Kit Harington (Jon Snow) from people at drama school who had seen him being all glorious in “War Horse” and were suitably impressed that I would be working with him. As soon as we met I took to him and all of the others right away. To be an actor playing someone in the Night’s Watch there has to be a certain edge to you. I was slightly worried being from a working class household and area that I would be intimidated by experienced actors from more privileged backgrounds. However, a more grounded and salt of the earth group of young guys you could not wish to meet.”

“They had accents for a start. Broad, warm Yorkshire, funny and piercing Scouse and a laddish East End London was music to my ears. The filming period was, for me and Kit for the best part, spent waiting to film. This meant sometimes two or three days off at a time. It was here that myself and Kit properly bonded. Bored in hotel rooms watching less-than-classic James Bond films, talking and talking about Game of Thrones and passing the time in anyway we found fit. Filming days could sometimes be quite physically draining (such as the scene where I get beaten by Rast) and others mentally draining (days where we would sit around in costume for hours in trailers waiting to be called to set). In poor company such days would be unbearable but we all soon found the humour in it and so it proved to be not quite as appauling. We all knew that we had joined the lucky club by landing these roles.

“I can only speak for myself, but I’m sure the others would agree, that I enjoyed every minute of it. Yes, the Castle Black set was a swamp most days. Rain, mud, sharp stones, foul smells from animal carcasses and freezing cold. But we didn’t have to live there. It was work and such an environment really helps actors to feel their way into the world. A gleaming and luxurious set would have compromised our investment in the world of the setting. Castle Black is a deeply unpleasant place. I’m not saying the set was but it gave us just enough inspiration to transport us somewhat. Stunning set, stunning actors, stunning crew (as people as well as professionals) and everything points to it being a stunning piece of work as a whole. I fell very privileged to be involved and a second season (if it happens) would not only be a cherry on the cake, it would be a whole new beautiful cake of its own.”

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