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Interview with Liam Cunningham

The fourth in our series of interviews from the international press junket Westeros.org attended last month (see our latest interview for links to all three earlier interviews), this time we’re touching on a brand new character to the series: Ser Davos Seaworth, the “Onion Knight” who faithfully serves Stannis Baratheon.

Irish actor Liam Cunningham plays the role, and plays it well from what we’ve seen of the first four episodes, conveying Davos’s conviction in his loyalty to Stannis despite the odds against the eldest surviving Baratheon. In the interview below, Cunningham discussed his role, the contents of the pouch at his neck, who he’d love to see dub him in Brazil, and shows his true colors as a fan of the series with an insatiable appetite for more. If you’ve seen earlier interviews with Cunningham, you know he’s amusing, and he was very charming as he chatted with us!

 

Interview

Q: Have you kept all your fingers?

“Yeah, so far they’re all there.”

Q: Do you wear them around your neck?

“I do, I’ve a little pouch that I keep the fingers in. We do talk about them in a later episode.”

Q: Is there anything in the pouch?

“What’s in it? My lunch money! No, no… you know, I’ve never looked in it, but there’s something in there. It’s a beautiful little bag.”

Q: I know from your recent interview with Access Hollywood that you haven’t read the books, but how much do you know through other means, or do you just stick to the scripts?

“The thing about is that I know a certain amount from the internet—Wikipedia is a great help!—but because the character is a point of view character, there’s a lot of stuff in the books where I’m told that it’s a lot about what he’s seeing or thinking. You can’t do that on television, unless you’re narrating. But Davos is a simple guy. What I like about him is that his loyalties are very clear.  In a sense he’s a bit like Ned Stark: he’s put in a position of power that he doesn’t want—he’s happy with family.

“It’s like Robert Baratheon, he just wants to go hunting, have a few drinks. They’re simple guys, who have had the reins of power thrust upon them. That’s kind of interesting, I think and it gives these people a human kind of face. Horrific things happen, because they’re protecting the office. I think there’s a certain analogy there with governments right now. A lot of governments do terrible things because of the “national interest”, which seems to take precedence over morality. I think that’s explored a bit in this series.”

Q: It’s interesting that you mentioned Ned Stark, because Davos seems a lot like Ned, except less bound up in Ned’s notions of honor because of their different origins.

“Davos’s origin is certainly as a criminal. But when we meet him, it’s been 17 years since he’s smuggled. His loyalty is unquestioning to Stannis, and he believes with good reason that Stannis should be on the throne. And Stannis is very much aware of his duty and his honor; he doesn’t feel it’s right that the wrong person is on the throne. I don’t think Stannis so much wants the power, but it’s the injustice of it that makes him incredibly unhappy. However, how these people go about getting themselves to this particular place is, in some cases, very questionable in what they get up to. Which I also think makes for interesting viewing.”

Q: Do you like onions?

“I love them. Not raw! I love cooking with them.”

Q: It’s interesting how the onions are a symbol of Davos’s politics.

“I was told that I gave Davos a very layered performance. I’ve tried to keep Davos as simple as possible, because of his humble beginnings, because of his loyalty, and because he is quite clever. You’ll find as we go through the second series that this struggle between Davos and the red priestess, Melisandre, has them both wanting the same thing for Stannis, but Davos wants to do it through thinking, through battle, through reality, while Melisandre wants to use questionable methods to get him there. There’s magic involved, which is in a sense dishonorable. When we meet everybody, everyone accepts that magic once existed but it’s supposed to have been gone for hundreds of years. “Oh, the last dragon died a hundred years ago,” and it’s dismissed.

“I like that aspect of it, and that in general it’s a grown-up show for grown-ups. I said earlier that it’s almost like the Sopranos in Middle-earth [This was said without irony; he’s not aware of Benioff’s pitch description. -Elio] It’s got an inherent kind of truth in it that allows you to believe this fantasy world, but as a backdrop to these people and their lives. I find that kind of stuff incredibly interesting.”

Q: Were you aware of the first series?

“Very much. I met the guys last year, but there were various time constraints and it didn’t work out. But they told me there were loads more characters next year, and to please come and see them. I got all the DVDs, and I was planning to watch two a day for a week, but first day I watched six and second day I watched four. I couldn’t stop. I was just, “More, more”, and then it’s 2 o’clock in the morning and, “Fuck”. I was doing that, so I watched the ten hours in two days. I’m a big fan.”

Q: So you were considered for a role in the first season?

“Yeah, but that wouldn’t be fair to say which one because someone else played that character. But it was for no other reason than time constraints and stuff. It happens all the time for professional actors. I was very, very pleased when they gave me the chance to come on to the second season.”

Q: You were also on Strike Back, a Cinemax show, and Cinemax is owned by HBO. How would you compare the two experiences, and more generally what it’s like to work on these projects?

“Yeah, I did. It was a great role. I think HBO’s as successful as they are because they’re hiring creative people who have a genuine love—just talk to Dan and Dave and you can see how much love they have for the books, and the five years of their lives they’ve invested in getting it to this stage. HBO’s genius is hiring the right guys and then getting the hell out of their way. HBO has done that a number of times, facilitating creative people to do what they’re really good at and they don’t interfere very much. That’s why they’re making a lot of money—they’re letting creative people get on with it. As I’m sure you guys know, in Hollywood the amount of creative interference creates things that’s incredibly boring.

Strike Back was fantastic fun to make—on the face of it it’s an action show, but the characters were really interesting with the two main characters being chalk and cheese, and my role was one of the best written baddie roles I’ve seen in a long time. And because HBO pulled back and let the creators do their thing, it was their baby and everyone was more committed rather than feeling like a cog in a wheel.”

Q: In Brazil, probably we’ll see the second season in voice over. What do you think of voice over?

“I want Seu Jorge to do my voice! Do you know Seu Jorge? I made a film with him called The Escapist. He’s from São Paolo, isn’t he? He’s a gorgeous man, he’s a friend.”

Q: So you want him to do your voice?

“Well, that’d might be tricky. No, I mean, it’s out of my hands. Hopefully they’ll be good actors who work on it. But that’s not within my power to have any influence over that.”

Q: But as an actor do you have an opinion about it?

“If they didn’t do it, then nobody would understand. It’s got to be done. It’s a practical thing. From an artistic point of view, you can’t ... But I speak English. I had a nightmare—I did a French movie a year ago, and I don’t speak any French. It was so difficult. It was about Joan of Arc. I played an English captain who speaks French, and I speak French through most of the movie. Next time, I’ll let a French actor play the part. 90% of the work was getting it to sound right. I don’t mind the hard work, but the amount of work… it was a fucking nightmare.

“I’m sorry I didn’t learn French when I was much younger. We’re terrible about that in our neck of the woods, just terrible. It’s an embarassment that most of us can’t speak more than one language.”

Q: Speaking of Davos’s loyalty earlier, from a modern perspective his loyalty to Stannis must seem kind of strange—Stannis took off his fingers, and now he’s really loyal to him. How do you approach that sort of unmodern mindset?

“The physicality of what Stannis does is of course bestial—just chops the fingers off, it’s wrong—but because it’s this fantasy world, it allows us certain freedoms. Stannis says in the show that the good does now wash out the bad and the bad does not wash out the good. I was a smuggler, he was the boss, his job was to punish smugglers. I smuggled food to save his life, I did save his life, but at the same time he can’t let this crime go unpunished. Go figure! I suppose he could have overlooked it, but however, in a bizzare way I think Davos admired the honor of that. Not having it done to him, but that Stannis was business-like and then also grateful. It’s kind of bizzare, but you can understand it. It’s quirky, but nice, these kind of weird, quirky things.”

Q: Did you use prosthetics for the fingers?

“I had a special glove, where my fingers are basically curled in all the time. And we do use some CGI as well.”

Q: Is it uncomfortable?

“Initially, for about five minutes, but after that you forget about it. The problem is that when you’ve done that for two hours, it’s excruciating to open your hand up. So I had to remind myself to find chances to flex my fingers. And we did change one thing, we changed the hand, because I’m left-handed.”

Q: For those who haven’t seen the series, how would you introduce viewers to Davos?

“He’s a man from the worst slum in King’s Landing—Flea Bottom—and who’s somehow gotten himself into this whole ladder of politics, diplomacy, war, battle, love. And the only reason—his life was much easier when he was a smuggler—is his loyalty to Stannis. His sense of duty keeps him going. He’s a good guy: he loves his son, his family. He’s a sort of everyman, who’s not after anything for himself. He’s a pretty honorable guy. So family and honor—I sound like a Mafia guy there, don’t I?”

Q: What’s it like for you to be involved in something that’s such a huge success?

“It’s difficult, because not only is it a success but I’m a big fan as well! So it’s a bit weird putting the costume on. You’re really scared in case you’ll bring the whole house of cards down! They’ll say, “It was fine until they brought Cunningham on, then he destroyed the fucking series!” So it’s a bit scary. I feel like a fan who’s been admitted into the whole circus.”

Q: As a fan, who’s your favorite character?

“I love the whole ensemble thing. You have so many characters that have these bizzare, weird, wonderful journeys. That’s the most difficult thing to write. Most Hollywood blockbusters have one central character, and everyone else is a cardboard cutout. These guys haven’t made their job easy for themselves, writing these magnificent, complicated characters that you have sympathy for for two episodes and then they do something fucking horrific. And you’re going, “What the hell was I thinking?” and your sympathy shifts. That’s what I love about it. There are characters that aren’t highlighted very much, and then all the sudden they’re called to the room by the king and we’re following them.

“I mean, the balls in the first series, to sell Sean Bean as the leading man and then in episode nine, wham! take his head off. And just in case people weren’t sure, the first shot of episode ten is his head on a fucking pike! Just in case you’re not sure. I love the bravery of that, to kill who was your leading man. It’s unheard of in the states—people will go, “What the fuck?!” But as an audience it’s so gratifying to have your expectations flipped on their head. That means the guys writing it have out-thought you. I think that’s what responsible, grown up writing and program-making should be about. It should test your audience, it should mess with your head, it should entertain. It’s incredibly violent at times, it’s incredibly sexy, and sometimes you find yourself going, “Did they—did they just do that?” It’s really exciting television, it’s terrific.”

Q: There’s a battle that’s a major scene, right?

“You can’t be writing about this—it doesn’t happen until episode 9!

“The Blackwater battle is huge, and it’s incredibly expensive because they need a lot of CGI. The guy who directed it—Neil Marshal, who I worked with before on his first movie Dog Soldiers and his last movie Centurion—he and his director of photography. Sam McCordy, are very good at “stretching a dollar”, making a dollar look like ten. David and Dan were delighted to get them on board. I know they presented this wish list of things but saying we’ll have to lose this and this and this—and Neil and Sam said no, no, no, you can keep all that. As far as I can gather—I haven’t seen any of it yet—but they’ve made this episode even bigger, with more scope, than David and Dan first thought would be possible.

“They’re attempting big, movie stuff. It’s a great television budget, but it’s still a television budget. And they’re continunally pushing the boundaries, they’re not settling. They’re always looking how to do it better. Their enthusiasm for the show is very infectious. This is an easy show to like, because it’s bloody good. It’s really good.”

Q: The president of Brazil has said she really loves the show.

“Does she? That’s brilliant!”

Q: Do you know any other celebrities who like the show?

“I’m going to find out in a few weeks’ time! I’m really interested to see who’s a fan. It’s the most diverse group of fans—teenagers, banking managers, all types. There’s people I would never have thought who were fans of this who learned that I was in it and would tell me they love the show, they’ve read all the books. It’s incredible.”
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