'Game of Thrones': Liam Cunningham Previews The "Extraordinary" 'Battle of the Bastards'

"They've pushed the bounds of television on this, not just the show," Cunningham tells THR about season six's penultimate episode.
Courtesy of HBO

Winter is coming, but before anyone in the North can deal with the threat beyond the Wall, they must first battle the bastards at hand.

That's exactly what's set to happen in the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones' sixth season, appropriately titled "Battle of the Bastards." The action-packed installment, directed by "Hardhome" helmer Miguel Sapochnik, sees Jon Snow (Kit Harington) rallying his allies against Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) in an eleventh hour bid to win back Winterfell — and the odds are not in Jon's favor, at least after an initial glance at the numbers.

Conversely, the odds have been very much in favor of Liam Cunningham, who has played Davos Seaworth since the second season of Thrones. Season six has been a standout year for the actor, with Davos rebounding from House Baratheon's defeat by serving as Lord Snow's faithful lieutenant in both the battle against the Boltons and the greater war still to come.

"It's very nice to be getting any additional beautiful words to say from [showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss], and obviously [A Song of Ice and Fire author George R.R. Martin]. It's been fantastic," Cunningham tells The Hollywood Reporter. "I had such a good time last year, and to be working extensively with Kit was a joy."

And it must be equally joyous that Cunningham can now proudly say he was working with Harington throughout season six, rather than dance around the actor's return to the show.

"Mm-hmm, both dead and alive," he answers with a laugh. "I've been with the corpse, and with the resurrection!"

As Davos, Cunningham will be surrounded by numerous corpses during "Battle of the Bastards." Indeed, if he's not lucky, he might even join the pile of bodies. But both Cunningham the actor and Davos the character know a thing or two about Game of Thrones' grand battle tradition, having survived — just barely — season two's riveting "Blackwater." With his unique view of that episode combined with his knowledge of the coming hour, here's what Cunningham had to say about what's ahead in "Battle of the Bastards."

You were there for "Blackwater." Now here you are at "Battle of the Bastards." Can you stand the two episodes next to each other and compare the experiences?

Indeed, having worked with Neil Marshall, who directed "Blackwater," and he's actually an old friend of mine; I worked on his first movie "Dog Soldiers" and his last one "Centurion," with Michael Fassbender. When he came on board, there was something terrific about it. Just working on something so big… I think it was Rolling Stone at the time, but Neil sent me a review and there was this one sentence: "This is possibly the best hour of television ever made." Neil at the time said to me, "Not bad for a first timer!" He hadn't done television before. 

Now, to work on what's about to come up, it was absolutely extraordinary. HBO threw everything including the kitchen sink at it. It's one of the most expensive episodes of television ever made. We spent roughly a month just doing this particular battle. It's absolutely extraordinary, to be honest with you. The extras that we had were sensational. They're probably the best gang we've had. We had hundreds of them. We had a huge amount of horses. Miguel had the luxury of spending a huge amount of time on this. What I'm saying is, having seen "Blackwater," but not having seen "Battle of the Bastards" yet, I'm waiting with bated breath to see what they did with it.

Just to give a bit of background, we were brought in by Miguel and those involved — and this would have been probably late summer of last year — and they had the pre-viz and storyboards. I remember when they showed it to us, it was like a Hollywood blockbuster. It was something you would expect from a $200 million movie. I remember having a joke with Miguel at the time, saying, "Well, you're aiming pretty low here, aren't you?" We were both laughing about it, but he said, "We're going to see if we can get as much of that as we possibly can." In my opinion, Miguel, David and Dan have exceeded what I saw on the pre-viz. It's possibly going to be the most talked-about episode of the entire story, of any season. I can't tell you the air of expectation I have on this. I have every confidence that it's going to be as magnificent as what I saw being filmed.

On that note, do you have a specific memory from filming the sequence — whether it's pulling a muscle or watching some filmmaking miracle come to life — that stands as a testament to what we're about to see?

You know what, I remember thinking at the time, because of where we shot it… ironically, I saw a tweet online. As we know, the episode is called "Battle of the Bastards," but I saw someone calling it "Bastard Bowl," as in Super Bowl. I smiled when I read it, because the ironic thing is, where we shot it is almost like a bowl. It's like a valley. We were so lucky on the weather as well. The little bit of rain we did get turned the entire set into… it's like [the Glastonbury Festival in the United Kingdom], which I believe was on this week. It's famed for its mud and its music. Unfortunately, we didn't have the music, but we did have the mud!

We had some extraordinary horsemen from Europe to do some of these stunts. Without giving anything away, there were some stunts done on this that I specifically did not want to see being shot, because I wanted to see the finished product unspoiled. I know a couple of things that they were up to, and what I was being told about was jaw-dropping stuff. The horse work, which you can see a tiny amount of in the [preview], I think it's going to be extraordinary on this. It's a very, very, very large portion of the episode. You'll have to remember, there was a lot of quiet expectation [with "Blackwater"] because of the whole wildfire thing, and there was a feel of something bad about to happen, even when the battle happened off camera. There's a huge amount happening on camera in this one. 

And I would be very, very surprised if Mr. Harington isn't taking up a statue at the end of this. The amount of stuff I saw Kit doing out there… his fight work. His stunt work. He's like a dancer when he moves. I think he's blossomed from a young man into this fantastic character that he's playing in this. I said it to him at the time, that his work is beautifully subtle on this. I've watched him from viewing him, and also working with him on this season, just blossoming as an actor. And that's one of the things an older actor can admire about quite a few of the younger actors on this show. But to watch him blossom like that, especially in this episode? It's going to be jaw-dropping.

Life imitates art in that case, then, because Davos' journey this season has so closely followed Jon's rise from the ashes. Davos was the man who pushed to bring Jon back. He's also one of the loudest voices in the call for action: "The war is between the living and the dead, and the dead are coming." Before dealing with that threat, the North requires stability, which means going up against the Boltons.

Definitely. And one of the other things we have learned in these past episodes is that we're severely outnumbered. In a sense, it's a suicide mission, at least on paper. But it has to be done. You can almost say it's a catchphrase for Davos: "We have to do the right thing." His character has lived that way throughout the entire show. In a sense, certainly for this season, it culminates in what we're going to see on Sunday. It's difficult to put into words what this is going to be like. 

What I can say is that I remember reading the script, and these guys… they're just not making it easy for themselves. The easiest thing in the world to do would be to sit back and enjoy the plot the show has been lucky enough to have over the last few years, to reach a plateau. Absolutely not the case with this. The sense of responsibility for the living, the culmination to this season, is definitely there. They've pushed the bounds of television on this, not just the show. All praise to HBO for backing them both financially and artistically on this. David and Dan are not making it easy on themselves, and HBO is not making it easy on themselves. When they see it, nobody will think that they sat back and said, "Let's just enjoy the success."

This was tough to shoot. Let's just say that when you're dealing with portraying war, if the medic is sitting back playing crossword, we're not trying hard enough. I mean that in a good sense. Nobody exploded or anything like that, but you have to try hard. There were plenty of pulled muscles. There was plenty of pain and misery. It's the nature of filmmaking. If you're doing it properly, it should not be difficult. It should not be a walk in the park. It was one of the things that Miguel, our director, was pushing and pushing artistically and action-wise, all of the time. He's an extraordinary director. We were very lucky to have him. 

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