'Game of Thrones': Liam Cunningham Tells War Stories From 'Battle of the Bastards'

What did the erstwhile Davos Seaworth see on the battlefield? Here's what Cunningham told THR about his view of the fight for Winterfell.
Courtesy of HBO

[Warning: This story contains spoilers through season six, episode nine of HBO's Game of Thrones.]

He doesn't sleep. He doesn't drink. He walks, and he thinks — and when he's far enough away from camp, he...well, no need to go into details.

Speaking with Tormund Giantsbane (Kristofer Hivju) in the middle of a freezing cold camp, Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) outlined his routine for the night before a big battle, one that's perfectly in line with his character. Throughout his run on the show, and especially in season six, Davos has stood out as a thoughtful man, guided by his moral compass, often acting on righteous impulse, and other times acting only after deep meditation. If nothing else, it aligns with what Davos said earlier in the season, wielding Longclaw in his shortened fingers: "I'm not much of a fighter. Apologies for what you're about to see."

But no need to apologize, at least not when it comes to "Battle of the Bastards," the penultimate episode of the season. Davos and Tormund, among others, joined Jon Snow (Kit Harington) on the field outside Winterfell, fighting for dear life against the overwhelming military might of Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon). In the end, the good guys won, but not without casualties on both sides. 

For Davos, the personal loss came right before the big battle itself. During his walk, he discovered the charred remains of Shireen Baratheon (Kerry Ingram), using the power of thought to deduce what happened to the poor girl: Melisandre (Carice van Houten) burned her alive. And while nothing could be done about it before the "Bastard Bowl," there's plenty of time now to deal with his old foe.

Here's what Liam Cunningham told The Hollywood Reporter about his view on the "Battle of the Bastards," Davos' discovery and more.

When we spoke last week before you had seen "Battle of the Bastards," you said you were eager to see how it turned out. So, how did it turn out?

I have one criticism. I have a 42-inch television at home. The sound was fabulous. But my TV was too small! I wanted to see it on Imax! It was just magnificently cinematic. How cool was that? The visuals on that thing…it was absolutely extraordinary. I would so love to see that on the big screen. They'll have to do it. Miguel [Sapochnik, who directed the episode] has done such an extraordinary job. Those slow-mo shots with the horses were so elegant and scary. When Rickon dies and Jon is standing there, and we're looking at his back, and there's the slow-mo shot of the cavalry coming toward him, and then the horses clash…it was just amazing. Even the CGI of the horses banging into each other. It was absolutely extraordinary.

You mentioned before the episode that there were certain scenes you didn't even want to see being filmed; you wanted to wait for the actual episode. Can you speak to those scenes now?

As we know, and as you can tell from seeing it, this was a ridiculously expensive episode. You can tell from the amount of people we had there. One of the things I wanted to see — and I had seen something on an iPhone of the horses falling — they brought in some people from mainland Europe, the young guys who could do it. Those horse pulls, when they go down…the setup on all of those is difficult. You have to make the ground incredibly soft and cushion it for these horses when they go down. The welfare of these horses is incredibly important. They have to repeat it. And they're beautifully gentle animals. They have to be treated incredibly delicately. Yet, at the same time, they have to look like they've been demolished, like they've been taken out by swords and spears. So that balance of making it dramatic and also making it look practical and comfortable for the horses, and the riders of course, was one of the things I wanted to see most. The slow-mo shots of those horses and the clash of the cavalry was CGI; of course you can't have horses running into each other at 25 miles per hour. We would all be arrested. (Laughs) That was magnificent use of CGI. Just watching that battle, the vistas that Miguel and the camera team created…I'm going to watch the episode again today for no other reason than I really liked it so much. It's all very new to me. I want to tear it apart a little bit and enjoy these shots all over again. Just magnificent moviemaking. Not even TV making. To describe that as anything other than hugely cinematic would be insane. It's glorious, glorious television. It pushed the boundaries of television. It's great.

Davos has an interesting journey through the episode, beginning with his conversation with Tormund Giantsbane. He turns down Tormund's offer to drink sour goat's milk…

Well, with good reason! (Laughs) I don't care about the vintage. I ain't drinking that shit!

Instead, Davos' ritual before a big battle involves walking and thinking.

He's not a fighter. You can see it in a previous episode, when he's trying to settle a row in the camp between the wildlings and one of the northern houses. He's a consigliere. He's a man of thought. He goes off and thinks about what's the best thing to do, what's the right thing to do, and what's the moral thing to do. For him to enter a battle is a huge thing. I would guarantee if you asked any troops in foreign lands doing their business if they're going into battle the following day, I'd say a lot of them don't fall asleep easily. It's probably a military thing and a human thing, as opposed to anything else. Again, I think it adds just a tiny additional layer to Davos, that he's a human being. If anything, the most I'd say about him is that he's a quiet hero. He does the right thing in the background. If people find out about it, well, good. If they don't? It's not important. 

During his walk, Davos comes across Shireen's remains. He deduces what happened to her. This cannot be good news for his relationship with the Red Woman.

Absolutely not, especially when he's made the attempt to repair the relationship. He knows she doesn't care about him. But they've re-formed this relationship while they tried to resurrect Jon Snow. The strangest line I had to her was that little two-hander we had at the beginning of the season, when he walks in and sees that she's distressed, and that her world is turned apart. "Are you all right?" It was the weirdest line for Davos to be saying to Melisandre. It was the last thing in the world he expected. What's great about the writing is that in that particular moment, and right through the season, the good people who watch this show know what the reality of the situation is. They know what Melisandre has done to the most important person in Davos' life — and he doesn't. However, now he does. We saw that little look, with the stag in his hand, as he looks up at her in Winterfell. So we know something's coming. 

For his part, Davos does not come across as a vengeful man. He doesn't carry grudges. As you often say, he's someone who does the right thing. In this case, perhaps there's a gray area. Seeking justice for Shireen is the right thing, and yet, it's very personal, isn't it?

It's extraordinarily personal for Davos. It'll be interesting to see what happens with this. The options are for him to take this to a higher court, kill her himself, ignore it…there's a few options here. As the guy says with Game of Thrones, you have to wait until next week — or maybe not even next week.

The next morning, Davos enters the battlefield and sees Jon running after Rickon. Their whole plan rested on holding together and staying focused…

Stay unemotional! But that's what I loved about it. Sansa kept saying it: "We're not ready. We don't have enough people." Davos is saying the same: "Don't get drawn in by him." But he does. And it's beautiful writing. Jon does exactly what everyone's telling him not to do. Not only does he do that, he does it before the battle even starts. I kind of like that. As an audience, you appreciate it, because you understand what Jon's motivations are. He's still a young guy. He hasn't been in charge of a large army before. He's taken it on at Hardhome with the White Walkers and various elements of the Night's Watch. He's very good at reacting. But his planning goes right out the window as soon as he sees Rickon. The heart takes over and the head stops. That's the great thing about Ramsay Bolton, too. He's playing Jon like a two-dollar fiddle. He gets the better of him before it even begins. He separates him from the army, he's going to take him out, and he's going to kill him. It all seems to be going awry. It's a suicide mission even at the start of the battle, and that's what's fantastic about it. Where's it going to go? As the battle wears on, it gets even worse and worse for them. There's not a chance of hope for us, until we see what Sansa has accomplished at the end with Littlefinger.

Before the knights of the Vale arrive, Davos and the rest of the army are surrounded by the Bolton forces, surrounded by shielded men and a tall wall of corpses. How grueling was this part of the shoot?

Not my favorite day of filming in my entire career, I have to tell you. (Laughs) It was tricky. It was. But in a sense, it's like rain. Rain is a difficult thing to deal with when you're shooting, but it looks fabulous on television. The worse the weather, the better the shot. It's similar with battle scenes. When you consider that we spent almost 25 days shooting just the battle scene, with 600 fantastic supporting artists — the extras were just amazing on this. I've never seen morale so strong after such a long and arduous shoot. These guys are huge fans of the show, they kept the secrets about Jon Snow. They're an incredible bunch of guys and girls. It's difficult to shoot, but the reward is when you see it, and the music gets on, and the slow-mo and CGI are layered on top of it, and you just kind of look back and go, "Well, it was worth it."

I remember on the day, going in, I said to the guys, "Listen, here's the thing that we need on this before we start the battle. It's the one thing we're going to require more than anything else: a sense of humor." Because long days like that — physical days, running horses, weather, mud, and this beautiful storytelling… it's difficult to shoot. But you look for your reward further down the line. You just try to get through every day. You fall asleep very quickly when you hit the bed. 

You don't sleep well the night before the battle, but the night after?

That's right. (Laughs) It's tough shooting, but the rewards are evident.

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