'Game of Thrones': Bran Stark Actor Goes Inside the Tower of Joy

Bran and the Three-Eyed Raven
Courtesy of HBO

After missing out on season five completely, Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) makes his triumphant return this year, alongside Max von Sydow as the Three-Eyed Raven. Curious to see Bran walking around, in a place that's decidedly not the underbelly of a weir wood tree, isn't it?

[Warning: this story contains spoilers for episode three, season six of HBO's Game of Thrones.]

"There is no spoon."

Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) experienced a Matrix moment of his own in the latest episode of Game of Thrones, called "Oathbreaker," in which he traveled back in time with the Three-Eyed Raven (Max von Sydow) to witness his father Eddard Stark's legendary battle at the Tower of Joy. As it turns out, time-travel might be more than a spectator sport.

In the scene, Bran witnesses his father fighting against Ser Arthur Dayne, one of the most legendary swordsmen in the Seven Kingdoms, and is shocked to see the battle end thanks to dirty tactics from Ned's friend Howland Reed. But before he has time to process the disappointment, screams sound out from inside the Tower, and Ned bolts off to find the source. Bran pursues, and calls out for his father — and in the twist of all twists, Ned turns around, as though he's heard his son's voice. When he looks, Bran's nowhere to be found, but the look of shock on the Raven's face tells the viewer everything: Bran is much more powerful than anyone ever imagined.

Hempstead Wright spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about his central role in the Tower of Joy scene, easily one of the most treasured moments in A Song of Ice and Fire, the novel series on which Thrones is based. He also discussed the potentially game-changing revelation about Bran's abilities, the possible ramifications of time travel, and why season six is shaping up to be the season of the Starks.

The Tower of Joy is one of the most iconic moments in Westeros history, and a hugely loved scene for fans of the books. What was your familiarity with the scene before shooting it?

I didn't really know anything exactly as to what it was. I had heard about it in passing, in reference, now and then. People would say "Tower of Joy," and I would say, "That sounds like some boring ancient history." But then I read the script and thought this could be the key to finding out a lot about who exactly Ned is, and in the books, there are theories and speculation that this is very connected to the R+L=J theory. So it was pretty cool to see that as a viewer. Not only are we getting that flashback to find out more about Ned's history, but to act right there in the midst of all the fighting going on… that was pretty special. It was an amazingly done scene. It's one of the biggest stunt fights of the season. We had these fantastic stunt guys and some really great actors; the spitting image of Ned Stark. It was great fun to do.

What do you remember about the shoot?

It was the most extraordinary location. I have no idea how the Game of Thrones location department manages to find these far-flung castles. This is kind of in the middle of Northern Spain somewhere, three hours away from Madrid in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by this kind of desert-like landscape. It's not a VFX tower, either. That's a real tower in Spain. It's just sitting there on these rocks, and it looks the part. When you imagine the Tower of Joy, it's exactly as you expect.

What does Bran know about this moment, heading into the scene? He's obviously heard the stories about his father fighting Arthur Dayne.

Yeah, as far as he's known, his father has been nothing but completely honorable and kind and generous and a good man. So Bran's watching this fight, expecting it to go one way, with his father coming in to save the day. And there's this great line where Bran says something like: "But father wins! I've heard the story a thousand times!" And clearly someone's been lying. Bran sees that it was a dirty backstabbing, and that's quite shocking for Bran. It's a totally different side to his father that he hadn't quite been exposed to before. All the sudden, here he is. His hero isn't all that he's quite cracked up to be, necessarily. It also raises some questions. There's no arguing the fact that Ned was a good man, so whatever forced him to fight in that dishonorable way clearly must have been something quite enormous. It raises the question of why he did that, and what does it mean for the rest of us?

Can Bran appreciate that idea about his father, even if his actions here dispel the myth of Eddard Stark a little bit?

I think that's a good question. The Three-Eyed Raven is keen to show Bran an accurate picture of everything that's happened. He's going to show Bran everything that he needs to know. If Bran needs to know that his father did this for a reason, then he'll be shown that. I think once you get past the initial shock of seeing his father do this terribly dishonorable thing, he will hopefully be able to appreciate that it was done with the right heart.

Bran has been through so much, has seen a great amount of death, has traveled very far, but at the end of the day he's still a boy. A moment like the Tower of Joy is interesting for him, because it shows that he still has some childhood left to lose.

Right, yeah! That's very true. I suppose he doesn't have very many memories of his dad now, since he was taken from him prematurely. But those treasured memories he does have of his fantastic father, all of those ancient stories — and this was probably one of Bran's favorite stories, the story of the Tower of Joy and how he defeated Ser Arthur Dayne, the greatest swordsman the world had ever seen. Here Bran is now, seeing this memory tarnished and ruined forever.

Well, that's Game of Thrones.

Yeah! (Laughs.) What would you expect?

What are Bran's impressions of Howland Reed, who stabs Arthur Dayne in the back? Howland is the father of Meera, who Bran has been traveling with for quite some time now.

We don't necessarily learn much about Howland Reed in that short second, because everyone's getting stabbed and having a massive fight, but we clearly can see that he and Ned are very much a pack together, who are fighting for the same side and very much looking out for each other. But it kind of just shows the lengths that Howland Reed will go through to protect his lord. But our first impression of him is that Howland Reed is, evidently, not necessarily the most honorable fighter. But one of them had to die, and Howland Reed just made sure it wasn't the good guy.

How do you think Bran seeing Howland in this light will impact his view of Meera

I think Bran's big enough to rise above any kind of petty generational grudges like that. I think given everything Meera has gone through with Bran — her brother getting killed, coming and defending Bran when she never even wanted to do it; it was her brother who brought her along — I don't think Bran would be looking at Meera in a different way. I think he'll still be very close with her.

Do you think it's an interesting mirror to see Ned and Howland fighting together at the southernmost point of Westeros, while their children Bran and Meera are journeying together in the northernmost points?

Yeah, I like that! I hadn't even thought about that. I suppose they're the next generation. (Laughs.) Maybe that means we'll have our Tower of Joy scene!

After Dayne dies, there's screaming from inside the tower. What does Bran think he's hearing?

I don't think he has a clue. At that point, he's just very shellshocked at seeing his father betray his oath and his honor. All the sudden, it's like, 'Oh! He did that for a reason. What's in that tower?' Just as they get there, the Raven pulls Bran out of the dream, and Bran is understandably a little bit peeved with that. But there's that fantastic moment where Bran shouts out at Ned, who's just starting to ascend into the tower. Bran shouts out: "Father!" Ned turns around, and it's like 'Oh my god, did Bran just communicate with the past?' He's not there as far as Ned's concerned; he goes on as if it's a breeze or a leaf blowing. But for Bran, that's pretty big.

It's a huge moment for the show, too, because what does this say about Bran's power level?

Exactly. It's enough of a utility to just be able to look back in time and allow that to inform your decisions in the future, but the fact that you might be able to change time? It's massive. It's unprecedented. For Bran, it presents a humongous kind of challenge, because we all know from Doctor Who that if you start messing with time, things go wrong. I think the temptation now is definitely there. Who's to say Bran couldn't go back in time and stop himself from getting pushed out of that window? It opens up a whole different world of possibilities for Bran, and a whole new set of challenges he's going to have to face. 

The Three-Eyed Raven warns Bran: "The past is already written and the ink is already dry." Should we accept that as truth, given what we just saw about Bran's abilities? Or is it more that the Raven is trying to rein Bran in?

Well … exactly, you're not quite sure. Was it a coincidence, and Bran shouted at the same time that a leaf blew or an animal ran around the corner, and Bran doesn't really have this power? Or there's a number of possibilities. Maybe Bran is the only one with this power, and the Raven is going, "It can't be true, and even if it is, we can't let Bran use this. It'll end in tears. There's no way he'll be able to control such a responsibility himself." Or, that's exactly the power he and the Three-Eyed Raven share, and the Raven is very wary to not let it get ahold of Bran and taint his life over. I think it suddenly presents a bunch of new challenges for the Raven. He's not only just trying to keep this teenager under control, but now he has a sort of time-traveling teenager to keep under control. (Laughs.) He'll have some fun with that.

You have talked about Bran this season as Luke Skywalker training under Yoda. The flip side of the Skywalker coin is Luke's father, who lets his arrogance and power push him over to the dark side. Not to mix stories too much, but do you see Bran at the same intersection — that he's at a place where he can follow the pure "Jedi" route, or he can take a darker road?

That's very true, and I think that mirrors the Tower of Joy scene exactly. Here he is seeing Ned choose between honor and survival. If Ned had been an honorable man, he would have died then. He would have given up and let himself be executed. But he decides, 'No, some things are bigger than this.' I think that very matches Bran's decision that he's going to have to make now: 'Is this power something I should let take control of me and see where it goes, and I'll be able to take care of it? Or should I completely shy away from it and shun it and have no part in it?' I think it's a very real crossroads that Bran has now found himself in.

How frustrated is Bran with his situation? There are certainly moments where he's elated with his abilities, like when he gets to walk around in his dreams, or see glimpses of his family again. But when he wakes up in the cave, how difficult is that for Bran?

It's the worst thing for him. It's like in real life when you have a dream and suddenly everything you wanted to go well has gone well. Something fantastic was just happening, and then you wake up and you go, 'Oh, no! I thought that was real! I thought it was actually happening!' That's happening every day for Bran right now. It's all the more for him because he's lost so much and there's so much he can gain in these dreams, and here he is getting ripped out of them. What seems pretty coldhearted is really just the Raven being responsible. Bran would be doing quite well to just keep a lid on it and not say, 'You're stuck in a tree, I can do what I like! I'm going to go off and take over the world as a greenseer!' But yeah, it's the worst thing in the world when he wakes up from those dreams.

Ned Stark died long ago, but we've seen him now in two out of three episodes this season. What does it mean to have Ned back on the show in this way, with a fairly prominent role in the story so far?

Hmm, I hadn't really thought about that. I suppose it shows us that Ned is quite a pivotal character. We can see in the first season he was clearly important, but the fact that he was killed in season one felt like, 'Okay, he was just one of the good guys, and there goes the good guy.' But the fact that he's recurring again and again, and because it's in the past, it suggests that maybe he has a colorful history that we're not quite aware of. It's nice to have Ned back all together, and to see the character come back a little bit younger, but it's nice to have that presence back on the show.

It's certainly been a big season for Ned's children. Is this a season of resurgence for House Stark?

I suppose you could call it "resurgence." I think they've all come to a place where they're all in their element now. Arya's becoming this amazing assassin character, and she's kind of right there in the midst of all that. Then you have Sansa who managed to escape from Winterfell and is now heading somewhere with a mission and a drive, instead of just being held captive in that miserable castle. Now Bran's following his destiny, and following it in quite a serious way. I think, for sure, this is a season where the Starks are doing their own thing, rather than just being bandied about by all sorts of storylines that result in their displacement from wherever they were staying.

What's coming next for Bran?

When we next see Bran, he's still training away. He's still working through these visions of his. It's not like there are any dull visions, either. Every single vision, you're learning something new, and you're seeing a real bombshell. That's what we'll see in the next few episodes. There are no visions where we're like, "Oh, well, cool, we kind of already knew that anyway." Every time it's like, "Oh, wow! That's extraordinary!" There are a couple of visions coming up that I'm really excited to see. 

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