'Game of Thrones' Star on Shocking Survival: "What Happens When You Kill Death?"

An unlikely survivor speaks with The Hollywood Reporter about what comes after the White Walkers.
Helen Sloan/HBO

[This story contains spoilers for season eight, episode three of HBO's Game of Thrones, "The Long Night."]

Heading into the battle of Winterfell, Game of Thrones fans were divided on who exactly would die, with one exception: Grey Worm, the Unsullied leader played by Jacob Anderson. Everybody expected him to lose his life on the battlefield — and everyone was wrong.

Nobody is happier about it than Anderson, of course, not just because Grey Worm's survival meant the increased likelihood of a happy ending with Missandei of Naath (Nathalie Emmanuel), but also because it completely and fully defied all expectations — just like the overall outcome of the battle. From director Miguel Sapochnik, "The Long Night" ended the White Walker threat once and for all, putting an end to the Night King's reign of terror with three full episodes still remaining in the final season. Whatever comes next, Grey Worm is along for the ride — for now, at least.

Ahead, Anderson speaks with The Hollywood Reporter about cheating death, surviving the trenches of filming "The Long Night," and how Game of Thrones continues zigging when everyone expects it to zag — with all due respect to the late Rickon Stark.

I fully expected Grey Worm to die in this week's episode. Did you feel similarly when you first opened the script?

Yeah, absolutely. I was convinced I was a goner. But I think there's always a sense of that with everybody in this show. You never know anything. You know nothing, Game of Thrones cast. It's been really interesting, looking at social media, seeing people say, "Whoa, this person didn't die? This person didn't die?" But if you've been paying attention to the show, you should know that as soon as you get comfortable, Game of Thrones will do the opposite of what you expect it to do. You have to put your trust in the show and let it take you to places you aren't expecting to go. I think it's the same for us as a cast. For me, I was just proud to have made it this far. When we got the scripts for this season, I was like, "Look, we made it this far. That's great. There's no point in trying to guess how it's going to end."

When you reached the script for ["A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms"] and you see the scene between Grey Worm and Missandei, plotting their escape to Naath once the war is over, what are you thinking? Are you like the rest of us, thinking Grey Worm is a goner at that point?

Dude, I was like, "You fool! Grey Worm, you idiot! Don't do that! Don't say that! You should know you never talk about the future, ever!" (Laughs.) But it speaks to [creators David Benioff and Dan Weiss'] creativity. You never know what they're going to do. Nobody's safe, and nobody's not safe. It's all up for grabs at this point. But I definitely had that same moment. I was like, "Hey, what if Grey Worm doesn't say that? That would be so much more interesting." (Laughs.)

It took months of night shoots to create "The Long Night." How do you begin to translate that experience to someone who wasn't there?

I was talking to Joe Dempsie, who plays Gendry, as we were [watching the episode]. I asked him, "How did we make this?" Even though we were there! "How did this happen? How do you make a thing like this?" People — and I'm not talking about the actors, specifically, and probably us the least — but people, the crew, gave their lives away for nearly two months. It's because they love the show and they care about it. That's how it happens: through sheer will. That's how a thing like that happens. You have to have a good captain, and we had one in Miguel. He has such a sharp focus on what he's trying to achieve, and it paid off. Believe me, there were nights where everyone was [burned out]. There's this one part where the wights come over the top of the Unsullied. There was a whole fight sequence we shot with me fighting wights in that scrum, and it amounts to not even a second of footage; and it was half a night to shoot that. There's lots of that. There are so many pieces. It's amazing on two levels. It's amazing that Miguel and the crew worked that hard night on night to make those pieces, but the fact that those pieces were then put together in such an elegant way is also a miracle. Whatever anybody thinks of the episode, just in terms of the technical achievement? I've never seen anything like that. And it felt like that while we were making it. It felt like madness. We were staring into the mouth of madness, and it was for a TV show.

What was your approach to playing Grey Worm here, facing off against the undead, fresh from watching the Dothraki get more or less completely decimated?

One of the things I really enjoyed about shooting the episode was that Grey Worm was scared. Really, he's terrified. He's never seen anything like this before. You can kill a man, and he's killed many men, but how do you kill death? How do you kill something that's already dead? It's a terrifying thing for him. For him, one of the things is he's got a lot to lose now. Before, he didn't really have anything to lose. You go into battle, and if you die? It's like what Ivan Drago [played by Dolph Lundgren in Rocky IV] says: "If he dies, he dies."

That's Khal Drogo's brother, right?

Yeah, Ivan Drogo. He was taken out in the first wave against the wights. (Laughs.) But when you think about it for Grey Worm, he just has so much catching up to do in his life. Just being in the North, and even when he was on Dragonstone. Daenerys is the queen and she deserves to be the queen, so that's the mission. He's here to help her become the queen. But now he's having to deal with the Northerners not being particularly hospitable. There are some moments in [the battle] where Grey Worm realizes he has to be thinking more on his feet. This isn't going to go the way he thought it was going to go. Part of that is when he sees Melisandre (Carice van Houten). He thinks that if he makes it out of this particular part of the battle, [she] could come in handy. But I don't think he even gets the idea [for her to light the trenches] until much later. 

It's funny, because what you're talking about with Grey Worm as a character fully mirrors how people approached Sunday night. You have to imagine Grey Worm was very high on the draft board as far as who's going to die …

Absolutely.

People lost money on your survival!

And I'm glad. I'm glad they're going to lose their money. (Laughs.) It's good! That's what you get for having no faith.

On the larger scale, the audience was very thrown when the White Walkers lost the war here. How thrown were you? When you finished reading the script, did you find yourself in the same place the audience is now: "Well, what now? What's next?"

I genuinely checked to make sure I hadn't skipped an episode, or even a couple of episodes. It's such a huge [twist] that it's episode three. Then I got a sense of wondering, "Where do you go from here?" I found it very exciting. It's something that's so great about this show. The White Walkers aren't the only threats. Humanity is its own biggest threat. The fact that these characters had to pull together to conquer this threat, but now, you have no doubt that there's more petty shit to come, if you'll excuse my language. I just find that to be such an interesting prospect for what comes after this episode. Where do you go from here? As human beings, when you look into the face of death, what happens when you kill death? What's the next step? I was really excited, after I got over that initial shock that this is midseason. It's midseason!

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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