'Game of Thrones': The New Ned Stark Speaks About Bringing a Westeros Legend to Life

Game of Thrones-Ned Stark 2-H 2016
Courtesy of HBO

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

"Now it ends."

These are not the final words of Eddard Stark, Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North -- at least not in his lifetime. But they are the most recent words uttered by the character as he appears on Game of Thrones.

Sean Bean memorably portrayed the ill-fated protagonist during the first season of Thrones, who was betrayed and beheaded in the ninth episode of the series. Since then, the fantasy epic's focus has honed in on Ned's children, scattered throughout the world of ice and fire on their own separate vision quests. Indeed, it's the literal vision quest of his second youngest son Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright) that finally brought Ned back into the heart of the story.

After a brief appearance in the second episode of season six as a child, Ned Stark once again returned in episode three, "Oathbreaker," at the center of one of the most cherished scenes in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, the novel series on which Thrones is based. Ned, played in this scene by Robert Aramayo, leads a posse of warriors against a pair of Targaryen Kingsguard in what's known throughout the Seven Kingdoms as the legendary battle at the Tower of Joy.

Bran, like many other children in Westeros, knows the story well — or so he thinks. He's shocked to see his father beat the legendary swordsman Arthur Dayne (Luke Roberts) not through his own abilities as a fighter but through less than honorable means, as companion Howland Reed (Leo Woodruff) stabs Dayne in the back. It's a myth-busting moment for both Bran and for fans, who long viewed Ned's honor as virtually unquestionable. 

But the dramatic moment doesn't end there. Ned hears screams coming from inside the tower, presumably belonging to his kidnapped sister Lyanna. He races off toward the sound but stops in his tracks when Bran shouts after him. It appears that not only can Bran visit the past, he can also interact with it, drastically increasing his power potential.

In order to drill down deeper into the scene, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Aramayo about the challenges involved in shooting the sequence and the honor that comes with becoming the young Lord of Winterfell.

In playing Eddard Stark, you're wielding the sword of one of the most iconic characters in the entire series. Does that come with some pressure?

Absolutely, man. Yeah. You're sort of playing a role that people have grown to love and still mourn the passing of to this day, in terms of his presence in this series. To be playing him comes with a lot of pressure, but it also feels like a gift. It's both things. 

What was your awareness of the character before joining the series?

I've watched the series since the beginning, since I was 17, with my dad. We were watching it from the beginning when it first aired in the U.K., and we were hooked. I've watched it ever since. Ned was always my favorite character. I was distraught when he left the show. I didn't think it was possible. I didn't think they could do that — killing such a well-loved character was such a shock to me. I've always felt very sad that Ned left the show so quickly. He was such an impactful character on the story, and still is to this day. I haven't read the books, but I have a big circle of friends who are avid book readers, so that was very useful when I was cast in the role.

When you auditioned, did you know you were auditioning for Ned?

No, no, I didn't. It was very ambiguous. I just put a tape together. The chance to audition to be on the show was a dream, even to audition. It was an absolute dream to me. I was very excited to audition, and landing the role was beyond my wildest dreams. Then when I found out the role was Ned, I was just…it was overwhelming. It was huge.

How closely did you study Sean Bean's performance as you were preparing for the role?

I watched a lot of Ned in the first season. I was especially keen to watch the fight between him and Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), because that's a great example of the way that he fought. That's something I watched as we were building up for the scene you saw the other night. I watched it very regularly. Also, I watched the whole first season a bunch of times to get a feel for this guy. My aim was to take this man…Ned, he's the most honorable man we've met in the story, and I wanted to find out what a young man's version of that is. I wanted to look into somebody who hasn't figured out some of the things Ned's figured out by the time we meet him in the first season. It was very important to me, that area of character development to explore. I didn't want to just do an impression of Ned Stark. I wanted to find out where Ned was in this period of time as a much younger man.

What were some of your takeaways in that regard? What did you feel were the aspects of Ned that he knew firmly at the end of his life but didn't quite grasp as a young man?

I think it's as with any young man, you know what I mean? The principles that seem fully formed, his principles of honor, his loyalty, his decisiveness, that's all very strong in Ned in the first season. I wanted to explore what a less-developed version of those very stalwart principles he holds very close to him are. I was very keen to explore those principles. When we're younger, we're all possessed with a certain amount of idealism and naiveté. One thing that was very important to me also was to play this as a scene where Ned desperately has to get past these guys, by any and all means. The death of his sister is not something he wants to engage with. He needs to get past these men and save her by any means necessary. That felt very true to me.

Did you read any of the Eddard chapters in A Game of Thrones to learn more about the character's perspective?

I read the [Tower of Joy] scene in the books. My friend was kind enough to show it to me. My best friend is a very avid book reader, and he wrote down on four sheets of paper everything that I was not allowed to forget. (Laughs) I was very thankful for it. There's a huge amount of people who have read the books and know that the scene will always appear differently in the books and on the TV series, but I was keen to read as much of the source material as I could, given my limited amount of time. I didn't have time to read everything I could on Ned, certainly.

But you were aware of the importance of the scene? Not only are you stepping into the shoes of this iconic character, but also one of the more iconic scenes from the books.

Right. I was certainly aware of that. I was very aware of the "hype," shall we say, surrounding the Tower of Joy sequence. But it's not something you can…as an actor, it's not something you can allow yourself to play. You can't play "iconic." You have to play the circumstances. This guy wants to get to this other place and there's an obstacle in his way, and he has to get past the obstacle. That's the story of the scene, and everything else in terms of the character of Ned is a separate thing.

When you compare the two versions of the character, the similarities are astounding, between his clothes and his sword. What was your reaction when you saw yourself in the mirror as Ned Stark?

I love that question, because it was a crazy moment, actually. There's obviously something about his hair, you know what I mean? (Laughs) I didn't recognize any of the clothes as stereotypical Ned Stark attire — of course it is, but I didn't recognize it at the time — but it was when it was all put together, the hair and the costume and the makeup, that I was like, "Right. Okay. This is real." There's certainly something about that aesthetic that helped me get to that place, and there's really something about that hairdo, man. It just helps. You realize that the wind blows the hair in your face a lot. All of these scenes I watched with Ned where he's moving his hair out of the way? I get that now, man. (Laughs) There's definitely something about putting on that whole get-up and seeing myself in that way that helped me in playing the character.

What went into shooting the sword fight?

One thing that has to be said is that the stunt team on Game of Thrones is incredible. They're so supportive. They work you to a certain place, and then they push you a little bit further, and a little bit further, and a little bit further. They lead by example, and they're so talented. That extends to everybody involved, both on and off camera, on Game of Thrones. It feels like a comfort blanket is underneath you, because everyone's so focused on telling the best story they can. I'm sure there's not an actor alive who can't draw some strength from that place. Everyone's so focused on telling the best story they possibly can.

We all went through a bunch of training, which continued through our three- or four-day shoot in Spain. It was intense. It was not easy. I did not find it easy to shoot that fight sequence. It's not an easy routine at all. And Luke Roberts [who plays Arther Dayne], he's incredible, man. What a badass, dual-wielding swords and fighting four guys at the same time and dispatching three of them. It was fantastic to delve into that kind of work, because it's the same…playing a moment in a fight is just like playing a moment as an actor. You have to have an intention. If your move's getting blocked, you obviously can't know that, just like when you're playing a scene through dialogue. You can't know the response your scene partner gives you is going to be the response you'll get. You hope it is. Likewise, in a fight, if you're going to chop somebody's arm off or stab them in the gut — the intention is to chop that arm off or stab someone in the gut, and you have to play that intention fully. I didn't expect it, but it takes a lot of skill in terms of acting to play. That's why I feel the stunt team is so talented, that they can pull off telling you what you're going for, that this is what you're going for, and hopefully you'll get it. It's only when somebody blocks the move or does something else that you have to change the plot. I really enjoyed working on the fight. It was definitely the main focus of the rehearsal period. It was very, very enjoyable.

Was there any father-son bonding between you and Isaac Hempstead Wright?

(Laughs) I don't know, man! But I think he's a top lad. He's really, really nice. I really got on with him. He's a brilliant actor. He's fantastic to work with. In the short amount of time I worked with him, I really enjoyed hanging out with him. But in terms of imparting some sort of fatherly tone on that guy? There's no way, man.

There's the great moment where Bran calls out to Ned, and it looks like Ned can hear the call. What was your interpretation of the moment?

I don't know, man. What do you think?

There are a lot of theories about Bran's abilities. How did you play it? What did you imagine Ned was hearing?

It's a tricky one to answer. I don't know that I want to give definition to what I think was going on in the moment. He heard something, didn't he? Who knows what he heard. That's all I'll say.

What does the scene reveal about Ned Stark? Before this, we believe he's infallible in his honor, even if he's flawed in other ways. Does this moment in his life dispel that myth at all — the moment Arthur Dayne dies?

I think so, yeah. If you're asking me about the question of honor, I believe it does. I certainly don't think that even in this stage of his life with youth on his side, he lacks a certain level of experience that we see in the older Ned. It does question his honor. It's heartbreaking to him for Arthur Dayne to leave this world in such a dishonorable way. I think it's probably incredibly impacting on Ned's development as a man in the coming years.

It's interesting, because Ned dies in a dishonorable way as well. He believes he's falling on the sword to further his family, and instead, he's betrayed. Was Ned's eventual death at all on your mind?

Well it's not active, he's not aware of that moment, of course. I really do think that what happens is Ned's fighting for his life, he's really on his back foot with Dayne, and he gets disarmed and it's probably over for him. The next moment is as shocking to Arthur Dayne as it is to Ned. And what are you going to do? This guy is going to die. He's just been stabbed through the neck. Ned has a choice to make, of whether he sort of eases that process along or not. But in terms of his own fate? I can't play it at all. There's no way it can be actively conscious of it. But having said that, I think this teaches him something about dishonor, and it's probably something he carries with him for the rest of his life.

As a Game of Thrones fan from before you joined the cast, what does it mean to you to have played this role in the show's legacy?

I feel very honored. It's a gift to have been able to be a part of this story that, to be honest, means so much to me. It's the only show I watch religiously. As a 17-year-old lad, it was the sort of first commercial TV show that I had ever seen. Those dialects from the North are very prominent on Game of Thrones, and I loved that. So I always had a great respect for the show. It's pretty much the only thing I watch religiously. In terms of being a part of the story, it's an absolute gift. I don't feel closer to any of the characters, except for Ned, obviously. I like that this scene appears in isolation apart from the story of what we know. It gave me an opportunity to embody this man, attempting to make it my own, while channeling what I know about where he ends up, and using all of that information, which is very helpful. But it was an attempt to make the character my own and give it my best shot. I was allowed the opportunity, and I am incredibly grateful for it.

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