'Game of Thrones' Star: Westeros' Past the Key to Bran and the Show's Future

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 from episode two, season six of HBO's Game of Thrones.]

You can travel back in time, but you can't go home again.

It's a hard lesson to learn, but Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) is doing his best, training at the knee of the mystical Three-Eyed Raven (Max von Sydow). The eldest surviving Stark son (not counting Kit Harington's recently resurrected Jon Snow) returned to Game of Thrones in the second hour of season six, "Home," an apt title considering it's Bran's homecoming after 11 episodes spent offscreen.

In his return to Thrones, viewers learned firsthand that Bran's skills now involve the ability to witness events from the past. He walks through the courtyard of Winterfell, watching his father Eddard and uncle Benjen sparring as young kids. Soon, another figure joins in: Bran's aunt Lyanna, one of the most pivotal players in recent Westeros history. (Her kidnapping at the hands of Rhaegar Targaryen incited Robert's Rebellion, and there may be more to the story.) Even a young version of Hodor appears in Bran's Winterfell flashback, albeit under the name Wylis, speaking in full sentences — a reveal that begs the all-important question: "Hodor?"

Bran wishes to stay in this world of the past, but the Three-Eyed Raven pulls him back to reality, warning him not to drown in the sea of visions. The young warg replies: "I wasn't drowning. I was home." 

In order to learn more about what to expect from Bran's visions moving forward, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Wright to discuss his highly anticipated return to Thrones.

Bran has been absent from the show since season four. What did you shoot on your first day back for season six?

We shot that scene you saw last night, the one in the courtyard. That was the first scene back for Bran, and my first scene back as well. It was a little daunting because I hadn't been there for a whole year. I had done some animated projects, but only voiceover, so I hadn't been on a film set for a whole year. Coming back onto the Game of Thrones set and seeing it become this massive phenomenon from afar, almost, was pretty scary to come back to. I felt like I almost had forgotten how to act. There were a couple of takes where I went, "Ugh, that was really, really bad." [Laughs] I got it together by the end of the day, I think. 

Your first scene back on the show mirrors one of the first scenes ever on Game of Thrones, with the Stark children training in the Winterfell courtyard. Here, Bran witnesses young versions of his father and siblings. Did it feel at all like a flashback to your own life?

Yeah, completely! Seeing that young Ned Stark training was really not dissimilar to a lot of the scenes Bran had in the pilot. There was one scene we shot in the pilot that didn't make the final cut, of Bran and Tommen having this little practice fight in the courtyard. It really reminded me of all that. It was so sad to be back on the Winterfell set, thinking about everything it's been through — not to mention the fact that Ramsay (Iwan Rheon) is now bloody wrecking it.

It's a pretty stark contrast, no pun intended, when you see Bran and Winterfell the way it was versus Ramsay and Winterfell the way it is now.

Exactly. It's quite a nice juxtaposition to remind us how fast and far things have come since the happy days of those first episodes. We've come a long way.

Bran has come a long way, too. He's shown glimpses of visionary powers in the past, but as of season six, he's reached a new level.

Bran's been waiting for years to use this power. It's been hinted at throughout all the seasons, but he hasn't had much of a chance to dedicate himself to it. Every time he starts to do something interesting with it, he's put in jeopardy again; he has to run away, save himself, or watch someone get killed. What's nice about Bran this season is he's in a safe space now. He's in the cave with no one coming to get him, and he can just sit down with this master of tree magic and totally envelop himself in his magical powers. The nice thing also is that Bran's not suddenly the master of these powers. He still has a lot of learning to do, and we'll see as the season goes on that he still has a few very valuable lessons to learn. But it's nice to see him doing some cool things with the power at last.

How much of a game-changer is Bran's ability to view the past, not just for him as a character, but for the show's narrative moving forward?

I think the present state of Westeros is really dictated by the past and the future. The future being we know things are going to kick off any second now with Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) or the White Walkers, or something's going to come and shake things up. But we still have a whole past element to explore. The whole story of Jon Snow's parentage, or whatever — so many things that can be game-changers in the way the story runs. I think with Bran, that's where he can come into it.

Why is Bran specifically focusing on Stark history? Is it purely nostalgia, or is there a greater purpose?

I don't think Bran knows why he's being shown this. The Three-Eyed Raven clearly has some pretty set ideas about what exactly Bran needs to know. He has this all-knowing capability, so we know the Raven knows exactly what Bran's going to have to do, and there's no way he's going to be telling Bran that. So Bran's left in the dark and is taking the visions as they come. He's enjoying getting to be in the moment again, I suppose. There's that very poignant line: "It's beautiful beneath the sea, but if you stay too long, you'll drown." That's what Bran really has to come to terms with. He has to recognize that these aren't little trips down memory lane for him to pretend to be happy again and kind of numb himself from the reality of dismal situations facing him back in the cave. He's being shown very specific things that are going to be key for the future. What that is exactly, Bran doesn't know.

Is there a physical cost to what Bran's doing? Is that the implication in the Three-Eyed Raven's warning about drowning in the sea of dreams?

I think so. I'm not quite sure what exactly is meant by that. There's a danger for Bran, being this cripple who has had his entire family murdered, and has had to go solo all the way up to this tree in the middle of the snowy plains of doom and sit with this old tree guy and kind of go through some trippy stuff. There's a danger there. [Laughs] I like to view it a little bit like Inception, when Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) falls into limbo and never wants to come out. I think that's what could happen to Bran. He'll be trapped in his mind forever if he's not careful.

In terms of the visions, Bran's not in control of what he's seeing? This is all the Three-Eyed Raven's plan?

Yeah, for sure. And you see it at the end of that scene. Bran wants to stay a little bit longer, but the Raven's like, "Nope. Not happening. We're coming back."

There are some strong theories about the Three-Eyed Raven's identity based on information in the books. How much will we explore his backstory on the show?

I love these theories. I can't really say specifically whether we find out about the Raven, but there are certainly some interesting parts of that element of the history of Westeros — the kind of mystical side — that we might get a bit more of an insight into.

We met another intriguing figure in Westeros history through Bran's flashback: Lyanna Stark, Ned's sister and Bran's aunt. Can you talk about the importance of viewers finally getting to meet Lyanna?

Yeah! There's the whole theory about R+L=J, isn't there? I think that's really cool. Obviously, it's nice to finally have a face for the name, because there's so much speculation involving that side of the Stark family. She could be one of the most crucial characters in the history of Westeros, but we've never really seen or heard much about her other than passing references… which is nice, because the mystery has really kept up about her and exactly who she is, what she means and what she did. I think there's still a lot of that mystery remaining, because we've only seen her as a kid. Who knows where it goes from there.

Bran gets to walk around during these visions. How much does it mean to him to have the ability to walk, even if only in dream state?

It's absolutely… I don't want to say it's made this whole horrible cold journey worth it, but it's certainly a nice respite from the terror of making it to the Three-Eyed Raven's cave. But I think he really has to be wary of the fact that this isn't a jolly. This isn't like going on holiday and relaxing in a nice safe cave and forgetting about the rest of the world and for it all to blow over. This is training for something big. He has to get his head around that and get on it and not just fall away into the dream world.

We now have a sense of how Bran spent the off season, but how about Meera Reed (Ellie Kendrick), who seems to be experiencing some grief right now?

I think she's understandably a bit pissed off. Her brother Jojen was murdered by zombies, and she's now in a cave with a magical tree person, a giant who can only say one word, and a cripple. She's pretty down on her luck right now. The thing is, Bran's there getting to experience these extraordinary visions and have the time of his life and kind of see where he fits into the puzzle of Westeros — and Meera and Hodor just have to sit there and twiddle their thumbs and wonder, "Why are we taking care of this guy? We're stuck in this cave miles in the north, completely isolated." If anything happens, they're screwed. I think Hodor obviously doesn't care; he'll be happy wherever you put him. But for Meera, it's playing on her mind. Why should she even take care of Bran anymore? It wasn't even her who went searching for him. It was her brother's idea, and he dragged her along. Now, he's dead, and she has the burden of taking care of Bran. I reckon she's a bit miffed.

Then there's Hodor, previously known as Wylis. Was that reveal about Hodor's past nothing more than color for the character, or was this an important detail we should expect to see expanded on in the future?

I'd like to see it expanded on. It's quite a big bombshell for Hodor. Something big and traumatic must have happened, or some kind of terrible injury, to result in this. But I don't know. You'll have to keep on watching.

The preview for the next episode, "Oathbreaker," shows Bran and the Three-Eyed Raven witnessing the Tower of Joy, one of the most anticipated sequences for book readers…

And from the location alone, you can tell that's going to be a very special scene. From what I've spoken to about with book readers, and the importance of that particular scene, I'm very excited to see how everyone responds to what you see. 

Final question, and it involves digging deep into the past, just like Bran. One of the most legendary figures in Westeros lore is Bran the Builder, who built The Wall. Some have wondered if Bran Stark is following in his footsteps. Others have wondered if he's destined for an opposite fate as Bran the Breaker; if he's a destroyer, whether by accident or even more sinisterly by his own will. Do you have a take on the theory?

My personal suspicion is Bran's going to be a kind of enabler. He's not going to be the one charging into battle and saving the day, but I think his powers could come in useful for helping someone else win or get onto the throne. Whether that involves breaking The Wall or not, I'm not sure, but I personally would like to see how that goes. It would be pretty cool to break The Wall.

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