'Game of Thrones' Star on Tormund's Crush on Brienne and War in the North

Game of Thrones Tormund Still - Publicity - H 2016
Helen Sloan/HBO

Game of Thrones Tormund Still - Publicity - H 2016

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

Love rarely lasts in Westeros. Ask Robb Stark (Richard Madden), who lost everything  life and wife included  because he followed his heart. Look no further than his half-brother, Jon Snow (Kit Harington), who cradled forbidden flame Ygritte (Rose Leslie) in his arms as her fire went out. 

The examples of successful romantic relationships are few and far between — and yet, this cold reality hasn't stopped Game of Thrones fans from hopping all aboard the good ship Tormund Giantsbane (Kristofer Hivju) and Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie), one of the rare glimmers of levity in an otherwise extraordinarily bleak series.

Tormund's crush on Brienne isn't exactly a central plot, nor is it even reciprocated by Brienne herself, but it's nonetheless a bit of respite in the thick of darkness. Winter is coming, as Tormund knows all too well, having suffered through the hardships at "Hardhome." What's more, there's trouble brewing south, as Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) amasses his forces at Winterfell, preparing to assault Jon Snow and all of his allies, Free Folk included. Not even Tormund has time for matters of the heart — but his fleeting moments with Brienne are a welcome distraction all the same.

Below, Kristofer Hivju taks with The Hollywood Reporter about his take on the dynamic between Tormund and Brienne, his character's new role as leader of the wildlings, the brewing war in the North, and what to expect from the coming episode, called "The Broken Man."

Three weeks ago, the main story in Tormund's orbit was all about Jon Snow. These days, it's all about Brienne. How much are you paying attention to the Game of Thrones fandom's interest in Tormund's crush on Brienne?

Definitely, a lot. I just came on Instagram, so suddenly I have a hand in the fan bowl. It's very interesting. (Laughs.) I've been missing this, you know? Honestly. I asked David and Dan about this last season: "Who is Tormund with? Where is his wife? Where are his kids?" Because we went to Hardhome, and since I've been talking about my kids, then there's probably a wife. But they said to me, "He's probably more of a bachelor kind of guy." (Laughs.) So when I read the [scenes with Brienne], I was like, "Yes! Finally! There's a love interest!" Of course, Brienne is the perfect match for Tormund Giantsbane.

Tormund is infatuated with Brienne as soon as she rides into Castle Black. Is this love at first sight, or lust at first?

I don't think Tormund differentiates between love and lust. That's one thing to him. It's one big bowl of nice things to him. (Laughs.) It's definitely "love-lust at first sight."

And what do you imagine is Brienne's first impression?

We had some fun with this. I was like, "Why is she skeptical? What's the problem?" If both parties have the same interest, there is no conflict, so somebody has to resist! But the great thing about them is, if they fought, you don't know who would win. That's a great start of a relationship.

That must be part of the appeal for Tormund.

Yeah! (Laughs.) That attracts him! That's part of what's so great about it. It's like, nobody has exactly seen Tormund flirt with anybody. Nobody expected to see it. People only expect him to fight and to grumble. It's nice to show a different view and take on the character. It's a brand new side of Tormund.

Hopefully, you're comfortable with the idea that of all your great accomplishments as Tormund Giantsbane, your lasting legacy is very likely going to be that look you give to Brienne as you're setting off from Castle Black in "The Door."

It was great. It's always fun to see how far you can go. How would Tormund do this? In the first scene they have, when she comes in, it's like, boom! "Who's that woman?" 

You can almost hear a great '80s power ballad blaring in the background as he's looking at her for the first time.

Yes! (Laughs.) And in the eating scene, he's looking at her for a while, like, "I really like that woman." And the third scene on the horse, it's like… there's a purity in it. (Laughs.) There's a real love.

What went into building this dynamic with Gwendoline Christie?

That was pretty needed. We're similar actually, me and Gwen. We don't go silent in the halls. If we are in the room, you will hear us, and you will feel us. We take up a lot of space, both of us. When you have both of us in the same room, it's almost like there's no more space for anybody. I love working with her. She's a fantastic actress. She's so much fun. She's filled with life. My goal through those shooting days was to crack her up. There was a lot of laughing. With all of the horrible things happening on this show, it's nice to really laugh about this.

Especially in the storyline in the North. Generally, Game of Thrones doesn't have enormous room for levity, so it's a change of pace to see someone like Tormund — who beat the Lord of Bones to death in one deft move last season — playing comic relief.

Yeah, yeah. And it's also that for three seasons now, Tormund's objective has been to get his people to safety. They're finally there somehow. Now we have the Boltons threatening to kill them all, of course, but for the moment, we're giving Tormund a short break before he has to fight again.

Drilling deeper into this war with the Boltons, where is Tormund with this conflict?

Well, it's been a long travel. For right now, he has taken leadership of the wildlings, if that's even possible. He's shown himself as a man who can make things go in the same direction at least. He supports Jon fully and without question, because for him, the threat is so obvious. Of course, when we did the scene in "Hardhome," Jon came up with this: "Sometime in the future, I will ask you to fight for me." Everyone thinks he's talking about the White Walkers. We'll see what's going to happen there. But for Tormund, he has now involved himself politically in the bigger political perspective. He's of the same pace as everyone else now. It's not about his people or himself. He knows you have to play the game somehow, because you're in the middle of it.

Tormund and the wildlings have been so focused on getting away from the White Walkers and heading south. Now that they're here, it behooves Tormund to take up Jon's cause to conquer the North. It's not enough to just be on the other side of the Wall. Now the wildlings have to integrate as well. Tormund has to create a safe place for his people.

Yeah. These 2,000 warriors with their families, it's the rest of the Free Folk. If they die, there is no Free Folk. They have some places to stay right now. They're in The Gift. But even in episode four, Ramsay Bolton was threatening all of these people. When you enter Westeros, you have to play the game.

How does Tormund feel about his role as leader? Does he feel well suited for it?

For me, he was the lieutenant to Mance Rayder (Ciaran Hinds). He was at all the meetings where Mance went to every clan to convince all the people and gather them to go up to Castle Black together. Tormund was there for all that time. Mance was somewhat of a father figure to him. I think he has the skills, but he never saw himself as the one who was supposed to do it. That might be why Tormund has so much faith in Jon. He sees a leader in Jon. He believes in him. But I don't think Tormund saw himself as a leader at first. I think he saw himself as a helper to the leader. But now, somehow, it was Jon who gave him that mission to be their leader, when he convinced Tormund to go back to Hardhome. He said, "Your people need a leader. They need somebody. You're the guy." I think it's growing on him.

Tormund was at Hardhome. He saw the White Walkers. It's hard to imagine him getting surprised by much. But was he at all shocked by Jon's resurrection?

It's a funny thing, and it's something I like about the show. This is a fantasy show, where the characters in the show don't really believe in magic. In the beginning, people are talking about dragons and giants, and even when the giants are attacking Castle Black, someone says: "I don't believe in giants!" If an alien ship just came to our Earth, we don't believe in aliens, but we would have to in the next minute. It's the same thing on Game of Thrones. When something happens, you have to accept it. If Jesus comes back, you have to accept that. When you have seen White Walkers and all those crazy things, and you have lived with giants… Tormund does not like black magic. He hates it. He's very skeptical of the Red Woman (Carice van Houten), but I think he accepted it. I think he accepted it pretty fast.

Does it change his view of Jon at all? Some of these people are viewing him as a deity.

It doesn't seem like that. It feels to me that, yes, everybody else looks at Jon like a god, but I don't. I think it's changed his perspective. "He's back? Great. Let's find a way to solve this somehow." But the one thing is when you look at Jon Snow's story, he goes to the other side of the Wall, he meets a girl and falls in love, ends up scaling the Wall, goes on the mission, fails at the mission, comes back, lets the wildlings in… it's just a fantastic story. 

It's a twisting-and-turning ride not just for Jon, but for virtually everyone this year. If Game of Thrones is a roller coaster, this season feels like the downward slope, picking up speed.

Definitely. But the first time I felt that was when I read [the season six scripts], because this is the first season without the books, and nobody knows what's going to happen. So when I read it, I binge-read it. I started to read it, and my plan was to read a couple of pages a day. But when I started reading, I couldn't stop until I finished episode ten. I was like, "Damn!" (Laughs.) Every good thing is building up to something, and now it's definitely being pushed into the next level. Every storyline has meaning somehow. Everything is concentrated. 

In the preview for the next episode, Tormund is seen trying to rally his troops to Jon's cause. He tells them: "He died for us! If we're not willing to do the same for him, we're cowards!" What can you say about that scene?

As I talked about, the Free Folk are the hardest people in the world to lead — or at least in this world. It's in the definition of who they are. They're the Free Folk. So I can say this: Mance Rayder spent how long, 19 years to gather them all? I don't have 19 years. (Laughs.) I have less than 19 minutes!

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