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Amidst an ocean of possibilities, Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) scored the line of the night.
In “Winterfell,” the final season premiere of Game of Thrones, the Night’s Watch maester-in-training dropped a massive truth bomb on Jon Snow (Kit Harington), delivering the words fans have been waiting to reach his ears for at least two seasons, and much longer depending on level of fandom: “You’ve never been a bastard. You’re Aegon Targaryen, the true heir to the Iron Throne.”
The backstory, for those who need a quick refresher: Jon Snow grew up believing he was the bastard son of Eddard Stark (Sean Bean) and an unknown mother from the South. Before he died, Ned promised he would eventually reveal the truth about Jon’s mom. He never did. Instead, the truth was divined by the power duo of Sam and Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright), who collectively deduce the identities of Jon’s parents: Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen, the prince who would have become King of Westeros, if not for an ill-timed and well-struck hammer blow to the heart, courtesy of Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy), years and years before the series premiere.
The truth about his Targaryen roots hits Jon square in the heart, not unlike how his birth father died. Jon knows a thing or two about bouncing back from those kinds of wounds when literally sustained, but the emotional fallout? It’s an active question, as Jon’s full reaction to the Targaryen truth bomb remains unknown. For now, actor John Bradley can at least shed some light on how the scene played out on set, and his interpretation of events. Ahead, he joins The Hollywood Reporter to not only weigh in on Sam’s climactic moment with Jon, but also learning the truth about how Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) killed his father and brother during season seven.
In the premiere, you’re tasked with bringing to life one of the most anticipated scenes since the beginning of the series — really, since A Game of Thrones was published in 1996, for some fans: Jon finally learning the truth about his parents. What was your reaction when you found out about your role in the scene?
It was an honor, really. It felt like a real privilege to be the character with the responsibility of imparting that information. As an actor, especially with something so big and with so much scope and so many characters to it, all you can really hope for with your own character is to be important. You want to have an impact. You want your character to change the course of things. You hope the show doesn’t end the same way it would if your character wasn’t there. When you get these big moments… it’s a big enough reveal to be part of the scene with Bran at the end of season seven, where the thing Gilly (Hannah Murray) discovers in the Citadel is contextualized, and he and Bran find out the truth about Jon Snow’s parents. That was a big enough privilege. But to be the character who imparts it to Jon Snow, knowing how much it’s going to change the entire course of events to come? That’s a really exciting feeling. I felt so privileged that my little character had such a seismic impact, not only in that episode and in the season, but it’s probably one of the most important scenes in the history of the show. Being a part of it, and working with Kit again under those circumstances? It was a real thrill.
This was your first scene with Kit in a few years. What did you two discuss in terms of your preparation for the reveal?
We hadn’t worked together since the last episode of season five. I had two seasons off on my own — and let’s face it, a lot of things have happened to Jon Snow in that time, what with the whole dying and coming back to life routine.
Oh, that little thing?
That little thing. (Laughs.) It’s interesting, though. Because these characters progress so rapidly and their developments are always so constant, no one ends a season the way they started. When you have two seasons away from another actor, it’s almost like you’re acting against someone completely new. He’s like a completely different Jon Snow. He’s had two seasons of new experiences that Sam wasn’t privy to, and that I wasn’t privy to, either, since I wasn’t on set those days. He feels the same about me. Sam progressed in those two seasons as well. It’s a different Jon and Sam than we’ve ever seen before. This scene is unique, because they’ve never had this energy before. There’s never been this level of hostility from Sam towards Jon and towards his circumstances. Even taking that aside, there’s a rhythmic difference because of how much they have changed since the last time we saw them together.
Kit and I took this scene really, really seriously. We really examined it from all angles. It was basically two scenes in one. The early part is about Sam imparting what he knows about what Dany’s done to his brother and father. That’s the first beat. Then it moves into the second act, which is all about Jon Snow’s parents. We worked really hard on the pacing and finding the transition between those two beats. We ran the lines over and over again, making sure nothing would get in our way on the day. We knew it would be such a hard scene to play emotionally, and so hard to navigate in terms of the storytelling and the information that’s imparted. Sam comes in with such a high degree of emotion, and then he has to temper that emotion when he’s telling Jon about his parents. He knows Jon needs to hear this from a calm voice, one he can trust. It was all very difficult. We ran it as much as we could, knowing that all we would have to do on the day is feel our way through the energy of it and tell the story. It’s a lot of information to impart. Of all the scenes we’ve done together, this is the one we obsessed about the most. You have to get it right. If we would have [fumbled] this reveal, there would have been an unsatisfactory taste in the mouth for the rest of the season. I think we had to get it as right as possible. We worked harder than ever before to make sure we could do that.
Outside of Jon’s status as the heir to the Iron Throne, and outside of the fact that Sam does not believe in Daenerys’ worthiness as a leader, why do you feel Sam believes Jon is the right person to govern Westeros?
Aside from those two things, which are very important, I think you can look at it from a purely romantic point of view, if you like. Sam knows Jon really well. He knows his heart is in the right place. He knows he does things for the right reasons. He has a very strict moral code that he adheres to as much as he can. Sometimes he makes hard decisions. He never takes any decision lightly. He tries to do everything for the right reasons. That’s the romantic view. If you want a more cynical version, of what’s under the surface? Sam always has had a habit of manipulating Jon. He’s manipulated him on so many other occasions. The reason he manipulates him in the past is to keep Gilly and Baby Sam safe. He manipulated him to be the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch because that was the best chance of getting Gilly and Baby Sam out of Castle Black and into the Citadel. If Jon is in a position of power, he thinks he can work on Jon to make as safe a life as possible for the people he cares the most about in the world. It’s a little cynical, but I do think Sam is so hyper-intelligent and calculated that any plot he can scheme and any route he can take to keep Gilly and Baby Sam safe, he’s going to do it. If Jon is in a position of power, then he can grease those wheels more easily. Those are two ways of looking at it. Take your pick!
Before the Jon Snow reveal, you played yet another emotionally intense scene: Sam meeting Daenerys and finding out she executed his brother and father. What was your approach to this monumental moment for Sam?
I had a really clear vision of it. In the script, it says something like: “Daenerys tells Sam what happens, Sam is upset, and Sam cries.” But the last thing I wanted this to be was an instance of bursting into tears. I felt like it would cheapen the moment. I wanted to make sure on the day I had the guts to really elongate that moment and stretch it as long as I could, and fill it with as much emotion as I could. I really wanted the struggle to be apparent. I wanted people to feel like they were seeing a character have a mental breakdown. His brain and his heart can’t cope with all this pain. He’s absolutely scrambled by this. It’s a complete sucker punch — not only the news about his family, but also his emotional reaction. It’s not something he’s expecting. He just can’t compute it. I wanted to play it so all these different reactions flash across his face so the audience could almost see it all flash through his mind: raw anger, grief, sadness.
On top of all of that, there’s this strange thing happening where he’s embarrassed about being upset. He’s in front of the queen! He knows he has to hold it together. He can’t cry in front of the queen. He needs to get out of there as soon as he can. He can cry when he’s outside. On top of the sheer shock and the grief, anger and fury he’s feeling, he has to maintain decorum as well. It’s a lot to squeeze into a five-second reaction shot, but I knew I had to try and do that as much as I possibly could. It had to look like a meltdown, like someone who can’t cope with all the emotions he’s feeling at one time.
We talked about transitions [within the Jon Snow scene] before, but the one in this scene, with Sam finding out about Randyll and Dickon, there’s a flip there. Part of Sam and part of the audience could be forgiven for thinking he’s over Randyll Tarly and the damage done by his father, that it doesn’t define him anymore. He’s confined it to the past. The death of Randyl wouldn’t matter one iota, right? But it does. Sam’s probably just as surprised by that as anyone else. I read somewhere that it’s actually the parents you have a difficult relationship with who you really grieve the most when they die, because now there’s no resolution to it. You can’t do anything about it now. The scars are there. Just before we went to that take, David Nutter, the wonderful director of this episode, gave a wonderful note. He came to me and said, “This means you can never make it better [with your father].” That’s a heartbreaking thing to hear. He’s able to maintain his composure a little bit, and even offer the silver lining: “At least I’ll be able to go home now [that his father is dead].” Then the sucker punch comes in with his brother’s death, and it brings in a different level of emotional intensity, and that’s when the breakdown happens. Sam probably saw Dickon as just another victim of toxic masculinity, just in a different way than what Sam felt.
I was so happy with how they left that ten-second shot in. I was so worried they were going to cut away. But they let it play out. It’s excruciating. You want to look away, but you can’t. That’s how I felt, watching it. I was really pleased with it. I’m pleased with the performance, but more I’m pleased with how they handled it and edited it. The direction was great. I got so much support from the team on that day. It was a really lovely thing to play — difficult, but very satisfying.
Sam believes in Jon Snow. Jon Snow believes in Daenerys. Can Sam ever get on board with Jon’s vision, or in his mind, has Daenerys crossed a line she can never come back from?
In terms of Sam telling Jon about his true claim to the throne, I think it was hurried along by what Daenerys told him. I think he definitely sees Daenerys as unstable, as a volatile character, as somebody who is determined to succeed without a real moral compass. She’ll kill people for a minor act of disobedience. I think Sam is very wary of her now and sees how dangerous she can be — not just for Jon Snow, but also in terms of the entire Seven Kingdoms. We could have a Mad Queen here. Sam knows enough about history to know what people who are slightly unhinged and slightly unbalanced are like when they’re in charge, and the damage they can cause. Sam has learned from the mistakes of history. He’s never going to come around to Daenerys. He’s too wise for that. He’s too wary and suspicious of her now. If she’s going to be incredibly destructive and volatile, then she could get the Seven Kingdoms into a worse position if she continues to be unyielding, impulsive and so violent. If she’s going to continue dealing with things in such a violent way, then he can only see dark days ahead if she’s on the throne. His desire to tell Jon about his claim to the Iron Throne is all but informed by his desire to make sure some of those dark days of the Mad King and the past reigns of imbalance never continue into the future. Sam has an agenda now. He definitely has an agenda.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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