Armagh actor on life as an extra on Game of Thrones
Armagh actor Denis Halligan has been an extra on Game of Thrones, which is filmed all over Ulster. He reveals the things he's seen behind the scenes of the HBO programme, writes Siobhan Fenton
You might not recognise Denis Halligan at first glance, but if you're a diehard Game of Thrones fan, the chances are his face has been appearing on your TV screen for the past five years. The actor has been a firm fixture on the show since its inception in 2011, working as an extra and landing small character parts.
Before the show became the global phenomenon it now is, commanding a massive fandom and numerous accolades, Halligan came across it when it was a relatively unknown project, deciding to take a chance on auditions as they were being held here.
In the six years since, the 27-year-old from Co Armagh has played various parts, including Nico in the first season and one of Thoros' accomplices in the kidnapping of Arya in the third. He has mostly worked alongside Paul Kaye and Kit Harrington "Thoros of Myr and Jon Snow, respectively" who he describes as "incredible to work with and great guys to be around. As an actor you learn a lot." He has also acted alongside Maisie Williams, who plays Arya Stark and whom he describes as "absolutely lovely".
What he won't describe, however, is what's being shot "or how, or where, or when, or why". Extras have to be tight-lipped about what goes on in filming due to strict non-disclosure agreements with the production crew. Posting spoilers or photos to social media is strictly forbidden and can result in financial penalties. But there's at least one good reason - if too many fans turn up on set, shooting will be disrupted. "This will sound weird," he says, "but during filming I didn't know where I was most of the time. A car would pick us up at 5.30am and drive us to the set. So, a lot of the time, I didn't even know where I was during filming."
Halligan warns that, although the finished product looks slick, filming the episodes can be extremely gruelling: "A standard day is 12 hours. I'd typically start at 5.30am, kicking off with an hour in costume. Everyone's costume is made to measure, and they're very detailed and intricate.
"One of the most intense days I had was filming the fight between The Hound and Beric Dondarrion in series three, which was essentially a huge sword fight. In the final cut, it lasts for just a few minutes in one episode, but for filming, we had to shoot every single day for a week. They have to get it just right."
His only regret about being an extra is that he is now auditioning for larger parts on the show. "So I'm hoping it won't ruin my chances by being linked to previous parts. Hopefully people won't remember me from earlier series," he added.
Halligan says directors are open to the idea of extras playing larger roles once they get more experience of life on set. Roles as extras on Game of Thrones are highly sought after in the acting world, since they offer up-and-coming actors a chance to get experience, develop skills and make links with the cast and crew. Being associated with a series as famous and ubiquitous as Game of Thrones is another bonus. It's true that an increasing number of extras don't have an acting background and are instead taking part because they are diehard fans of the show, but he says they bring another dynamic to the set and seldom take it as seriously as the professional actors. In his own case, his background is firmly thespian, having trod the boards for his first performance at age 11 and completing a higher national diploma in acting.
"When I started," Halligan continues, "Game of Thrones wasn't really well known, so most of the extras were just professional actors and people who had auditioned for bigger roles and not got them." In this new world, he says, the best tip to an aspiring extra is: "Grow your hair. I had long hair anyway, which is why I think I got the first audition. I looked a bit medieval. Other than that, keep an eye out for open casting calls, which are advertised on Facebook and in local media. They have big, open calls you can enter."
For aspiring local actors here, though, the success of the show means they can work without taking the well-worn path to London and further afield.
Halligan says: "You have to be based here, because that's where most of the filming takes place." But the global appeal of the show means actors from elsewhere are happy to move here.
He adds: "There was one guy I worked with recently who was from London and relocated to Belfast during filming. Now that's real commitment."