Game of Thrones stars Emilia Clarke and Kit Harington on filming their last scenes: 'We'll miss the Belfast accent'
Ahead of the seventh series of Game of Thrones which begins in July, Una Brankin talks to the show's biggest stars, including Emilia Clarke and Kit Harington, about the ending of the most-watched TV show in the world and how they feel about their last days of filming and leaving Belfast behind.
It's girl power all the way in the seventh series of Game of Thrones according to the cast members who filmed their final scenes in Belfast's Titanic Studios and the Linen Mill studios in Banbridge.
And to the delight, especially, of those playing the warring women of Westeros, the drama that started out in 2009 as a male-dominated medieval adventure has become a powerful tale of female empowerment.
Actress Emilia Clarke has high hopes for her warrior queen character, Daenerys, ending up on the famous hot seat.
All eyes will be on the tiny but fierce Daenerys and her ferocious dragons (now three) as she makes her bid for power, alongside "the imp" Tyrion Lannister, in the final series of the hit show, which begins on Sky Atlantic on Monday, July 17.
"Right now, I'm sort of feeling - with her - optimistic," says Emilia, who was cast as Daenerys, the princess also known as Mother of Dragons, after a guest spot on the BBC drama Doctors. "She'll probably need some help, though. I'll definitely be disappointed if she doesn't make it.
"I think that there was always that idea that she would know where she was going to, but the reality is frightening.
"I mean, I always believed that Dany had the highest of hopes for what kind of impact she could leave on this world.
"She is continuously reaching for purest level of rulership - is that a word? I just made it up."
The official Game of Thrones season seven trailer announced the imminence of the Great War of Westeros, placing Daenerys and the fantasy's other female leaders to the fore in the battle against the evil Cersei Lannister, who currently sits on the iron throne. The trailer even hinted at a possible alliance between the Daenerys and Tyrion, and the red priestess Melisandre, the banished servant of the Lord of the Light R'hllor.
"Suddenly like, it's a woman's world," says the petite Emilia. "That's nice; that's good. Dany is exploring every avenue that her kind of bloodline has been to. People have an idea of what her father was and everyone has vague idea what her brother was.
"She knows what those things are but it could be very easy for her to do something very rash."
Last seen on the big screen in the romance Me Before You, Emilia (30) has been filming for the Star Wars prequel about Han Solo, due for release in 2018. Before Game of Thrones wrapped filming in Northern Ireland, she was spotted shooting a scene with Jon Snow, whom she finally meets in series seven. The two English actors have been based in Belfast for filming here.
"It's weird - we've spent about four years of our lives in Belfast," she says. "The thought of it ending is enormous and crazy and weird. I can't even imagine the weirdness and tears when it ends, and the sadness - hopefully I'll be sitting on the throne and that will make it all better.
"I hope Game of Thrones is remembered for beautiful storytelling; that would be the biggest goal."
Kit Harington, who plays the brooding Jon Snow, described the role as the "most important of my life". The London-born actor, who lives with his former co-star Rose Leslie (currently starring in The Good Wife), was killed by Night's Watch assassins in season five, only to be brought back to life by the witch Melisandre in season six.
"It really, really was a relief to be able to walk around Belfast and not have to make some excuse about what I'm doing here," says Kit (30). "I told my family and close friends only and had to hide when I was supposed to be dead - the social side of things here suffered a bit. There was no jet or helicopters to fly me in and out and we had to be careful, as there had been drone camera flying over the Battle of the B*******, for a start.
"I had to run under an umbrella and be taken to a tent."
Taking a break from filming a war council scene in Banbridge, Harington admits that the widely acclaimed Battle of the B******* sequence, in which he is crushed under several warriors, was a panicked ordeal for him.
"I've got a few fears, spiders being one of them, but the worst is my claustrophobia - I'm mortally afraid of crowds. I panic," he says. "It was one of the most terrifying things and most uncomfortable - 15 bearded Irishmen crushing you.
"There was a moment where he could've just lay down and let go of the hell he's in, and sleep, like drowning, but it cuts to the heart of Jon, that he fights his way up to the top.
"You could see, at the end of season six, he's thinking, 'I'm the King of the North and there is a small smile on his face, and I think that season seven starts with optimism," he adds. "I mean, the world's f****** ending and he's in real danger, but at least he's in a place where people will listen to him when he's warning them, and he can get right down to business. And I think the point of sending Mel away at the end of last season was to say, well, she's not around, so you know he's in danger, mortal danger, like everyone else."
Although he's quite approachable on set, the handsome but short Harington has been accused of being as dour in real life as Jon Snow. He acknowledges the similarity between himself and his iconic character.
"I'll miss his northern grumpiness. I was picked because there's something in me a bit like him, I think," he remarks. "It sounds like a cliché, but I will miss stepping into him each year. This is probably the most important job of my life.
"It's a huge thing and it's been very close to my heart. I'll miss the family and coming back here, and even this costume and the fight scenes. The costumes and weaponry are incredible. I said from the start that I wanted the Long Claw sword but as the (show's) momentum's grown, it's become very expensive and will probably end up in a HBO museum. Hopefully they'll make me a replica."
Confessing to being fan of the hit Netflix series Stranger Things, Harington is looking forward to taking a break from acting - "Jon's long hair can come off" - and concentrating on directing and producing in the near future.
"I'm in a lucky position. I can take a bit of time to think about things," he concludes. "Yeah, I'd step away from this (GOT) genre but not from television. I think TV will continue to become one of the most interesting and exciting mediums for an actor and I think I would definitely go back into some kind of television."
Sophie Turner, who plays Jon Snow's sister, Sansa Stark, is less laid back about her career prospects after Game of Thrones.
"I'm totally insecure and totally unsupported, so I do worry about being out of work when Game finishes," she admits. "I was thinking about it and I panicked, but also I wonder if I would like a break from acting for a while. I don't really know. I'm just taking each day as it comes. Game has given me a platform and a lot of people love the show, directors and producers, too, so that should definitely help me get work, thankfully."
On location in Banbridge, the 21-year-old actress is tired after a "pretty damn impressive party" thrown by HBO, in celebration of the Emmys. Game of Thrones beat Frasier's record of the most awards garnered for a TV series, at the LA ceremony last autumn.
Tall and pale, with naturally thick auburn hair, she's currently dating pop star Joe Jonas, a former boyfriend of supermodel Gigi Hadid. From Northampton, she admits she isn't as fashion conscious as her red-carpet appearances would suggest.
"I have a very good stylist - she's a real hustler," she says. "She sorts me out. In real life, I'm one of the least fashionable people; I look like crap every day, to be honest.
"I go on set, it's 'oh God, look at you now. What have you done?' The fans I meet at the Comic Cons dress up as Sansa and look far better than me. There was one who seemed to know a lot about me - he was going 'oh, I loved that Valentino dress you were wearing the other night; I love your tatt', and so on, but I haven't really met any weirdos so far."
Sophie landed the role of the intense Sansa at 13, on August 7, 2009. Last September, she had the date tattooed - in discreet peach ink - on her arm, along with her close friend Maisie Williams, who plays Sansa's courageous sister Arya. In season five, she was involved in one the most controversial scenes of the whole series when Sansa was brutally raped by the sadistic Ramsay, after she is forced to marry him. Mature for her years, the actress dismisses the criticisms of the scene as mishandled and gratuitous.
"I don't think it was over the line; you know those kind of things went on then," she asserts. "We're based in Tudor times; around the War of the Roses. Those things happened and we are not a show that will distract from that.
"We don't, you know, paint a very pretty picture. We paint the world as it is and just throw in a couple dragons, and I think it would have been almost an injustice to pretend something like that wouldn't have happened. I know the reaction was strong and I thought that was appropriate and I think it's a really good thing. I think it was really great that we got the conversation going."
The debate sparked by the scene inspired the actress to join the Women For Women charity, which helps female survivors of war crimes, including rape.
"It's all about women who have been shunned from society because of having been raped in less economically developed countries and so it's about, you know, helping them find their feet again and get back into society and try (and) live a normal life," she explains.
"So, if anything, I think it's a benefit to have these things appear on television and let's not make it taboo any more. That's what I think."
Sansa's trauma and struggles have resulted in a darker character, who becomes stronger and steelier in the final season, according to Sophie.
"She's less sympathetic towards the other characters - she's in it for herself and she'll do anything to get what she wants at this point.
"I think she definitely feels left out, with Jon being King of the North. There's a little bit of jealousy there and she feels as though she deserves the title of Queen of the North. She also feels like it's an injustice that she hasn't been recognised for what she did for all of the northerners and also that Jon isn't recognising that either.
"I think if Jon was really appreciative of what she's done and spoke to her about it, she wouldn't have a problem with all the northern Lords not bowing down to her and hailing her Queen of the North. I think all she wants is the respect of her brother and I don't think she feels like she's getting that."
As for romance in series seven, the actress doesn't see any hope for Sansa, who has proven herself to have had poor taste in men (the odious Joffrey and the gay Loras).
So, what will she miss about Belfast?
"I was thinking about this last night and got really emotional. I love the accent and the people, the crew that work on this," she says, almost teary. "I'm going to miss them a lot because, as cheesy as it sounds, we really are a family and I'm gonna miss the shopping - there's great shopping here."
- Games of Thrones starts on July 17 on Sky Atlantic
Unusual pairing in TV’s hottest show
One of the most unlikely flirtations among the characters in Game of Thrones has centred around big hairy Tormund Giantsbane and Brienne of Tarth, the loyal Stark bodyguard played by Gwendoline Christie.
The six-foot-three actress and model bursts into laughter when she’s asked how she felt about the Norwegian actor Kristofer Hivju making eyes at the plain, androgynous Brienne.
“It was a bit more than I expected actually and Kristofer... I could tell he was delighted,” she says. “He started sending something that I believe is called a meme? And a selection of images involving some very creative collage work done on a computer and web pictures from Titanic of Leonardo de Caprio and Kate Winslet — I was Leo, of course.
“It was mainly images of him in dresses, looking very small, and me protecting, so I’m not entirely sure what he was trying to communicate but I felt he was happy, and that’s all that matters.”
Now equally famous among Trekkies as Captain Phasma in Star Wars, Gwendoline is much more feminine in the flesh than the earnest swordswoman Brienne. She dismisses any suggestion of Brienne getting a chance to sit on the iron throne in series seven.
“(I) Don’t think she’s about domination. I think Yara Greyjoy would be a good one,” she remarks. “I always wanted Hodor on there but I don’t suppose that’s going to happen now. Aria would be good. Maybe her and Sansa together, or Jon Snow? I don’t know.”
The 38-year-old actress from West Sussex, a protogee of the actor Simon Callow, is as well regarded for her Shakespearean roles on stage as she is for her TV and film work. She’s openly thrilled to have been part of the star-studded Absolutely Fabulous movie, written by Jennifer Saunders.
“I met Jennifer at a party and was really overcome — I used to read French and Saunders scripts — so I harassed her,” she laughs. “Very luckily, she and her daughter were fans of Game of Thrones and asked to have their photograph taken with me, so I couldn’t believe it when six months later I was told that she’d written a part for me.
“Those days on set were truly wonderful and hilarious. I walked into the green room with Joanna Lumley and was really quite overcome. There was Jerry Hall and Jennifer and Emma Bunton, Celia Imrie, Kathy Burke. Seeing them all was just extraordinary. I was so overcome I broke out into a stress rash.”
Like the rest of the visiting cast, Gwendoline is full of praise for Northern Ireland.
“I really loved coming here six years; I absolutely absolutely love the countryside,” she concludes. “The second that you step off the plane, there's a feeling of relaxation. It is just so beautiful and such a wonderful sense of peace here. I do hope to come back.”