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“I’d rather have regrets about not doing something, than regret doing it”: In conversation with Game of Thrones star, John Bradley

John Bradley West is an English actor famous for his role as Samwell Tarly in HBO’s massive global hit fantasy TV series, Game of Thrones. Since then, he has starred in Patient Zero, Moonfall, and the romcom Marry Me, alongside Jennifer Lopez and Owen Wilson, and he has also been cast in the TV series North Shore.

Freddie: How did the overwhelming success of Game of Thrones impact your life and career? How did you handle the immense fan response both positive and negative to your character and the show?

“I think people who were in it from Season One, like I was, saw a gradual build of its success. It’s not like those who joined later on in the series, who would join what was already a huge show. For us, it always felt a little more manageable. It wasn’t an overnight thing where you would join something that already had a lot of pressure from the second you joined. It was a level of fame that was actually quite manageable, as people who watched it, loved it. People who didn’t watch it would have no idea who you were, especially for somebody like me, who wasn’t on the posters, like Emilia or Kit, for example. That led to a level of recognition that was really nice. Everybody was always very polite and respectful. We all love the show as well; there’s nothing worse than having people talking about a project that you’re not invested in yourself. So, in terms of career, it’s a mark of approval that you can act. If people in charge of a show like that trust you with it, then in regard to the negativity it’s just about shaking it off – it was such an all-consuming thing. Now we just want to show that we can do other things, but even if it’s the only thing you do in a career it’s still been a good career.”

Freddie: Looking back on your time on Game of Thrones, what aspects of the show do you miss the most?

“It’s all about the people. The fact that we got to work together as a team for nine years is so rare. It’s like a family. When you do movies you get to know people extremely well for a few months and then you may never see them again, but we always had the last six months of the year with each other, and the friendships that developed were special. There’s something very unique about that. The hardest part for someone naturally shy like myself is making all those friendships quickly. However, every time we went back it was like putting on comfortable clothes. An artistic acting rapport naturally developed between us. You can’t manufacture that. It just happens. We were incredibly lucky to not have a single bad personality or toxic energy within the entire cast. That’s rare.”

Freddie: I actually went to Split and Dubrovnik to see where some Game of Thrones scenes were filmed. What was it like filming abroad?

“That’s a great thing about it as well. Iceland was the one for me because I did a couple of consecutive years in Iceland. It wasn’t even in Reykjavik, but a glacier, hundreds of miles away from Reykjavik. In a situation like that you think, “Well, if it wasn’t for this show I’d never be here. Not only am I here but I’m with people that I really like and I’m doing work that I’m really proud of”. Those were pinch-yourself moments which were a real privilege. I’ll never forget them.”

Freddie: What would you say contributed significantly to the success of Game of Thrones?

“It comes from the books, but it gained such wide recognition when the show came out; that is, the risks that it takes getting rid of characters. I think George R.R. Martin had written so much for TV where the rule of TV is – don’t kill your lead character too early. He became sick of that restriction and so wanted to write books that broke all of those rules and which led to his lead characters being killed off at the end of the first book. When that was made for TV they were stuck with the fact that the lead characters were now killed at the end of the first season. It’s how constantly surprising it was. Once you get to a level where people are expecting to be surprised, how do you then surprise them? The whole show was based on surprise. In terms of surprising moments, they executed those brilliantly, time after time.” 

Freddie: How do you personally relate to your characters, such as fantasy-based protagonists such as Samwell Tarly and in other roles, in more real-life-based roles such as Max in North Shore?

“You should always try to establish a connection between yourself and your characters. Humanity and life are all about grey areas. If you look closely enough, you will find something in common, even with the most extreme characters. Who you are as a child really influences who you are as an adult. And so, from my own therapy and self-reflection, I’ve taken this approach with characters, trying to find glimpses of who they were at six years old, even if they’re portrayed as 30 years old in the film. It gives you motivation for their actions as adults. It’s tempting to think that a character doesn’t exist until they first appear in the film, but if you delve into their childhood you will discover an incident or a moment in their life that connects with something in your own life. Then you might see the parallel between the two of you.”

Freddie: How do you handle criticism? You recently starred in Moonfall, a so-called “box office bomb”, and yet your performance was “the best thing about Moonfall” according to critics, such as NMEs James McMahon.

“It’s tricky because nobody shows up to do a job, anywhere, trying to do something that won’t take off. Everyone is giving their best effort to make it work. It’s a lesson really. I think it may be the most expensive independent film of all time, around 150 million dollars. It had an Oscar winner, Halle, who was awesome, and Roland Emmerich, who knows his way around a disaster movie. I had a great time on it, and it’s very flattering that James McMahon said that. It just goes to show that sometimes, during a pandemic, there are some things you just can’t plan for, but it’s about having a good experience, and I’m glad I did it.”

Freddie: What has been the most valuable lesson you’ve learned throughout your acting career so far?

“It’s about not being afraid to turn things down and not do them, if you believe you’re not doing them for the right reasons. In an industry where uncertainty is so prevalent and you’re never sure if you’ll work again, it’s tempting to grab hold of everything. However, if your gut instinct is telling you that something feels off or that it’s not a character you want to play, or there are problematic elements to it, then simply trust your own instincts and choose not to do it. I’d rather have regrets about not doing something than regret doing it.”

Freddie: What does the future hold for John Bradley West?

“Theatre, definitely, because I trained in theatre but never pursued it professionally. When I finished Game of Thrones, which was such a significant part of my life, the idea of doing movies where you only commit for a couple of months and then move on to something else was really appealing. However, my former Game of Thrones bosses, David and Dan, approached me with a show they had written for Netflix – their first project after Game of Thrones. They asked if I would like to join them and be a part of it. I think I have had a long enough break in-between to go back into series now so I’m doing the Netflix show with them. It’s nearly finished so that will be out towards the end of the year!”

Freddie: What advice would you give to aspiring actors who are just starting out in the industry?

“Enjoy it for as long as you can possibly enjoy it and while the stakes are low. As soon as something becomes your job; as soon as there are 200 people filming you and there’s a budget of tens of billions of dollars – that’s when the pressure’s on. You still love it, but you develop a slightly different relationship with it after that. So, enjoy it while you can. If a mistake happens just forget about it. You’ve got a long life ahead of you to make things right.”

Deborah: Is it weird being a Northerner in a sea of posh, privately educated actors? As someone from Essex myself, I always have people questioning my accent, did you have the same experience?

“I went into the industry expecting that to be the case. And I think maybe I just joined the industry at a time when that was on the decline a bit. But I know that attitude was prevalent for a while. But I think that’s a great thing about acting, it’s that you’re dealing with humanity, you’re dealing with telling stories right across the board, especially now. It’s getting so much better with telling diverse stories, and stories from different voices that you wouldn’t have heard stories from before. So, it’s kind of a level playing field where all stories are treated with respect. And if you want stories to be told authentically, you have to get authentic people to do them. So now, if you’re a posh actor, you’re at a disadvantage if the role on the table is somebody working-class or somebody from an ethnic minority background or something like that. You’re now not the right person to play that part and you never were, but now you’ll never get a chance to play that in a million years, and that’s only right. Because of that more voices are being amplified, and everybody’s having their say, everybody’s earning their place at the table. I think it’s a good thing.”

Deborah: I mean amazingly I am going to see The Little Mermaid tomorrow. It’s one of the big benefits of how the acting industry is becoming more diverse and now amplifying different voices at the same time. It’s giving so many more people a chance to play characters that would typically just be given to the same old people.

“Of course. That’s what it’s all about. And, you know, there are people who have a problem with that, and I’m not quite sure what their problem is. Because the people do have a problem with that now didn’t have a problem when it was people playing out of their race, when it was white people playing in ethnic parts in the 60s, those people don’t really talk about that the same, but that’s just all agenda pushing. It’s never about that. It’s all about how they see the world. And hopefully, the voices of those people who have a problem with it will get more and more marginalised, and the next generation won’t even think about it.”

Deborah: So was being on TV alongside Kit Harrington’s character strange? Because Samwell was quite a cheery and funny character, and then Jon Snow it was like gloom and doom. I mean, that’s why Sam was, my favourite character, I wasn’t a big fan of Jon Snow.

“Oh, nice! Thanks, I’ll tell him! Yeah, I think that’s what made it such an appealing watch, the fact that it’s such a broad spectrum of characters, all of humanity was there. And if it was just the serious side of things, if it was just the brooding hero, you’d just get sick of that tone. You have to have people in there to break that open. I think that was why Sam and Jon’s relationship was so effective because they are so different. But at different times, they were exactly what the other person needed. Sometimes, you know, Sam needed a protector physically, and sometimes Jon needed some sage advice. And so, between them, they make up for each other’s shortcomings, and they become a complete person between them.”

Deborah: That’s actually quite beautiful. But landing a big role fresh out of drama school must have been quite daunting. How did you cope with suddenly acting alongside big names, as well as being suddenly thrust into the limelight?

“It was really scary. Because as I said, I come from a very theatrically centred training. So we didn’t really have a lot of camera training at all, we have the three hours across three years, so it doesn’t really prepare you for that job. And the thing that saved all of us, I think, was that it was myself and Kit Harrington and Emilia Clarke and Richard Madden and others, who were going on that journey for the first time all together. Kit had done some plays, Emilia had done theatre and a few telly things, but none of us had ever done TV on that scale before. And I think that when you’re with people who are feeling the same way as you are, you sort of cling to each other. So we didn’t necessarily feel intimidated because when I was doing scenes with Kit, we were both feeling our way through it. And the friends that you make when you’re scared are the friends that you tend to bond with for life, I think.”

Deborah: Well that definitely describes Oxford ha! I mean you’ve kind of spoken about how different TV acting is from theatre, but how different is acting in a fantasy show compared to any other genre?

“Even if it is a fantasy show, I always try and make it as real as possible. I don’t think I ever made my performance in Game of Thrones, a fantasy performance. I tried to make it real because there are a lot of heightened performances going on. So, the stuff that I did, I tried to make as real, and as small, and as credible, and as unshowy, as possible. And I think I always bring that to it. So, the way I went about performing it doesn’t really differ. For example, when you take someone like Martin Freeman in The Hobbit movies, he’s playing a quite natural character. He’s not really playing the world; he’s just playing a person. That’s exactly what I’ve always tried to do as well. So, the characters differ, but my approach to it and what I try and bring to it is always the same.”

Deborah: Speaking of previous questions about actors sometimes not being able to say ‘No’ to some scenes in the acting industry. With Game of Thrones having very high sex content, was it weird acting alongside that? Was anyone really uncomfortable with some sex scenes, and what was that environment like for those actors?

“I think everybody’s on this journey of enlightenment and education all the time. And they all seem to happen way too late. These moments, whether it be Black Lives Matter, or whether it be Me Too, and that kind of thing. They all happen way too late in history. But it’s just all about how we learn from them and how we make amends. Before those movements, you wouldn’t even have thought about how they can be seen with a different light shined on them. And I’d like to think that everybody on our show felt safe and looked after. I’d never really heard of any otherwise. Everybody involved in it are still friends, it doesn’t feel like there’s any bad blood but you know, if there was then nobody should have any compunction about speaking out about it.”

Deborah: And what do you think happened to Samwell post-Bram-as-king, did he get his happily ever after?

“It feels it, when you leave Sam in that chamber with Davos, and Bram, and Tyrion and all of those people, that he’s finally in a position where the skills that he has, and his expertise are finally being valued. And he can actually have an impact on the wider world. He was never going to be able to influence things on the battlefield or in the military, or any of that stuff. But he’s found a place where what he brings to the table is respected and valued. And that’s all he ever wanted.”

Deborah: And are you comfortable with being known as the guy who played Samwell in Game of Thrones, or do you wish to kind of branch out from such an iconic role?

“Yeah, I think that’s the thing about having your first role be one of the biggest things you’ll ever do, if not the biggest thing. Because not only do people think you can’t play anything else, but they also think that is actually what you’re like because they’ve got nothing to reference the real you. So now I find myself playing characters that are more similar to me, but people think that’s acting, and they think I am Samwell, and that when I’m playing close to myself, that’s the big transformative part. But I think it’s always good in a way because I think everyone, whether you’re an actor or not, everyone’s got one part in them that they can play better than any other because it speaks a lot about your life. It’s just about trusting yourself to play other parts. And it’s also about other people in the industry, trusting you to play different parts and hoping that people will believe it. So, it’s a long process. But, you know, if that’s the only thing that you get judged by for the rest of your career, nobody’s complaining.”

Deborah: And would you join in a sequel of Game of Thrones? Or is that chapter of your life closed?

“I was thinking about this the other day, actually, I don’t think I could play him anymore. It’s weird. The sort of, you know, I’ve spoken before about what was happening in my life immediately before Game of Thrones. And I think as Sam grew, I was growing as well as a person as I was playing in my private life. So the Sam that ended the season wasn’t the Sam that started at the beginning of the series, and I wasn’t the same person either. So if I did play him now, I could probably play him, but it wouldn’t be the Samwell that everybody knows, because he’ll have moved on, as we all have. Whether I’ve got the sort of will to do that, I’m not quite sure. But some things are just best left alone.”

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