When Game of Thrones was casting its very first season, the producers tried to recruit acclaimed actor Jonathan Pryce.
Looking at the script, with all the swords and sorcery, murder and mayhem, however, Pryce thought it all rather silly. He declined the role.
How times have changed. The fantasy show has gone on to become one of the most successful TV series of modern times and Pryce relented.
He appeared in season five last year, taking on the significant role of the religious leader High Sparrow, and he’s set for a prominent part in the forthcoming season six.
“I was offered a role in the very first series but I was very nervous about it,” begins the 68-year-old Welshman.
“It was described to me and it wasn’t something I would normally watch.
I remember looking at the script and all the weird names and I thought, ‘I don’t think so.’ And I passed on it.
“Then it became this massive, massive hit and when they came back and offered me the role of High Sparrow, I read the script properly and was really attracted to that role,” he adds.
“The character is a game-changer, a very strong character who has created a new world in the story. Saying yes this time around is one of the best decisions I have ever made.”
Taking the role will have done Pryce’s standing no harm.
The show has already attracted a number of illustrious actors — from Diana Rigg to Charles Dance — and it has made superstars out of central players like Peter Dinklage, Lena Headey and Emilia Clarke.
The series is a global phenomenon, playing in more than 30 countries worldwide, from Bolivia to Bangladesh, and it has eclipsed the hit mafia serial The Sopranos as HBO’s most popular series of all time.
The Game of Thrones creators pitched their idea to HBO as ‘The Sopranos in Middle Earth,’ and the series has set records each season as viewing figures kept on growing.
In America, where market-share is split across a myriad of channels, HBO said that its average gross audience during season four was a huge 18.6 million. The show has won 26 Primetime Emmy Awards.
“The scripts are very well written,” continues Pryce, “and whenever you get a new script, there are always some surprises in there.”
The show is infamous for the surprise slaying of major characters — ever since Sean Bean’s noble warrior-king, Ned Stark, was beheaded in series one — and Pryce’s character pulled off a shock last year, imprisoning one of the series’ most prominent players, Lena Headey’s Cersei Lannister, before forcing her to walk naked through the streets.
The show is drawn from the series of popular novels, A Song of Fire and Ice, written by American author George RR Martin, and season six will be the first to air with no supporting book.
The show has now overtaken the novelist’s output with the new season starting on Monday way ahead of the publication of the next book, The Winds Of Winter.
Now, for the very first time, readers and viewers are all in the dark about what will happen next.
We can be sure that Pryce’s High Sparrow will feature prominently this year.
Given the nature of the show, and Cersei Lannister’s unforgiving disposition, there’s sure to be some cruel vengeance coming his way. Cersei is not the sort to forgive and forget.
Indeed, according to some avid fans who spy on the filming, soldiers from House Tyrell (the show is dominated by competing houses, all vying for the Iron Throne) were seen storming the High Sparrow’s stronghold.
“I can’t speak for the fans but I am sure there is a great sense of anticipation about it,” says Pryce of the forthcoming season, “because they don’t know what happens. This season is not in the books.”
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If the High Sparrow looks sure to feature prominently in the forthcoming season, so too does young Bran Stark (played by Isaac Hempstead Wright) one of the few characters in the show to possess major magical powers, blessed as he is with ‘the sight’ and also the power to send his consciousness into the mind of another animal or being.
He is set to return to proceedings with his protectors and friends, the giant Hodor (Kristian Nairn) and Meera Reed (Ellie Kendrick), after dipping out of season five.
Bran was last seen towards the climax of season four, underground in the lair of the Three-Eyed Raven (now played in the forthcoming season by another acting great, Max von Sydow).
“They have had a season off,” says Hempstead Wright, “and Bran’s been on a journey with the Three-Eyed Raven, who has been teaching Bran how to harness the power of the Weirwood tree to be able to look into the past, present and future.
“Bran’s been trying to hone his skills and get to the point where he can use these powers and that’s where we find him at the start of the new season.”
Kendrick, meanwhile, notes that Bran’s new powers make for an exciting season ahead.
“It means that through Bran we discover lots of things about the past which people may not have known,” she says.
“We can’t tell you what, but there will be lots of discoveries.”
Some of these discoveries will no doubt centre on Ned Stark, Bran’s father, who was slain in season one; the actor Sebastian Croft has been cast as a young Ned for the forthcoming season, which suggests Bran will look back in time at his own family history.
We may even learn about the true parentage of Jon Snow (Kit Harington), Ned’s bastard son, who was (apparently) killed at the end of last season.
Elsewhere, Arya Stark (Maisie Williams), Bran’s sister, is set for an interesting time this season, having been blinded for her revenge killing of Meryn Trant last time round.
She’s now stuck in Braavos at the mercy of the House of Black and White.
“Coming into this season, we see how much of a struggle her blindness is for her,” says Williams, who shot her episodes with opaque contact lenses.
“Her eyes have been her main weapon and her main tool that she’s relied on for her whole life.
“Now that has been taken away from her. It’s the most brutal way of teaching her to use her other senses and it is a skill that is really, really hard for her to learn.”
But learn she does, emerging as an even more experienced killer.
“I didn’t realize how lucky I was when I started out playing Arya,” adds Williams.
“I get to play a girl who is so real, so honest, so believable and imperfect. You don’t often get characters like that. You see her face some real challenges this year.”
Also set for a change this year is the loveable Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) who is leaving the north and the Night’s Watch with his loved one Gilly (Hannah Murray) unaware of the bloodshed that has claimed his long-time friend Jon Snow: “It’s always interesting when you have characters that you and the audience think you know so well, especially after five seasons,” he says.
“But you get the best out of them when you place those characters in new surroundings and see how they react.”
Sam has a famously frosty relationship with his own father, and it has been suggested that Ian McShane, the Lovejoy and Deadwood actor who is set for a small but important role in season six, may play his dad.
“This season is refreshing,” continues Bradley, “to see Sam and Gilly react to a new stimulus.” Murray agrees.
“I loved this season,” she beams.
“In many ways it felt like a new show.”
This season may well feel like a new show, with the producers DB Weiss and David Benioff steering the show without Martin’s novels to guide their hand.
The latter, however, is sure that fans of both books and TV show will be happy.
“People are talking about whether the books are going to be spoiled — and it’s really not true,” Benioff said in a recent interview.
“So much of what we’re doing diverges from the books at this point.
“People are going to be very surprised when they read the books after the show.
“They’re quite divergent in so many respects.”
Watch this space.