Fourth series of Game of Thrones dishes up surprises for audience and actors
The fourth series of the hit television show dishes up surprises for the audience - and the actors, writes James Mottram
If anything underlined the importance of Game of Thrones it was the recent New York premiere. With Two Swords, the first episode of the fourth season of the HBO fantasy show, unveiled at Manhattan's lavish Lincoln Centre, it arrived with the sort of fanfare usually reserved for a Hollywood blockbuster.
A life-size model dragon stood guard outside, as the New York Philharmonic Orchestra whetted appetites by playing the theme tune. And that was even before 7,000 costumed-wearing fanatics turned up for a special "fans" screening in Brooklyn.
Already, it's turned previously unknown actors into stars. Kit Harington, who plays Jon Snow, is now the lead in blockbuster movie Pompeii; Emilia Clarke, the dragon-rearing blonde bombshell Daenerys Targaryen, has been cast in Terminator: Genesis as Sarah Connor.
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, the Danish actor behind the "Kingslayer" Jaime Lannister, is pitching up in a host of Hollywood movies, from Cameron Diaz rom-com The Other Woman to forthcoming Egyptian drama Gods of Egypt. "It certainly doesn't hurt to be on Game of Thrones," he smiles.
Rivalling Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, "It's one of the biggest TV series in the world now," says Irish actor Aidan Gillen, who plays the scheming Littlefinger, one of the myriad characters in Westeros, the fictional medieval-like land at the heart of George R.R. Martin's book series A Song Of Ice And Fire on which the show is based.
When the finale of Season Three was broadcast, it won the dubious honour of being the most pirated show of 2013 (5.9 million downloads, according to website TorrentFreak). But how can a story of dragons, dwarves, beheadings and betrayals capture the public imagination in a way most fantasy flicks only yearn for?
"We like to say it's a show that's made by grown-ups for grown-ups," says Liam Cunningham, who plays Ser Devos Seaworth. Its sophisticated characterisation and multiple narratives make Peter Jackson's Tolkien adaptation, The Lord of the Rings, look like child's play.
Even the pre-title catch-up in Season 4's first episode alone ran to two minutes, offering up a wealth of past plotlines. "It has everything," says the Dutch-born Van Houten. "It's never dull. It's always very dangerous and you never know what's around the next corner."
This is an archetypal Martin trait. "When my characters are in danger, I want you to be afraid to turn the page," says the author. "You need to show right from the beginning that you're playing for keeps."
It's a tradition the television show's creators Dan Weiss and David Benioff have rigorously adhered to.
"You're never safe in this show," says German actress Sibel Kekilli, who plays Shae, mistress to Peter Dinklage's dwarf character Tyrion Lannister. "So I'm afraid from the first season. That's why I'm telling George… he thinks I'm a pain in the ass, but I keep saying, 'Don't kill me!'"
She'd do well to carry on reminding him, with Martin still working on The Winds of Winter - the sixth of an intended seven volumes that will exponentially expand on the factions and families vying for power in Westeros' Seven Kingdoms.
Still, nothing compared to last season's so-called "Red Wedding" scene, in the penultimate episode when several members of the Stark clan were wiped out in one brutal cull. It sent social media sites like Twitter into meltdown as fans (well, the ones who hadn't read the books) watched in disbelief.
"The passion and the horror - it was so much fun to watch," says Coster-Waldau. "But it shows that the audience is really invested in these characters."
One of the most impressive aspects of the show is just how Weiss and Benioff have condensed Martin's long books into cohesive narratives.
"We're going into the fourth season and I still don't understand how they manage it," says Rory McCann, who plays the warrior-like The Hound. Amazed that "when you read the whole script, you can still understand what's going on", the Scottish actor admits he's prepared for the unexpected.
"This is what they're doing: surprises for the actors, surprises for the viewers."
Coster-Waldau thinks the 10 new episodes will be very Lannister-centric. "The whole dynamic in that family is very much at the core of Season Four," he says. In particular King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) - the sadistic teenager ruler spawned from Lannister's incestuous relationship with his sister.
Currently ruling Westeros from the coveted Iron Throne, his forthcoming nuptials to Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer) is set to be one of the biggest ever scenes filmed on Game of Thrones.
Then there are events at The Wall, the 700-foot barrier that seals off Westeros from those scary zombie-like White Walkers and the tribal Wildlings - guarded by Harington's Jon Snow and his fellow members of the Night's Watch.
"Another big thing is what's been set up with this whole stuff at The Wall," hints Coster-Waldau. "Wildlings are starting to attack… so that's going to come to a…" He pauses, realising his tongue has got a little loose. "Well, let's see what happens."
Vengeance, it seems, will be a major theme of the series. Just ask 16-year-old Maisie Williams, who plays Arya Stark. After all the devastating blows that have befallen her family, she is not the happy-go-lucky character she once was. "Now I feel that's stripped away. She's slowly losing that love-ability about her and she's turning into something quite different. The directors are always saying: 'Shout a bit louder, be a bit angrier.'"
New arrivals include Pedro Pascal, who plays Prince Oberyn Martell, aka The Red Viper of Dorne, who - unsurprisingly - holds a grudge against the Lannisters for murdering his sister, Princess Elia of Dorne, long ago.
Accompanying him will be his paramour Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma), together making up one of the more sexually liberated couples in Westeros.
Yet never mind the sex: this fourth series is all about the action. If that doesn't turn you on, then you should probably be exiled from Westeros.
Game of Thrones Season 4 on HBO Asia, Sunday, 10pm