A slayer of White Walkers, a meister in training and an unlikely romantic hero, John Bradley may play an even more important role than you think in the hit HBO series “Game of Thrones.”
His character, Samwell Tarly, has long been Jon Snow’s faithful friend in the Night’s Watch, giving him a key role in the blockbuster drama. But the show’s fans are starting to speculate that the whole story may actually be told from Sam’s point of view.
The show’s creators have left a trail of breadcrumbs, so the theory goes, that will eventually reveal Sam as the show’s narrator.
Bradley and I met in Manchester’s Midland Hotel, a grand Edwardian Baroque-style building that’s a stone’s throw across the river from where he’s just bought his first flat. Bradley, who was raised in Manchester, is more than happy to speculate about the theory, as well as whether there’s a grand death in store for him.
The seventh season premieres Sunday. Here’s an edited transcript of our 90-minute interview.
Q: What do you think to the fan theory that Sam will eventually turn out to be the narrator?
Bradley: It’s a fascinating theory. I’ve always really enjoyed endings to things. They make you completely re-evaluate everything that you’ve already seen.
It will contextualize everything that’s gone before if that is the case. If Sam does prove to be the narrator of the story, then that serves as a doubt bomb for everything else, because you know that you’re hearing everything through Sam’s interpretation of it. And does that necessarily mean Jon Snow has been the hero that he’s been, or is that Sam just paying lip service to that man that he loves so much?
It’s almost like biblical gospel. Sam is the Matthew, Mark, Luke and John telling this story. And you can either choose to believe him or not.
Do you think this means Sam might be spared a “Game of Thrones” violent death?
Bradley: One thing about this show, which makes it so unique is the fact that there’s no real logic to how people are going to die. Or if people are going to die. There’s no template. As soon as we kill Ned Stark in episode nine, then the audience knows that all bets are off. Conventional logic dictates that you don’t kill your lead in your first season, and “Game of Thrones” did that. Nobody’s safe. People can go at any time.
It could be the fact that Sam achieved all of this and then cruelly his life (is) taken away from him just before he gets a chance to practically implement all of his knowledge, which would be the ultimate cruelty.
As we come to the end of it, we just hope like everybody else the good guys are going to come through. But as we’ve seen so many times in the show, it’s not always the case.
Does not knowing your character’s story arc from the beginning makes it harder or easier to serve the story?
Bradley: That really, really helps. It’s nice that you’re constantly surprised as you go on a journey through your character’s life with your character. It’s like you’re the shadow in him. It’s almost like you’re looking over his shoulder observing it and finding out what happens to him next as he finds out.
People say: What has Sam gained in terms of personal development over the course of the seasons? He’s stripped off layers and layers off himself until he is left with a very brave soul and somebody who is very capable — somebody who’s capable of love and bravery and impulse. It’s like the old thing about the sculptor knocks away everything that’s not the statue. And that’s what it is with Sam.
One of the great things about playing Sam over the last couple of years — well, since the start of it — is that as the audience sees him coming into his own, he sees himself coming into his own. As he discovers himself in the show, the audience (is) discovering exactly what’s in his beating heart as well at the same time.
The way we left Sam at the end of season six — safely together with Gilly, beginning his meister training — it seemed like he had everything he ever wanted. What desires are left?
Bradley: He absolutely does have a lot of desires. And at the end of season six when he appeals to Jon, when he says I want to go to the Citadel, it’s because he thinks that’s the place where his certain set of skills will be put to best use — that’s where I’m not going to be dead weight, like I would be physically on the battlefield.
He wasn’t looking to go to the Citadel as a kind of easy gig for himself, just to get away from the horrors at [Castle Black]. He wants to fight the same battle as everybody else, but he wants to fight it in his own unique way. He knows he’s the only person who can fulfill the role that he wants to fulfill. He knows that Jon couldn’t do that. Sam knows what he’s good at.
Sam tends to avoid violence and physical conflict, and yet he stole his family’s sword at the end of season six. What was that about?
Bradley: Valyrian steel has been proven to be quite useful in the past, so that is a practical decision. And also there is something very symbolic about it. There was something symbolic about being free from all that psychological baggage he had to carry around.
I’ve always said that I want Sam to go home because you want to see what effect everything he has achieved in the meantime has had on him. Since he’s seen his father last, he’s experienced so much. He’s fallen in love, he’s taken this girl and her baby, and he’s taken them from a truly horrendous life and made them comfortable and made them safe.
He’s really grown into himself and really become a quite admirable man. And I wanted him to go back and see if when faced with his father again, will he go in, will he kick the door down and say, listen, you have to respect me now and I don’t believe everything you’ve said about me in the past. Or he’s gonna go back in and he’s gonna retreat into his shell again.
In the end, I think you’ve got a satisfying mixture of the two. Around the table and in the face of that barrage of abuse, he does shrink back into his shell a little bit and he does appear to completely shrivel up. But the taking of the sword is the ultimate gesture of defiance.
Do you think he would ever go so far as to exact physical revenge on his father?
Bradley: If he wants to exact any type of physical revenge on his father, then he’d see that to be conceding in the fact that violence solves problems. As soon as he acts out any kind of violent retaliation against his father, he’s become his father. And he’d hate to think that in that moment, where he’s doing whatever to his father — when he sliced his father in half with a sword — just as it happens his dad may be slightly proud of him.
Another thing we saw at the end of season six was Gilly not being allowed into the Citadel because she’s a woman. What would Sam do if he had to choose between the love of his life and his meister training?
Bradley: One thing that we’ve seen about Sam is and one thing that he doesn’t really get enough credit for is just what a master manipulator he is. He’s more than capable of using political rhetoric and logic and appealing to people to make them do what he wants. So in terms of trying to manipulate the clerk to letting Gilly and baby Sam in, compared to the rest of the Night’s Watch, that’s gonna be a doddle under the right circumstances. If Sam cares enough, he can manipulate almost any situation to his advantage.
I think there’s a similarity between Sam and another one of my favorite characters, Lord Varys, in so much as they’re the really powerful ones. Because they’re the people who have the ear of people in authority. There’s so many times that Sam has had Jon wrapped around his little finger and Jon doesn’t even realize it.
There’s been some discussion about an Instagram photo you posted of you and Kit Harrington together. Can we expect to Sam and Jon reunited in season seven?
Bradley: Do you know what, I tried my hardest to word that caption in a way that wouldn’t give anybody anything to pounce on. At first it was like, “back together again” and then I thought, no I can’t say that because people will think that we’ll be filming together and that we’re going to be in the new season together. So I went with “briefly but happily back together again” with the emphasis very much on briefly. I thought that’s going to be so self-explanatory nobody is going to try and decipher that to mean anything. And bless them, they did.
It’s a huge compliment that speculation and anticipation for the new season is so high, that people will grab hold of any piece of information and dissect it, hoping to find a piece of information that’s new and that’s exclusive. But sadly that didn’t necessarily mean anything.
The costume department initially gave you a ridiculous costume with a giant codpiece to wear for Sam’s returns to Horn Hill. It later transpired to be a prank planned by Kit Harrington and Hannah Murray. Are you planning to take revenge?
Bradley: I was always one of the people who gets so cynical and skeptical about pranks. Whenever I watch any those things, I always thought I could see through them, there’s no way that I’d be able to fall for this. And then when it came to it, I’m just as much of a sap as everybody else.
Looking back now I can’t believe that I didn’t spot it. To be fair to me, I have often made the excuse that, that costume was supposed to be the first time you see Sam at home. I just accepted that Sam dresses like a prick at home.
But you know what, in the same way that Samwell Tarly wouldn’t use (his father) Randall’s disgusting techniques against him, I’m not going to lower myself. I’m going to take the moral high ground. I’ve never been one for pranking people. I’m too empathetic. There’s something about just seeing people being made fools of that I don’t like.
I believe there’s a trend of the cast stealing stuff from the set. If you were going to take anything, what would it be?
Bradley: I’ve never personally done it myself because most of the stuff from “Game of Thrones” would be fairly nightmarish to get through customs. But I’ve often thought if I am going to take something at the end of it, I’d like to take Sam’s mother’s thimble that he gave to Gilly.
It represented so much about him and his attachment to his mother.
The fact that he carried that thimble with him is so symbolic of just how impossible and how tragic his life was, and how deep those scars that Randall inflicted on him really are.
I mean, to be fair, I’ve had that thimble in my pouch all this time. I could’ve nicked it a long time ago, but I play by the rules.
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