'Game of Thrones': Richard Madden talks Robb Stark's romance
"Game of Thrones" isn't a show heavy with romance. On this epic fantasy series, beating hearts are usually cut out and thrown into the fire. But if there's one character close to a romantic lead, it's Robb Stark, the eldest son of Eddard Stark (who got beheaded last season).
Scottish actor Richard Madden is the man in the leather and furs, leading the men of the north of Westeros into battle against the Lannister clan. And to hear him tell it, pretending to be a medieval leader on the HBO series isn't far from actually being one. At least when it comes to the smell.
Have you started to experience the intense fandom of "Game of Thrones"?
A: Not so much. I look quite different than I do when I'm on the show, I think. So people will go, "Is that? No, not really. That guy's much bigger on the show." I'm cleaned up. My hair is a bit shorter, and I'm not in fur and leather and armor. So I'm a little smaller. This press tour is nice. I went down to Brazil and Mexico, and the people there know the show so well, it's kind of overwhelming. I take that as a compliment to all the hard work everyone on the show does.
So classic European medieval fantasy translates well all over the world?
The books have their following in so many countries, and I've been asked all over: Why has it worked? I think it's because it's about human beings in their most raw form. We're in this fantasy world, but it's almost like trickery what George does with these fantasy elements. You see with Cersei in one episode, she blows off what's happening up at The Wall. The people in this world are like, "Fantasy, whatever." The people that are on the same page as those characters get pulled into it, because the fantasy is becoming real for these people. Magic is becoming real for these characters as well. That's why a nonfantasy audience becomes engaged, because it's just a political drama, really, and these magical elements are coming in and nudging from the sides.
Were you a fantasy fan before this show?
I'm a sci-fi guy. But I like fantasy too. If I wasn't in this show, I'd still watch it. You get to see what drives people, whether it's power or lust or just plain greed or justice or raw honesty in doing the right thing. I think it's the kind of things people from any country can relate to -- these aspects of human nature. I think that's what the show manages to capture. It's why there's no stereotypical heroes or villains in this; everyone has all those aspects, just like me or you.
Did growing up amongst castles in Scotland affect how you view the medieval fantasy of this show?
I never really thought of it from that point of view. I think landscape-wise, with these castles and rolling hills and forts by the water; it's something I loved getting into and seeing when I was a kid. And even when I was older and touring in theater as an actor, I saw so many castles in England. I've never been a part of a drama that's set in that kind of place, so you get to see it from the inside and be part of something like that. We have that medieval history, so much of it there. I underestimated how much I learned in primary school and just being there and being a kid. Last summer I went with my mom and dad to Hadrian's Wall, that huge wall that separates Scotland from England that the barbarians and the Romans built. It makes you really appreciate the history of things — we've got our own Wall.
It seems like your experiences as a child actor are kind of a parallel to Robb Stark’s experience.
You know you’re a kid, but at the same time I’ve got a job to do and I have to come on set and give my lines like the adults do and play my part like the adults do. So, yeah, it’s much like Robb having to grow up really quickly. I had to do that. I didn't have my mom and dad on set with me. You're out on your own and being asked a lot. That's much like what Robb does and hopefully that’s what I've done as an actor. I saw it as a parallel from Season 1 to Season 2. Robb starts Season 1 and he gets pushed and pulled and more is asked of him and he has to step up and react to these situations. In Season 2, he's much more his own man. But he's wearing a mask. He's pretending to be a man. And me as an actor, I showed up on Season 1, and as the season went on I was asked to do harder stuff and more dramatic stuff and [showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss] pushed me. Then into second season, I'm running scenes. I'm driving drama much more. It's more responsibility.
The show has a big cast, but essentially you're the star of your own story.
I can be out at a bar and someone can come up to me and say, "Hey, I'm in 'Game of Thrones' as well.” And I'd have to say, "Are you? What character to you play?" I've never seen them before. It's strange being in a show like that. My character doesn't get to have those interactions as much. He's in his own little world. When I hear about things, it's in the scene. Catelyn's been away and come back or one of the Lannisters sends a messenger. I do stay in my own little world, which is great for Robb but maybe not so great for Richard since I don't get to go to Iceland or Croatia [where other parts of the show are filmed].
You really are on your own in Ireland now.
During Season 1, we were all so tight and all so together. And then we knew at the end of Season 1, everyone was off on their own journey and you're isolated completely. That's useful as an actor. The parallels are real a lot of the time. I find it funny coming onto set for the scenes that haven't got Michelle Fairley (Catelyn Stark) in them, I realize, "God, I’m completely on my own here now. I've lost everyone from Season 1."
Your character is always going into battle or coming out of battle, but battles themselves are never shown.
Actually the characters are too interesting for me. I don't want to waste the time watching a battle scene that I've maybe seen before. I can imagine what this battle would be like. I would much rather see what came before or after, because that's more interesting. But this season, if you missed the action from last year, you are not going to be disappointed. They're really going to turn it around.
You get more chance to develop your skills? Swordfighting?
Yeah, I have to keep on top of that as much as I can. And horseriding. I didn't know how to do that before I was cast and then I realized, "Oh, no, I need to learn how to ride a horse." I know a lot of actors who lie and say they can ride a horse and then they get cast and have to learn quick. But I told them straight away, I can't ride a horse at all. They were OK. But I wanted to look as good as Robb Stark would look on a horse. I trained four or five times a week. If I have 20 minutes between scenes, I'll get on a horse and go riding just to stay connected to it. So I can concenrate on my acting in the scene.
Do you think Robb Stark is tragic?
I don't see him as tragic. Because he's so honest, and he follows his heart so much. He's in tragic situations, and there's so much pressure on him, but, my God, he’s so strong. Especially later this season, you're going to see how tested he gets. I can't pity him in any way. I just admire him.
In this week's epsiode your character met a potential love interest in Teresa.
It's a huge change for Robb. Especially at a time when Robb as a character is mentally and physically knee deep in mud. He gets to meet this foreign creature, this light in the darkness for him. Someone who doesn't bow down and call him king. He needs that. He's not had that yet. Like Robb in this season, everything is a first time for him. First time he's leading an army, first time he's fought with his mother, first time he's met a woman. It's all new experiences for him and he's riding this wave and trying to keep on top of it.
And it's a nice change of pace as an actor.
He gets to smile at certain points. And that's rare for Robb.
Have you read the books?
I read season by season. I read the first one a lot. I kept re-reading it when I got cast. One of the things that terrified me is that there's tens of thousands of people who have ownwership over Robb before I do. He was their character before he was mine. I wanted to make sure I did that justice. David and Dan have interpreted George's book, and I've interpreted David and Dan's work. And I have this other source material, the book, to interpret as well. And I wanted to know it inside out so I could do it as well as I could. I could get the character as honest to what George wrote as I could. My biggest struggle at the moment is not reading too far ahead. So I couldn't read the second book as I was shooting the first series. As an actor, I make a decision and stick with it, but if it doesn't exactly align with what George wrote, I have to turn that and make it real. That's a challenge all the actors on the show have. If I read too far ahead, subconsciously I'll pre-empt things. And I want it to be as much of a surprise for the audience as it was for me when I read it. Luckily, we've been greenlit for Season 3 now, so I can read the third book and see what goes down.
It must be strange for an actor to have fans know more about your character's future than you do.
It's hard with Season 2, because I'm not in book two as much as I am in season two and I panicked a bit because I didn't have that source material to reference again. It made it something really good for me in Season 2 and then into Season 3. I have a strong sense of ownership over Robb because I had to make a lot of decisions on things George hadn’t given me. Hopefully I've managed to do that and make the right ones off my own back.
Getting into the armor must really help your mindset when it comes to getting into character.
Yeah, it changes your mind because it changes me so physically. It changes everything about how I played Robb. It changes how I breathe and how I walk and how I stand. So I can get into that costume again and feel all those things physically from the outside that helps me go on the inside into who Robb is. You remember how his posture is and how hard it is for him to breathe sometimes when he's strapped in. It's great as an actor. Though I'm not going to lie, I don't enjoy it at 4 a.m. when I'm thinking, "I don't want to be in this costume." The armor, the leather, the fur, the cloak, the sword. Just don't ask me to get on a horse when I'm in it. It really adds to my body weight.
Does the set smell?
Yeah, you stink. I don't know why, but in my mad brain I thought it would be nice to get back into the costume. But then I came back for Season 2, and the same mud was caked onto the costume. I thought "Of course it would be." But I also thought, "I really don't want to get into those boots again. They smell like they did last year, and now they're crusty and horrible. This is not pleasant."
But it all adds to it. HBO does that so well. When I'm on the Winterfell set, they burn an incense that makes it smell like no other part of the kingdom does. King's Landing smells different. Robb's camp, if there's not too many horses around, smells different. It smells like all the foods we have on the table. They're made with medieval recipies, and they smell and taste so different. There's all these things you wouldn't see as a viewer, but as an actor they really help.
What kind of food do you have?
I don't even know what half the things are, but they are delicious. The wine isn't real wine, sadly, and usefully, because it would be disruptive. A lot of cinnamon gets used. You have to watch yourself that you don't eat too much. Though once you get into Robb's camp, it's much more meat and potatoes. Things to keep men strong.
What other details do they provide for the actors on set?
Well, the breath that you see coming out of my mouth is real. It really is that cold. And sometimes it’ll be snowing and we’ll wonder what to do and David and Dan will add a line, "Ah, summer snow!" So we really make use of all the details. If it's that real for me, then it's real for the audience.