Game of Thrones is know for making its baddies some of the most memorable on television, and as the series returns for its sixth season we’re catching up with the maddest, meanest and most compelling villains currently terrorising Westeros. Starting with…
Name: Ramsay Bolton
Played by: Iwan Rheon
You might say that Iwan Rheon has “the look”, with ice-blue eyes and snarling intent, but if you’d seen him as a hero in Misfits, or as a loveable boy next door in the sitcom Vicious, you’d realise he’s not merely a good bad guy. Nonetheless, Ramsay Snow, now Ramsay Bolton, is a character it will be hard for Rheon to leave behind.
Ramsay is Edmund from King Lear with a serrated edge: an illegitimate child from a time when that means banishment and rejection. His actions on the battlefield may have got his father Roose Bolton to accept him as the family heir, but in this series Ramsay’s depravities will reach a new low.
“The more desperate the characters get, the darker the things that they do,” says Rheon, “and it’s at a point of desperation where you’ll see what Ramsay’s capable of.”
We’ve already seen a fair bit of what Ramsay’s capable of and it’s not been pretty. “I’m often shocked by the things he does and the lengths that he’ll go to — who wouldn’t be?” says Rheon, as we run down the list — rape, torture, mutilation, not to mention sustained mental degradation and a penchant for feeding people to the hounds. “He is a sociopath, without a doubt. There’s a lack of empathy towards others and his love of hurting other things is frightening.
But I guess, as an actor, I have to figure out the logic behind all that.”
He says: “I pitched Ramsay somewhere between the Joker from The Dark Knight and Dennis the Menace, with a bit of Liam Gallagher in there.”
We say: Not even the Joker could crack a smile at some of Ramsay’s horrors.
The Cult Leader
Name: High Sparrow
Played by: Jonathan Pryce
One of the original character notes for High Sparrow says “everything is done gently and with a smile”. It’s the mantra that guides the bare-footed religious zealot, whose Faith Militant wing has taken over King’s Landing and imposed a brutal form of puritan rule.
“I remember coming to the character early on and it was the same time, more or less, as Pope Francis had been elected,” says Jonathan Pryce. “There was Pope Francis doing everything that High Sparrow had been doing, apart from the bare feet: talking to the poor, administering to the poor, exactly what High Sparrow was doing. The intentions are good. Then the fundamentalist side of the faith begins to take over. The punishments, the brutality, his army growing. And finally this desire to take over the known world.”
High Sparrow may have ended up parading a naked, shaven-headed Cersei through the streets in an act of atonement that was close to total abasement but, according to Pryce, his character considers it all to be steps on the path to righteousness.
“I’ve played a lot of bad guys, and I’ve played a lot of very good guys — they all have the same self-belief, up to a point. I’ve never played anyone who is a sadist, who knows he’s doing bad.
“Most of the people I’ve played just don’t have an awareness. Because even when people say to me, ‘Oh God, I hate High Sparrow, he’s really awful,’ I respond with, ‘Why do you think he’s bad? He’s sorting out these other bad people — they’re bad, and he’s dealing with them.’ Ultimately it will become extreme and wrong, but I don’t think he’s got there yet.”
In this series you will discover more about High Sparrow, where he came from, what drew him to this faith. “It was all with good intentions; he had lived a very debauched life, he was very rich, and he woke up one morning and said, ‘This is wrong’ and walked out with bare feet. He’s stayed bare-footed ever since. It’s funny, or perhaps ironic, but if you look on the internet there are images of me and Jeremy Corbyn as a looky-likey. That could be interesting. A faith militant!”
He says: “High Sparrow hates anyone of the ruling class. He wants revolution.”
We say: Eat your heart out, Jeremy Corbyn — here’s someone who really could topple the ruling classes.
The 6ft 9in Enforcer
Name: Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane
Played by: Hafthor Julius Bjornsson
When the minivans on the Game of Thrones set move from location to location, Hafthor “Thor” Bjornsson generally travels on his own. No one else can fit in the van.
At 6ft 9in, just under 30 stone and with the shoulders of a cart horse, Bjornsson is a beast of a man, and when he’s not filming as the Mountain, Cersei’s henchman, he competes in World’s Strongest Man competitions. For his audition for Game of Thrones he lifted up one of the producers. “People are always asking me to lift them up,” he says, matter-of-factly.
But the Mountain is no friendly muscle-man. He has a penchant for brutal violence, best exemplified when, at the end of a single combat with the “Red Viper” (Pedro Pascal), he crushed his opponent’s head like a watermelon in a vice. “He enjoys killing,” says Bjornsson. “I consider myself a gentle giant, so it’s great to get a chance to play opposite my character.”
Bjornsson, who is Icelandic and speaks only faltering English, says, “People either love or love to hate the Mountain. I generally get a very positive reaction — although some people still have not forgiven him for killing the Red Viper.”
Now the Mountain is back, we will find out what happened in his past “to make him this way,” says Bjornsson. “He’s very honest, in a sense. It’s a mixture of knowing he is the strongest and greatest of them all, but most definitely also his loyalty to Cersei is a factor.” But when it is put to him that the Mountain might not be the worst person in Game of Thrones, he sounds almost affronted. “There is not a worse person in the show. Or none that I can think of.”
He says: “The Mountain’s a psychopath.”
We say: He’s big and mean, but after his resurrection, how much of the Mountain is left?
The “Snow Killer”
￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼Name: Ser Alliser Thorne
Played by: Owen Teale
Owen Teale insists that Ser Alliser Thorne, the former Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch and Jon Snow’s nemesis, is popular. “People love the character,” he says. “They come up to me on the Tube and ask me to abuse them: ‘Could you call me a “bah-sted”, I want to record it? Say it with real contempt.’”
Fans, he says, appreciate that Ser Alliser is more than just a cackling panto villain. “He doesn’t sit around cooking up evil plans. He thinks he knows what is right. His is a cynical, joyless version of the world — we are made from bad stuff. Civilisation and society are just putting a veneer on the basic animal, which is greedy and lustful. He’s unequivocal, he’s an absolutist, and that’s what can make him at times even an inhuman character: his ability to make decisions that other people wouldn’t be able to do.”
What lay behind Ser Alliser’s killing of Jon Snow was envy, says Teale. “I do think it’s vengeful. It’s due to the shining quality of Jon Snow’s untarnished youth. I think, in the background, Ser Alliser has probably seen too much. There is a darkness there. He’s a damaged soul and Jon Snow isn’t. And he can’t bear it.”
Nothing helps Teale find the bleakness inside better than a day’s filming in a quarry in Northern Ireland, laden with sodden pelts. “A lot of it comes when I arrive on that set: Castle Black is a permanent set filmed in this disused quarry not far from Belfast. And it rains and rains. Once you’re in the quarry you can’t get to your comforts as an actor — to the caravans, to the food wagon; and they just keep you in there. When it rains it takes two people to put that enormous cloak on me and once it gets wet it probably weighs my own weight again, which is about 15 stone. So it’s a bleak, horrible situation, often with me standing up to my ankles in water. But I think it helps. This is what Ser Alliser thinks the world is like.”
Teale also keeps himself away from the other storylines. “I don’t get involved in much of the razzamatazz of it and I’ve never got into the other side of the story. So I really couldn’t tell you which character is the worst on the programme. I didn’t believe it would work in the beginning, anyway — I thought it was too unwieldy, too close on the heels of the Tolkien trilogy. But look how wrong I was.”
He says: “Ser Alliser has no time for Jon Snow’s milk of human kindness stuff.”
We say: He’s as cold and ruthless as a White Walker — and even less friendly.
The Manipulator ￼￼￼￼￼
Played by: Anton Lesser
It takes something really bad to raise an eyebrow in the bloody Game of Thrones world, yet Qyburn, the Doctor Frankenstein of Westeros, was cast out of academia for his experiments on live humans. He has been a recurring character since season three, but this year he becomes a series regular and a bigger danger as his influence on Cersei grows, having brought her enforcer, the Mountain, back to life.
“Qyburn is radical in his approach to finding out about how humans operate,” says Anton Lesser. “He’s an anarchic medicine man, really, who has some very unorthodox ways of approaching medicine and healing — and isn’t averse to unethical practices. You wouldn’t want to go to him with a nasty spot. Because he’d probably take your arm off.”
Like so many characters who have endured in Game of Thrones, Qyburn is a pragmatist. “To survive you need to be needed by whoever’s in power,” says Lesser. “At the moment he’s doing OK because he’s carving out a little niche: he’s getting a reputation as someone who can bring people back to life.” In recent years Lesser has been a regular screen presence in everything from Wolf Hall to Endeavour.
“I’ve played a lot of characters who are saying and doing things that are only the top line. There are other things going on. And I love that. I love that complexity.” He’s not sure whether Qyburn is a bad man. “In part because I don’t actually know what happens to my character until I get to Belfast to film. You don’t really have a sense of the context. But I find it much more human to play characters who are slightly equivocal. Is this somebody who’s got raging ambition or is he just really fascinated by what he does?”
When he was introduced, Qyburn was described by another healer as “a deplorable man”. “Oh, I don’t know about that,” says Lesser. “He does do some quite nasty things, but what about Joffrey? When he died I was cheering. Jack [Gleeson, who played Joffrey] was so good at being obnoxious. He was like Caligula!”
He says: “Qyburn’s a complete liability.”
We say: Doctor Moreau’s got nothing on this mild-mannered medical monster.
Game of Thrones returns to HBO and Sky Atlantic on Sunday 24th April