‘It changed my life’: The ordinary people powering the Game of Thrones empire
Game of Thrones made household names of Kit Harington and Emilia Clarke, but other unsuspecting characters have also been swept up in its whirlwind. Simon Ward finds out more as the final season looms large
Mandatory Credit: Photo by Les Wilson/REX/Shutterstock (4647833a)
Kenny Gracey with Joey the Donkey, Segie the Goat, Tara the Deer, Kingsley the piglet, Cheeky the Lamb and Hennessy the Irish wolfhound-deerhound cross
Farmer’s animals star in Game Of Thrones TV series, Co Armagh, Ireland – 31 Mar 2015
*Full story: http://www.rexfeatures.com/nanolink/q9sn
It may seem an unlikely story but Game Of Thrones has, quite literally, saved one Irish farmer’s bacon. Back in 2010 Irish pig farmer Kenny Gracey was struggling thanks to the credit crunch and the 57-year-old was in debt. Then, out of the blue, he received a call from a props buyer who had heard about the hoard of rusting farm equipment he had cluttering up his barns. She came to Kenny’s farm in Co. Armagh to check out what he had to offer and just days later he sent a lorry load of items to the set of the fledging TV series. And it isn’t just Kenny’s collection of inanimate objects that have appeared on screen, his farm animals have become stars too. His rare herd of ‘Iron Age’ pigs and sheep can be regularly seen inhabiting the twin continents of Westeros and Essos. Joey the donkey, Suzie the goat, Yana the red deer and some of his plump red hens have also been used.
‘THEY KNOW ME AS THE ANIMAL MAN OF NORTHERN IRELAND’
Kenny Gracey – medieval livestock owner
It’s not just on-screen talent that has felt the Thrones effect – its success has pumped millions into Northern Ireland’s economy. Besides tourists flocking to see the iconic locations, the show had more than 6,000 employees, putting local talent on the payroll, from armourers and set designers to camera operators and makeup artists. For farmer Kenny, Thrones saved his business, and allowed him to turn his passion into his profession – “It has made a whole new life for me,” he says.
Back in 2009, his rare breeds farm in Tandragee, Co Armagh, was struggling. “I was keeping the older breeds and trying to keep them alive, so my profit margins were very small,” he says. But when Natalie Portman comedy Your Highness came to the country looking for medieval livestock, Kenny was the only breeder who could provide them. Thrones arrived the following year: “Because of that, they knew me, knew that I had lots of old stuff because of my involvement with the rare breeds.”
There’s nobody else doing it. They know that if I haven’t got it, I have the contacts that I will be able to get it or produce it.
Since then, Kenny has supplied many of the animals seen in the show, including the Iron Age pigs he bred specially to fit in with its period setting. It’s a reputation that has put him on speed dial for any production that now rocks into town. “There’s always a crossover of crew,” he says. “They just know me as the animal man in Northern Ireland, because there’s nobody else doing it. They know that if I haven’t got it, I have the contacts that I will be able to get it or produce it.”
Speaking to Kenny, it’s not so much the financial impact that has been life-changing. Looking back at his old life, he reflects: “I was so busy that life was just passing me by. I’m not going to be a millionaire, I’m not a wealthy man, but I am very wealthy with the life that I lead. Money isn’t everything. But Game of Thrones did afford me the luxury – and I use that word ‘luxury’ – of what I would say is working with the joy of my life, and that is working with the animals.”
What’s it like seeing them on the show? “Well, you’re just like a proud parent,” he chuckles. “It’s like seeing your child on stage and they’re doing their bit. When you bring an animal out, your heart is in your mouth. The director in one or two scenes said he didn’t think in a million years they’d behave, he thought it would have to be CGI imagery. But the animals performed and did what they wanted, and that was just a joy to behold. Money couldn’t have bought that feeling.”
While the film industry has taken off in Northern Ireland, keeping Kenny in work for the foreseeable future, he’s in no doubt about the void Thrones will leave: “It’s like a death in the family to a lot of people, and to the community in a lot of respects. It was such a big production, there were so many people on it, it was so intense. You were living with people, you were spending nights with people, it was like a family, and it leaves a big gap in your life. In previous years, you knew it was coming back, so you knew you’d be renewing those friendships. But now that it’s over, it feels a bit different.”
He adds: “If you’d said 10 years ago what I would be doing now, I’d have laughed at you and said you were hallucinating. It has changed my life in many ways and created a lot of happy memories.”
‘I SAW SEAN BEAN KICKING A DECAPITATED HEAD LIKE A FOOTBALL’
Isaac Hempstead Wright – Bran stark
Isaac was a 10-year-old schoolboy from Kent when he appeared in the opening episode of what would become the biggest TV show on the planet, in which he promptly got pushed out of a window. Now 19, his teenage life has been set against dragons, sex, murder, betrayal, incest and war. “It’s only been in the past six months after finishing that I’ve looked back and thought, ‘My God, I’ve had the weirdest growing up of anybody!’”
He has a point. Adolescence is hard enough without the intense gaze of the watching world. “I feel like I have kept a pretty normal existence,” he says. “My mum has been very good at going, ‘This is all nonsense, darling! Don’t get any ideas, this is absolute rubbish!’ She’s kept a sense of reality and my feet on the ground.”
Before Bran Stark, Isaac’s only acting experience was in a local drama club and a fleeting appearance in a TV advert. “We had never even heard of the book series,” he adds. It was a steep learning curve in Episode One when his character was paralysed after being thrown from a tower for catching Lannister siblings Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Cersei (Lena Headey) having sex. Presumably with such adult scenes, it would be years before Isaac would get to watch the show he appeared in?
“Bits of it were off-limits,” he laughs. “But the violence was fine, because I’d seen all the prosthetics, and I’d seen Sean Bean kicking a decapitated head around like a football – I’m not making that up, he literally did that – so you saw the movie magic, and that took everything away from it. But some of the sex scenes I couldn’t watch, and my mum would talk over them and give embarrassing lectures going, ‘Darling, this is not how sex is supposed to be.’”
Nobody is as surprised as Isaac that he made the final season, especially after being told he’d be taking a break in Season Five. “I can remember I got up before school and my mum said my agent had called and that [the co-creators] David and Dan wanted to speak to me.And I thought, ‘Ah, there you go. I’m dead.’” Not only did Bran return, he became the Three-Eyed Raven, who can perceive the past and future through visions, and is central to the show’s story.
But that story is now ending, something he admits has been tough: “It has been half of my existence on the planet. It’s terribly sad, but it’s also quite exciting to try new avenues.” That includes returning to university to study neuroscience. “I think I’ve learnt from the chaos of the first time,” he says of his previous attempt to study music and maths at Birmingham University. “My mistake was going to Freshers’ Week – a lot of people were questioning whether they were intoxicated when they saw Bran Stark. But people get bored after a couple of weeks.”
Isaac’s world has undoubtedly changed. But how has the show played its part?
“It’s hard to say how it has changed my life because it has been my life – it’s impossible to overstate its importance in shaping who I am,” he says. “It has made the world a smaller place because you could go almost anywhere, and there will be someone who will be excited to see you and meet you. I’ve genuinely made friends that way. It’s weird because I’ve just finished what feels like an entire career and I’m only just starting my life. It’s a slightly bizarre situation, but a very exciting one.”
‘YOU’RE WATCHING WITH THOUSANDS OF OTHER PEOPLE’
George Alexander – superfan
Thrones is undoubtedly the most scrutinised TV show on the planet. Its millions of fans are ravenous to unpick its plots and extensive (albeit rapidly shrinking) cast of characters. And they’re desperate to hear analysis and opposing theories about what’s coming next – and that’s where superfan George comes in. He watches each Episode three or four times, recording his initial reactions sat on his sofa, like Gogglebox for GoT fans. And it’s been hugely popular.
George had been filming videos for YouTube since 2014, but he only came to Thrones in December 2016. He says: “I had a couple of friends that were all talking about Game of Thrones and how excited they were for Season Seven, and I was like, ‘I don’t like medieval stuff.’ But they convinced me to watch it, and a friend said you should react to it because when you watch TV, you’re quite loud. I watched Episode One and never looked back.”
Since then, he’s racked up 12,000 subscribers, hundreds of thousands of views, and his uncanny ability to predict major plot points has seen him become a go-to voice whenever trailers break. While his channel hasn’t afforded him a full-time job like so many YouTubers, George says it’s the fan camaraderie that has given him joy. “It’s a great community, the Game of Thrones community, and it’s the best show on TV,” he says. “When you press publish and you get those comments and that conversation about what the next episode is going to be, you share in those experiences.
I’ve always thought Jon Snow would become the new night king,
“It has been a big part of my life. I’ve gained so many new friends and people have made it that bit more special because you’re watching it with thousands of other people rather than just going to work and saying, ‘Did you watch this?’ You get more of an overview of everyone’s ideas, you have those same people coming back each time, and you develop a bond with them. So, it has changed my life in that respect.”
But before the show reaches its conclusion, does George have any predictions? “I’ve always thought Jon Snow would become the new night king, and he’ll lead the Wights back up north so he’ll finally be the King in the North.”
‘I DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT KEEPING YOUR MOUTH SHUT ABOUT CASTING’
Gemma Whelan – Yara greyjoy
It has been a remarkable journey for Gemma’s fierce warrior Yara Greyjoy, the Queen of the Iron Islands. She’d only been making fleeting appearances since arriving in Season Two. But that all changed in Season Six, when Yara emerged as a major character, joining forces with the Mother of Dragons herself, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke). “It was something that I knew was happening further down the line, and I absolutely relished it,” Whelan says of that moment.
If the road was long for her character, then it has been equally so for Whelan herself. Prior to Thrones, she had a cluster of small comedy roles to her name. Now alongside her work in Westeros, she’s received recent acclaim for her part as a lesbian detective in dark comedy The End of the F***ing World; and, memorably, as Karen Matthews in The Moorside, a highly rated drama based on the shocking 2008 disappearance of Shannon Matthews in Dewsbury. Like Yara, she’s gone from bit-part player to front and centre.
The 37-year old, originally from Leeds, was encouraged to audition for Thrones by the show’s casting director Robert Sterne, who had seen her read for a sitcom and thought she would be perfect (for Thrones, that is – she didn’t get the other gig). “I thought, I’ve got no chance, so I didn’t feel any pressure. I got a recall quite quickly, and then after that, there was quite a long wait. And then I was very, very, very happy when I got the phone call saying it was mine. I was thrilled, I couldn’t believe it.”
But her big break also coincided with an early warning about working on the biggest show in town. “I didn’t know about keeping your mouth shut about casting,” she recalls. “I always kept my Spotlight up to date, so I completely naively and innocently wrote, ‘This summer Gemma will be playing Yara Greyjoy in Game of Thrones’. Somebody saw it and leaked it. I was invited into one of the producers’ offices to be spoken to about the fact there’s an embargo on information, and we must be quiet. That was just a lesson I learned.”
Like all the show’s actors, Whelan’s time in Westeros is over – a moment, she says, concluded with speeches and storyboard presentations featuring significant scenes in each character’s storyline (“It was classily done,” she adds). How does she see her Thrones legacy? “Anyone who gets a really good job, the side effects are probably very similar,” she modestly says. “You earn a bit more, you get seen by different people, you climb. But in terms of my day-to-day, I’m lucky in that I rarely get recognised, it hasn’t changed my life in that I can pop to the shops in… I was going to say ‘underwear’, but that would get me noticed.
“Time will tell, but it has certainly done no harm being in Game of Thrones!”
‘A SEX WORK TOLD ME SHE FINALLY FELT REPRESENTED’
Esmé Bianco – Ros
Sex on Game of Thrones has been as ubiquitous as Jon Snow being told he knows nothing. So much so, in the first season, a new expression was even coined and made popular when the show repeatedly used raunchy scenes to deliver information about backstory and character motivations – ‘sexposition’.
Many of those early scenes involved Ros, a prostitute played by actress and burlesque performer Esmé Bianco, and the first character created specifically for the show. It was such a hot topic, it even made a skit on Saturday Night Live, featuring Andy Samberg as a 13-year-old ‘creative consultant’. In it, he outlined his job: “I make sure there are lots of boobs in the show!” How did Esmé feel about that? “I thought, ‘That’s it, I’ve made it! But wait, they don’t know my character’s name?’”
Esmé was originally supposed to appear only in the first episode (“I thought I was only going to ever have one scene,” she clarifies) playing a character named ‘Red-Headed Whore’. But the show’s producers were so impressed with her performance, her role grew during production, and she eventually bagged a recurring role. Author George RR Martin was the one who suggested she should be given a name.
A woman once came up to me at a convention and told me that as a sex worker herself, she had never seen an actress play a prostitute as a ‘human first’ before.
Despite the controversy around Thrones’ sex scenes, she looks back with fondness at her portrayal: “A woman once came up to me at a convention and told me that as a sex worker herself, she had never seen an actress play a prostitute as a ‘human first’ before. She had only seen stereotypes. So, watching Ros on Game of Thrones, she had, for the first time in her life, felt represented on screen. When she told me, I was crying and so was she. That for me is what my craft is all about. That moment has stuck with me ever since and has got me through some really tough days.”
Since leaving the show in Season Three, Esme has had roles on The Magicians and Supergirl. And as for her Thrones family? “I’m still in touch with Sibel Kekilli who played Shae, she is such a wonderful human and I adore her,” she says. “I also stay in touch with Jason Momoa from time to time, he’s an amazing drinking buddy, as long as you don’t try to keep up with him!”