Richard Madden knows how lucky he is that “Game of Thrones” executive producers David Benioff and Dan Weiss didn’t follow George R.R. Martin’s "A Song of Ice and Fire" books exactly for Season 2 of the HBO hit.
If they had, he would not have been in it. His character, Robb Stark, would not be arguing with his mother, defeating the Lannisters in battle or, maybe most importantly, meeting the woman of his dreams.
“It was a huge compliment for me that David and Dan kind of believed in what I was doing enough to allow that to happen and me to run with it,” Madden, 26, told me last week during a phone interview. “It’s allowed me to do scenes that no one has seen because they weren’t in the books. So I was very thankful and very pleased.”
In the latest episode, “Garden of Bones,” Robb’s army wins another battle and afterward he meets Talisa (Oona Chaplin), a healer helping the injured on the battlefield. It isn’t clear if Talisa is meant to be Jeyne, a character from the books, but one thing is certain: She has cast a spell over Robb.
“She’s a breath of fresh air, kind of light in this darkness. He’s never met or seen anyone like her before,” he said.
The romance gave the Scottish actor another chance to interpret Robb in his own way, and to play emotions he hasn’t had a chance to explore with the character. This being “Game of Thrones,” it also gave him a chance to ditch Robb’s heavy costumes of leather, furs and armor.
“Umm, without spoiling it, I think you’re going to see Robb wearing less armor than normal,” Madden said, laughing. “How’s that?”
I’m sure fans will be happy to hear it. Madden and I talked more about Robb’s evolution, working with Michelle Fairley (who plays his mother, Lady Catelyn), and whether Robb’s honor could lead to trouble like it did for his father, Ned Stark.
We’ll talk about “Game of Thrones,” of course, but also I wanted to ask about “Birdsong,” which airs on PBS starting this weekend.
Does it? This weekend? Oh, fantastic! I’m in the second part a little more.
Right. I’ve seen it and it made me a bit sad.
It was kind of a shocking moment.
It kind of just comes out of nowhere, doesn't it?
Was it nice to be able to get away from playing Robb Stark for a more modern character in Michael Weir?
Yeah, completely. It’s great. I always try to pick my parts to be as diverse as I can, and especially when you do “Game of Thrones” for so many months of the year. I try to take those opportunities to go into something completely different and I did with that and got into a totally different kind of character mind-frame. It’s also nice to wear a little less costume all the time and be in a warmer climate, which we shot it all in Budapest, so this is a little different from Ireland.
But you were pretty muddy. There’s a lot mud.
Yeah. And it was worse. Like in Ireland, it’s like, “OK, enough of the mud. Let’s try and keep the boys dry.” And over in Budapest, it was like, “More mud!” We had to run under hoses. They sprayed hoses and we had to run under them to keep our mud wet, because after five minutes in the heat we’d just dry up straightaway. We had to look as if we were wet and in the trenches just coming out of these holes in the ground. So we had to kind of constantly get soaked and soaked and soaked.
I need to kind of get a job that's going to take me to like Hawaii or Rio or something, right? Maybe I need to make better decisions with that.
Not only are you in “Birdsong,” but so is Benjen Stark, Joseph Mawle.
Exactly. How fantastic is Joe? I thought he was fantastic in “Birdsong.”
Yeah, he’s great.
He’s outstanding, outstanding actor to work with.
I think you both were pretty good in it.
All right, so let’s talk about “Game of Thrones” now. How has Robb changed this year in your mind?
In my mind, in Season 1, you see Robb, he’s reacting to situations, isn't he? He’s being pushed and pulled and demanded of and forced into places. And in Season 2, we see him much more taking things up in it and driving things as a man. He’s a driving force. He’s the one that's pushing people and driving situations. So we see him pushing the action a lot more and also he’s gotten a bit smarter. I think he was kind of overwhelmed at points all through the first season, and this season he’s got better at wearing this mask.
You know, his men have to see Robb as a leader, and he’s proved it practically. But I think all the time he has to wear this mask of being a man, so that his enemies see him as a man and a formidable foe and his men see him as a true leader and not just a boy. So I think we see in Season 2 he’s got much better at wearing that mask, and, hopefully, if I’ve done my job right, we get to the scenes like with Theon [Greyjoy], for example, at the start of Season 2, or the ones later on with my mother where the mask drops a little bit and you see that he’s actually a very young man and boyish in a lot of ways. But he’s got better at pretending to be a man.
You have mentioned before Robb wearing the mask of being a man, and I was going to ask if you think he’s still wearing the mask or is he just being a man now?
Yeah, he’s got better at it. I think he’s actually got good at it, which is very difficult. The thing is, for a lot of young men it’s what they do, isn't it? They pretend to be a grown-up and then eventually you find that you are one. And I think Robb’s had to do that a lot earlier, but I think he’s got really good at it.
A lot of actors have told me that they always prefer to play a bad guy because it’s a lot easier and it’s the hardest thing is to play someone who’s genuinely a good person. I think Robb pretty much is genuinely a good person. Has it been difficult for you?
Yeah, completely. I think he’s one of the most honest characters in the show. It makes it very difficult for as an actor, but it also makes it a much more exciting journey for me when I’m having to be as honest as I can the whole time. As an actor, I try and be like that with every part I do, but with a character that's trying to be honest it makes it even more difficult.
It pushes the action and the drama in ways that a more manipulative character can maybe get out of or change to their own desire. But with Robb, he has to react a lot more. And for me, acting is so exciting when you’re reacting, especially when I’ve got fantastic actors that I’m working with. And I can get on set and look Michelle Fairley [Catelyn] in the eye and we listen to each other and have this dialogue where we react to each other. And for me, that's one of the most exciting things to do. It’s one of the most difficult but hopefully it’s making a kind of honest, real, believable performance.
Oh, I think it is.
Michelle is so amazing, I think.
Amazing. No, she’s one of the finest actresses I’ve ever worked with. I couldn't be happier. Michelle is one of the reasons that I can get up at 3 a.m. and be in the mud on set at 5 a.m. in Belfast in the dark and still smiling because I get a scene with Michelle. We’re very close off set anyway. We’re very good friends. And I think we care greatly about the show and we’ve managed to make a really good dialogue, I think. And what's lovely is I can get on set with Michelle and we can look each other in the eye and instantly get into a dialogue that's detailed and deep and subtle and challenging. And we trust each other implicitly as actors and that makes for such a—I’m like overwhelmed at how lucky I feel that I get to have that relationship with an actress, especially an actress that I have such significant work to do with this season. She’s outstanding and makes like every day a pleasure working with her, especially in scenes that I consider the toughest scenes of the show for me.
So you’ll get a lot more with her later on this season?
Yeah, we get to see him and her connecting in a lot of ways and their relationship developing and then these fractures kind of seeping in and them both being torn in different directions. But with such a kind of closeness that they’ve already had, it makes it very difficult. And those scenes were really hard but hopefully we’ve captured something that's really good.
As we’ve already seen, the relationship is becoming less the son and mother and more the king and his subject. It’s not quite as drastic as Joffrey, but it’s there.
Yeah, no as bad as that. But, yeah, that's where the relationship is going. And it seems like it’s never had to be that because Robb and Catelyn, they’re always on the same page, I think.
Now in Season 2 they’re not. Catelyn’s main desire is still to reunite her family and she cares about her daughters and her sons. And for Robb now, as much as he wants to get this revenge and get his family back, that's only a tiny part [of his worries]. He’s now got 20,000 men, their families, their children, their wives, their mothers and fathers who are as important to him as his own family and he can't hold them in a higher regard.
I think Catelyn struggles to deal with that because the whole reason we started this war was for our family and now for Robb he knows that the picture is much bigger. There are many families involved now and he’s got to be the leader of that army and not just be driving things with his own desire. And I think he struggles to keep up with that and to engage with that.
Right. I saw a fan page with the header, “Robb Stark, the people's hero.”
[Laughs.] Well, that's good. I quite like that. I like that. I think he is one of the most honest characters in the show, right? He’s one of the most genuine people and he’s one of the only characters that I don't think is really driven completely by revenge. I think that's maybe what sparked things, but he’s driven by wanting Westeros to be a better place and I think that's kind of the rare things. Every other character is driven by money or greed or lust and desire, and I think Robb is genuinely, like his father, driven to make this place the best it possible can be. So I wouldn't argue with that title. I would agree with it.
I think he’s a lot like his father. And I was going to ask do you think that, because he is so much like his father, do you think he’ll eventually make the same mistake that his father made, which is to keep his honor above all else?
I don't know. I think his honesty, his desire to follow his heart and to do the right thing is much like his father. But what we’re going to see in this season is him slowly getting worn down and you see differences between him and his father. The strength of his father was sometimes misused and misjudged. I think with many of the characters in this show, the good guys—the guys with good hearts and with the good in the mind—aren't necessarily the survivors of the show because they’re not manipulative enough and they’re not willing to sacrifice or to do wrong in order to do right. And I think that maybe could be one of Robb’s downfalls.
Right. Well, this weekend’s episode another one of Robb’s attacks, and we see the aftermath of that. Roose Bolton wants to torture survivors, but Robb is shocked at the thought of it. I love the scene.
Yeah. No, Robb can't engage with that. And hopefully, if I’ve done that scene right, you should see a kind of glimmer with Robb of him being slightly overwhelmed by this. I mean, he’s done these battles. He’s seen it. But I don't think it’s getting easier for him to see this much death constantly and that's why he can't face that.
He is a leader and he’s got the respect of his men and he’s trying his best, but there's part of him that's so human, he can't be a tyrant because that doesn't make him any different to Joffrey, then.
So then the other thing we see is the introduction of Oona Chaplin.
Yeah, the first woman in his life—[laughs]—in that way, yeah. And it’s different for Robb. I think Robb’s full first times this season. It’s the first time he’s really leading an army and has the respect of his men, it’s the first time he is having these huge disagreements with his mother and it’s the first time that he’s met a woman that's turned his head and Talisa really does that, not that he realizes it to start with. … And Oona is just fantastic.
What I love about their relationship is they connect in a way that Robb’s not even aware of, I think. I think it takes its own life and it goes on its own journey without it being manipulated from either party. That's what kind of makes it so good, I think, is that it comes from a kind of passionate, honest place
When I talked to Kit, he talked about how Jon has never really been with a woman, so the woman thing becomes problematic for him. Is that going to be the same way with Robb, do you think? Or was he a player back in Winterfell.
[Laughs.] No, that’s one of the things that George didn't tell me. It’s a given Theon was playing around for a while, I think. But with a character like Robb, we don't know. We’re not told that much. I interpreted that he’d not been with a woman before. He’s not been and when he meets Talisa, I think it’s a first time for lots of things.
Tell me about the costumes.
You know, it’s one of those funny things. When I got cast we started having these costume fittings and I’m like, “This is awesome. Look at this costume. It’s brilliant.”
Then we started doing the show and it’s really awesome and then it’s kind of like 5 a.m. on the twentieth morning of shooting and your back is killing you and you're like, “I hate these costumes!” In King’s Landing in a T-shirt, right?
But, as the show’s gone on, the costumes really helped me much more than I thought it would. But the costume dictates the way I hold my posture, it dictates the way I breathe, so that effects my voice. It dictates they way I walk just through the weight of it. So all these things that I could moan about actually have been really useful for me as an actor. They’ve kind of helped me create this character from a physical way, as much as I’m doing it from a mental way. So I’ve kind of allowed these things to influence me and actually really appreciated them.
For all that it kills me on set, when my back’s aching and you're soaking wet and it takes me like 40 minutes to get in my costume and about 40 minutes to get out of at the end of the day, it’s actually a really useful thing for me as an actor. It’s really helped me build Robb as a character.
It helps me and it does change my voice dramatically. It’s funny what I managed to do afterwards doing ADR not in costume, I have to make a real effort with my voice to get it to the same place because I can pull on the weight of the costume to help me put it in a certain place. And so I have to try and recreate that and I realize how much the costume actually aids me in lots of ways.
Robb is pretty much absent from the second book, but the guys wanted to keep you around so they mixed things up a bit from the book. Did that make you feel good?
Yeah, completely. [Laughs.] As soon as Season 2 got green-lit, I was like, “Awesome.” I read season by season, so Season 2 got green-lit and I got into the second book and I was reading and it was like, “This is great. I’m going to come up at any minute now.” It’s like, “OK, just another chapter. I’m sure we’re going to see Robb.” I was like, “OK, this sucks. Robb is not in it. I love being in the show and I’m not going to be in it.”
Then I got the scripts and I was so pleased with David and Dan doing that. And I think that's kind of, creatively, from a story point of view, it’s good to keep this character in there and not just to be reported on, but to see it up close and live and keep Robb part of the action.
You’ve only just read up to the second book?
Yeah, I read the books season by season. So I go back and read it again and now that we’ve been green-lit for Season 3—yes, excellent—I can start getting involved in the third book and kind of get into the details with that.
Well, I’m hoping David and Dan will continue to deviate from the books when it comes to your character.
[Laughs.] Well, I’m keen to see what happens. I have heard things and I'm like, “Don't tell me! Be quiet!” [Laughs.] So I need to go and experience it firsthand now and see what stuff David and Dan are going to be doing.
Right. Thank you.
You’ve gotten to do a lot of great stuff in the past couple of years. Is it hard to sort of stay humble and keep your eye on doing a good job? Are there a lot of distractions?
No, I don't find it hard to stay humble. I’d say my drive is always there. I kind of started “Game of Thrones” as a really young actor and not a lot on my CV. I just want to keep doing work that I don't know if I’m good enough to do. That's always my main drive is to do things that challenge me. I try and stay away from like Romeo parts now, as we’ve talked about, because I’ve been there. So I keep wanting to do things that are really different and challenging and pick up a script and if the script kind of terrifies me in a way, like, “Oh God, I don't know if I’m good enough to play this part,” then I kind of know I’m on to something that I should really endeavor to get cast in because I want to challenge myself as much as I can as an actor. And David and Dan do that for me in the show. They push me as an actor and I want to continue that when I’m not in “Game of Thrones” as well.
One last thing, are we going to get another season of “Sirens?”
No, it’s gone. It’s gone, sadly. Yeah, it’s out of there. But, hey, I think that's good these things. It means the schedule is freed up for different programming and stuff. I enjoyed doing it. It was good for me, but we’ll see what happens next.