Game of Thrones’ Ciarán Hinds on His Big Episode and What It’s Like at Castle Black

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Photo: Walter McBride/Corbis

If you haven't seen Sunday night's episode of Game of Thrones, stop reading now, or consider yourself spoiled.

Ciarán Hinds may not have had as much screen time as some other characters on Game of Thrones, but his Mance Rayder, the King-Beyond-the-Wall, has left a mark. He managed to unite the disparate free folk tribes and clans and got them to the Wall, where he hoped to lead them to safety. But as he told Jon Snow when they first met, "We don't kneel for anyone beyond the Wall" — the free folk reject the monarchy, even if it means death. And so it appears that death finally came for Mance Rayder, as Melisandre set him ablaze, and Jon Snow sent an arrow into his heart as an act of mercy. Hinds called us from Glasgow to chat about getting fired, so to speak.

When you got the script, were you shocked? What was your reaction?
I actually wasn't shocked. In season four, I think the last episode, when Stephen Dillane and Liam Cunningham, Stannis and Davos, turned up outside my tent, I realized I wasn't going to be long for this world — because they were famously going around setting fire to people. I imagined that I was probably next on their list, since Mance was always an outsider. But you never know with these stories. They're so fantastical, they could actually whisk you away by their magic.

So did the showrunners break the news to you before you read the script?
Dan [Weiss] and David [Benioff] were very sweet. They said, "You know things happen on every season, and guess what? It's been a pleasure to know you, but you're on your bike." Well, they didn't actually say that, they're more gentle and courteous, but I understood immediately. It's just the way the story is run. And I've been involved in adaptations of books before, and there's no way you can actually do the entire book justice. You have to cut around it. And sometimes if the conceivers of the idea go off on their own and embellish the journey, it's thrilling for all concerned.

Your goddaughter helped turn you on to the books. Did you tell her before anyone else?
She's in Australia now, and I did see her in January, and she was saying, "Oh, how's it going? Do you know what's going to happen next?" And I had to say, "No idea. Absolutely no idea," while fully realizing what had happened. But it would be unfair, if not to say churlish, to actually let the cat out of the bag to her in such a sharp manner.

What do you make of Mance's decision — that he chose to be burned alive before he would kneel before Stannis? Jon Snow calls it pride, but it seems a matter of principle ...
I think the whole idea of what he did, to bring about a social change, to bring all these people together, had a sort of presence and dignity. And to kneel before a king who would only be using him, to use the people he's trying to give some dignity to, is something he couldn't live with. The fact that you pull all these 90 tribes together and give them a sense of identity, you can't watch them crumble. He didn't want to be king. He never wanted to be a leader. But he obviously had a gift for harnessing people, to give them a sense of purpose. It's kind of radical thinking. But he wasn't about to grab the crown or anything. The whole point, as soon as people get a sniff of the crown, then they go, "Yeah, I'll have it all, actually." History is full of people corrupted by the smell of a crown.

I actually visited Castle Black ...
Oh, was it cold enough for you? [Laughs.]

Cold, and there were a ton of teeny, tiny bugs flying around, which you don't really see onscreen. It made me appreciate how hard it must be to shoot some scenes there, because you can't react to them, yet they're all over you.
Oh, the midges. Yeah, they're like tiny little mosquitoes, except they're much nastier. They hang around because of the stagnant water. There's a lot of muck and water around there. It's kind of brutal. I was quite fortunate, I thought, to be toasted, because they warmed me up in that bitter cold.

So then being burned alive isn't so bad! And the flames probably kept the bugs away. How close do you really get to the fire?
No heat blisters whatsoever! They were very serious about that. Although it did get a little warm, but no more than if you had a little fire to warm yourself. I certainly didn't feel there was any possibility of me going up in smoke! [Laughs.] The set p was quite formal, with going out to the scaffold, Melisandre lighting the torch, which they stepped back a bit, and then it started to flare up. I suppose, for health and safety reasons, there were men that I didn't see, with fire extinguishers, giant hoses, in case it went horribly wrong. The fact that you're strapped to a pole, handcuffed to a pole, even if the handcuffs are fake, I would have climbed up the scaffold before anybody could have arrested me, frankly.

Did they make a big deal and announce it was your last shot, or do anything to commemorate your "death"?
No, because the last scene, I didn't actually finish it the way they filmed it. They shot on me first, and then all around that area, the people were brought in to watch, so it was quite quiet. I was told that I would not be needed because the camera was going to be on for them, and they were just going to use me for a reference point. So it was kind of a nice way to go, just to slip off. I mean, they do announce it's your last shot, and you say good-bye to everyone, but they carry on working, and I slipped out. I said good-bye to Kit [Harington], to Liam [Cunningham], to Kristofer Hivju, the big Norwegian actor. It's funny, because we met to do a scene two years before, and then we didn't see each other because he was off to climb the Wall, and then the next time I saw him, I was saying good-bye!

Perhaps as a nod to the readers, or as foreshadowing, your two characters, Mance and Tormund Giantsbane (Kristofer Hivju), exchange a pointed, meaningful look ...
He didn't say it, but he should have said, "Well, you didn't last long, guv!" They have a connection, and people can take what they want from that. I don't know what's going to happen to him in the story line. That's a choice, obviously, that they want to leave up to the minds of some people, or not, as they see fit. Who's to say? I don't know. Have you got any idea? I don't know how there are so many stories that they have to juggle! I suppose they have to take some narratives out of the equation. To do a moment of magic can be kind of a cheesy moment. Morphing into another form, or transformation, we've seen it so many times. But to leave something up to our imagination, that seems more satisfying in a way, as opposed to just showing and displaying an obvious change. And you want people to experience it as purely as you can in this day and age, without people seeming to tell you every story. Beware of spoilers!