Game of Thrones’ Michael McElhatton on the Bolton Boys and That Dysfunctional Family Dinner

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Photo: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

Spoilers ahead for the most recent episode of Game of Thrones.

Sansa Stark is surrounded by people she believes to have killed members of her family — the Starks’ former ward Theon, now Reek, who is reputed to have killed her two youngest brothers (even if he didn't, not actually), and her soon-to-be father-in-law Roose Bolton, who helped orchestrate the Red Wedding and put a dagger in her oldest brother's heart. Theon gets a bit of heat for his past crimes, but it's really Roose who was the bigger betrayer, and gained the most from switching sides. "He's one of the coldest and most sadistic men" on the show, agreed actor Michael McElhatton. The Ramsay-Sansa wedding might solidify Roose's position as Warden of the North, but Stannis is on his way to Winterfell, so all bets are off for now. McElhatton chatted with Vulture about the Bolton boys, why he'd love a good flaying scene, and how come he’s not on Arya’s kill list.

Let's talk about this dysfunctional family dinner ...
It's the Boltons at their psychologically cruelest. Ramsay is let off his leash, he has a free rein, and he has a field day, taunting Sansa with Reek. He just humiliates Reek, and humiliates her at the table, bringing up their whole past. It's not that she calls him out on it, really, but she stands up for herself a little bit. Walda and Roose just sit there and let Ramsay do this, up to a point, and then we come in with the coup de grâce, and tell him Walda's pregnant with a boy. That takes the air out of his balloon, and Ramsay is incredibly put out by the arrival of a new child. So that sets up a whole new story line. There was a lot of giggling on set, though! It was tremendous fun to do because it was so black, so dark. It's not about blood or slashing or cutting, but it's just twisted and psychological. "Apologize for killing her brothers!"

Pretty much anytime we see Roose at dinner, someone is humiliated, threatened, or killed. From Jamie and Brienne to the Red Wedding, and now this. Does a dinner with Roose always have to go poorly?
[Laughs.] It's going to be a cold, tense experience! You really wouldn't want to go if the Boltons invite you to dinner. It's a charm-free zone, with probably some awful food. And no wine! Roose thinks it dulls the senses. I think he just wants to be hyperaware, all the time. It’s about control. And there's another thing that's in the books that's not in the show, where he leeched. Roose had regular leechings to purify his blood, so he was very pale and drawn. Some kind of a health kick he was on.

So he can't really drink without really feeling it, if his blood is thinned ...
You'd get pretty smashed after a goblet of mead, wouldn't you? [Laughs.]

What do you think Roose would be like if he did allow himself to get drunk?
Oh God! [Chuckles.] Probably very messy. Yeah. I don't know. He might say a lot of things that he'd regret. I think the guy is almost like a machine, isn't he? He sees the whole thing with Robb Stark marrying Talisa, marrying for love, that was anathema to Roose Bolton. He made a pact with Walder Frey, an incredibly strong ally, and he blew all that for love. Roose cannot comprehend that idea. Roose is all about power.

There are some people who believe that Talisa was actually a honeypot, that she was a Lannister spy meant to make Robb stray from his pact, and that Roose was either in on it or sniffed it out. That he allowed it happen. Because he treated her with deference and allowed her to be alone with Robb when others were upset about her presence.
Oh, I see! I see, I see. Ah, interesting. I hadn't heard that one. That was very thinly veiled. That wasn't alluded to in the scripts. But now that you mention it, it makes perfect sense. Interesting. [Laughs.]

Ramsay Snow was Roose's bastard. He's only been recently legitimized and made Roose's heir. And yet, this wasn't out of love ...
It's not a lovey-dovey relationship. But he's proven to be a clever tactician on the battlefield. He's won Moat Cailin for me, so that's what was rewarded. It's very cold, and it's very weird, because their dynamic has been the child wanting love and the father refusing to give it, and that dynamic has slightly changed now. Obviously, it's not going to be kisses and hugs, but who knows? I could kill him. He could kill me. You know? I actually don't know the legality of inheritance in George R.R. Martin's world. Maybe the child born in wedlock would have a greater claim. Either way, I don't think it's going to be good for the unborn child. [Laughs.] Move Walda out to the summer house until the baby is born!

Well, either way, Roose would have to die for one of his children to inherit. Legitimizing Ramsay might give him motive for murder.
Ramsay would have to kill all three, won't he? Mother, baby, and father? They haven't touched on it in the show, but in the books, Ramsay did kill Roose's previous child. So you'd think Roose would be incredibly wary! I think in the world of Game of Thrones, if you love somebody, that can often be your downfall. Your Achilles heel. So having a pregnant wife who he clearly cares about and a son that he wants are two very vulnerable areas for him, with Ramsay under the same roof. I hope he's playing the smart game, because Roose is an ultrapragmatic guy. He never rests on his laurels, which is one of his great attributes to survival. He's got a little more control. His power is much stronger, although in this season, I think he's a little softer. And I hope it won't be his downfall, his demise.  

Who do you think is worse, Roose or Ramsay?
Roose pales in comparison to Ramsay. He's really more the puppet master behind him. But then a friend of mine said to me today, "That's even crueler, the fact that you control and observe and sit back and condone it. That's worse." And he's big into flaying and big into torturing, absolutely. And he gets results, I believe.

Where do you think they learned to do this? It requires some medical precision.
It does. It's all to do with the type of blade. I'm sure you'd learn it, like your dad teaching you baseball. It's a family tradition handed down — go to the cellar and you skin a couple of people! I never get to that, unfortunately. I'd like a scene where I do get to do that, but it's all left to Ramsay. Maybe we can do it as a flashback. I'd like that. See where he came from. [Chuckles.]

Roose and Littlefinger, on the surface, have become allies. But Littlefinger also seems to be rooting for Stannis, who is coming to take Winterfell.
You really don't know what Littlefinger's endgame is, really. He is an incredible mercurial character. It's about power, obviously, but what else? It's hard to know, isn't it? Whereas with Roose, it's just power. And it's about the children, and the line going on, your family continuing on, and the protection of the House. Even the baddest of characters have a strong sense of duty. So now it's about making allegiances with all the Northern lords, the marriage to Sansa Stark, and he obviously knows he's got a bad reputation, but in his old age, he wants to be powerful, but not as feared or as hated, probably! I think he said, "It's about time we stop flaying people and killing people."

Arya has a lot of names on her kill list, but your character is one that's missing ...
Yeah! Strange, isn't it? He definitely should be on it. I don't know why he's not. But don't tell her!