Game of Thrones’ John Bradley on the Evolution of Samwell Tarly

Photo: David Livingston/Getty Images

In season one of Game of Thrones, Samwell Tarly arrived at Castle Black, a coward in need of Jon Snow's protection. By the time we meet up with him again in season six, he might be one of the few people who could actually call himself a protector of the realm. Since discovering that both dragonglass and Valyrian steel can defeat White Walkers, Sam, played by John Bradley, has been on a mission to discover why, so that whatever he learns can be used to help defend Westeros against the approaching army of the dead. Most everyone else is caught up in power plays and turf wars — only Sam is heading to a place where he can both gain more information (via the Citadel's vast library and the maesters in residence) and spread the word. Could Sam be the true hero of this tale? Bradley chatted with Vulture about becoming a wizard, father figures, and why Sam is like Rick Moranis in Ghostbusters.

Last season, Sam left Castle Black, and then Jon was murdered.
He'd not been gone long when the dirty deed took place. There's a part of Sam that would be crippled by the guilt that he could have done something about that, if he had been there. He couldn't, because people had their minds made up, it seemed, but he'd feel like he'd left Jon to die there, in his mind. It's something he'd be tormented by. What I love about this show in terms of death is that death can be so unexpected. You get a sense of life being incredibly disposable. People don't always die pretentiously. They don't always see it coming. They're alive one minute, dead the next, and I think that really sets the landscape for the moral outlook for the characters on the show.

It's murky at best. Melisandre gets points for resurrecting Jon Snow, but what about when she burned Shireen at the stake?
Having children to burn, that's the deal-breaker for Melisandre! Her contract rider list, if she's going to do anything magic, is a couple of burnt children, I'm afraid. And you thought J.Lo was demanding! [Laughs.] Plus, they have to have won the audience over by being cute and adorable, and they have to mean something significant to a central character. Otherwise, she's not interested, I'm afraid. I liked being at Castle Black, though, with her, when we were doing the scenes at the start of season five, when everybody was together. Stannis, Davos, Melisandre, all the wildlings. That's when a sense of community is formed. We had these amazing night shoots where we all bonded because we were all so incredibly tired. You felt like you had a complete cast around you. Now it's been fragmented a bit. I like them both, but it's nice for us to tell our own story.

You get a lot of new locations this season, with the Citadel in Oldtown and Horn Hill. And along with the new locations, we get new cast members — we're meeting Sam's whole family, including his formidable father, Randyll Tarly.
The casting decisions for those guys was something I was very interested in, because they had to be faithful to the representation of those characters I've had in my mind all along. They inform everything Sam does, and to meet them, and to think, "Oh my God, every time I thought about Randyll, it's been you I've been thinking about!" It was really exciting to see it made flesh. It must be how George R.R. Martin feels all the time! It must be one-tenth of what he feels when he sees the show.

Sam has changed a lot since he left home in season one. He's not the coward his father shipped off to the Night's Watch. Sam has killed a White Walker. He's killed a Thenn. He's stood up to men who were trying to rape Gilly.
His father is oblivious to that, though. His father has not seen any of these changes. And I'd like to think Sam would care less now. He's begun to re-prioritize his life a little bit. He's fallen in love, he has two people that are more important to him than anything, and if they're more important to him than himself, they're certainly more important than Randyll Tarly.

For the last couple of seasons, Sam has been asking himself, "Why?" Why did he have a duty to have respect for people? He had respect for the Night's Watch, and then they beat him up. They treated him horribly. And this season, you question all the fear and respect he had for his father. What was the point of that? "Why? You're no better than me." His priorities have been narrowed down and down and down, to love. I don't think he's going to give any headspace to things he once felt he should have respect for, but now aren't worthy of his respect anymore. As long as Sam has Gilly on his side, as long as he has baby Sam to concentrate his efforts on, he doesn't mind who he's approved of, or disapproved by. I think that happens a lot. When you're young, you try to please everybody. You think everybody's opinion matters to a ridiculous degree, and then you find the person you love, and you think, "Oh, those people don't really matter anymore." I hope that's true for Sam, that Randyll's influence is diluted by that.

That, and since leaving Horn Hill and going to Castle Black, he's had a number of replacement father figures to help dilute Randyll Tarly's influence.
Sam's childhood was so traumatic, he never really had a father he could attach himself to. Emotionally, he's been looking for a replacement father figure his whole life! He thought he had one in Jeor Mormont, but he died under horrible circumstances. Jon Snow filled that gap occasionally. The most consistent father figure in his life had been Maester Aemon. In the books, Maester Aemon goes on this boat trip with Sam and Gilly, and he dies on the boat. Our adaptation gives Sam a slightly different impetus to become a maester, really, because it's with his dying that Sam makes the decision to go to Oldtown. It's like Aemon died, and that inspired Sam to follow in his footsteps.

Sam used to say, "I always wanted to be a wizard." Is being a maester like being a wizard, even if the Citadel is anti-magic?
Sam could see Maester Aemon as a wizard. He's certainly somebody who cast a spell over Sam! He was kind of a Merlin to him, a guide, always there with a word of wisdom. Sam's quest for knowledge and the academic plane that he lives on, have been the subject of so much scorn, disparaged as a folly, ever since he was born. His father said, "You don't want to be doing that. You're wasting your time with that. You need to kill people, physically kill people, if you're going to have any impact at all." And Sam believed that. Education was just a luxury, a sanctuary where he could crawl away and hide from the cruelty in his life.

But ever since he spoke to Stannis in season five, and Stannis basically said, "What you're doing is really important," to hear that from somebody who his father would have respect for, that was a really interesting moment. Now Sam has found his place in the team. He's not just dead weight to be carried along. He's actually found out that what he does, and the skills he has, can be hugely beneficial. So, now he's off to the Citadel with that in mind. He's not going for an easy life. He's not going just because he likes books and he wants to read books for the rest of his life. He's going because he can make a difference, more than he could make haphazardly wielding a sword around Castle Black.   

He's a different kind of hero ...
He's like Rick Moranis's character in Ghostbusters! [Laughs.]