If you haven’t seen tonight’s episode of Game of Thrones — “The Mountain and the Viper” — read no further.
The interesting thing about playing Oberyn Martell on Game of Thrones, Pedro Pascal says, is that it was a “big in, big out.” The first time we meet the Red Viper, he’s in a brothel, choosing both genders for an orgy before stabbing a Lannister guard in the wrist and threatening Tyrion. But on his way out, Oberyn was there to save Tyrion as his champion in the much-anticipated trial by combat, where he got to have his Inigo Montoya–style revenge. Pascal chatted with Vulture about whacking himself in the face to prep for the fight scene, going up against one of the strongest men in the world, and who would be his own champion.
A trial by combat for the charge of murder is a very odd concept — if you or your champion are able to kill someone else, that means you didn’t kill who you’re accused of killing. That’s absurd, logically.
It’s sort of like a Salem witch trial. If you survive this horrific, physical torture, that means you’re a witch, so we kill you. If you don’t survive it, if you died, uh oh! I guess you’re not a witch. I think the show puts a spotlight on those contradictions, and refuses to give you the typical sense of justice in the genre of fantasy or in storytelling in general, you know? And it’s frustrating and fascinating and horrifying. People love the brutal honesty of the show that is uncompromising. I got all ten episodes of the season before I flew out to Europe, and I read them voraciously. I’m a fan of the show, and I was reading them like a regular fan at first, you know? And I read all the episodes back to back, really, really quickly. And when I got to my final episode, I was really impressed by how similar it was to the scene in the books.
Did you have to do any special fight training to prep for it?
Yeah, yeah. They put me in training with this guy Master Hu in L.A., actually, a few weeks before I flew out to set. He’s a master of Wushu, which is an acrobatic martial art. We used these really long bamboo sticks, and he started teaching me the basics, the possibilities of moves in a fight, stuff like that, and it’s a lot of twisting of the body while propelling a spear around. And I’d go to practice on my own. I bought a curtain rod from Home Depot, and I had this empty apartment, because I just got this lease on a new apartment in Los Angeles. I’ve lived in New York for most of my adult life, but I was doing the L.A. thing more and more. So I had all this space to learn this one particular move of helicoptering the spear and getting it to make this whooshing noise. [Laughs] So I practiced that in the empty apartment and whacked myself in the face quite a bit. [Laughs]
Did you get a lot of time to rehearse it with the Mountain?
Hafþór [Júlíus Björnsson] was competing in a strongman competition in China, and he came back with the title of third strongest man in the world! That’s pretty impressive. Our stunt coordinator told me, “Just so you know, he’s the third strongest man in the world. It’s official.” [Laughs] And so we really had to jump into rehearsal immediately. I’ve never done anything like that before, as far as my work is concerned. I’ve done typical combat classes, and there have been roles that were very physical on stage or on screen — I played a boxer once, and I fought Maggie Q on an episode of Nikita — but nothing like this. And I was lucky on so many levels, because there was this incredible fight team, and this very gentle giant. So we had a lot of fun. They made it easy. It was still really, really challenging, and I was totally intimidating, and I wanted to get it right — for the readers, for the production, and for me. And everything lined up in my favor. Stepping into it was a really scary thing, but the doing of it was the most fun I ever had. It was nuts! With hundreds of extras watching, a lot of the main characters watching. It was big.
Do you think it’s one of the best fight scenes on the show so far?
What’s fun is that it’s a style of fighting that hasn’t been seen on the show yet, which is pretty cool. You get a lot of skillful swordplay, brutal hand-to-hand combat, really desperate, explosive fighting, and this one is kind of stylized, which I think is pretty cool to usher that in with this character. He’s bringing so much Dorne with him to King’s Landing, with his outfit, his whole look, his sound, his behavior. It’s pretty cool. You know, if you look really closely, he has a sort of robe frock that he likes, but there are three different ones. He’s got a more elegant one that he wears to the wedding, and there’s the one he wears to the Small Council, which is somewhere between elegant and casual. I’d have to look it up to see which one he wears to the trial. Was it a festive one? Like, “Hey, let’s make this a party!”? [Laughs] Because that trial was a total sham. It was tricky to play it close to the vest during the trial, because Oberyn doesn’t buy into the bullshit. So that’s why he aligned himself with Tyrion, but he had his own agenda as well.
You got to spend some time with George R.R. Martin in Santa Fe recently.
Yeah! He renovated this movie theater, and he premiered the first episode there. He screened it in Spanish for the Spanish community there, and then a second time in English, and he invited me out there. We did a Q&A afterwards with the Spanish community and the mayor, and I got to hang out with George R.R. Martin! We got to share a Red Viper sangria. [Laughs] I couldn’t really resist peppering him with tons of questions. I think I peppered away. I asked him more about his life, actually. How did he end up in Santa Fe, his life there, his work writing in television, stuff like that. And I felt complete relief that he was satisfied with my performance. I didn’t want to push it.
If you had to do a trial by combat, who would you choose to be your champion?
That’s a good question. Does it actually have to be a fight to the death? I think because I’m a control freak, I might have to step in myself! If anyone’s going to fuck this up, it had better be me. [Laughs] I’d only have myself to blame. And if it’s to death, I won’t give a shit — I’d be dead anyway!