You might not recognize Harry Lloyd when you see him on his new show, Manhattan, a World War II–set drama about the Manhattan Project premiering this Sunday on WGN America. Free of the blond locks he sported as Daenerys Targaryen’s brother Viserys in the first season of Game of Thrones, Lloyd shifts from playing the so-called beggar king to Paul Crosley, one of the scientists working under top-secret conditions to develop nuclear weapons. While in New Mexico (which is both where Manhattan is shot and where it takes place), Lloyd recently snuck in a visit with noted Santa Fe resident George R.R. Martin (“Just breakfast, no drinks!”), so he was in full GoT nostalgia mode when Vulture caught up with him recently to discuss his new show, epic Targaryen hair, and how Viserys would fare in Los Alamos. [Note: Game of Thrones spoilers to follow.]
Outside of Robert Oppenheimer, most of the characters in Manhattan are fictitious. Does that make your job easier? Or more difficult?
The interesting thing is, when you play a real-life character or someone based in a book, you always come up against people’s preconceptions of what they have in their heads. So it’s nice here that people will be looking at what you’re doing versus how you’re doing it. When you play Denis Thatcher [his role in The Iron Lady] or Viserys, people are like, “Oh, yeah, I knew you were going to have to do that scene,” and then they’re looking at your choices. But with Paul, I think they’ll be more surprised at which direction the character goes. I think that’s the same for a lot of the characters in Manhattan — where they start off and where they finish, you really don’t know where it’s going. I remember getting the scripts and assuming this next episode was going to deal with this, and it never did. The premise, this strange world with its secrets, and [where] the stakes are so high, there are so many different stories to tell. You really don’t know where it’s going to end up, other than that the bomb will get dropped in August 1945. But within that, we need to be kept on our toes.
Well, with Game of Thrones, we’re kept on our toes, too, but almost in the opposite way: While we know some of what’s going to happen based on the books, we don’t know the end, so there are a lot of mysteries.
Part of George R.R. Martin’s brilliant storytelling is taking the carpet out from under your feet. You think there are certain things that have to be the case, and he keeps finding ways to surprise you. I’ve always thought a lot about Maester Aemon, up on the Wall, and how he’s related to our family. Because Daenerys is kept over there, with her dragons, you build up the suspense about when and how she’s going to invade. And of all the characters who could link that story line back to Westeros, the ones who are really crucial, wouldn’t Aemon be a part of that? Along with Whitebeard — Ser Barristan. I love that, the way it kind of feeds in to the main story line and doesn’t feel so separate.
So that it feels like these separate story lines are converging. If only we knew how it ends.
You want there to be some kind of massive final explosion when it all comes together, but based on what we’ve already seen, I can’t imagine how they’re going to do that. It’s not all going to be tied up neatly. There’s not going to be a Lord of the Rings ending, with the rightful king on the throne. I don’t think that’s the way these books work. I don’t think that’s what [George R.R. Martin] is interested in. But the promise of that is what keeps us going, because we desperately want it. Similarly to Manhattan, [on the HBO show] you’ve got this wonderful premise and these wonderful characters and it’s not really that it’s a show about dragons or a show about magic or a show about power — it’s about choices. You follow these people, you see what they’re dealt, and how they deal with it. Their relationships. Their decisions. And if it’s honest storytelling, and it’s just really interesting to follow human situations like that.
For Manhattan, they’re in a situation where these people have all made decisions to find themselves there, and all these wives who haven’t made that decision, who just followed their husbands. And they’re kind of in an impossible situation, and in a morally complicated, sinister world. So just trying to see people deal with that, trying to deal with doing the right thing in an impossible situation, I think that gives you a world you’ll be fascinated by. Our team, the implosion team, we get some of the stranger stories, deep and dark stories about how morality and how people feel about this weapon of mass destruction. But it’s also a strange place to look at domestically, because everyone was having sex, because it this thing where men and women were thrown together in the middle of nowhere. These people were working hard, but they were playing hard as well. So there are all kinds of interesting story lines that have nothing to do with science, the office drama that’s fun to play. It wasn’t just all these scientists sitting there and doing math. All kinds of things happen.
Manhattan is a very different show, of course, but here’s a parallel: With the dragons, Dany essentially has the nuclear option, but deploying her weapons might take a while.
[Laughs.] Yeah, yeah! I see what you’re saying. And if you’re looking to parallel the characters, Paul Crosley is a bit frustrated and impatient, a bit like Viserys, in that he’s not simply trying to win the war. He’s thinking of his own career. And the lessons he learns — that poor Viserys never gets a chance to learn, because he gets killed — affect how he feels about the Manhattan Project and how he feels about the war. He actually becomes more interesting. We start off thinking we know this guy, and he keeps confounding us. He starts off, he’s snide and he’s sarcastic and you think he’s clearly bitter to be on that team, to be on this team of misfits, which isn’t even the main bomb design team. But as we go on, we realize everyone has a story about why they ended up there. Quite early on, we have a big story line for my character that challenges everything, and we realize, the more we learn, the less we know.
If you had to do a mash-up, how would Paul Crosley get along with the Game of Thrones characters, and how would Viserys get along with the Manhattan Project folks?
I think Paul Crosley would probably die quite quickly. [Laughs.] And Viserys in Los Alamos? I think he would be extremely bossy and impatient. He wouldn’t last very long. I wonder … I wonder if his idea of purity and bloodlines, if he would be more on the German side, the German way of working? He might have been [a Nazi].
At least the way Dany sees him.
The great thing about the TV series, compared to the book series, is the point-of-view characters — you’ve got eight or nine main point-of-view people, right? And of course, my character, you never got his point-of-view, but from his sister’s point-of-view, he’s a nightmare. That’s why when I was doing it, after a while, I had to put the books away, because in my head, I had to rewrite the story so that my guy was the main character. He’s the rightful king and he’s got all these problems. Even with Joffrey, you have to sympathize, because everyone is coming from somewhere. No one is just being bad for the hell of it. There are no one-dimensional characters. Which was great for me, because otherwise, on the page, if you just play it the way Daenerys tells you the story in the books, you’re missing parts because the guy … makes some interesting choices. But he absolutely has a point. And when I was doing it, I absolutely sympathized with his plight in terms of what he’s been doing since his parents were slaughtered and the rest of his family was killed. He had to try to find his way, despite being a completely unqualified young man, to represent his whole family’s dynasty. There’s a lot of pressure on him! So he’s done some pretty intense things. [Laugh.]
Instead, you got one of the greatest wigs of all time. Is it nice to forgo the wig this time? People might not even recognize you!
[Laughs.] It’s nice, but I will always miss that wig. Pretty much everyone wears a wig on that show, but I know that my wig and Emilia Clarke’s wig were two of the most expensive, and I think that was only right for the Targaryens to have the sexiest hair. When we shot the pilot, we had a very different kind of wig, and it didn’t really work. And when we went to series, we spent a lot of time trying to make it not look like Legolas [in the Lord of the Rings movies], not make it look like Lucius Malfoy [in the Harry Potter series], which is kind of tricky when you’ve got white, long hair, and it’s a story with fantastic creatures. But I actually liked it, because it’s a wonderful disguise. I don’t get recognized as Viserys on the whole. So I get to look completely fresh and completely separate from this completely psychotic young guy. [Laughs.] For Manhattan, I’ve just got a handful of Brylcreem, so it’s easy.