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David Bradley on The Strain, Game of Thrones, and the Unexpected Fallout From the Red Wedding

The Strain’s David Bradley. Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty Images

How you recognize the British character actor David Bradley might depend on your age and interests. You might know him as Argus Filch from the Harry Potter movies. Or you might remember him as volatile Walder Frey on Game of Thrones. Currently, he can be seen playing Holocaust survivor turned vampire hunter Abe Setrakian on The Strain. And he’s done Doctor WhoBroadchurch, The World’s End, and countless other shows and movies. While Bradley himself is not, as he put it in a recent interview with Vulture, “an unpleasant geezer,” he has found a niche portraying older folks who are despicable and/or capable of doing despicable things — although Setrakian’s characters, the actor pointed out, is actually “on the side of angels, but has to do some pretty brutal work for the right reasons.” In between family weddings, Bradley chatted with us about learning to decapitate heads, dealing with Game of Thrones–related photo requests, and how he helped engineer one of his most famous lines.

How was your vacation?
Good! I just had my daughter getting married, which was very nice. [Laughs.] And the fact that I even got invited to my daughter’s wedding was good. And my youngest son is getting married in a few weeks, and I’ve been invited to that one as well. So the invitations haven’t dried up altogether since the Red Wedding! I think if the acting dries up, I might put myself down as a wedding planner, for anyone who’s willing to take up the challenge!

The professional photographer at your daughter’s wedding took a photo with you, and you’re looking at him quite sternly.
Oh, yes! We had just [taken] a happy one, and he said, “Can we do one with just you staring at me?” My daughter showed me that one last week. It was just a bit of fun, really. You’ve seen that? How?!

He posted it on Reddit.
I didn’t know he was going to show it all over the place. Well, someone else at a convention came up to me with a copy of a book called Wedding Planning for Dummies. He said, “Will you stand next to me and pretend that you’re avidly reading this book?” And so I’ve got this picture that people tell me has just gone viral. Of course, while we were doing it, it was just a fan! He just wanted a picture that was slightly different.

Are you surprised that they want to take these kinds of photos with you? I mean, the reaction to that episode was pretty intense.
When we were shooting the episode, I didn’t realize what the repercussions would be. People shouting at me on the street. Or people telling me they couldn’t forgive me. Or people sending me YouTube footage of people watching the series [without knowing] what was going to happen. So, their friends are filming them, I can hear my voice in the background, and then whole groups of people jumping up! All over the world, people just jumping up! People swearing at the screen, and shouting, and crying, and leaving the room! I must say, there is something that I find very funny about it. I should have known better, having been in Harry Potter, how into this the fans get. But I love it, actually. I think it’s great.

What would you say the breakdown is, in terms of how many fans you get from things like Harry Potter versus Game of Thrones versus The World’s End versus The Strain?
When somebody’s face lights up as they’re walking towards me, I’m trying to guess, What is it they watch? It’s a little game, and I always get it wrong. [Laughs.] With Harry Potter, you get parents who say, “Can I get your autograph? It’s not for me, you understand. It’s for my son, or for my daughter.” They won’t admit to the fact that they watch it. [Laughs.] And for many years, it was only Potter fans who would stop me on the street. But I suppose the age group for Game of Thrones is a much broader spectrum, people of all ages. And I gather that The Strain is breaking records for people between the ages of 18 and 49, which is an interesting age group. Sometimes people will say, “Will you do a smiling one? Now will you do a Filch one?” So I have to look unpleasantly at them. Or they want me to say one of my lines for their ring tone on their phone, one of my most horrible Filch lines from Harry Potter in my harshest Cockney voice, so I usually oblige. Why not? I appreciate the fact that they watch the stuff. Without them, I wouldn’t be working!

Which lines do you get requests for the most?
Oh, dear, we are in trouble.” [Laughs.] You know, that one wasn’t even in the original script for the second movie. That line was in the first book, in the scene when the boys and Hermione have just gotten away with getting the baby dragon Norbert safely to Charlie, and they come down the tower. Filch says, “Well, well, well, we are in trouble,” with pleasure. Chris Columbus did the first two Harry Potter movies, and when we were doing the second film, the boys were coming up the wide stairs, having just encountered the Whomping Willow with the flying car, and I had a line, something like, “Oh, it’s detention for you lot!” Or something. But I thought it was a weak line. So I said, “Chris, there’s a line from the first book, ‘Oh, dear, we are in trouble.’ Can we use that instead?” [He said,] “Sure, sure, sure. Go for it. Say that.” Chris Columbus, even though he was doing these big movies, was flexible enough to say, “Yeah, if you want to say that line, say that line.” Some directors would say, “Just stick to the script, will you?” But luckily, he was flexible enough to let me play with a line I liked, and now that’s the one that people quote back to me all the time, that they like the most! Funny, isn’t it?

For Walder Frey, it’s the things he was saying to Oona Chaplin’s character, Robb’s wife, about her physicality, it was so un-p.c. The line I remember most from that is when the mother, Catelyn Stark, is about to cut the throat of his young wife, and he just shrugs and says, “I’ll find another.” That is just so wonderfully callous that it’s almost funny, you know? I don’t mean laugh-out-loud funny — it’s not a hilarious joke — but it’s just so awful, the cruelty of it, [that] it’s almost comic. As an actor, if it’s far from your own person — I hope it’s far from my own person! — it’s a gift, really, to be able to say things that you would never be allowed to say, or wouldn’t dream of saying in real life.

Walder has some unfinished business. He still has Edmure Tully in his prison.
Yes! And I spoke to [showrunner] David Benioff, and he said, “You’ll be back, you’ll be back.” But not in this season, not the one they’re doing now. Not for season five. But he’s got more to do in the books, and I hope he’ll be back at least for some kind of divine retribution, which has to be coming his way at some point. Surely he can’t get away with all that? I’d like to think he survives just a bit longer for that. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s back for season six, but I haven’t heard anything definite.

Tobias Menzies, who plays Edmure, is on this new show Outlander, so they may just be waiting for his shooting schedule to match yours.
Oh, yes? Oh, really? Then I heard it here first! Thank you very much. I shall hold onto that thought! I hope you’re right because Tobias is good fun. I’d be straining at the leash for that, as they say. I rather enjoyed playing Walder — rather more than is healthy, really. [Laughs.]

It’d most likely be for a scene that’s not in the books. The Strain goes off-book, too, right?
Right! The basic heart of it is in the books that Guillermo del Toro wrote with Chuck Hogan, but they take liberties and they’ve reimagined it, rather than lifting it straight from the book. They took a risk doing that, but they’ve obviously got plans for it to make it last for three to five seasons. So now that season two has the green light, hopefully they’ll be able to start shooting it all the way through. We start again in November, so it’s going to be another very cold winter in Toronto. I like the people, I like the city, but by God, it was cold. That’s okay when you’re filming in the studio, but when you’re filming on the street, and it’s 35 below plus wind chill, try getting your mouth to work in that! It’s quite hard. But there’s something about icicles on the beard that make it look authentic.

Does it make it harder to use a sword? And how stoked are you that you finally get to use a sword?
About time, yeah? I spent so many years in the Royal Shakespeare Company that I think they assumed I would be very handy with a large metal weapon, but they were wrong. I took some lessons, but over the years, I haven’t done that much stage-fighting. So fortunately, the stunt coordinator Jamie [Jones] gave me a crash course in decapitation. You’ve got to be accurate. The swipe has got to be horizontal, with the thin end of the blade. And it’s got to be swift and strong. I spent quite a few hours going through this. Fortunately not on fellow actors. [Laughs.] And by the time I get back to Game of Thrones, if I do, I’ll be better placed to offer any practical advice. But I’ve got a lot more beheading to do in Canada before I’m finished.

David Bradley on The Strain and the Red Wedding