Whenever Conleth Hill pops up on a TV show — as Varys on Game of Thrones, lawyer Edward Darby on Suits — you know he’s got some secrets. Tonight will be no different. He guest-stars as Sir Ian Woodhead, the head of MI6 (Britain’s intelligence service), in the series finale of British period drama Foyle’s War. Hill was tight-lipped about how the much-loved mystery series would come to an end, but he indulged us in a broader conversation about playing spies, what his Game of Thrones character might be up to next season, and how he makes Peter Dinklage laugh.
You appear in the finale of Foyle’s War, but have you been a fan since the beginning?
Very much so. I love the pace of it. I love the subject matter. I love everything about it, you know? The writing and the production values are excellent. I didn’t realize that this was going to be the finish of them, but I’m glad I got in there before they finished. I think I might have found out from [actress] Ellie Haddington while we were shooting, but I thought it was just the season finale, not the end of all of it. Because it’s been brought back before by public demand, so it might be again. I hope so, for all the fans’ sake. Although, without giving anything away, the only way I would come back is through flashbacks. [Chuckles.] There’s definitely a possibility of flashbacks with Ellie’s character and my character, their friendship, and that’s what appealed to me in the script. They’re two loners, but they hit it off.
What appeals to you about playing all these spymasters?
[Laughs.] I think the first spy I played was Günter Guillaume in Michael Frayn’s stage play Democracy. He was the famous East German spy who infiltrated West German chancellor Willy Brandt’s party. He worked in his offices. And ever since then, I seem to be offered them quite a lot! But I’m not complaining. [Laughs.] It’s all in the writing.
Do you think you’d make a good spy yourself? What tricks have you picked up?
Well, I’m pretty anonymous, and I think that would work in my favor. I don’t get recognized very much, which isn’t a complaint, you know? I would be a bit worried if I were recognized as Varys, because I don’t look like that normally. If I’m at a red-carpet event, they’ll recognize some of the other stars from Game of Thrones, but not me. I’m not recognized immediately. Normally, if I’m wearing a tuxedo, people think I’m a security person or a wine waiter, just because of the uniform, you know?
Not because you’re carrying around a bottle of wine as a prop to distract them or anything …
Oh God, no! Nothing deliberate. I guess I could have some fun with it. I remember coming out of a stage door once and someone asked me, “Is Mr. Hill still in there?” And I just said, “I don’t think he is.” So I wasn’t lying, but … I do prefer not looking like my character in real life, I have to say. I mean, fans are nice, but it’s much nicer to still be able to go to football matches and not get tortured.
So one of your hard-core fans is Laurence Fishburne?
Yes! I’ve met him since, and I’m a bigger fan of his, but I worked with his beautiful wife Gina [Torres] on Suits, and she and I became friends. And on my first day there, she told me that he was a big fan. Apparently he was about to watch the show, and Henry Cavill was the one who told him, “No, no, no, read the books first,” so he became a fan of A Song of Ice and Fire, all the Game of Thrones books. He’s read them all. And then she showed me a text from Laurence that said, “Welcome, master of whisperers and your little birds, too,” or something like that, which was very sweet of both of them. It made me feel at home. But you know, I didn’t read the books …
No. It wasn’t out of laziness or anything. It’s just that I’m playing the script. The script is my gospel. But now, when I get the scripts for each season, I love reading them. Forget my involvement — I just love reading them for the whole story. For the books, I kind of know some things that are coming, things that I’ve been told or whatever. But I didn’t want to read a brilliant scene in the books that wasn’t in the TV show, and also, I thought, Well, you can’t play knowledge. You just have to play the moments. So that’s what I try and do. And the show and the books are two different things now. Very much so. They’ve ceased to become so identical.
Especially with Varys, because in the books he doesn’t accompany Tyrion to Essos.
I don’t know whether I can go there! But yes, it’s two different story lines. And a lot of the conversations Varys has with Littlefinger aren’t in the books, either. So they’ve kept my character alive and kept me going, and I’m grateful.
Even though the show and the books take different paths, one of the things the show does is help illuminate or confirm aspects that might have been unknown to the person whose point-of-view chapter it was. Such as the conversation Arya overhears between Varys and Illyrio in season one …
… when she’s hiding in the dragon heads, yeah. [Slyly] Information is currency.
What did you think of the season five trailer? At the IMAX screening where I first saw it, everyone cheered at your line, “Who said anything about him?” implying that he may be supporting Daenerys.
Well, one never knows entirely what’s going on with Varys, but he seems to be less guarded this season, is all I can say, and more prepared to declare his allegiance to someone. I can say no more than that. You know, but I can’t say, unless you want me to get sacked! [Laughs.] That’s another reason it’s best for me to know as little as possible.
Fair enough. But perhaps without giving away any spoilers, we could examine his possible motivations, if he is in fact declaring support for the person everyone thinks he is. Because if he is supporting her, how do you reconcile that with his earlier attempts to thwart her, such as the assassination attempt in season one?
Um, because every individual is allowed to change their mind. And there are more stories in the book that aren’t being transferred to the screen, involving searches for an heir, and so it’s probably an element of what’s best dramatically and also how to accumulate his reasons. I think in times of war, and in terms of politics, people change their minds all the time. And something that seemed like a good idea at the time can be changed in a heartbeat. The order not to kill her came from someone, just as the order to kill her. And maybe that will come out in future episodes, so I don’t want to talk too much about it. That’s also my evasive way of going, “I don’t know!”
Regardless of what Varys wants, if you could have anyone on the Iron Throne, who would you pick?
Probably someone like Samwell Tarly. Someone less highborn. Someone who hadn’t been born for the job. But as Varys says, it has to be the right family name. Those kind of people won’t have a chance. But that’s who I would like. Someone humble. Someone not royal. And not Varys. He’s not a ruler. And I think his … handicap is the wrong word, affliction is the wrong word, but he’s not taken seriously by people because of his condition.
People are so fixated on his lack of genitalia in that world.
And they would be in this world as well. That’s why he and Tyrion are friends, because they’re both outcasts. They’ve both been left out. They’ve both been ridiculed. So they have that in common.
By the way, Peter Dinklage says you’re the funniest guy on the set.
Yeah? Sometimes it’s just done to release tension or defuse a situation that might be awkward, if we’re all a little nervous. I think Peter must have been referring to scenes with Lena [Headey], Peter, and I, where we all couldn’t quite look at each other. So to just get a twinkle in both of their eyes, that sets us all off. And after Peter won the Emmy, I was calling him “Emmy” for a couple of days. Stupid things like that, which aren’t funny to people who weren’t there. “Is Emmy ready yet?” Just to say he’d changed since he won it, even though he hadn’t at all. I’m not constantly telling jokes or anything, I’m not Mr. Funny all the time, but why not have a laugh when you’re working?