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Game of Thrones’ Pilou Asbæk on Becoming Euron Greyjoy, Trump Comparisons, and That Underwater Scene

Photo: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

Spoilers ahead for the most recent episode of Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire.

The newly elected king of the Iron Islands, Euron Greyjoy, is a take-no-prisoners kind of guy. He’d rip out your tongue because he needs a moment of silence. He’d happily murder his niece and nephew, Theon and Yara, just as he murdered their father, Balon. Danish actor Pilou Asbæk (whom you might recognize from the Nordic TV import Borgen, or such films as A Hijacking and Lucy) took a break from shooting “a big action sequence” in his next film, Ghost in the Shell, to call Vulture from the set in New Zealand, so we could chat about campaign season, drowning, and Euron’s penchant for dick jokes.

You have the best Twitter feed. I love that you’ve already addressed why Euron isn’t wearing an eye patch, among other parts of his mythology. And most recently: “Dear ladies & gentlemen, please remember … Euron Greyjoy is a fictional character … Donald Trump isn’t!!!”
[Laughs.] The reason why I did it, Game of Thrones is so alive on social media. It’s a big part of this show’s popularity. And it’s a good way to communicate with people, to know what’s going on. A couple of my friends were like, “They’re equating you with Donald Trump,” and I wanted to write some funny reference, just to put it out there to say, “Guys! First of all, this is a fictional character. I am here as an actor to interpret. Yeah, he doesn’t have an eye patch. Yeah, he doesn’t have the Dragonbinder … or does he?”

If you asked me, I thought it would be too cliché, too cheesy to have an eye patch. “He’s a pirate, so we need an eye patch.” Well, then we also need a parrot and a wooden leg. We have this saying in Denmark, You can only have one. You can only have one element, one cheat at a time. And I thought, We’re here to develop a character. He has to look like a Greyjoy. You need to know where this character’s from. If he were a fish out of water, no one would have elected him. But now they see he’s just like them. And hopefully I’m going to be in many episodes, many seasons, and I’ll have time to show that Euron Greyjoy’s a fucking bastard! [Laughs.] But a cool bastard. Wait and see.

I took the Donald Trump tweet another way. Because we’re in election season, I thought of it more like, “The Ironborn may have elected Euron Greyjoy based on his boasts and bluster, but you don’t have to! You have a real vote ahead of you. Choose wisely.”
Yeah, it is political. It’s a joke, but of course it’s political. The American president isn’t just the American president. He’s going to be the leader of the whole Western world, you know? You got a pretty big responsibility. And the kingsmoot is the closest thing you come to an actual election in Game of Thrones. It’s the closest you come to democracy in Westeros.

It’s funny, because people are saying, “Oh, that’s Bernie Sanders. That’s Hillary Clinton. That’s Donald Trump.” I don’t think [showrunners] Dan [Weiss] and David [Benioff] thought of it like that. In my home country, which is one of the oldest kingdoms in the world, you’re born with the title. You don’t get elected. I don’t know how the king and queen of Denmark would respond if they suddenly had to do a speech, if the people would vote for them. I don’t know how that would end up. But sometimes fiction is ahead of reality.

In the books, we never quite get to know who killed Balon. We may suspect, but we don’t know. But here, we both get to see that it was Euron who did the deed, plus he proclaims it to everyone. He makes it a selling point.
It says a lot about Euron’s character that he doesn’t give a shit. That bridge scene, that was a hard shoot. We stood there for ten hours in hard, cold rain, in the middle of the night. And Patrick [Malahide] was a true champ. Didn’t complain. I’m 40 years younger than him, and I was being a little bitch sometimes, going, “This is cold!” or “I’m getting a headache!” Not very Euron Greyjoy-like. [Laughs.]

You’re right, you are decades younger than Patrick. Euron looks closer in age to Theon, his nephew, than his brother Balon. Why do you think that is?
Alfie Allen and I, we look similar, right? Maybe Euron found a fountain of youth! Maybe he discovered something in one of his many journeys! I don’t know. He’s traveled the world. He’s seen stuff. He’s experienced stuff. And hopefully he’s going to use that experience to become the full, real king. With Game of Thrones, I wouldn’t be surprised if it were magic.

Let’s talk about shooting the kingsmoot. This was one of the scenes that leaked in advance, because of the paparazzi shots and drones that flew over Ballintoy Harbour.
The first day after shooting that scene, I came home to like 200 text messages and 200 phone calls. And I didn’t know why! I thought something bad had happened to one of my friends or family members. Apparently it was breaking news, all over the world, that I had been spotted in Ireland shooting this scene, because Euron Greyjoy is a fan favorite. People were going crazy. It was very intense, coming home after 12 hours of shooting, and then seeing so many messages.

That was a two-day shoot?
We spent two days on the kingsmoot itself, and then two days on the montage. We shot it chronologically, which helped. The water was freezing cold. We shot the drowning many, many times. I remember looking down the shore, after I had been there for five or six hours, and I saw two smiling faces, in the form of Gemma [Whelan] and Alfie. They were just smiling their asses off, because they weren’t cold! They just had to run to the boat. [Laughs.] I like to do my own stunts, but sometimes you need a little bit of help. I got a little bit of help, but not much. I think 95 percent of it was me. I like to do all of it when I can, because then I can feel it with the character.

How long were you drowning, so to speak?
Thirty, forty seconds.

Which doesn’t sound like a lot of time, until you try to hold your breath underwater.
When you’re underwater, and there’s a guy holding you down, and you have to open your eyes, and you have to open your mouth, in salt water? [Laughs.] It’s not the nicest thing in the world. But it was fun to be a part of the whole story line.

Euron Greyjoy seems obsessed with penises, so he probably also appreciated the full-frontal male nudity of this episode.
Yeah, but where I come from, people are very, very chill with that. Fifty percent of the population has a penis! I know, because I’m a part of that 50 percent. It can’t come as a shock to people. It’s just part of the universe. It’s part of the whole story line. And I enjoy it. I come from a country where we don’t shoot people, we don’t kill people, but we can show tits and penises if we want to, and it’s okay. But apparently in America, you can kill as many people as you want, but you can’t show a close-up of a penis? It’s just a dick. I’ve seen a couple. They’re very different. And they’re very funny. But it’s a penis! So I think Game of Thrones is pushing some boundaries for what’s possible.

That’s your reaction. What do you think Euron’s reaction would be?
Cut it off. That would be his reaction. [Laughs.] Or it would be something more rude, like, “If that’s all you have to show, then you shouldn’t show it.” He loves his dick jokes. But you never know with Euron Greyjoy. We’ve seen one side of him, the vulgar side, the Trump side, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he showed more social skills in the future. Everything’s a chess game to him, and he thinks, “I’m going to win, because I’m the smartest one.” And if someone disagrees, they’re going to die. He’s a loose cannon, but he’s pointing somewhere.

Thrones’ Pilou Asbæk on Becoming Euron Greyjoy