Spoilers ahead for Game of Thrones and Cleverman.
Iain Glen’s two characters on two separate shows could benefit from a meet-up. On Game of Thrones, he’s Jorah Mormont, a man suffering from a disease with no known cure. And on his new show, the Australian import Cleverman (premiering June 1 on Sundance), he’s Jarrod Slade, a Richard Branson-like billionaire businessman and media mogul with a sideline in supernatural medical situations. Both live in worlds grounded in reality, but with magical elements. The difference is that Cleverman, billed as the “first indigenous Australian superhero series,” takes place in the near future. Glen chatted with Vulture about the show’s political allegories, the magical parallels to Game of Thrones, and his idea of a happy ending for Jorah.
We haven’t seen a lot of Australian mythology in recent films or television, so these might be new concepts for some people: the Dreaming, the Hairies, the Namorrodor …
I don’t think it’s too obscure. It’s perhaps not some of the terminology or characters that people outside the Aboriginal community might be most familiar with. I was a little bit familiar from way back, when I worked on Frankie’s House, but I’ve always been intrigued by the Australian Aboriginal culture, and you’re aware of it even in the heart of modern-day Sydney, particularly the artistic side of Aboriginal culture, which is always on view and for sale.
So let’s give some real-world or Game of Thrones parallels, for those less familiar with Aboriginal mythology. A Cleverman, for instance, is perhaps like a shaman. Or even a greenseer, such as the Three-Eyed Raven? And the Hairies are kind of like the Children of the Forest, in that they’re an indigenous population with supernatural abilities?
Oh, right! I’m sure that’s right. Yep, yep, yep. That’s a good analogy. The Cleverman or the Three-Eyed Raven can see beyond to a truth where you can predict the future, what will unfold. That’s an extraordinary power. Prophecy is a double-edged sword, isn’t it? Especially with Bran Stark. It’s always given him great pain as well. And what just happened will haunt him. It’s part of the way human nature works, how we function, to some degree — not knowing what tomorrow brings. That’s what keeps us moving forward, keeps us interested. There’s something deadening about knowing what will unfold.
And the Hairies, I think they seem to have a higher physical attribute in the sense that they’re bigger, they’re stronger, they can move faster, they can react quicker. … They’re a formidable physical force, but they also have a spiritual profundity, which is perhaps not available to most normal humans. They seem to be in touch with a spiritual world, a world that they can see and we cannot. So it’s a mixture of enhanced qualities, which make the general populace very fearful, because they think if they give any room, they’ll take over. It seemed like a very intriguing thing, to take these figures from Aboriginal folklore and incorporate them into a modern drama.
Especially with how topical the themes are now — racism, refugees and asylum seekers, border protection …
I think the subject they’ve brought up, the themes they discuss, have become horribly relevant, really. More so than since we shot the series, especially in Europe, where the movement of migrants is probably the single biggest issue for all governments, currently. The Germans and all these European nations have taken the lead. [Chancellor Angela] Merkel is a very strong figurehead, and I think she surprised a lot of people on the left, particularly politically, by being more welcoming than any other government to the refugees. It was lucky that someone had that voice, because a lot of people were doing too little. It’s a really hard one to know the right answer to, but my hunch is that most governments have an instinct to do too little because they’re fearful of the consequences. They want to protect what they have. So they might not as sympathetic as they might be to the people who are in serious need.
And that’s key, really, to what Cleverman deals with: How do we deal with the other in society? How do we incorporate, or not, people from the outside who are recognizably different, by the color of their skin or the language they speak or by the way they behave? How do we incorporate them into our society? And often, people come from a world that is less prosperous than our own, and are attracted to what we possess. How kind are we going to treat these people? There’s huge suspicion from the urban population for these others that have come into their society and tried to incorporate themselves. The most visible physical attribute that they have is this hair, all over their bodies. Some have daily shaved to try and make that less visible. But the government has cracked down recently, and basically ghettoized them, put them behind a high wall, so they live in an unpoliced containment zone to try and survive, but it’s mainly to keep them separated from the main populace. And then there’s a larger-than-life, supernatural element within it, or things that happen that are beyond one’s ken.
You get to perform some really great stunts as the series progresses.
I had some help. [Chuckles.] Usually on Game of Thrones, you go, “No, it’s my fight, it’s my sword, I’m going to do it all!” But for this, I was like, “No, I don’t think I’ll be doing that. You might have to do it for me.” It was mostly me, but there was one leap over the rocks near the ocean where we had to go wide. That probably wasn’t me. [Laughs.] And in the finale, that was me, but there were wires, so they attach something to your back, so you don’t really fly up in the air. [Laughs.]
Do you ever pull pranks on set, or did Emilia Clarke ever prank you on Game of Thrones? Because you used to be quite the prankster when you were younger. You’d pretend to be different people?
I did, I did! [Laughs.] It was possibly the early signs of becoming an actor. There was a radio show, a kind of current-events show, and we dominated the airwaves, my friend Nicky Campbell and me. We used to call in, and based on any given show, we would adopt different voices and different personas, and suggest the most ridiculous things, just on the edge of plausibility. We’d ring up and say, [imitates voice of an elderly man] “I’m a glue manufacturer, and I’ve invented a glue that’s safe for the children to sniff! And it has not lost its stickiness!” And the host would be so bemused that he would believe us.
Anything more recently? Perhaps not while you were shooting the Jorah-and-Dany goodbye. She seems to have pulled more of the pranks during the fire scene shoot.
I actually just did the commentary for the DVD extras for the fire scene. It’s great. I think it was an echo of the scene that we had in the first season, when Khal Drogo’s body was burned on the pyre and she emerged. And both times, the audience sees her through Jorah’s eyes. You can understand his total love and admiration of this girl.
And we can see she loves him too, in her own way, when she commands him to find a cure for the greyscale.
Yeah, yeah. But it’s a worry. They’ve got a worried actor on their hands. For any actor on the show, most of the time we’re just thinking, “Please keep me alive!” I’ve been very lucky to be a part of the show, right back to the pilot. If I go out in the madness of greyscale, then I’ll have thought I’ve done very well. It’s been a complete treat to be a part of the show. They’re a lovely group of people. But the greyscale has definitely got this actor worried, I’ll be honest about that.
Well, it could go a number of ways. It could kill Jorah, but he could also cause a mass contagion. Got to be careful who and what you touch with that left hand.
Oh God, yeah! Not only me, but all the directors on all the story lines are super aware of that. And it’s a blessing that it was my left hand, not my sword hand. So I can kind of look after myself a little bit longer. But I’ve got to find a solution, or I’m on the road to madness.
Well, I hope you get to die the way you wanted: having a heart attack making love to the Khaleesi, versus the greyscale.
Me, too. [Laughs.] That’s what I’d really like. I think that would be a good scene, don’t you? If I’m brave enough, I’ll suggest it to [showrunners] Dan [Weiss] and David [Benioff]. Jorah dies doing it. Perfect. [Laughs.]