With his towering build and an imposing, fire-red beard, Tormund Giantsbane is one of the most physically intimidating characters on Game of Thrones. But in recent seasons, he’s also emerged as a source of bawdy comic relief and a hopeless romantic who swoons over the equally fearsome Brienne of Tarth. Most importantly, Tormund is one of the select few characters who truly walks the walk when it comes to squashing beef with rival factions in order to join forces against the true enemy, the Night King and his army of the dead.
When you talk to actor Kristofer Hivju, the Norwegian native who plays Tormund, you can see where the wildling chieftain’s softer and sunnier side comes from. Boisterous and prone to laughter, Hivju seems to truly relate to his character’s joie de vivre, even in the face of unstoppable zombie hordes — not to mention a season-ending cliff-hanger that left Tormund and his comrade-in-arms Beric Dondarrion caught in the rubble of the falling Wall. We spoke with Hivju about how far Tormund has come, if he’s still alive, and where — if anywhere — he’ll go from here.
It’s not often that I get to talk to someone who I don’t know is actually alive or dead. How’s Tormund doing?
Well, isn’t that the mystery? I don’t know! [Laughs.] Last time I saw him, I was inside a Wall, hundreds of meters of ice that was falling apart!
At the season-four premiere a few years ago, HBO had a virtual-reality experience where you went to the top of the Wall. I remember thinking, “That’s a long way to fall.”
It is, and I did have that experience. It was cool to have done that thing when we shot it, because I had that feeling of being on the Wall. It was like that when we shot it.
It’s quite a compliment, in a way, that Tormund is the character who bears witness to this enormous event.
He saw the dawn of the dead at Hardhome, so he’s been in the middle of them before, and he lost almost all his people to them. I think it was a terrifying experience for him.
But even though he knows better than anyone what humanity is facing, he hasn’t lost his lust for life.
No. It’s like Beric says, “Death is always the enemy, but you still have to fight it.” There’s another saying: “The show must go on.” That counts for life as well! We all have to die, but we still have to live the best lives possible. I think Tormund has a very healthy brain! [Laughs.] He is an optimist, after all, and that’s something that I love about him as well. Even in the darkest hour, he can find something positive to brag about!
If for no other reason, I hope he survived the fall so he can get back together with Brienne.
Yeah! Tormund is with you on that one!
Their relationship — if you can call it that — isn’t in the books, so it came as such an unexpected bit of humor amid the chaos.
It’s like you say: In all this horror and the threat they are facing, and as it gets more and more tense, when there’s a hint of love, it gives everybody a bit of life! [Laughs.] What’s more important in the end than love, right?
One of the big themes of the show is putting aside differences to fight the common threat. As the wildling who made peace with the Night’s Watch, Tormund lives the values that Jon and Davos are preaching.
Yeah, exactly. It’s something my mother said to me today, actually: “Forgiveness is the most difficult way to go forward, but it’s still the only way.” You have to turn the page and let bygones be bygones. It’s nice to play a character who has that ability, because there’s so much revenge and the wish to kill each other in this show. It’s nice to have a character that’s able to turn the page and get the overall view. And it’s a skill of necessity, because you have to adapt or else you’re lost.
Your mom makes a great point. Revenge is a major plot driver for a huge number of story lines, but it’s not on Tormund’s mind at all.
No. His mentor and father figure was Mance Rayder, who gathered all the Free Folk for the reason of taking down the Night’s Watch and secure his people — but by war. That didn’t work, and I think, hopefully, that Tormund has learned from his mentor’s mistakes. I’m reflecting on the line [about Mance] that really surprised me when I came to it, in episode six, when Tormund says to Jon, “How many died for his pride because he didn’t kneel?” That’s a perspective I didn’t see coming from him.
Did it fit with what you know about Tormund as a person?
Definitely, because it comes after he’s started to cooperate with Jon. They’re like a team now. They could have been that from the very beginning, instead of later. It just shows that he’s flexible, and he doesn’t want to kill anybody anymore. He just wants to survive and make a good place for his people. But now, who knows? He’s in the air.
Yeah, literally, considering how far he’d have to fall. What was that collapse like to shoot? It was so effects-heavy that I’m curious what it’s like to be an actor in that circumstance.
Well, they built a fantastic set of the top of the Wall. We had real crows, real birds. And it was pretty cold in that studio. But you know, because I’d seen the army of the dead, I know what it is to imagine it. Of course, when you have a giant zombie dragon coming at you with the Night King upon it, it’s not as easy! But it I have so many pictures in my head due to watching the show that it’s still easy to imagine.
There haven’t been dragons in Westeros in hundreds of years. There’s never been a zombie dragon. How does a guy like Tormund, who has a pretty down-to-earth sensibility, incorporate all these incredible things into his view of the world?
I don’t know — he didn’t have much time to contemplate on that. He saw the thing start to take down the Wall, and I think his desperation and hopelessness is the only thing he can think of. It’s definitely an “all is lost” moment.
The cast hasn’t seen the scripts for the next season yet. Assuming you survive, what would you like to see next?
I want to see more love, man! [Laughs.]
This interview has been edited and condensed.