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Game of Thrones’ John Bradley on Death, Regret, and Sam Tarly’s Place at the Big Table

John Bradley. Photo: Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images

If you find Game of Thrones’ Samwell Tarly thoughtful, kind, and endearing, try talking to the actor who plays him. Ever since season one, John Bradley has played Sam — member of the Night’s Watch, best friend to Jon Snow, would-be maester, “slayer of White Walkers, lover of ladies,” et cetera — as the show’s conscience. A shy and unassuming guy recovering from an abusive childhood, Sam has risen to become a trusted adviser to kings and queens, as well as a devoted boyfriend and father. All of these are qualities that make him one of the best people to have around when you’re planning to fight back the apocalypse, as was made clear by his moving speech about the nature of death and memory in Sunday’s “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms.”

But even off set and off script, Bradley’s insights into the human condition and the impact we hope to have on the lives of those who love us made me tear up. Go ahead and read what he had to say about cleaning bedpans, “meeting” his favorite characters, and what this week’s episode had in common with the cover for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I need to go find a Kleenex.

Your character recently found out that his father and brother were burned to death by the woman he’s now working for, who’s also both his best friend’s girlfriend and his best friend’s aunt. The last time you and I spoke, he was cleaning out bedpans. Does that count as an upgrade?
It feels like an upgrade as far as an actor’s concerned! As fun as those wilderness seasons of Sam at Horn Hill and Sam at the Citadel were, and as much fun as I had working with Jim Broadbent and having that world all to myself, it’s so exciting to be back in the thick of it. Sam’s once again feeling central to the plot. He didn’t want to go to the Citadel and just chill out; he believed he’d find something in there that was important for the greater good. Now he’s back using that knowledge to have an impact, and that’s all he ever wanted to do with his life. So as far as Sam’s concerned, it’s a massive upgrade for him.

What was it like being among that huge gathering of actors around that big table, planning for the battle to come? That’s maybe the largest gathering of main characters in the history of the show.
It’s a thrilling experience. It feels like the Sgt. Pepper’s cover, in terms of not only famous faces but characters that you’ve fallen in love with and actors you admire so much. We know each other, we’ve had drinks together in hotel bars, and we’ve had dinner together, and we’ve had to do press together for all these years. But we’re like the rest of the viewers because there’s so much of the show that we’re not in that we watch like everyone else.

When a character you’ve been passionate about and have an emotional connection with steps in front of you and suddenly you’re interacting with them, it feels like you’re in Game of Thrones, like you’ve walked into this show. You have to kind of pinch yourself, really: You’ve spoken to Emilia before, but you’re talking to Daenerys now. You’ve spoken to Sophie before, but you’re talking to Sansa now. You love these characters so much and you’ve invested so much of your time in them; not only are they in front of you but they’re listening to what your character is saying.

And yeah, I think that’s probably the most central characters who’ve ever been in any one location at any one time. It feels like the end of days is approaching because of that, in the classic dramatic style. In something like Hamlet, all the main characters are onstage for the final act. You know enough about the form and the structure of drama to know that if all those characters are in one place, then you’re really coming into the home straight. When you’re standing around the table and 90 percent of the main characters are there, you do start to feel like, Yeah, we’re in for some serious business now.

Sam and Gilly are unique in that they’re the young parents of a very young child — the first family like that in the history of the show. No one else at that big table is dealing with stakes like that.
Sam knows what it’s like to suffer a traumatic childhood, where the one person who should be protecting you from all the evils of the world is the one causing you all the harm. Your father should be the one who protects you from a cruel world. But instead, for Sam, Randyll Tarly was a reflection of a cruel world. He was at the center of a cruel world. Sam knows what he suffered because of that — how battle-scarred he is by life, and how long it’s taken him to overcome all of that, and to heal some of those scars. He just wants to find some kind of reparation for that by giving baby Sam the childhood that he couldn’t have — a secure, loving, warm childhood, where he is protected from all the bad things in the world.

In the middle of it all, Sam delivers a speech about death and mortality in which he argues that death is a form of forgetting, and that without remembering who we are and what we’ve done we may as well not even be human.
It’s an interesting time to bring that matter up. We’re in the final season of what’s been a notoriously very violent show, a show that’s killed off a lot of characters — a lot of characters that had so much life in them before they died. One of the effective and brilliant things about Game of Thrones is that the characters are alive right until the second they die. Death is just around the corner for everybody. If you took a death like Oberyn Martell, it so looked like he was going to succeed — then death came round the corner [and] sucker punched him, and nobody could have predicted that. That’s what life’s like. You’re never far away from being completely gone.

Sam touches on the idea that you’re around on the earth for 72 years and then you’re gone forever. If you think of the entirety of time, you’re alive and having an impact and living and breathing for such a small portion of that, and for the rest of the time you just don’t exist at all. So it’s all about leaving a mark and leaving something for future generations to remember you by.

You could think that we take the idea of life and death very lightly. Hundreds of people get killed. People have gotten killed ever since the very first moments of the very first episode. You can think the show has quite a casual attitude about death because of that. But in school, I was taught quite a depressing lesson. I think I was only about 12. The teacher drew a line on the board, and he said, “This line represents your life. The only thing you don’t know is where on the line you are at the moment.”

When you think about it in those terms, you think, Wow, life is actually precious in Game of Thrones. When Sam says something like that, about the true meaning of death and being gone and what life means, it makes you reevaluate the show’s attitude toward death all along. You think of the Robbs and the Catelyns and the Neds and the Oberyns and all these characters you’ve loved who have died, and you think, Ohhh, I see their deaths in a slightly different light now. They’re gone. Who knows which of these characters standing around that table are going to be gone next week?

When it comes to raising kids and dying and saying good-bye to people and all of these things, you just want to not have any regrets. Sam’s trying to do whatever he can to do right by the people he loves, and not become an old man looking back and thinking, Ah, I really fucked up there. I could have done everything differently. Why didn’t I think of this? Why didn’t I spend more time with this person? Why wasn’t I braver? Why wasn’t I willing to fight for them? To see yourself as an old man, looking back on what you’re doing now and not approving, is a painful thing. Looking forward to your older self in the moment and thinking, I’m going to eliminate any regrets that I might see in the future … I think that’s what life’s about.

GOT’s John Bradley on Sam Tarly’s Place at the Big Table