Ned Stark was not the first person to die on Game of Thrones. (That was Ser Waymar Royce, who got killed by a White Walker.) And he was not the first major character to die on Game of Thrones. (That was Viserys Targaryen, who got molten gold poured all over him by his own brother-in-law.) But eight years later, his surprise execution in the show’s ninth episode remains the most iconic death on a series that has seen more than its fair share of early departures. Ned’s passing crystallized something that readers of George R.R. Martin’s novels had long known: This was a grim, unjust world, and nobody was guaranteed to get out of it alive, no matter how beloved they were. But the moment would not have been so effective without the performance of Sean Bean, who brought a gentle humanity to the rough-hewn northern lord that underscored the tragedy of his fate. As Game of Thrones prepares to air its final season, Vulture caught up with Bean from his home in rural Somerset to talk about his favorite memories from his single season on the show, Ned’s legacy, and playing death scenes.
Do you remember how they approached you for the gig?
We met in a little café in Soho in London, me and David Benioff and Dan Weiss. I wasn’t aware of the books and they’d just sent me the treatment for the first pilot. They described what it was all about, the characters and the fact that I wouldn’t probably last for another [season]! [Laughs.] So they were very candid and I appreciated that. They were very excited and very passionate in the way they spoke, and I was very enchanted by the prospect of portraying this great man called Ned Stark.
Was that kind of character new for you at the time?
I’ve played characters before that were “decent” people, but not genuinely good, you know? There was always a bit of a [dark] side to the characters I played. Like Boromir in The Lord of the Rings. He was a good man, he meant well, but he had this weakness which cost him his life. They’re interesting characters, but Ned was just out-and-out a good man. And I’d never played a character with such a big family.
I’m always interested in hearing about the original Game of Thrones pilot, because it’s something the public will probably never see. Do you have any strong memories of shooting that first version?
We were in Belfast for that and we shot a lot in the studio. We shot in Shane’s Castle for my castle [Winterfell], and then we worked in Scotland for the banquet. So we got around a little bit. It seemed a little fractured at the time because we were all trying to find our feet and find out who we were and how we interacted. There were lots of glimmers of potential, and I guess that was the idea, to try and display all these different dynamics in order to finance the show and get support behind it. It was more of a showcase, I think, than anything else. And then we reshot over half of it, we kept bits and changed things around, and it [became] more of a story rather than a montage.
When you say it was a showcase, what do you mean?
They had to introduce so many characters in the pilot that there wasn’t a great deal of time for developing the characters. It was a matter of portraying the different families, different characters, the strange people, and introducing them all. And then I suppose once that’s done, you can explore them a little further over ten episodes. The pilot was just a taste for the people who were making the decision whether or not to take it into a series.
For the second version they recast Catelyn, your wife.
Yes, they did. We got Michelle Fairley, and I think they recast someone else as well. Jennifer Ehle had just had a baby, so it was quite difficult for her. I’m assuming that the prospect of being involved for quite a few years may not have worked for her. Or maybe it was something else. I don’t know very much about that.
How did you get the news that they were reshooting the pilot?
When we knew it was going to go ahead, we reshot certain scenes with the idea of doing ten episodes in mind. I think we knew it was good. We didn’t expect it to be the phenomenon that it is now. Nobody really knew whether it was going to go ahead or not. And then when we got the nod, we were over the moon because there was so much potential.
Do you have a favorite scene in the first season?
I had a nice scene with Bran where we sat down near the waterside under the old tree. And I like the scene where I said, “Winter is coming,” of course! I never knew that would become such a worldwide phrase.
Why do you think those house words became such a thing?
It epitomizes George R.R. Martin’s writing. It’s not like you’re saying, “It’s going to be getting a bit cold before spring comes back.” It’s very loaded with danger and dread. It’s an omen — it means more than it actually says. It was good to be the one to say it!
How did it feel knowing you were only going to last one season?
It was fine. At least I knew where I stood. You can’t really change it when a good author has wrote it that way. You can’t say, “I want to stay on!” But he had a good innings, the buildup to his death was good, and it was shocking. You can’t really ask for more than that in a character. And they decided to go with my northern accent, and that set the tone for the rest of the people that followed. They all had to learn to talk like me!
You read the first book, but none of the others. Was that a conscious choice, or did it just happen?
I didn’t want to get too involved in the books, so I kind of read the first one, not in any great depth. It was just to get a flavor, really. I didn’t want to get too attached to how Ned was portrayed and what the story was about, because I knew it was probably going to change. And I wanted to bring some of my ideas to the part.
What sort of ideas were those?
There’s only so much you can get from a book. If you truly copy it, it’s not going to work because it’s a book first and foremost, it’s not drama. I brought parts of me and my father, and parts of people who are father figures. I tried to bring an honesty and a sympathy to Ned. He didn’t know everything, he was vulnerable at times, and he didn’t try to hide it that much. I just wanted to bring a person who had frailties and vulnerabilities, who was strong and courageous and honorable, but he also had these faults. I wanted to get them over at the same time, so that the combination of all those emotions would make for a full-rounded and interesting man.
If you don’t mind me asking, which parts of Ned came from your own father?
My father, I always remember him as a very fair man with humor. Kind of quiet, really. But we respected him very much and we loved him very much, of course. He had a quiet authority. He was a mild-mannered man and a kind man, and I suppose those things rub off in your everyday life. I looked up to my dad.
Ned Stark has a culture shock when he comes from the North to King’s Landing. I was wondering if you ever experienced anything similar coming from Sheffield.
My background was very industrial — steel factories and coal mines and heavy industry. Coming down to London was quite a shock. It was so fast and kind of alien to me. I was going to RADA for drama school, and at one point I was thinking about going on the train back home! I didn’t know if I would be able to adapt. I missed my friends and my family, but I stuck it out. It was probably the biggest chance I’d ever had in my life, and I really wanted to do what I said I was going to do.
Going to Hollywood was very different. I guess there were some comparisons [to what Ned went through] in terms of a lot of shit with producers! I mean, it’s a typical thing of doing the rounds and getting told, “This could happen and that could happen, we’re going to do this and we’re going to do that.” And then nothing happens at all! There’s a lot of two-faced people and very shallow people in L.A. I’m not particularly fond of the place, but it’s been good to me in the sense that I’ve been offered work there and I’ve enjoyed it. But it’s certainly not somewhere I would feel comfortable living for any long period of time. You have to take everyone with a pinch of salt because everyone’s in it. They’re all very ambitious people, that’s why they go there, and I understand that. But at first, I didn’t understand that, and I couldn’t understand why people promised things and then they broke their word. I guess you could say that’s similar to Ned, somewhat.
At least no one has chopped your head off in Hollywood yet.
No! But you’re swirling around, trying to figure out what’s what and who’s who. It’s pretty cutthroat. I just don’t take it too literally, you know? I was quite young when I went over there for the first time and I was quite excited about the prospect of getting a job, and it didn’t really work out. I had to come back and do some more work in the U.K. and in Europe before I could go back with any weight behind me. But I’m okay now. They’re aware of me.
You’ve been off Game of Thrones for eight years now. Has the type of part you’ve been offered changed?
I was offered lots of parts on horses. Hairy men on horses with fur capes and swords and beards! [Laughs.] I’m very proud to have been Ned Stark, and it certainly helped us all with other work. We were given a showcase, and we took the opportunity to show what we could do.
What do you think has made the show as big as it is?
I mean, the sheer balls of the thing. It takes no prisoners. It touches upon all those very deep emotions — anger and jealousy and love and hate. People can see themselves in it. The characters might seem out of this world, but they’re very much like all of us. And anything can happen. When you can kill the main character in the first series, everybody’s in danger! It’s pure fantasy, but rooted in issues with power — the power of the throne, the power of the families, and the lengths that they would go to to achieve this ultimate power, which is quite a curious thing.
The only thing I can liken it to is The Lord of the Rings, which you were also a part of. I’m curious how the experiences compare.
On Lord of the Rings, we were all on this island in New Zealand and we didn’t really know just how big that would become. It’s just as well you don’t know what’s going to happen. If you think you’re going to be part of something phenomenal, it usually turns into a bit of an anticlimax. If we’d known, there might have been a tension or a nervousness, so I’m glad we didn’t and it developed into something enormous. But you always know when you’re doing something good. That there’s a good company behind it, a good director and producers, and you’re aware that it’s quality material. That’s very reassuring and it gives you a boost.
Both of them you left pretty early. What was it like looking at those experiences as they continued, from afar?
I don’t mind! I just did my bit and then I had to go! [Laughs.] I don’t get to argue about that, right? And the talk about, “Will this happen? Will that happen?” I guess because the [show has passed the books], people can speculate, whereas when the books were around, we did all of the books and it had to be that way. But now that there’s this quite exciting element, who knows what’s going to happen? It’s fascinating.
Do you get caught up in that guessing game too?
A little. I’m just like everyone else. I think that HBO and Dan and David and everyone, they know that and they love that. They love the secrecy of it.
Do you get any inside information, or are you out in the cold with everyone else?
I’m in the cold. I don’t get any updates, no information at all! That’s good, because I want to enjoy it like everybody else.
Did you know Jon Snow’s true parentage?
No, I didn’t. I thought he was my son.
When did you find out he wasn’t?
When it came out.
I found out like everybody else did, yeah. Nobody told me.
I feel like you hinted about the truth in some interviews.
There was always some small doubts or suspicions, but I wasn’t going to say that. But, you know, I knew more than other people.
I’ve heard you don’t watch every episode of the show, but you sort of keep up with it. Is that true?
I go in and out, yeah. With working and traveling and stuff like that, it’s difficult to keep in touch. But I’ve meant to just sit down and watch them all over one weekend. I like to binge-watch, especially for something like this.
When you watch episodes without watching the ones in between, is it hard to keep up with the gaps?
Yeah. But I can switch it on and watch it for a while and then I think, Oh, I have to switch it off, I don’t want to spoil it!
Since you died at the end of season one, a lot of the actors who played Starks have had their own death scenes. Did anyone ever come to you for advice?
No. I think everyone likes to do it their own way, you know? And I wouldn’t ask anyone, “How did he die in that scene?” It’s very personal and only you should really know what you’re going to do. Dying is a very personal thing. You have to learn how to emulate that for yourself. It’s quite a weird thing. It’s just something you’ve got to do. I don’t particularly enjoy it.
I’m sorry you’ve had to do it so many times.
Oh yeah! But now I’m doing it less. I get to survive a little bit more now.
When you watch the show, do you find yourself rooting for the Starks, or do you try to stay neutral?
Definitely the Starks. They’re my family!
How do you think Ned would feel about the way all his kids ended up?
He’d have mixed feelings about what happens and whether he’d have done things in different ways, but he’d probably think, Well, that’s the way it had to be. I don’t think he would say, “You should have done this, you should have done that.” I think he’d look on and say, “They have to make their own way.” He probably feels he should have done more.
Do you have a favorite character on the show?
I quite like, I want to call him the bald-headed …
Varys, yes. I just think he’s interesting. As a character, he’s very full-throttle, you know? [Conleth Hill] has made a lot out of that character, and he’s really gone for it. I think he’s quite unique in the show.
If you could bring any character back to life, who would it be?
Me. [Laughs.] No, maybe King Robert. I’d bring him back. He had his head screwed on proper.
Do you think he was a good king?
Well, not really.
But he was better than what came after.
Yeah! He was entertaining.
I remember playing as you in the Goldeneye video game. Now there are Boromir and Ned Stark toys out there. Does a person ever get used to that kind of thing?
Kind of, yeah! I’ve got quite a few of them at home. You have to have a look at them because it’s in your likeness, and usually they get it, but you have to go, “That’s okay” or “That’s not okay.” They send your little head through the post and you look at it and say, “Yeah, that’s fine!”
Have you ever sent one back?
You can, but I’ve never made any changes. They’ve always gotten me pretty good.
I heard a rumor you used to get Rowan Atkinson’s mail. Is that true?
Once or twice, yeah. It just said “Mr. Bean, London,” and I think they just thought it was me. There was a photograph of Rowan Atkinson for him to sign, and I sent it back saying “Sean Bean!”