An Oral History of Game of Thrones, As Told By the Soldiers, Wights, and Wildlings

“Do you know how they keep cattle? That’s sort of how they keep us.”

Photo: HBO
Photo: HBO
Photo: HBO

After 73 episodes, Game of Thrones is at an end. Regardless of your feelings about the final season, there’s no denying that the HBO show was a historical feat of television production. Aside from making stars out of so many relatively unknown actors, it also employed thousands of extras and bit players who made George R.R. Martin’s fantasy kingdom feel rich and real.

While we’ve already heard plenty from the featured cast and showrunners about the massive undertaking that was GoT, the story of the show’s making has rarely been told by its background players, the ones who spent a day on set to seduce a customer in a brothel or endured 50 days in the freezing Northern Ireland rain to play Wildlings or Unsullied in the epic battle sequences. To get their perspective, we spoke to two dozen actors, plus a few celebrity musicians who had brief cameos, about what life was like as a minor actor on Game of Thrones. Here are the stories of the soldiers, slaves, servants, maesters, wights, Night’s Watchmen, and whores.

’Can You Scream a Bit More?’

The Game of Thrones audition process, much like the filming itself, was shrouded in secrecy. Actors knew next to nothing about the roles before they arrived, and some only found out what they’d be playing upon arriving on set.

Richard Hodgen (Wildling Male Chieftain 23): Back in season one, when they were struggling to get extras, I heard a tale that they went into one of the metal bars in Belfast to try and recruit people for the right look. Just grabbing these big biker dudes to audition. The Night’s Watch is one big heavy-metal band, basically.

Brann Dailor (Mastodon Drummer and Wildling/Wight): We had no idea until we showed up what we were doing. We each had our own trailer that said Wildling Brann, Wildling Brent, and Wildling Bill. That’s when we found out we were going to be Wildlings.

Lucy McConnell (Winterfell Woman with Elderly Parents): I wasn’t told a thing. I knew I was playing a woman. I was given a wide playing age: 21 and 50.

Hodgen: I’ve never heard of one person signed up to be an extra that wasn’t used on the show. Game of Thrones needs everybody: male, female, black, white, tall, short, skinny, stout. And even if you can’t do the physical stuff, they always need a lot of corpses.

Emmet O’Riabhaigh (Wounded Lannister): I just went into a room and acted like my leg was being cut off. There was some dialogue, but lots of “Can you act like your leg is more sore?” and “Can you scream a bit more?”

Margaret Jackman (Waif Posing As an Old Lady): I was asked to approach the cameraman and stab him with an imaginary dagger, twice. And that was it.

Jackman as the Waif Posing As an Old Lady. Photo: HBO

Will Champion (Drummer for Coldplay, Drummer, the Red Wedding): I was told to grow my beard as long as I could, which is not much of a challenge considering I don’t tend to shave much anyway.

Roxana Kadyrova (Yunkaii Slave): A few days before [I auditioned], I had this terrible surfing accident. I had stitches on my lips and half my tooth was missing, so I didn’t look that attractive. There were two roles [the casting director] tried me for: one was Margaery’s maid and the other was Yunkaii slave woman. The way I looked, the slave one was more possible.

’My Costume Was Really Comfortable, Actually — Mostly Because It Wasn’t There’

It’s no surprise that the most expensive show ever made did not skimp on details in the costuming department. Lovely linen undershirts were buried under seven layers of cloth and leather and fur, while other looks relied on makeup alone.

Javier Botet (Wight in Library): It was six hours of classic zombie makeup. I’m almost naked. The wardrobe was very light, and the makeup was very close to my figure. It was cold!

Katie Alexander Thom (Volantene Whore #1): I had quite a heavy hairpiece to make my hair long. My costume was really comfortable, actually — mostly because it wasn’t there. [Laughs.] It was literally a choker that went down the front. The wig was really heavy, but other than that it was just a skirt. It was the lightest costume I’ve ever worn.

“Yara Greyjoy comes into this brothel, and I go over to her and sit on her lap and start kissing her,” Thom recalls. “She says she’s going to ‘fuck the tits off me.’” Photo: HBO

Dailor (Mastodon Drummer and Wildling/Wight): I was in a tent with the White Walkers, and one of them had this cup of hot cocoa. He couldn’t drink it because the prosthetics would melt. He had this little English voice, and it was so funny coming out of the most evil-looking thing you ever saw: “Could I please have a straw? I’ve got some hot cocoa and I’d like to drink it before it gets cold.”

Stephen Presley (Unsullied/Wight/Lannister General): The Unsullied costume was horrible. It was so cold — minus-4 Celsius — so you had to wear a lot of layers underneath it. You always had people sewing you up, making sure everything was tight and snug. Then you had this double-layered leather corset they would wrap around you to where you almost couldn’t breathe. The boots weren’t very good at keeping your feet warm — you had to stick hand warmers down them or else your toes would go absolutely numb.

Will Rastall (Tyrell Servant): There were a couple of guys in full-armor costumes, and it was so hot they had to keep dunking their wrists in these buckets of cold water to stop them getting sunstroke.

Dailor (Mastodon Drummer and Wildling/Wight): The Wildling costumes look really heavy, but they’re pretty lightweight, like sweatpants material. They get it looking like it’s fur. You’re wearing your jeans underneath.

Conor Delaney (Lannister Guardsman): There were no zippers on the costumes.

McConnell (Winterfell Woman With Elderly Parents): They were all hand-stitched and joined together with pieces of leather. Whenever they did my hair, it was tied with soft leather string as well. For my piece, what they started with was a linen crop top that was pulled together with little string ties near the neck. I was like, “That’s beautiful.” They were like: “There’s more.” They put seven layers on top of me.

Brahm Gallagher (Lannister Soldier): They have a team walking around with clips like you use to hold a massive document of papers together, making sure they’re clipping up bits they don’t want to get trudged through the mud until it is time. Because you are wearing a six-foot cape that is flowing out behind you.

Hodgen (Wildling Male Chieftain 23): There are now thousands of Wildling costumes. And as far as I’m aware, they’ve never been internally cleaned since season three, when the Wildlings appeared. Real mud looks way better than any fake dirt they can ever put on a costume. They do get a bit stinky. They actively encourage us to stay as filthy as we can for the whole shoot. Every season when I go home, I dig out one of the old plastic bed-wetting sheets that the kids had when they were potty-training. I put it over a bed, pick a really old duvet cover, and lie in my own filth for a few weeks.

Even though we all look disgusting, we smell fantastic — what they use for hair and our beards is actually coconut oil.

’A Game of Thrones Shoot Is Like Every Camping Trip Gone Wrong’

For some actors, even a bit appearance on Game of Thrones meant nights in five-star hotels in Belfast, Dubrovnik, and beyond. But for many, being on the show also meant exhausting hours spent outdoors in the boiling heat or rainy, freezing cold, often for months on end. The battle scenes were particularly brutal — one missed cue could ruin an entire take.

Hodgen (Wildling Male Chieftain 23): It’s a long day. My alarm clock’s set for 12:30 a.m. Leave at 1. We meet up in the studio at 2. Drive to the sets for 3. Get fed, watered, changed, all the makeup, costumes on. Start shooting at 6 a.m. Go through to 6 p.m. In fact, we usually do overtime and go through to 7 p.m. It’s a 20-hour day, and then you’re up at 12:30 the next morning.

Presley (Unsullied/Wight/Lannister General): It was 50-odd nights of 14-hour shifts in the coldest [conditions] you could imagine.

Hodgen (Wildling Male Chieftain 23): A Game of Thrones shoot is like every camping trip gone wrong. Do you know how they keep cattle? That’s sort of how they keep us. There were 800 extras used for “The Long Night.” When you’ve got that volume of people, you have to accept the creature comforts aren’t going to be there. You’re literally lying in the rain and the mud, the filth. Half the time you’re in the middle of nowhere and the actual restroom is seven minutes through mud and filth. But there’s a tree line only three minutes away, so you end up going there instead.

William Mulhall (Owner, Dogs That Played Summer and Grey Wind; Actor; Wildling/White Walker): Obviously the dogs were treated very well. They were trained on the set, too. When they got home, they wouldn’t pee in the house anymore — they sit and stand in one spot, and they howl on command.

Kadyrova (Yunkaii Slave): I had my own trailer, which said “Slave Woman Roxana.” And I was living in this five-star hotel. Oh my God, the bed.

Aisling Jarrett-Gavin (Margaery’s Handmaiden): I had a fan, I got looked after by makeup, sat on a five-star-hotel bed while I waited to be called. If you stick close to the lead lady, you get treated very well.

Presley (Unsullied/Wight/Lannister General): We had to have three Unsullied boot camps because so many guys quit. The job was just so difficult.

Hodgen (Wildling Male Chieftain 23): [Wilding training] is quite minimal. What we need to be able to do is run up and down a mountainside. We play little games, like tag. They pick out the energetic guys, the natural leaders, and they bring them aside. They become the “hero group.” They’re the central core for action scenes. They’re the nutcases, you know. It’s 95 percent guys with beards.

Michael Fitzgerald (Wildling Chieftain, Knight of the Vale): Vladimír Furdík, who played the Night King, actually makes more money as a stuntman than an actor. We had a couple of weeks of military-boot-camp training, fighting with sticks and rolling on mats, and he was personally training all the extra casts.

Hodgen (Wildling Male Chieftain 23): We got the standard rate for extras in the U.K., which is 90 pounds sterling for a day’s work, but you get a series of bonuses: a strenuous-activity bonus, a stunts bonus, an adverse-weather-conditions bonus. Quite often you get an overtime bonus. Every one of those is 20 pounds. It’s the magic fee in the industry — anything they ask you to do and you go, “I don’t want to do that,” they say, “I’ll give you 20 pounds,” and you just do it. When you do battle sequences it does tally up, so I suppose the average is 130 pounds.

Michael Condron (Bowen Marsh, First Steward of the Night’s Watch): The [scene where Jon Snow hangs the men who killed him] was a proper stunt we did ourselves. It was petrifying. We fell — probably about a foot — and a harness supported us. Did it hurt? It did. We all ended up having slight bruises on our shoulders for a few weeks after. Also because of the harnesses, it could be, let’s just say, slightly uncomfortable for males. [Laughs.] Kit was such an incredibly humble guy. The only time I saw him pulling rank was when the four of us were hanged. Kit sort of went, “Guys, we need to start filming this! These guys are in pain!”

Condron can be seen at the :55 mark above, telling Jon Snow, “It’s not right.”

Presley (Unsullied, Wight, Lannister General): One of my first days, I was a wight charging Winterfell, and I was so gung-ho, I ran and rolled my ankle really bad. I was afraid to say anything because I didn’t want my journey to end, so I toughed it out.

In the “Garden of Bones” episode, O’Riabhaigh’s fisherman-turned-soldier is wounded in battle and Talisa (Oona Chaplin) amputates his infected leg, meeting Robb Stark (Richard Madden) in the process. Photo: HBO

O’Riabhaigh (Wounded Lannister): The lower half of my leg was through a hole in the floor of a cart and it looked like my leg was cut off. The hole was quite tight on my leg, so whenever the horse had to bring us around, the terrain was quite bumpy. My shin was bouncing around against this hole. I didn’t want to say it, but every time they said, “We’ll go for another,” I was like, Please, not another.

Hodgen (Wildling Male Chieftain 23): Sometimes it’s quite good when you see the word corpse on your job sheet because it means you’re lying down all day. Whatever position you’re in for the first shot, that is how you must stay for the rest of the day, for continuity. So if you can get yourself nice and comfortable and the first camera pass goes past you, you’re golden. That’s it; you’re there for the day. They bring you coffee and your lunch and you just lie there.

Dailor (Mastodon Drummer and Wildling/Wight): Where the Night King is raising the dead, I was right there laying down in the mud. They were calling, “One, two, and three,” and whatever group number you were assigned, that’s when you stood up. I look over, and Bill [Kellihor, of Mastodon] is fucking asleep. We flew in the night before, so we were all jet-lagged, and dude is laying in a puddle, straight-up sleeping. They had us right in front because they wanted us to be somewhat noticeable. When the director yelled, “Three,” Bill woke up in the nick of time. We had to do that like 20 times in a row.

Will Rastall (Tyrell Servant, a.k.a. “Cheese Boy”): There’s a lot of waiting around. It’s boiling hot. But they suddenly go, “Action,” and you have to leap to it. Getting told off by Diana Rigg (Olenna Tyrell) was great — no acting required. I didn’t know that it’d aired until some fans created memes about me on Twitter.

Gary Lightbody (Singer for Snow Patrol, Bolton Soldier): My horse thought I was a dick. He could not have had more contempt for me. He wouldn’t go, wouldn’t change direction, wouldn’t trot. I was heartbroken.

The singer for Snow Patrol has a bit part as a Bolton soldier, singing “The Bear and the Maiden Fair” as they ride horses through the woods.

Presley (Unsullied/Wight/Lannister General): My death count is around ten, at least. It’s the same guys dying again and again, but with the cinematography, you’d never know. When I was the Lannister general [in “The Bells”], Kit killed me and then there was another giant guy falling on me and ramming his sword through me for about eight hours. It was all on pads.

Harington stabs Presley, who plays a Lannister general in “The Bells.” Photo: Courtesy of Stephen Presley

[Shooting with] the Unsullied was brutal because of the VFX tiling, where you make about 70 guys look like 100,000. You stand locked up in different positions for hours, creating this giant force in front of Winterfell green screens so they can composite it later. We literally marched and lined up perfectly in military formation even when we weren’t filming, to save time. If you stepped out of line, you could ruin the whole thing and they’d have to start over. I wound up with a slight crisp of the early stages of frostbite on my nose.

Niall Bishop (Northern Lord and Member of the Council): The council scene [in the finale] was maybe nine minutes in total, but it took us six days to film. The trickiest part was the practicalities of making sure everyone stayed cool. It was 30 degrees [Celsius; 86 degrees Fahrenheit], and we’re wearing heavy, wintry, smelly clothes. I had a very heavy sword, which I needed help putting on and off, to my eternal shame. It was very tricky to sit down with that sword and get up elegantly. The most embarrassing thing was that it took me a couple minutes longer to sit down and get up than everyone else.

Presley (Unsullied/Wight/Lannister General): In the finale, I was Unsullied. There was a giant green screen we were facing — Daenerys’s speech was filmed completely separate. There was a little Welsh guy up in the front with a microphone going, “One, two, three,” [indicating when we should] bounce the spears on the sand. Your spear had to be pointed perfectly in the air for the shots. I saw Kit Harington straighten a guy’s spear, just to get the scene done.

He was the only one with us for that last episode, for some of those scenes. Because he’s marching through us, and we’re chanting, we’re kind of saying, “Are we chanting him as the king?” When we stopped seeing other actors on the set, we started thinking it was him. A lot of us were hoping it was him. But that’s not what we got.

’Nobody Likes the Boltons, But We Really Dislike Them’

Intense days on set led to plenty of bonding between scenes and, often, at pubs in Belfast. The Wildling and Unsullied groups grew particularly close, thanks to the shared misery of their filming conditions.

Hodgen (Wildling Male Chieftain 23): We have a rule on set that, as extras, we are not allowed to talk to the actors. It’s not a hierarchy thing. These guys are working.

Hodgen standing next to Harington, “giving him a really filthy look.” Photo: Courtesy of Richard Hodgen

[But] whenever you work closely with the actors, you do get to know them a bit better. There was always a group of 50 of us [Wildlings]. Whenever the director needed [Kris Hivju] with an immediate background with him, he would call for Tormund and the Tormund 50. One of the weirdest things I saw on set was Tormund Giantsbane throwing a sword up in the air and catching it behind his back.

Mulhall (Owner, Dogs That Played Summer and Grey Wind; Actor, Wildling/White Walker): Tormund did a pirouette with a sword in his hand, fully dressed as a Wildling. He turns around to me and he says, “When I was 15, I went to Norwegian school of ballet.” It’s believable, because he pulled off the perfect pirouette.

McConnell (Winterfell Woman With Elderly Parents): The younger cast, they’re more conditioned by the professionalism of the directors, so their personalities are all very similar and the way they’d speak was very similar. Whereas Peter [Dinklage] and Conleth Hill, their personalities were already formed. I could sit all day and talk about lip gloss with Hannah Murray, but I wouldn’t have a single chat with some of the other actresses there. I’ve got a name in my head but I won’t say it.

Presley (Unsullied/Wight/Lannister General): The background actors from what we call the Northern Alliance, Kit Harington would try to sneak out and meet them out at a pub. They went out again [after the finale] for the last time together; they called it the Last Watch.

Hodgen (Wildling Male Chieftain 23): Among extras, we are the lowest rung on the ladder, so you get a real bond. Especially within your own army. We even have little rivalries. Nobody likes the Boltons, but we really dislike them.

Presley (Unsullied/Wight/Lannister General): The Unsullied — we call it the Dickless Army — we’re the only ones who know who’s who. We see each other so much that we know each other’s eyes. And if you get put into another character, the [Unsullied] guys will look at you like, “What are you doing, man? You’re betraying me!” When I was a Lannister, someone was going, “Shame! Shame! Shame!”

Hodgen (Wildling Male Chieftain 23): There was one guy during Battle of the Bastards who was on Reddit. He was one of the Boltons — of course, it had to be a Bolton — and he spilled a lot of stuff. They narrowed it down and found out who it was. I never found out what happened to him. Actually, we never heard anything about him again.

Gallagher (Lannister Soldier): It was a hell of an experience to get to do. And, you know, still paying me now. The royalty checks, they keep coming.

Presley (Unsullied/Wight/Lannister General): A lot of the guys have been on the show for the last eight, nine years. It’s really like a kick down low for them because they’ve been growing their beards and everything to do this. It’s their profession, and it’s over. Except for the fact that everyone just started getting called about the prequel and the costume fittings for Bloodmoon, the prequel to Game of Thrones.

Brann, Brent, and Bill are all members of the heavy-metal band Mastodon.
An Oral History of Game of Thrones, As Told By Bit Players