Actor John Bradley is best known for his role as Samwell Tarly in HBO’s immensely popular “Game of Thrones”. The series is about to return for its seventh and penultimate season. Bradley’s character Sam has decided to become a “maester”, the closest thing to a scholar or scientist in the fictional world of Westeros. He travels across the continent to enrol at the Citadel, where maesters are educated; the only institution of higher learning in Westeros.
Against this suitable backdrop, we wanted to know more about John Bradley's own university experience: In an exclusive interview with Study.EU, he talks about where he studied, how it influenced him, and why you should take your time when choosing a degree.
You studied Acting at the Manchester School of Theatre, part of Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). What did you enjoy most about your time as a student?
For the first time, I was surrounded by a group of peers who had exactly the same interests as I did. Obviously, over the years, you become drawn to people who have similar passions as you - and indeed a lot of my friends from pre-university days were interested in drama and the arts. But this was the first time that I felt part of a large group who were placed into a very immersive environment where they could really explore their creativity.
And this also meant being introduced to a wide variety of people from any number of different backgrounds who were united by their shared love and curiosity about acting and the theatre. There were so many new and interesting people from backgrounds that were sometimes very different from my own, but we all knew that our strengths lay in our individuality, and the fact that we were all different was a very positive and useful thing in that environment. It opened up our sensitivity towards the specific traits of other people and how we’re shaped by our backgrounds and the dynamics that are created when a group of contrasting personalities are placed into such an intensive environment. A sharpened understanding of people is fundamental to acting. When you arrive on the first day of your new course and you suddenly have a whole new range of people to get to know and find your place within, that’s only going to enhance your sensitivity to that.
John Bradley as Samwell Tarly in Game of Thrones. Photo: HBO
You were confirmed for your role in Game of Thrones briefly before your Bachelor graduation in 2010. How did that feel?
That time towards the very tail end of University was one of hugely conflicting emotions for me. I was deeply sad to be leaving University. During my time there I’d established some of the most important friendships that I’d ever make in my life. I remember very clearly the sense of finality as we took our final bows in our very last drama school performance, Joe Orton’s The Erpingham Camp. The fact that the final image of that show was my character lying dead on stage alone as the lights faded to black was a piece of symbolism that wasn’t lost on me either.
I found out that I’d been cast in Game of Thrones between that final show and my graduation a couple of months later. Initially, I experienced an enormous rush of elation and was delighted and strangely relieved that everybody in my life appeared to be as excited on my behalf as I was. But then, eventually, that mist clears and the backslapping stops and you’re left thinking: “Right, I have a job to do now. People have trusted me with this part and they’re staking a lot on me, and they think I can do it - and I’d better not let them down.”
That signified for me something of a shift in my attitude to acting. Whereas at university acting came with practically no real immediate pressure. You were working with good friends you’d known for years, in a very accepting and understanding environment where self-consciousness played very little part. Suddenly I felt it had all become very serious and the price of failure would be a much heftier one that I’d been used to. Acting would always be my passion, but suddenly, out of nowhere, it had become both my passion and my actual job. I was reminded by very supportive tutors and friends that I had been chosen for a reason and they thought I could do it, just as the producers of Game of Thrones thought I could do it. So overtime the uncertainty and self-doubt was put to bed and I allowed myself to be excited again.
At the end of season 6, your character, Samwell Tarly, arrived at the Citadel to commence his studies - possibly the only institution of higher learning in fictional Westeros. In what ways do you think his experience would be comparable to that of a first-year student at university in Europe?
When Samwell arrives at the citadel he finds himself, for the very first time in his life, at a place he feels he truly belongs. He’s been told perpetually that his interests are worthless, with no practical use and he’s a failure because he has no capacity, or even interest in, physical combat. He was despised at home by his father for his bookishness and sensitivity and was then transplanted to the Night’s Watch.
There, he was a target for scorn and ridicule, and it was only through Jon Snow’s intervention that Samwell was able to survive and gain some sense of satisfaction by being allowed to work in their very limited library. It is only when he arrives at the citadel that he feels he’s surrounded by people who understand the importance of books and literature and know how worthwhile such pursuits can be.
Similarly, University should mark a watershed in your life. Up until that point you’ve been allowed to pursue your prominent interest at school and at college, but it had to be part of a programme along with a lot of other things that maybe interested you less. It can feel like the other studies you undertake are the vegetables that you are forced to eat if you want to have the dessert that comes in the form of the 4 hours a week that you get to do the subject you really want to.
University is the point where all of that other stuff is stripped away and you’re left only with what’s at your very core. Your ultimate passion in life. And you get to do that for every single minute of every single day that you’re there, with nothing else to cloud the equation. It’s immersive, it’s dedicative. And that’s how Samwell feels at that moment. He’s finally arrived at the place he feels he’s belonged his entire life.
Any guess on what a Freshers Week might look like in Westeros?
Remember how stressful and unsettling a conventional Freshers Week is? The desire to fit in and make friends - so powerful it almost physically hurts. The shy kids looking at the confident, outgoing kids and wishing they could be like them. The dilemma of deciding between activities that you really want to be doing or the popular choices that you have less interest in, but will make you stand out less and “fit in” better. If you see an old friend from school - do you go and hang out with them, to feel safe, or will you be brave and cut all those ties and devote yourself to your new circle of friends?
Imagine having all of these same worries, but with the chances of being killed increased about 10,000-fold. That's a Freshers Week in Westeros.
John Bradley with Hannah Murray as Gilly. Photo: HBO
How do you hope things will work out for Sam, Gilly and Little Sam in the remaining two seasons of Game of Thrones?
Sam is a character that constantly surprises the people around him, the watching audience, and himself. Anybody would forgive Sam for wanting to live a quiet, peaceful life with Gilly and Little Sam, the two people who mean the most to him in the world. He’s suffered so much pain and psychological damage in his life and one does feel that there should be a reward for that.
Against all odds he’s fallen in love and has a family around him. Nobody would have thought that possible when he first appears in the story. Not only because of rules of the Night’s Watch and the geographical location of castle black, but also because of the crippling psychological scars inflicted on him by his father, affecting him every single second of his life.
So, what I want for Sam is that he lives a very peaceful, comfortable life at the citadel. Pursuing his passion and raising Little Sam, making sure that he has a father figure in his life who won’t destroy him the way Sam’s father tried to do to him. That’s what I want for Sam.
But I think what Sam actually wants is different. When he pleaded with Jon Snow to let him go to the citadel because that’s where he feels he has the best chance of applying his particular set of skills to helping the common cause, he really meant it. Sam doesn’t see the citadel as an easy way out and a cushy number for himself. He sees it as the only way he can protect Gilly and baby Sam from the horrors of the world and also actually have some positive impact on the future of mankind. I want Sam to love and be loved and keep his head below the parapet. Sam would want to fight the same war as everybody else, but in his own unique fashion. He’s a very proactive character.
You have worked with diverse crews on sets in many international locations. How has gaining international experience changed your perspective and your performance during the course of your career?
It’s been a real privilege to work with such a diverse selection of people. Because GoT has such an international reach, David and Dan [Benioff and Weiss, the creators of Game of Thrones] are able to cherry-pick their team from candidates all across the world. Local crews in Iceland and Spain have brought their own unique flavours to the working day, as well as permanent crew from all across Europe, the USA and beyond.
Beyond Game of Thrones, I have found myself shooting in Prague for 8 months with a truly international cast and crew on Borgia for Canal plus, and with primarily American crews in Los Angeles.
All of these groups have slightly different ways of working that make the experience all the more interesting, but I think it has always been the similarities that have struck me. The vocabulary always seems to be the same. You’ll always find the same characters in there somewhere: the joker, the grump, the relaxed ones, the stressed ones, the conversationalists and the quiet ones.
And it was these similarities that affected me more than the slight differences, because it was the common points that made me really feel part of a truly global industry, all working towards the same goal, all working very long and hard days to entertain people. No matter what the language or the culture, all working themselves to the bone to make it the best experience for the audience as possible. Everybody contributing, everybody vital. All the same key ingredients are there, but the little local flavours always add something stimulating to the mix.
Do you still keep in touch with fellow students from your time at Manchester School of Theatre?
Yes, absolutely. There are certain people from my time at university that I still consider to be some of my very closest friends in the world. I think this is connected to that initial surge of relief, back in September 2007 when I walked into the building for the first time and found myself to be around people with exactly my interests. Not to say that there weren’t fraught times and everybody rubbed along perfectly all the time; there was as much conflict in that group as you’d find anywhere amongst a collection of sometimes wildly contrasting personalities. But everybody there had very close friends within that group that they could lean on for support.
Also, when you’re younger, at school, you do find yourself compromising and turning down certain aspects of yourself in order to fit in and not be seen to be in anyway “off-beat” or irregular. It’s a perfectly natural response to social pressure that is exerted on children. But I think university should be the time when you strip all that away and present yourself to people and say: “This is me, this is what I am at my very core.” It’s like a rebirth. And you find that the people that accept you at that point are the ones that will stay around, because you know they’re accepting you for exactly the person that you are fundamentally, with no garnish or compromise for the sake of a quiet life. Some of those people I still talk to almost every single day.
What advice would you give to prospective students out there who are still unsure which path to pursue?
Don’t rush. Don't feel a pressure to make snap decisions and commit yourself to a course or a path that isn’t really you - or something that you don’t 100% feel would be a worthwhile and enjoyable way to spend the next three years of your life.
University isn’t like school. There is no prescribed map, dictated by age, that decides what should happen and when. You can begin a course at whatever age you like and your prior qualifications allow you the luxury of being able to take time to decide on the right path for you. Just visualise the next three years in any chosen course and if it doesn’t present itself as a prospect that excites you, stimulates you and inspires you every time you think about it, don’t be afraid to reconsider. The right path for you will be out there, just don’t feel the need to rush down the first path that presents itself.
“Game of Thrones” season 7 will premiere on 16 July 2017.