Aside from gasps of horror, shouted obscenities, and choked sobs, there aren't really many words to describe tonight's episode of Game of Thrones. Still, the unenviable task of talking all about it landed squarely on the shoulders of actor Richard Madden, who for three years has portrayed the late King in the North, Robb Stark. The Lannister-orchestrated massacre of Robb, his mother Catelyn (Michelle Fairley), his pregnant wife Talisa (Oona Chaplin) and almost his entire army marked the end of not only those actors' time on the show, but the central Stark/Lannister conflict of the series itself.
Given far more screentime by showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss than the character had in the source novels by George R.R. Martin, Madden had to strike a difficult balance. Robb Stark had to show the moral and physical courage of his father Ned, rallying the audience to his side in the war against the Lannisters, while still making the kind of decisions only an inexperienced kid forced to take power prematurely could make. He was a hard character to support, but an easy character to care about, and that made tonight as brutal as TV gets. In a conference call, Madden talked about the lingering impact of the life and death of Robb Stark.
You and Michelle [Fairley] are very close. What does it mean to film your exit with Michelle, who’s been your real professional partner through this journey for three seasons?
We built up the best relationship on and off screen, I think, over the course of the past few years. We went into that scene with a heavy heart, because we really love being on that show and we love working together. You know, you don't get to work with the same actors very often. Me and Michelle just have had this great dialogue – that is something real, where you can build it up over the course of a few years, that you only get with long-running TV shows with great writing like that. It was a really hard thing to push through, but the scripts were great, and the whole episode was so operatic, almost, in how the writing had placed little details throughout the whole sequence of events that happened in episode nine.
When we shot the scene, it took a few days, because it’s huge. And there’s a moment in this scene where we look at each other . . . it's Robb Stark essentially saying goodbye to his mother and giving up, and rather than it being something really bad, there's a moment of tragedy and utter relief, actually, because these two characters have fought and fought and fought and fought, and it's finally over. Me and Michelle really felt that on the day, as did a lot of the crew, I think. We're one big family that's plowed through this for years, and it's a sad day.
When did you know Robb would die?
Essentially, as soon as I got the job, people managed to spoil that for me. They'd be like, "Oh, my God, your death, that was so terrible!" And you're like, "What? Oh, right." But I read [the books] season by season, because I never wanted to preempt where the character went. As an actor, it was much better challenge for me to make decisions based on the scripts and based on the first book and then the second book. By the time you get to the third book, and Robb's making other decisions, then I'm, as an actor, forced to bend the path that I've took Robb on and change it and keep the surprises coming. Hopefully I've managed to do that.
How you do hope Robb is remembered by fans?
I suppose much like Ned. That's constantly been in my brain through the whole time – less so into Season Three, where he starts making worse decisions – but just like his father, as an honest man and a just man. Typically, in Game of Thrones, in this world, people who are honest and just and do things for the right reasons are the people who tend not to survive, and Robb's a great example of that. I hope he's remembered as a good man and essentially the man who would have been the best person to lead the Seven Kingdoms. It's tragic that he was killed because I think he was the best leader of all the candidates available at the moment.
Because the fans of the books and the show are so devoted, how are anticipating the next couple of weeks are going to go for you?
I don't know. I just hope people really enjoy the surprise of it. I hope a lot of people haven't been as stupid as I was and googled that kind of thing before the time came. I learned that lesson very quickly in Season One, to not google things, because there’s too many people who will just tell you everything – which is great for research purposes, but not great dramatically.
One of the big changes about the Red Wedding [from the books to the show] is the fact that Talisa dies, and she’s pregnant at this point. Why do you think it was important to have her character die when she lives in the books?
I think it was important for her to die because it's a full stop to that train, the story of that army. I think if there was anything left . . . I think it's more tragic that there's nothing left over from it. There's no possibility that Talisa's in hiding, and she's going to have a baby, and one day that baby will take over as King in the North. I think there's something tragic about it all being cut short instantly.
Dan [Weiss] and David [Benioff], the creators of the show, wanted to make the show in order to make this season, and the Red Wedding is the reason why. As the central figure in the Red Wedding, what does it feel like to have that kind of weight on your shoulders?
I consider it a bit of an honor, actually, that they've trusted me with this character. I think I was like 21 when I first met them. And it's huge. After I got cast and got to know them and become friends with them, I learned so much about how when they read the books and went through that process before they even started making the show, it was the Red Wedding that [made them say], "We need to make this show, and we need to get to that point." So it's a gift for me. In Season Two, they really gave me a lot more material than the book featured, and hopefully I've been able to build a character with them that means that by the time the audience sees this episode, they are as involved with Robb Stark as I am, as David and Dan have been since the very beginning. I consider it less of a weight and more of an honor that I was trusted with that responsibility.
Not only doesn't Robb avenge his father, but he's denied that big, heroic, glorious death that we're used to in this genre if someone is bumped off. Do you have any hard feelings about the way he's going out?
I mean, it's horrible, obviously. I don't have any bitterness to it because I think Robb Stark dying in that way is one of the best things that HBO does so beautifully and Game of Thrones does so beautifully, which is just to rip these characters' hearts out in front of you. It's hard, and yeah, maybe it would have been better for Robb to die gloriously on the battlefield or something else like that. But this is such a – it's so sudden and violent and horrible. The way that I've tried to build Robb Stark up, and the way that the writers have done, there's no other way we could have killed him, because he is great on the battlefield, and despite his very poor choices, he is a great leader, and I think a lot of people would stick up for him and watch his back. Even in episode nine, they try to, and get slaughtered along the way. I feel it's a really apt death because he's been outsmarted, and it all comes from his good heart and his trust of other people, his trust that people will do the right thing and not just destroy each other like they do.
What was the mood like on the set when you hit that key part of the sequence?
Honestly? It was horrible. It was really difficult day for everyone. There was lots of tears from many people, including myself. The way it happens: Robb Stark with his dead queen in his arms and her stomach ripped open and blood pumping out of that, his mother getting her throat slit . . . it was a really disturbing day. It's been such a big part of my life and of Michelle's and Oona's and all of the crew. We've been through a lot together, from extreme weather conditions to just the journey of trying to make this show as best we can, and pushing forwards against lots of things that have been pushing back against us. Again, there was just a total sense of exhaustion, and it was horrific. These characters that you love get slaughtered.
It made me think of my dad: When he read all the books and he got to the Red Wedding, when he read it, he put the book down and didn't go back to it for a couple months. That's obviously because he ties Robb Stark in so closely with me. But the journey of that character and the fondness that we all have for each other as a cast and a crew and as characters playing the story . . . It was really moving, and not very nice, and I left set and got straight to the airport and got on a plane because I didn't want to be there anymore. It was very difficult.
How long did it take to shake this off?
It won't shake off until I've seen the episode, so it's still there. Once I see the episode – that'll be really difficult to watch, I think it'll dredge up a lot of emotions and stuff that I've pushed aside for a while, but I think that will really part me with Robb. We shoot for six months a year, and in the other six months you go and do other things, but it's not like any other job I've had because you don't close the book on that character. You step away from him for six months, then you come straight back into his shoes – literally the same boots that you were wearing the season before, the same costume. It was really hard shooting the end of it. It's still very difficult for me to process that I'm not going back, that it is completely gone. It's funny, because I'm still very close with all the crew, and I've been talking to the hair department and the other actors who are all gearing up and going back into it. That's really strange to me. Just now, we're gearing up into summer, and I should be starting back on the show, but I'm not. Until I see that episode, I won't be able to put it all to rest, but once I see it I'm sure I'll be able to send it down the river.
Did it ever occur to you to lobby for altering Robb's fate or extending his time on the show?
[Laughs.] No. I knew where it was in the placing of the books and the placing of the scripts. From the start of the job, I knew that's when we were aiming to do it. I think it's the absolute perfect time for that. Other stories are going to move forward and progress, but it's all so shocking at this stage. I didn't want to change it at all. I know that David and Dan have spent so many years structuring things out beautifully, and I'm not going to come in and try and push any of that around because I feel like I want an extra season of Game of Thrones or anything like that. I wanted to stick to it. I wanted it to be as sudden and as shocking as it was when I read the book and I read that section. Hopefully the audience are gonna be shocked. It's only a 10-ep season – it'll be Episode 29 – so that's very young, actually, for killing off another character, just like what happened with Sean Bean's character. I think it's essential and I didn’t want to mess with that.
Do you have a message for fans who are going to be watching this happen for the first time on the show as encouragement to keep watching after the Red Wedding that takes place?
[Sighs] I don't. No one in safe in Game of Thrones.
Were you ever able to step back and think about this episode's potential place in TV history – that it could be a pivotal event like "Who shot J.R.?" from Dallas, or the finale of The Sopranos?
Never. I've never had any sense of that as an actor. I think I get too involved in what it is. I always get surprised. I'm shooting in Canada just now, and I've been down to South America. It's always really strange, because for me, I just shoot a television show in Ireland. Then you travel around the world and you realize it's so much more than that. I’m not being ignorant when it comes to that – it's just a that I've made this program with people I considered my friends for years now, and so I have no kind of context of the significance of that. I only have an awareness of what I'm trying to achieve as an actor and what my job as the character is to service. I remember the scale of it and the emotion that it brought out of me and the other people there, and thinking that this was something significant, but the lines get a bit muddled up between characters and actors sometimes in terms of what moves you – if you're moving the character or the character is moving you. That, I suppose, keeps me from having an awareness of the outside world, and just focused on doing my job. It'll be after I've watched the episode that I'll maybe understand a bit more of the start, middle and end of this journey for Robb, and of the journey for me as well.