The official story is that Prince Oberyn Martell has come to King's Landing as a guest of honor at King Joffrey's wedding to Margaery Tyrell. But as Game of Thrones viewers know by now, when it comes to Westerosi weddings, drunk uncles and handsy bridesmaids are the least of your worries. No, Oberyn is really out for Lannister blood, in payback for the crimes the family committed against his kin — and they don't call him the Red Viper for nothing.
Like his character, Pedro Pascal is a major new player in the Game, and the Chilean actor immediately establishes a strong presence, holding his own in scenes involving stabbings, an orgy, or both. The culture that the new prince on the block represents — Dorne, the southernmost of Westeros' Seven Kingdoms — is described in George R.R. Martin's books as a vaguely Mediterranean/Middle Eastern enclave, meaning a whole new set of fans can see themselves represented on screen in his person. The response to Pascal's casting, and the anticipation for his storyline, has been intense. But the laid-back performer says that the work he's done to craft the character with series creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss has kept him as secure in his skin as the Red Viper himself.
You're essentially getting airdropped into the middle of a phenomenon. That's got to feel strange.
I guess I was in denial about the whole thing, until I was sitting in the audience at the premiere and listening to the New York Philharmonic play the theme music. It's that weird thing of...like, when they were doing the recap of everything leading up to Season Four, I was immersed in the whole thing like I was watching it like a regular fan. Then I would snap back and be like, "Oh shit, I'm gonna be in this! Oh shit, they're talking about me! Oh shit, there I am!"
Did you feel pressure to make sure the audience who doesn't know Oberyn Martell from the books cares about the new guy?
That's part of what's so weird about the experience. They make a show that's so huge in its scope, but actually putting it together with everyone is really seamless. Nobody ever stresses out. The only pressure I ever felt in playing the part was from myself — especially if I slip and read comments online. Then I'm creating that internal battle. As far as the cast and the directors and crew were concerned, it was friendly and fun. You wrap an entire episode, and you realize you didn't think about it too much. You're just jumping into the cold water. Or the warm, embracing, caressing water. [Laughs]
So if it works and people like it, it has so much to do with everyone else involved. The way that they made Oberyn look, the way they chose to usher him into this world, the way they shot him, the actors they assembled — Indira Varma, bringing Will Tudor back from the third season…they made it so easy. In a way, it helps me forget that there are a bunch of people waiting to see how any new arrival is going to turn out, whether it's going to satisfy the people who are super into the books or the show.
Oberyn's out for blood, and he's this sexual dynamo…it seems like you could be tempted to play up those qualities a little too much.
The mistake with that character would be to play an over-the-top badass, and turn people off. Ultimately, it's not about being a badass. All of his danger, all of his lust, all of his rage, comes from a very specific emotional truth. It's all shaped by a specific circumstance. The first time David and Dan got in touch with me — they emailed me after I'd taped my first audition with my iPhone — they talked to me about the richness of character, not "This guy is so cool! When he walks into the room, he owns it!" They discussed the things that shape him emotionally, and why he's so uncompromising in the way he lives his life, how it all makes sense. It had to come across as effortless. He's not trying to prove anything; he's not there to intimidate — he's there to do, in his way and only his way. That's not to be like, "I'm gonna do it my way 'cause i'm just that badass." It's "I'm gonna do it my way because that's the only way I know how to do it."
All the actors I've spoken with who play dangerous characters say the same thing, that the danger's rooted in their actual lives.
That's what's amazing about what George R.R. Martin has created, and what David and Dan are translating and shaping. What they insist upon, first and foremost, is that every character in the story is a human being. Villainous actions, cowardice, courage — at any given moment, anyone can reveal any of those elements. You can't pin anybody down, because [the creators] insist on all of the characters being so whole. It's so easy to take a good guy, a bad guy, a sexy person, a clown or a goddess and play those two-dimensional shapes. That's why the show transcends and why the books are so popular: They take classic storytelling and insist on a richness to it. You see a character like Cersei throwing back some extra wine, and it's justified. "Shit has been so stressful, I'm having three glasses instead of two these days." Which is human!
I've been there.
We all have.
Oberyn Martell gives us our first look at the southern region of Dorne, with all that entails. The color of people's skin, the way they talk, the way they dress, their cultural and sexual mores, even their government — there's a huge weight of expectation from fans who've read the books.
"How will Dorne be represented?" It's complicated.
How much have you interacted with that?
Do you mean specifically the issue of whitewashing?
That's a part of it.
I think it's a great opportunity for them to usher in an element that is very "other," in terms of what we're familiar with as an audience. Dorne is the punk-rock region of Westeros. We follow the beat of a totally different drum. A woman's position in Dorne has far more power. They're much more highly regarded. Even if it's still shaped by the old conventions that shaped King's Landing, Oberyn Martell in particular isn't going to play by any of those rules. He does represent, with his partner Ellaria Sand, a culture that completely clashes with the world that he's forcibly wedging himself into. And he uses that as a source of power, making anyone whose collar is buttoned all the way up a little uncomfortable. He's gonna sit the way he wants to sit. If he has the impulse to kiss Ellaria, a beautiful bastard, at a royal wedding in front of those who are throwing it, he's gonna do it — again, not just to prove a point, but because there's more of a freeness there.
And I don't know how it gets broken down in terms of, like, [in a mock-scholarly tone] "Well, King's Landing is so typically British. The North, those are the Scots, or the Irish. And Dorne, that's the Mediterranean. Those guys are Spaniards or Latinos or Middle Eastern." Because of their climate, we live more sensually, I guess. But it's all a made-up world, right? So there's definitely a beautiful opportunity to bring a lot of color into it.
When you hear Prince Oberyn's story about how the Lannisters had his family brutally murdered, it's natural to feel he's justified in wanting violent revenge. But we've already seen how this is a self-perpetuating cycle for this world — yet we root for it anyway.
That's what's a little scary. It isn't very hard to channel feelings like that. If you were to imagine your own family being brutally murdered and raped…. It makes sense to me, and to so many people walking around living safely in a world of privilege, that seeking vengeance would be the thing that would shape you and motivate you. It's not this far-out concept.
The boldness to actually follow through, the insanity or whatever it may be to execute the actions, is another story. I think for one second about anyone I love being harmed in a really violent way, and the first thing that occurs to me is retribution. The identification is immediate. That's what we're reacting to when we watch Game of Thrones and break into applause when our hero or heroine is getting some vengeance, in whatever form, after so much has been taken away from them. While it's exciting, it's also layered with sadness.
In critics' circles, we call people who watch the great dramas just to see that kind of thing "bad fans." You know, like the people who rooted for Walt and hated Skyler in Breaking Bad.
Oh, yeah. I'm sure there are plenty of those for this show: "What fucked-up shit are we gonna see this time? How many boobies and how much blood?"
Is that a presence on set with you guys?
God, no. On set, it's just talented people who are passionate about what they're doing and doing it really well. I know it sounds like kissing ass, but I'd be stupid to think I'll experience anything like this ever again. David and Dan are like the reigning kings, bringing all the right energy to make this show that has so much to say. It's such a fine line: Like you were talking about, so many people have a taste for blood. And they do satisfy that. But it never gets stuck in one way of telling a story.