“Did you hear the story that ‘McCann’ means ‘wolfhound’?” asks Rory McCann, the actor who plays Game of Thrones‘ resident wandering warrior/royal-orphan caretaker Sandor “The Hound” Clegane, with great excitement. It’s a fitting question: In talking to McCann, the line between the 6’6″ Scottish actor (his nickname is “Big”) and his larger-than-life role can get pretty blurry. He’s way less mean, but no less a character.
On last night’s Season Four premiere, both the performer and his onscreen counterpart had a breakout sequence. The Hound’s surprise team-up against Lannister goons with his hostage, young wolf Arya Stark (played by the brilliant Maisie Williams), was exemplary of the show at its funniest, bloodiest and most thrilling. And according to the exceedingly friendly McCann, it marks the start of a season-long journey that makes the Hound a once-in-a-lifetime role. Given the lifetime McCann has already had, that’ saying something.
What’s your relationship with Maisie Williams like?
She’s just such a good actress! Really clever, really bright, she knows everything…she’s a real help to me, because I’m a bit goofy and a bit daft. I forget where I am in the story and she knows my lines, my story, where we are, what’s going on, the reason we’re there. I get in trouble for pulling faces, and she keeps me in check. The great thing is, I don’t think she realizes how good she is yet — so don’t tell her.
It certainly looks like fun. At the premiere, the crowd went nuts for it.
That reaction! You’re wondering if the comedy worked, or the tension, but then you could feel the crowd respond. Bear in mind, this is made for people watching it in their living rooms, but there was a packed-out cinema; they were howling and shouting and screaming. Some of the lines they’ve given the Hound this year are incredible. Even in this first episode, just those three words when she says “Lots of people name their swords” and he respinds: “Lots of cunts.” [Laughs]
Arya is an asset now, as well. I was getting attacked from behind in that fight, and suddenly she brought the man down. Just watching it makes you bloodthirsty. A little child killing a guy? Yeah! [Laughs] A kind of dream team iss formed in that first episode, I feel. She’s got her sword, she’s got a horse, she’s got some food — let’s just go. The script just said “Two killers ride off into the sunset.” Yeah!
That scene’s fascinating, because it starts as comedy and then degenerates into this horrific violence. It’s really funny, but….
…Then there’s brutality ten seconds later. The thing is, the fights are broken off. We worked on just that fight for two days, and then the drama. It’s all chopped up in editing. But for the drama stuff, we don’t workshop it. You just walk in, do a couple of rehearsals for camera, hopefully we’ve got it right, and then we start filming it. But, you know, we have the director coming in and going “More snot, please. Here’s another beer.” [Laughs]
When I had to drink in that tavern scene, that’s David and Dan going “Give him another beer! Fill it right up to the top! Can you down another?” I was really fit at the time, wasn’t drinking, working out, there was definitely no sugar in my body — and suddenly I had six or seven liters of flat ginger beer that day. I had to go off into the woods to make myself sick. They had this new helper, I didn’t know who he was, and they told him “We’ve lost the Hound! We’ve lost the Hound!” I’m on my hands and knees with my fingers down my throat trying to get this bloody soda out of me. He came up like, “Are you — ” [growls] “FUCK OFF!” [Laughs] He ran away into the woods. [high-pitched, scared helper voice] “He told me to fuck off!”
But it doesn’t really seem like it’s hard for you to shake off the Hound when you’re playing him.
No, no. But the reality is, I’m the first guy on set because of this fucking make-up. So I’m getting done for three hours, then I’m getting my breakfast, and I’ve been up for six hours before there’s even a suggestion of getting on set. I end up this big fucking grumpy bastard most of the time. “Kill that guy? Sure.” [Laughs] It’s very easy to be the Hound.
The Hound is complex: He’s funny, scary, tragic…even protective at times.
There’s a lot to him. He’s damaged goods. There’s that burned face— he’s feeling that every day. He’d really love to sort that brother out and rip his bloody head off. He was bullied as a child, and that’s why he’s looking out for Sansa, and why there’s a slight fatherly thing going on with Arya as well. But he hasn’t revealed anything yet, has he? That’s what’s gonna happen this season. He’s gonna open up these naked emotions. He’s gonna reveal what makes him tick.
My audition was a scene of the Hound describing to Sansa how he got his burned face. It happens in the book, and they were gonna film it in the first episode: “Look at me — this is the reason I am the way I am.” Then they decided not to do it. David pushed Dan into my trailer, and I was like, “Why are you pushing the wee guy in? You got something to say?” “We decided we want to bring you in gentler. We don’t want you to talk about yourself at the moment. But don’t worry!” I go “You’re bruising my ego. You’re not…firing me?” “No, no, we’re not firing you! We’re just gonna bring you in slower.” It’s taken four fucking years, but here we go. [Laughs] That’s what’s happening. I’m gonna open up this time. The Hound’s gonna speak freely.
It’s definitely the heaviest acting I’ve ever done. I’ve got it sussed out: When I get a job, I make phone calls to every single person I know and tell them not to bloody call me. [Laughs] “Aw, c’mon, Big, there’s no need for that!” They try and phone, but I can hear the ice in their whiskey tumblers clinking, I can hear them smoking, and I think “You’re gonna take me over to the dark side. I’m Mister Healthy at the moment.” I get really, really, really focused. It’s a bit boring. But I think it works. Before, I’d get very nervous, and now I’m not. People on set told me “Jesus, this is the first time they’ve ever had to put fake sweat on you!”
You guys are shooting in Iceland this year — where you used to live, right?
I hadn’t shot in Iceland with Game of Thrones before — I’d always shot in Malta or Croatia, and [I] was far too hot in that armor. When I was told I was going to Iceland, I couldn’t believe it. Six or seven years ago I went there to do a Viking film, and at the end of it they were like, “You’re going now?” “No, I’m staying.” “No, no, the job’s over.” [firmly] “No. I’ve got my tent. And I’m staying. Thank you very much.” I phoned my agent and went “Don’t phone me unless I’ve definitely got a job.” He didn’t phone me for a year. [Laughs] “Hello? Anything?” I ended up being a carpenter, building houses. Then their whole market crashed, and I borrowed some money off an actor pal that I met up there and hitched out of the place.
I got there last year to do [this season of] Game of Thrones. I’d hitched out of the place on borrowed money, and suddenly there’s this beautiful blonde driver beside this white Range Rover, all smoked out, going [in Scandinavian accent] “Hello, my name is Herta. Should we go skinny dipping before we go to the hotel?” [Laughs] “That would be lovely, Herta.”
Then I was meeting people over there that still didn’t know me as an actor, they just knew me as the guy who used to go to the library. Some still thought I was a local there. I met old friends again, had my bicycle again, did all my old things again. I only partied on the last night, because I was behaving myself. I thought I was gonna have to get my top off for a scene, so I was working out — I mean, I didn’t even drink water for the last 24 hours. On the day, the director comes up to me, and I’ve got dumbells on set, like [makes weightlifting motions] “YEAH! UHHH! FUCKIN’ READY!!!” He touches me on the shoulder and goes “Rory, I was thinking about it last night — I think we’ll just keep the top on,” and leaves me. “Fucking…I haven’t been out for fucking four months! I haven’t had a beer in fucking three months!”
So that night, Maisie was there, it was our last night in Iceland, it was my one night out…and we got stopped by the police. [Laughs] We were all in a van, we had a designated driver, and we were all drunk — but for Maisie, of course — and singing. The police stopped us, he had his hand on the holster, and the driver went “It’s the cast of Game of Thrones.” “Oh yeah? Open up.” I had the nearest seat. I’ve obviously had a few drinks, and I’m very excited. He looks at me, and I go [booming voice] “Hello! I’m the Hound!” And he looks and says “…Hello, Hound! You enjoy Iceland?” I said a few things in Icelandic, and he’s like “Fuck yeah! Well, you have a good time!” And we went on singing. [Laughs] Have you been to Iceland?
No. I’ve been to Scotland, though.
You must go to Iceland if you have the chance. Everyone who goes there…it’s like some kind of therapy. And the Isle of Skye is an incredible place. Did you stay in Portree? The last time I went there, I was hitching, and… [Pause] No, I’m not even gonna tell you. Something bad happened, and basically, I can’t go to Portree anymore. [Laughs] There’s some big fisherman that’s gonna punch me, and I don’t know what he looks like. All I know is his name is Big Murdo.
On a happier note, perhaps, the Hound has a very intense female fanbase.
Has that registered with you?
Well, I’m aware that there’s fans and they like the Hound, yes. I get letters and all sorts of requests. Yeah, I’m aware of it. It doubles your chance on a Saturday night. [Laughs] I’ve gone to a few conventions and they all go crazy! I’m obviously having some effect, because the times when they have a photo opportunity, you can feel them shaking. Really trembling, like it’s a really big deal. At the end of the day, if there’s a whole line of them, you end up with a sweaty side because of their arms around you.
Maybe they’re scared. I mean, you are the Hound.
I do use that sometimes. If I’m in a pub and I’m not in the mood, people kind of accept it. I remember drinking with Peter Dinklage at a Belfast pub, and you could feel them creeping toward us. I just turned around and went “Fuck off.” They took it right away: “The Hound told me to fuck off, so I fucked off, because he’d kill me if I didn’t.” It probably made their day. [Laughs]
But I do find it a bit overwhelming. Name a city in a random country, and I’ll go to a bar with my head down, and within the first beer someone will go, “Oh my God, you’re the Hound!” I think, “Fuckin’ hell, this is a big show.” It was only a few years ago that I painted bridges on the end of a rope for a living. I’m still waiting for that hand on the shoulder, to say “Okay, fine, I’ll get my coat.” I’m very lucky, and very grateful for it.
You’ve earned the part at this point.
I think I really only got the part because my sister fucked up. She was supposed to print out what I was meant to learn for the audition speech, but she sent me the wrong one — only two or three lines, that was it. I was waiting in this heat wave in London at the casting director’s place, and I see everyone reading this big speech for the Hound about how he got his face burned. I had to delay my meeting for four hours so I could learn it. By that time, I was fucking raging. When I walked into the room, I knew I had to go crazy, so I unleashed all this. It was just a fluke that day — I was just especially angry. [Laughs] Something worked.