If you have read George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series — the books on which HBO’s Game of Thrones is based — then you have been waiting for Sunday’s episode, in which we saw the infamous, horrifying, tragic nightmare known as the Red Wedding. And you would not be alone. The most important fans of the book, the show’s creators, D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, feel the same way. Before Season 2, Benioff told Entertainment Weekly’s James Hibberd that before they had even written the pilot, he thought to himself, “We’ve got to get this show to happen because if we can make this scene work, it’s gonna be one of the greatest things ever on television or film.”
Like I said, we’ve all been waiting. But as for you viewers who had no idea what was going to happen? I don’t know how you’re reading this story, since I imagine you are dead.
What a wrenching, wonderfully acted, brave scene. Stunning.
The Red Wedding takes place in the middle of Martin’s third novel in the series, A Storm of Swords. It represents the turning point in the war — the Lannisters, for now at least, have no real challengers. Robb (Richard Madden) might have won every battle he fought, but he managed to lose the war when he married Talisa (Oona Chaplin) and alienated the creepy Walder Frey (David Bradley), to whom he had sworn he would marry one of his daughters.
The geriatric Lord Walder — who Robb still thought was an ally — exacted his revenge by killing Robb, the pregnant Talisa, and Catelyn Tully. Weep!
Michelle Fairley has played Catelyn, the matriarch of House Stark, through three seasons of Game of Thrones. Her Catelyn has been a wise, if not always heeded, war counselor to Robb: she is rash (she did begin the war, after all, by snatching Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion), loyal, brokenhearted over her dead husband (Sean Bean as Ned) and children (who are not actually dead). She has brought a gravity and warmth to the role.
I spoke with her recently about filming the Red Wedding and her Game of Thrones experience.
I imagine you took this job knowing Catelyn’s fate, but please tell me how that worked.
Michelle Fairley: I read the books. And I knew what lay in store. It’s an incredibly dramatic storyline, and it’s one to be relished, and one to be enjoyed, actually. For an actor to be given the dramatic scenes that I’ve been given — it’s a sheer joy, actually.
I know each actor has his or her own rules about reading the books, and what they do and don’t want to know. What was your methodology?
MF: I read per series, Kate. For Series 1, I read Book 1. And then you use the book along with your script, because the boys don’t always stick to the books. It’s a good template to use with the script. But your script is your bible. That’s what you go to. If you’re doing a scene and it actually exists in the book, you can go back to that chapter and reread it, and reread it again. George writes the internals of a character — he gets what the character is thinking, he gets the thought process, he gets to what they’re actually feeling at that point. You can use that as another layer. But ultimately, you have to honor the script.
As you approached reading Book 3, A Storm of Swords, knowing what was within, what was that like?
MF: It’s an incredibly brave thing for a writer to do, to kill off some of his leading characters. But that’s why audiences stay with it. Because they’re shocked. This world is ruthless, it’s exciting, it’s exhilarating, it’s like, “Oh my god” — it’s like being in that world. It gives you a physical reaction.
When you read both the novel version of the Red Wedding and the script version of the Red Wedding, what was it like?
MF: The two are very different. In the series, for dramatic purposes purely, they’ve upped the ante massively. They’ve got Robb’s wife there, and not only have they got Robb’s wife there, she’s also pregnant. The stakes are higher. There’s a higher murder count as well. Catelyn is actually murdered at the end of it as well — and she commits a murder too. She slits Walder Frey’s wife’s throat: That’s not in the book. There’s something wonderful that this honorable woman, who never really consciously put a foot wrong in her life, ends it by killing another human being. But she feels justified by doing it in retribution. She has nothing left to live for. As far as she’s concerned, her children are all dead, and she’s just witnessed the murder of one of them. Why would you want to survive? Not only is the slitting of Walder Frey’s wife’s throat an act of revenge — justified revenge — it’s like saying, “Kill me, I don’t care. I do not want to be on this Earth anymore.”
The Red Wedding is in many ways the pinnacle of the books: It shows that no one is safe, and there aren’t happy endings here. It extinguishes all hope!
MF: It’s brutal. I don’t want to use the word holocaust, but it’s like a nuclear explosion. This is where you realize, “We are mortal. We are absolutely mortal. We are only here because we are allowed to be here.” And if someone is plotting and scheming against us, you are but a pawn within this world. Life is so cheap.
And you were a key player in this turning point.
MF: It was wonderful to be involved in it. We had an incredible script. We had David Nutter to direct it. We had David Benioff there. And we took a week to shoot the whole process. We shot it chronologically. We started on a Monday with the wedding, and as the week progressed, as we got toward Friday, it got darker and darker and darker. That psychologically prepares you because you’re doing it in order. You’re allowed to go through those emotions — in order. And so by the time you get to the point when Catelyn is pleading with Walder Frey, and trying to tell her son to get up and get out, you feel like you’re there. You’ve gone through the whole thing. It’s wonderful work. It’s wonderful writing to be involved in. It’s so rich, and it’s so heartbreaking.
What were some of the specific conversations you had with the other actors and with David Nutter and David Benioff to try to make the scene achieve its highest aims?
MF: We talked about being true to the emotions. There are very gradual stages in the Red Wedding. And it’s about hitting those stages. They changed it, as well, because you’d think if you were watching your son being killed, you’d go to him. You’d want to take him in your arms. You want to go towards him, but you can’t. You can’t do that, you’ll weaken your position. Your body wants to do one thing, but in order to achieve this, you have to remain in control. Your muscles are sort of vibrating because you’re standing there with all this stuff inside you. You have to hit your dialogue, and you’ve got to make it rational. There’s a lot at stake here. This is life and death to Catelyn. She wants her son to survive, so she is fighting for his life at this point. It’s not about being hysterical; it’s about being controlled, and containing that anger. That was one of the many challenges of the scene.
This is an important piece. We knew how important it was to the writers, because they’ve mentioned it many times. It’s dramatic. It’s incredibly dramatic. And you want it to be a success.
Richard Madden’s Robb aside, you had very little time on screen to bond with the actors playing your children. One of the tragedies of Catelyn is that she thinks her kids are all dead when in fact they’re alive. What have you done as an actor to try to carry Catelyn’s burdens?
MF: The fact that we get to spend time off set with each other is fantastic. Not only have I known these lovely people for three years, it’s three years of friendship and of love and respect. So even if I don’t get to shoot with them anymore, I’m still seeing them, so my love for them is still growing. I think that is something I can use in terms of the way Catelyn loves her children. Because I’m still getting to know them, and I still love and care for them. I’m watching them grow up. I’m watching the actors that they are and what they’re achieving, and the human beings they’re becoming. It’s wonderful.
There are a lot of characters marked for death from the very start of the series. How do you all talk about that on set?
MF: There is banter. Of course there’s banter. When you’re dealing with something that’s heavy, you’re going to have a lot of fun. The classic thing is that if you’re in a comedy, you’re miserable — but if you’re in a tragedy, usually you’re having a ball! It’s cathartic as well. It’s a good purge. When you’re doing a play or something that’s a tragedy, you’re getting your therapy on stage. It’s not often that actors get this sort of material. It’s so engrossing and enveloping and deep. And I just adore it. I just love it.
What was your good-bye like with everybody?
MF: Tearful. But warm. At the end of three years working with this incredible crew, you become really good friends. They’ve been great. They’ve been helping you along the way. And it’s sad to say good-bye to that working relationship. The whole production side of Game of Thrones is incredibly special. Everybody who works on it knows they’re working on something amazing. To say good-bye to that is gut-wrenching.
What have been some of your favorite Catelyn moments?
MF: I loved doing the Red Wedding. It was very collaborative, it was very much about working it out as a group. Having the actors there, the writer, and the director: It was very much an ensemble piece. That’s exciting, and that’s thrilling to be involved in. And to feel like you contributed something as well.
The scenes that I’ve loved as well are the ones when all the family are together. I loved the scenes when the Lannisters came to Winterfell, and all the Lannisters and the Starks were together: Those were great fun. We all get on brilliantly, we have such a laugh together. It was great to have the scenes with the kids, because those were the things I keep in my head when I’m thinking about them. Those are the memories Catelyn takes with her when she’s off trying to achieve the reunion of her family.
I’ve been incredibly fortunate. I’ve worked with Peter, I’ve worked with Conleth, I’ve worked with Aiden, Richard, Sean. I’ve had some of the best actors in that series to have scenes with and I’ve been incredibly lucky. I’ve loved every second of it.
So Catelyn is dead, but in the books, she is not actually gone! She becomes Lady Stoneheart! Who has deep gashes in her face from scratching herself, can’t speak because her throat was cut so deeply, and was in the river for a few days before being brought back to life. She marauds around killing Freys, plus anyone who might have done the Starks wrong, and appears occasionally going forward. Have you talked to Dan and David about Season 4?
MF: Well, you’ll just have to keep watching. You’ll have to keep wattttttcccchhhhin’.
The way Lady Stoneheart, zombie Catelyn, is described — she’s completely insane, basically.
MF: I’m completely insane, so it mightn’t be too much of an acting stretch!
Were that to happen in the show’s future, would that be fun?
MF: No one knows, no one knows. Sorry, Kate!
Oh my god — I’m asking IN THEORY. You mentioned before that at the end, Catelyn is purely consumed by vengeance, and that seems to be the after-death version of her. Which seems to be great fodder.
MF: Of course. For an actor to play something like that, I think visually it would be incredible. How do you portray evil, vengeance, lust for revenge? What does that do physically to a human being, what do they end up looking like? How do they attain it? The embodiment of that is something that would be incredibly exciting. Even evil people are justified. If you’re playing a character like that, you have to find a way of liking them.
This interview has been edited and condensed.