Over his two-decade career, Paddy Considine has played cops, ex-cons, priests, architects, struggling actors, union organizers and rock band managers. But when his agent told him that Ryan Condal and Miguel Sapochnik wanted him to play King Viserys I Targaryen in HBO’s “Game of Thrones” prequel series, “House of the Dragon,” he couldn’t quite believe it was real.
“I said, ‘Who’s turned this down?’ Because I’m cynical that way,” he says. “My agent was like, ‘I assure you, they’re just coming to you for it.’”
Part of Considine’s disbelief was due to his feeling that the industry at large had only ever seen him as the working-class striver he made his name playing in the 2000s, in films such as “In America,” “My Summer of Love” and “Cinderella Man.”
“I felt like I couldn’t break free from it,” he says. “I was happy to act. But I just felt like I was capable of so much more than what I was being given to play with.”
In Viserys, Considine felt he could finally showcase the full breadth of his talent. The first season covers 20 years of in-fighting and betrayal within the Targaryen dynasty, as Viserys defends his decision to name his daughter Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock in the first half of the season, Emma D’Arcy in the second half) as his heir to the Iron Throne, rather than his younger brother, Daemon (Matt Smith), or his children by his second wife, Alicent (Emily Carey in the first half, Olivia Cooke in the second). That battle grows even more difficult after Rhaenyra’s children are fathered by a man who isn’t her husband, an unvoiced scandal that Viserys refuses to acknowledge.
Meanwhile, throughout the season, Viserys’ body wastes away from an undiagnosed degenerative disease (that Considine says was most likely “a form of leprosy”) — until the monarch finally perishes in Episode 8. The character’s extreme physical decline, however, wasn’t the primary draw for the actor.
“I loved his virtues,” he says. “In that world where everybody’s fighting over this seat, he was somebody who wasn’t corrupted by it. I thought this will work if I can make him human.”
The 49-year-old talked with Variety about some of his favorite moments over the course of the season, and how playing the king of Westeros enabled him to deliver some of his most vulnerable work to date.
Did you know from the start that he would only last for one season?
Yeah, I was told that. That was the first tiny bit of disappointment. But then I saw the character arc and his demise, and I thought he was a gift. Sometimes things just come to you at the right moments. I feel like I was ready for him. A couple of years earlier, I wouldn’t have played him so well, bizarrely. But I’ve done a big theater run in the West End and New York. Because I wasn’t trained in acting, I felt like, somehow, I finally done my school and learned something about the craft.
What do you think you did differently, having had that experience?
I learned a sense of freedom. There’s nowhere to hide on stage. Sometimes in characters, I’d hidden in them, instead of express them, if that makes sense. Some of my performances over the years were: “How beautifully restrained by Considine.” But I’d see someone who’s scared to do anything, to really jump the fences and dive in there. Viserys gave me the opportunity to do that. I saw all this conflict in him. I saw all this dignity. Those were really interesting things to play, to be a dignified man in that cutthroat world.
Do you feel like the pressure to follow “Game of Thrones” was not as great for you because you knew the character’s full arc?
Yeah — and I just had a sense that it was going to be good. I just did. You know, Matt [Smith] said to me one day, and it wasn’t in a derogatory way: “You really mean this, don’t you?” Yeah, of course. That’s why I’m here. I wasn’t just there doing a gig. But very early on, I said to myself, “If this show fails, it’s not my problem. I’m not taking that on.” So I never felt pressure in that way. I just felt a sense of responsibility to that character.
How did you prepare to play Viserys?
A lot of it was emotional stuff that I could relate to. I’ve got teenage daughters; I could relate to that aspect of it. I’ve lost people in my life that I love; I could relate to that. And then the main thing was to plot his physical demise. We actually started shooting Episode 7 first, and he’s very far down the line by that time. So we had to map out where I thought he was going to be. He’s suffering badly. He’s kind of rotting. He smells.
So how did you sort out where Viserys was in time as you were shooting?
There was certain amount of, like, in Episode 2, he’s got half a finger. Episode 3, his fingers are starting to go. By 4, he’s lost half of his arm. That had to be worked out because of the VFX work for missing digits and things like that. The only thing that changed was how bad he got in Episode 8. My father died of cancer, and that slow decline, with that weight loss, it’s just an awful thing to see. That came in when we were well into shooting, so there was no world in which I could lose weight. I was shooting other episodes and we were jumping around too much. Then the idea that he’d lost an eye. Then the idea that his cheek had rotted. And then he wears this mask. To me it was just like, yeah, give me it all. There was something about playing somebody sympathetic and beautiful who’s still trying to hold on to their dignity, but they also very disfigured by it all.
What were some sequences or scenes from the season that brought the character to life for you?
In Episode 1, the scene with Milly, the young Rhaenyra, where I tell her about the [Song of Ice and Fire] prophecy. We shot that twice. To be fair, it was Milly’s first day, and even though I’m doing all the talking, it’s a big number to put somebody into. A scene like that is better once you’re established in this story a bit more. So we went back and reshot it. Doing that sort of dialogue —it doesn’t come easy. So I was really putting that belief in it, like the world itself depended on it — which it did. That was a scene that I was really proud of.
Episode 3 was great at the hunt. I’m just sitting on a chair all day and people keep coming up to me and I had to play all these different scenes with different people. He’s slowly getting more drunk, and it all gets too much for him. I just loved playing that build up until eventually he goes outside and breaks down, because he might be wrong about the prophecy.
In those scenes, I could see how Viserys was really starting to hate the job of being king.
Yeah. I think he saw through it. He saw through people. He was a lot wiser than people give him credit for. He’s not stupid. The situation with Rhaenyra and her children, he was very alive to that. That’s how I always played it. But it’s like any family that has these kinds of secrets: I was determined that it wouldn’t get out and I wouldn’t allow people to talk about it.
It’s remarkable to me that you shot Episode 7 first, because you’ve talked about how much the premiere episode — specifically the death of Viserys’ first wife, Aemma (Sian Brooke), from a botched C-section birth — was so formative to your conception of your character.
When you’re working on something like that, you can still be kind of fluid. That death scene was a tough couple of days work, particularly for Sian. It was so emotional, that it really cemented the love that Viserys felt for her. You know, people misunderstood and thought that he’d decided to kill his wife. But that wasn’t the case. She and the baby were both going to die, no matter what, but we could possibly save the child if we perform this procedure, which just turned into butchery.
That’s the guilt that Viserys has carried with him. How she met her end was something that haunted him for the rest of his life. When he started to become sick early on, it was almost a manifestation of the guilt that he felt over Aemma’s death. So he just allowed himself to get sicker and sicker. He never asked for a cure. He never asked for help. Viserys almost accepted his fate, really, as punishment.
How did it feel to play someone who became so infirm and vulnerable and in so much pain?
There’s a couple of things in it. I’d seen illness myself. My mom ended up blind and lost both of her legs to diabetes. She very much had those qualities that Viserys had, too. She tried to remain dignified, but there was a part of her that had just given up on herself. That was a difficult thing as a son to watch. Also, my wife and daughter watched Episode 8 when it aired in the U.K. I was in another room because I didn’t want to see it. My wife says, “You’ve done the work. You need to see it,” and she showed me the episode. The end, when he lies in the bed, it was very shocking to me, because I looked the image of my dad when he was dying of cancer. The image of him.
Playing somebody who’s dying is a strange thing, especially a prolonged death. When you do it over a period of days, and your breathing’s shallow — my oxygen level started to go down. I had to be taken off set and given regular fresh air, because I was nearly passing out. It’s almost like your brain starts to tell your body that you are sick. It’s really quite weird.
If this is too personal, please tell me, but were you thinking about your father when you were filming Viserys’ deathbed scenes?
Yeah, I definitely was. My father was really fighting. The nurses came around, they said he has 24 hours. Then it was three days later, and they’re looking at you going, I don’t know what’s keeping him going. I remember one day looking into his eyes, and I just said to him, “Dad…” — this is very difficult. [Long pause.] But I said, “Dad, just let go. Just let go, Dad.” And he couldn’t. He didn’t want to let go. You know, this is big stuff, but times in his life, he’d attempted to take his own life. And then when I see him dying, I wasn’t sure if he finally was like, “Actually, I really want to live,” or “I am fucking terrified of dying.” I still don’t know to this day. But sometimes when people pass, I feel like they know. It’s like when a dog goes away to die on its own. And I felt that very much with Viserys.
Do you think part of why this role was so meaningful to is because it allow you to access this connection to your parents?
I do. Yeah. I think that was probably at the root of it. As the character developed, it did allow me to access that. I wondered, was it a catharsis? I’m not sure if it even is now. I don’t know how I feel about it now. But I was definitely playing both of them at times, just because I’d experienced it, if that makes sense.
It makes total sense. Was it challenging at all to shake that off once you were done?
No, it wasn’t. I like to think I’m quite good at it. At the end of the day, it’s done and the clothes are off. We were also exhausted from the shoot and I think I was ready to get out of there. But I really loved Viserys, and I missed him. When Series 2 comes around, I wish my comrades well, but there’s a hint of jealousy in there. Because I’m like, “Ah, I don’t get to live it again.” But at least I got to tell a full story. He had a beginning and he had an end. And the end was pretty spectacular.
This interview has been edited and condensed.