When I chatted with him last week in a Santa Monica conference room, The King in the North was satisfied.
No, Robb Stark hadn’t avenged his father’s death, nor reunited with his sisters. He hadn’t consolidated power in Westeros and taken his place on the Iron Throne.
He’d simply found out that the cookie he thought contained marshmallows, actually contained white chocolate chips. And that was satisfactory.
In truth, it’s very easy to tell Scottish actor Richard Madden apart from his character on HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” His hair is shorter. His wardrobe goes beyond furs and armor. Oh, and Madden’s also prone to laughing and joking, which hasn’t been a part of Robb Stark’s emotional range lately. Who has time to smile when, as you may have heard, winter is coming.
As “Game of Thrones” moves deeper into its second season, things are getting darker and darker in war-torn Westeros and Robb Stark is moving into uncharted territory. Robb’s exploits are largely discussed second-hand in George R.R. Martin’s “A Clash of Kings,” but to keep Madden in the fold, series showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss chose to depict moments that were only referred to in passing before.
In our conversation — the cookies only came into play at the end — Madden discusses Robb’s evolution, the honor of having scenes added to keep him around and his season-by-season approach to reading Martin’s novels.
[Note: There are some minor spoilers in this interview. They’re very minor, but if you want to remain pristine, tread with caution.]
Click through for the full interview…
HitFix: I’m always amused when I see anyone from your cast out in the world, because when you’re in civilian clothes, it’s practically like you’re incognito. Does it feel like that?
Richard Madden: Completely. Totally. If ever anyone comes up to me, it’s usually like, “You look really like that guy on that show.” And you’re like, “Really?” And they’re like, “Yeah. Cool. See you later.” And you’re like, “Cool, man.” I guess the fur and the leather and the armor, it just makes you look bigger. Plus, my hair’s darker on the show and much longer.
HitFix: How much do people actually recognize you?
Richard Madden: Very little, which is quite nice. I get to keep anonymity.
HitFix: Have you done any circumstances that would make it easier for people to ID you? Have you done any of the conventions or anything?
Richard Madden: I haven’t done that, but we were doing press in Rio and that was the strangest one. In Rio, we did get recognized and crowds would wait outside the hotel for us there and you’re like, “This is quite odd,” because I’m not used to it. I’m just like drinking in a bar in London like I normally do or whatever and you’re in Rio and it’s like, “Well, you can’t really go out of the hotel for a little while.”
HitFix: How easy does it become to get into character when you have all of this external assistance, when you have the furs and the leather and the armor?
Richard Madden: At first, I first tried on these costumes and I was like, “These awesome. It’s perfect and I really love them.” And then you’re shooting and you’re 20 days in or whatever and it’s 4 a.m. and my back’s aching and the costumes are still wet and they stink from the night before filming. And then you’re like, “I don’t want to wear this costume. Why can’t I be in King’s Landing in a t-shirt or something?” But actually, I’ve realized that it’s a huge influence on me as an actor. The costumes are so heavy and they mold around my body in a certain way and it changes how I stand and it changes how I breathe. The cloak dragging along the ground, it changes the way I walk. So actually, these things that could have been a weird out for me were actually really useful in terms of me creating Robb. They really helped me and they influenced the character. I think it’s just like they would be for Robb: They would would change the way that he walks, it changes the way that he moves and stuff, especially when you’re fighting. It could have been a nightmare and actually I find it really useful now. Just don’t ask me to get on and off a horse, because it’s so difficult. I challenge you to watch “Game of Thrones” and see how many people you see get on horses. You see them stepping up… cut away… and then it comes back and you’re on the horse, because it’s like double your body weight and you’re trying to jump up on a horse.
HitFix: None of you guys are naturals?
Richard Madden: Oh, I’m really good on a horse now. Yeah. I couldn’t ride before the show started and I got cast and I was riding four or five times a week. I wanted to make sure that I was as good as Rob would be. He’s been riding since he was a kid, so that’s obviously something that’s hard to achieve, but I wanted to make sure that when I’m on set, that the last thing I’m thinking about is controlling a horse. For Robb, same horse for years, he would be natural and he would be able to control it. I want to just focus on my acting, so I made a real big effort to make sure I’m really good on a horse now. And I’m confident and that’s great for me. Between takes, if I’ve got 20 minutes or half-an-hour, I’ll jump on the horse and go for a ride. It keeps you and the horse’s relationship good and it keeps me refreshed with what I’m doing. It’s just that getting on and off it is difficult when you’re in such heavy costumes.
HitFix: Is it the same horse all the time?
Richard Madden: Sometimes it changes, but Season One I had the same horse throughout and Season Two I had the same horse throughout.
HitFix: What other skills have you been honing?
Richard Madden: The sword-fighting one is one I have to try and get good at. It’s kinda like dancing. The stunt guys are awesome. They make you look much better than you are. But that’s something I want to try to get good. I’ve started into kinda a fitness regime to get as fit as I can be, because Robb’s really fit. That’s my main drive. He’s swinging the sword a lot, as you can see, and he’s riding a lot and he would just have a really high standard of fitness and I wanted to make sure that I have that too, so it’s the same as him. And also, they’re really long shooting days. You’re in the cold and the rain and you’re in this really heavy costume for hours, so I have to try and keep my fitness up, to make sure I can do my job as well as I can.
HitFix: With all of that, how hard is it to keep in mind that Robb is still just a kid out there?
Richard Madden: Yeah. It’s hard. It’s difficult. Especially this season, it’s really difficult for me as an actor, because what I’m trying to do is get what I took from Robb, how I interpreted him in the books, which is this guy who is acting like a man. Actually, in Season One, you see him doing it a little bit and in Season Two, I’ve tried to make him very good at acting as a man and hopefully if I’ve got it right, we’ve got scenes where you see that mask drop a bit, because at the end of the day, he’s got 20,000 men behind him who have got to see him as a man and a leader. He’s got enemies who he’s got to intimidate and be like a formidable foe. So I can’t be who Robb is at heart. You’ve got to put on this mask, which lots of characters on this show dow. That’s what I tried to get in Season Two, is him pretending to be a man and then we get these moments with his mother or with Theon at the start of the season, where you just see that little break in him and you go, “Oh, he’s the same guy. He’s still that guy. He just has to pretend in front of everyone.”
HitFix: How important is it to have Michelle Fairley acting opposite you to remember that the character is still somebody’s not-fully-grown son?
Richard Madden: That’s why my favorite scenes this season are the stuff with Michelle where you’ve got this mother-son relationship where he’s very aware that she is his mother and he does take her counsel a lot, but on the same hand, they’re starting to disagree a lot on where their hearts are lying. Robb, this whole thing started with him chasing his family and trying to achieve getting them back together and also there was a small revenge element.
Richard Madden: Pretty big. But in Season Two, we see that that can’t be Robb’s driving force. He’s smart enough to not let that take over, because it can’t be that. But his mother’s very much in the terms of, “Let’s get the girls back and let’s get reunited as a family,” but Robb’s in a place now where he goes, “Hang on. I’ve got 20,000 men behind me and they’ve all got wives and sons and daughters and fathers and mothers and I can’t hold my family in a higher regard than I hold their family. They’ve pledged their loyalty and they’re following me.” I think Catelyn really struggles to deal with that, because her priority, her heart, still lies with them, but I’m now in position where I can’t afford to let that be my priority. It’s part of it, but it’s on an equal par with the men he’s fighting with, is getting his family back, is getting them back to their families.
HitFix: So you’re thinking that maybe at the end of last season Robb didn’t have a sense of what it meant to be a king, but now…
Richard Madden: Now he’s becoming much more his own man and realizing this responsibility. We leave the end of Season One and he’s proven himself in battle and in lots of different ways that he is a leader and he is a man, even though he’s still boyish at heart. We go into Season Two now and he’s running with that. Season One he’s reacting and he’s being pushed and pulled and having to react to things, but in Season Two, he’s the one pushing and he’s the one pulling and he’s the one forcing other people to react. He’s on the front-foot now and he’s really driving that.
HitFix: We hear a lot about Robb winning these battles, but for the most part, we haven’t seen any of it. Do you miss that, as an actor? Would you like to show that action/aggressive side of Robb?
Richard Madden: I love doing those scenes. It’s great for me as an actor and it tells part of the story, but in my head, especially in Season One, I remember there’s that big battle that we saw the start of… and then we saw the end of it and we missed the middle bit. And I think people might have been disappointed by that and there’s a part of me that was disappointed by it, but then in hindsight, I look back and go, “Hang on a minute. I’ve seen the battle scenes before. I’ve seen that. Would I rather watch 25 minutes of people fighting or would I rather watch the drama that’s in the show,” which is actually what is so exciting for me, seeing the beforehand and the aftermath. That’s more interesting to me than seeing the action sequences. We’ve got them in lots of different shows. You can imagine them, right?
Saying that, this season, for anyone who was disappointed with last season, they’re not going to be disappointed with the battle this year. There’s something that’s going to blow everyone away. It’s going to be awesome and epic and they’re gonna be like, “OK. Fine, we didn’t do it in Season One, because we’ve got this in Season Two and it rocks.”
HitFix: You’re reading the books one-by-one with the seasons, right? Why was that the approach you wanted to take?
Richard Madden: Because sometimes I don’t trust myself as an actor. Initially my focus was the first book. Once I got cast in the part and then I realized there was a huge fanbase for the books and not even just a fanbase, but people who are really passionate and there were a lot of people who had ownership over Robb and knew him before I did and I kinda thought it was my duty to get as tuned up on that first book as I could to know that character inside-out as well as these people did, so that I could be as honest with it. And then it came to me that I didn’t want to read too far ahead, because what I loved about reading Book One and then into Book Two, taking my character out of it, is you see characters and, as an actor, I want to make decisions and stick to that and then you get to a script by David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss] or you get to a chapter in the book and you see a character go in a different direction and for me as an actor, that’s my favorite. It’s a great challenge for me if I’m running this way and then you tell me I have to go that way and you’re like, “OK. Now I need to work out how that character’s done that and what has driven him to make that decision and take him on that path” and I want the audience to be as surprised with every one of those decisions as I am when I first read the books and read the scripts. If I read far too far ahead, then I’m gonna start playing parts of Robb that I wouldn’t have. If I’d read the scripts for Season Two while I was shooting Season One, it would have influenced me and I don’t want it to. I think it’s more challenging for me as an actor and it’s more exciting for an audience member to see this character change live, rather than me letting elements seep in too quickly or too early.
HitFix: How rewarding is it for you to know that Robb is such a small on-the-page part of the second book, but Dan and David didn’t want to lose you, so they created all of this new material?
Richard Madden: It’s a huge compliment to me. I’m just blown away with it. Season Two got greenlit, so I picked up the book and I’m reading it and I’m like, “This is really great. Robb will come in soon. He’ll be here soon.” And halfway through and I’m like, “George has just kept his stuff for the other half of the book. He’s fine.” Keep going and by the end of the book I’m like, “This sucks. I’m in a great TV show that I love and I’m not going to be shooting anything.” And then luckily David and Dan changed that and they put that story in and it was completely flattering for me as an actor, but also really exciting, I think, story-wise for the audience to get to see elements of that story that is reported on throughout the book. It’s reported on, but you don’t get to see it. For example, in this episode on Sunday, you get to see this meeting with this woman and you’re going to get to see them look at each other for the first time and see these elements creep in that you maybe don’t get to indulge in in the book as much as you’d like to. I love that. I love that I get to do that and it’s also a challenge for me, because I’ve had to make a lot of decisions that I didn’t have source material to reference. But on the same hand, it’s given me a huge sense of ownership over Robb, because I’ve worked with David and Dan and I’ve put my work into working out who Robb is and then I get these scripts through with scenes that no one has seen and scenes that George didn’t write, but they come from Robb’s heart. That’s just given me a kind of artistic license to to run with that and make these decisions and have these dialogues with Michelle and with Oona [Chaplin] this year that come from a really honest place of a character who I’ve been living with for four years now, so I really feel like I know him, so it was gift to be able to play things that are new.
HitFix: Do you feel like because of this new information, Robb has become a different person than he is on the page?
Richard Madden: I think yeah, there’s got to be changes. I’m very loyal to the book, but I’ve got to remember that we are doing the TV show and not the book and they are two different beasts and there’s got to be changes. You look at the difference in my age to what Robb’s age is, for example. But then I’ve always thought as well, something I’ve realized, is that in Westeros, in the Seven Kingdoms, a 15-year-old or 16-year-old boy is much older than a 16-year-old boy in our world today. They’ve gone through so much more at such a younger age in these worlds. You get to see it in the whorehouses, for example, girls much younger and that’s a natural process of life and that’s not what we’re used to. So when people say that I’m much older than what Robb is, I say, “Yeah, physically, mentally there’s much more parallels to where Robb is in the book to where someone in their early 20s would be.” They just go through a lot more life experience.
HitFix: How big does this production feel? Are there people on “Game of Thrones” who it feels like you just haven’t seen for years?
Richard Madden: Yeah, completely. I can be at a bar and someone’s like, “Hey, I’m in ‘Game of Thrones.’ I play such-and-such.” And I’m like, “S***! I’ve never met you! How cool is this!” We never see each other. It’s huge. Everything is huge. I never even get to be in the Throne Room, but I go and look at the sets and you get in there and it looks big on TV, but it’s bigger on set. It’s like a couple of football pitches. You’re like, “This is huge!” You get the scale of it. The hotel is interesting. It’s kinda like ships in the night. You poke your head in the bar and you’re like, “Ah. They must be filming tomorrow,” because the world’s so detached now. It’s good. Season One we were all together a lot and Season Two we’re not at all, but I get to meet up with the kids in the bar sometimes.
HitFix: Who do you miss?
Richard Madden: I miss Maisie [Williams] and Sophie [Turner] and Isaac [Hempstead Wright] and Art [Parkinson]. I miss getting to hang out with them, because they were fun. But luckily this year, I’ve got to spend time with them. I’m now gonna miss hanging out with Alfie [Allen] a lot more and Kit [Harington], I missed out on in Season Two, I didn’t get to spend much time with him. It’s difficult, but there are so many parallels to the show. You miss working with those actors, but on the same hand, Robb misses those characters, so there are parallels that you can actually feed on and that’s how it works. At the end of the day, I work with Michelle Fairley, who I have huge amounts of respect for. She’s such a talented actress and I get to have this great dialogue with her and she’s one of my very close friends off-set. And I’ve gotten to meet some great people on this show and I still spend a lot of time with Alfie and Kit, so I don’t feel like I’m missing them too much. I just miss getting on on-screen with them. And I get to meet new people like Oona this year, who I got to have a really good dialogue with and like spending time with.
HitFix: Into Season Two, how available are David and Dan at this point?
Richard Madden: They’re on set all the time, every day, every hour, every minute. I don’t know how they get time to write. I don’t know how they get time to edit. I think they may be robots, I don’t know, because they work so hard. I love that that we’re on set all the time and everything is so interactive and they’re on it and you can go and ask them questions or they’ll change a line or they’ll see something that they’ve missed or they’ll see something that you can do with a look instead of a line. But they’ve written such good scripts that I trust them implicitly and we get on set and they’re there and we can have this dialogue and you can get to see that they’re very much all over it and they care about the show so much. It’s very refreshing to be on a set with the creators that are so actively on the ground. They’re up to their knees in mud just like I am.
HitFix: Obviously the first season of the show was very much George’s. Do you feel like this season is becoming more Dan and David’s? It seems more of a true hybrid.
Richard Madden: Yeah, there are changes this year and I love that it has all come from George’s novels. It always does. Even if storylines change, the heart of it is still exactly where we are in the book. If you look at the parallels, they’re different, but the character are the same people and the story should be the same. What story George is telling, they’re telling. We just have to do it different sometimes, but it’s still the same story and the same people and the relationships are still the same and what influences these characters comes from the same place. But yeah, it’s gonna be different. It has to be different. That’s part of what’s exciting and hopefully part of what lets viewers who have read the books get to experience the story through different eyes as well. It’s got to be different and people who have not read the books, they’re getting to see the same story, with the same heart to it.
HitFix: And what was the conversation like with David and Dan when they reassured you that you were going to be involved this season?
Richard Madden: I was super-excited. I was like, “Yes! Awesome! Good. I get to do some stuff.” But it was also terrifying, because I was going, “Right. Well I can’t do what did last season and really over-research the first book. I need to take up this myself a lot more.” That was useful for me in parallels to Robb, because that’s what he’s doing in Season Two, is he’s taking up mantle and taking charge himself a lot more and I’ve had to do that as an actor and make a lot of decisions myself. So it’s a huge compliment and I’m huge thankful for them for keeping me actively involved and for challenging me as they have done.
HitFix: When are you going to know what the approach to the third book is going to be?
Richard Madden: No idea. I can’t wait to get our first scripts. We don’t get them all at once. You get sent the first couple and then you get another couple and you’re like, “Give me them all! I need to know!” That’s what’s so exciting is you just have to ride this journey and it keeps you guessing just as much as it does the audience. I’m hoping to get the first scripts through in hopefully the next two months, I’ll get something in and find out what’s going to happen in Season Three.
HitFix: Have you started the third book yet?
Richard Madden: No.
HitFix: When does that process begin?
Richard Madden: I’m just finishing up this press tour, so I’ll kick it as soon as I get back to London. I was in the middle of a day of interviews when they told us this was greenlit, so I was like, “OK. Good. I can go ahead and engage in that.” So I’ll start that as soon as I get back to London.
HitFix: So you have no idea if Book Three is going to be two seasons or where it’ll be divided or anything?
Richard Madden: No idea. I get told bits and bobs, but then things change. So I don’t know and I’ve not been informed of anything. I think every actor’s excited to pick up and see how much they’re going to do and how much of the fourth book they’ll pull into the third and what bits of the second book that they haven’t pushed in yet that maybe are going to come into Season Three instead and that’s exciting.
HitFix: And you mentioned Rio and you’re in LA. What else has this press jaunt consisted of?
Richard Madden: Well, I was in NYC and then Mexico and then Rio and then Miami and now I’m in LA. It’s just been awesome. I can’t believe that so many people watch this show and so many people not only watch it, but like yourself today, a really intelligent interview. I’m not just getting asked what my favorite color is and what my character likes to do in his spare time. I’m getting asked intelligent questions. For me, that’s a gift, because I geek over this show and I love it and I love talking about it. That’s all we do as actors off-set is talk about it in the bar. The drunker we get, the crazier the theories go, but it’s a joy, so I haven’t minded this.
HitFix: That sounds tremendously geeky.
Richard Madden: It’s so geeky! You should see some of my text between me and Gethin [Anthony] and Harry Lloyd, even. The texts get geeked out. You would laugh.
HitFix; But some of you have obviously read ahead. How do people resist…
Richard Madden: They don’t! Everyone tells you everything. You’re like, “Oh come on!” There’s a lot of covering your ears in the bar. It’s like, “Who’s read what? OK! Cover your ears. That’s enough.”
HitFix: Who’s the biggest fan of the books?
Richard Madden: That’s hard. I don’t know. There are some actors who haven’t read them at all. I have to read them. I need to as an actor. I want to. Who’s the biggest fan? Hmmm…
HitFix: When the last book came out in hardcover, who was the first person to get their hands on it? Who was the first person texting you about it?
Richard Madden: Hmmm. Maybe Mr. Harington. He can’t put them down. I’ve constantly got this restraint and I’m like, “Don’t. Just don’t do it. Don’t do it.” Whereas Kit, he just went through them like cookies. And now he’s like, “Awww. I’ve got nothing else to read now.”
A new episode of “Game of Thrones” airs Sunday on HBO.