It’s hard to say how many people at the Royal Albert Hall coffee morning are Game of Thrones fans, but with an average age of around sixty, you wouldn’t put your money on all of them knowing their Ser Gregors from their Sand Sisters.
So it’s a relatively relaxed Isaac Hempstead Wright - better known as Brandon Stark, the Three-Eyed Raven or, depending on your taste for outlandish fan theories, the Night King - who takes his seat near the back of the room with a cup of black coffee and a complimentary Danish.
We’re meeting here because Hempstead Wright loves classical music. He’s a fairly nifty pianist himself and even studied it at university before that all went horribly wrong - more on which later - which means he can answer my layman’s questions about the difference between Beethoven and Prokofiev and does so, patiently. As people shuffle past and settle in for the morning’s entertainment, a harried-looking man with grey hair invites himself to share our spot. Perhaps oblivious to the fact he’s sitting next to a star of the biggest show in TV history, he puts his cup down and complains the table is a bit wobbly. Swiftly and without a fuss, IHW swoops down and fixes it with a folded up program.
Through the tall windows of the grand old building, the first proper sunshine of 2019 appears like an unexpected compliment. Two young musical prodigies walk in and take their place at the front of the room. One sits at a grand piano, the other holds up a violin. After a hushed silence they lift their arms, and begin.
There are two iron rules when it comes to writing about Game of Thrones and the people who star in it. First: you must comment on the fact that ‘no one in the show is safe’ - not even the main characters. Despite a penultimate season which disappointed somewhat on that front - since running clear of George R.R. Martin’s source material, more conventional, last-second, narrow escapes have begun slipping into plot lines - this is still broadly true.
The second thing you must do is make a joking-not-joking point about HBO having a sniper rifle trained on their actors at all times, lest they let any spoilers slip. This could range from details about an aforementioned death (imagine!) to something, say, about the lining on a new Lannister tunic. Either way, the Game of Thrones online fandom will be sure to hyperventilate and draw far-reaching theories about what it means for the end of the show. For old hands like Isaac, 20, being probed for details by everyone he speaks to has become part and parcel of the job; a job that, somewhat incredibly, is now coming to an end.
“The producers just say: don’t fuck up,” he tells me over a medium rare steak and a pint of pale ale in the corner booth of Hawksmoor, in Knightsbridge, later the same day.
"We've all let a spoiler slip at some point."
“I think everyone has at some point, though. I remember being at school and talking about Dean [Charlie-Chapman, who played boy King Tommen Baratheon], and saying: ‘it’s so sad, we’ve become really good mates this year and now he’s dead!’ And everyone was like: ‘what? He’s not dead yet!’”
When IHW auditioned for the part of Bran Stark in the pilot of Game of Thrones- an episode in which the young Prince witnesses an act of Royal incest, gets thrown from a castle window and sparks a series of events that would lead to the death of his family and wars between several kingdoms - he was just 11 years old, a little boy growing up in ‘a little village in Kent’.
“It’s hard to remember life before Thrones,” he says, which is understandable. “I was just a typical kid. Hanging out in the woods, playing football. I grew up properly in the countryside, no shops or anything.”
Aside from some school plays and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it part in a Channel 4 ident, Game of Thrones was IHW’s first acting gig. It would, of course, prove to be quite some introduction into the world of showbiz.
“Even when the show started to get big, my friends were too young to watch it. It was actually all the teachers who were fans - it gave me a lot of kudos with them...”
It is generally agreed that the risk for any successful child actor is that they become something of a spoiled brat - rather than, say, the type who’d bend over to fix a wobbly table for an old man without giving it a second thought. For IHW, you sense there was never much danger of that.
“I think my Mum was always conscious, when I had auditions, that it was about fun and having a day out. It was never: ‘you have to get a job’. It was much more ‘just take it as it comes’.
"It’s hard to remember life before Thrones. I was just a typical kid".
His mother, a support tutor at a university, made sure IHW maintained something like a normal life, shuttling between Belfast to film and school back in Kent. Not that she met much resistance. For many 10-year-olds, messing around on a TV set might seem like the perfect excuse to try and forget school even existed, but IHW – a self-described ‘real nerd’ - was different.
“I was lucky in the sense that I never had a huge amount to film, and it was spread out enough so that I could go to school pretty much all the time. There were a few times I had to be away, but I was pretty studious so I was good at just catching up whatever I’d missed. Which was a good thing, because the whole ‘having a tutor on set’ thing just doesn’t work - you’d do a scene then have a quick break and it’s like right, ‘now for 3 minutes of Geography...!’”
‘Being studious’ is perhaps putting it mildly. IHW’s A-level results were an A in Maths, an A in Further Maths and an A in Chemistry. Coupled with his gifts at the piano, there’s no getting around the fact that Hempstead Wright is a very bright young chap. And so, hard as it may be for some people to understand, the idea of postponing a life of stardom to go to university and crack the books made perfect sense. It was just his fellow students - and the mainstream press - that had other ideas.
Terry zip-up bomber jacket by Casablanca at Browns.
In a TV show famous for sex, violence and political chicanery, Bran Stark is the only major character all-but disqualified from all three. Not only has he been crippled from the waist down since the very first episode, he has spent most of the show far away from the power plays of King’s Landing or the blood spilling in the North, on a spiritual quest with only Hodor the lovable giant (great for carrying stuff; not so good at conversation) and some other minor characters for company.
As such, it stands out as a uniquely difficult character to play. Bran’s scenes - usually set in a snow blizzard at what looks like 2am in the morning - are captivating and often pivotal, but they’re rarely much fun. He doesn’t get to swing a sword or crack jokes (which is a shame, because in person IHW is very funny), making him something of an anomaly among fans: neither fully loved nor hated, but perhaps more than any other character a source of intrigue and endless speculation.
And memes. Like almost all the cast, Bran has had his fair share of those.
“It's quite fun. I remember doing a scene when Bran was chatting to Meera [Reed] outside a cave while lying down,” IHW recalls, “and I just knew as we were filming it would end up being a ‘paint me like one of your French girls’ meme. And lo and behold, when it came out…”
Of course, social media being social media, the feedback hasn't always been so lighthearted.
"People really started to have a go at me around season six, when Bran became the Three-Eyed Raven. I remember getting a torrent of abuse after Hodor died, like it was my fault. Suddenly people decided to attack my appearance. They were like: ‘what happened to your nose?’ I was like: ‘I don’t know!’. Whenever you’re really self-loathing you can delve into this cesspit of Instagram messages that people send you. I got one from this guy going: 'hi, I’m a plastic surgeon. I’d be really interested in doing some rhinoplasty on you'. I was like: fucking hell!"
In season seven, Bran was finally reunited with what remains of the Stark brood having completed his transformation into the aforementioned, all-seeing tree wizard who knows the secrets of the past and future (most burning among them: the two hottest characters in the show, currently bonking their way from battlefield to battlefield, are related). It’s genuinely difficult, at this point, to predict whether Bran’s face will be the last one the audience see as he surveys a decimated kingdom from the top of a hill somewhere or whether, with all those big battles left to be fought, he’ll be shuffled off into the background of the story.
Either way, the part has been an enormous challenge - and one IHW has lived up to from day one. David Benioff, who along with Dan Weiss is responsible for creating Game of Thrones, remembers when the pair first realised they had a young actor on their hands capable of portraying one of the most the complex characters on the show.
“During one of the first scenes he ever shot, when Bran watches his father behead a deserter, Isaac avoided the pitfalls child actors so often fall into,” he tells me over email.
“He never played it cute; he never hammed it up. He was always believable as the young son of a powerful lord, exhibiting a typical kid’s love for antics but also the sober responsibility of a future leader.”
When asked about Isaac the man, Benioff is no less effusive.
“Off-screen, we’ve watched Isaac grow from an adorable and ridiculously well-behaved kid into a handsome and ridiculously well-behaved young man. He often inadvertently makes us feel stupid, whether he’s attempting to describe his studies in mathematics or playing piano with sublime skill.”
In September 2017, Isaac Hempstead Wright embarked on the same rite of passage as millions of 18-year-olds before him and showed up at his new halls of residence clutching a cardboard box of his belongings. Despite the distraction of being in what was by then comfortably the biggest TV show in the world, he’d managed to get a place at Birmingham University to study his two greatest passions, maths and music.
“I walked in and this girl just looked at me,” he remembers. “And I was like: ‘Hello’, and they were like 'Hi(!)'. I went down to get some more stuff and when I came back, they’d had like a flat conference to say: oh my god, what the fuckis going on.
“We went for dinner and they didn’t actually say anything until, eventually, one of their mates was like: ‘so apparently you’re in ‘Game of Thrones?!’ From there we out to some awful club, and it was just ...a massacre.”
"Off-screen, we’ve watched Isaac grow from an adorable and ridiculously well-behaved kid into a handsome and ridiculously well-behaved young man"
In the weeks that followed, pictures began to appear on social of IHW being ‘spotted’ out and about by his fellow students. A story ran in the Telegraphwith the headline: ‘Bran Stark does Freshers Week: Game of Thrones star gets mobbed after starting at Birmingham University’. It was both amusing and sad to watch. It also seemed somewhat naive. What, exactly, did he expect?
“I knew people would be excited and there’d be a bit of fuss. But I could not anticipate the chaos,” he says.
It soon went from bad to worse.
“My address got published. I couldn’t walk out of my halls without having to take a selfie. Eventually I got assigned a campus police officer. There were so many tweets. And because your email is public domain, I got like, billions of emails from people going: ‘Hi, three-eyed raven!’. I was just trying to find out where my next lecture was.”
Orange cashmere sweater by The Elder Statesman at Browns.
He can laugh about it now, but you can tell it was an unhappy and somewhat harrowing couple of months.
“I had the nicest flatmates. But it made it quite difficult to make friends. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to have a normal university experience, which is kind of sad. I couldn’t relax and go out and have a drink or get drunk or whatever, because if I did someone would be like: ‘I saw Bran and he was all fucked up’. My ex-girlfriend came up to visit and we just sat in my room for a week.”
It wasn’t long before IHW realised he had to quit his dream of studying numbers and notation and instead turn his attention full-time to the curious job of being on TV.
Maisie Williams, who plays Bran’s slightly older sister and firm fan favourite Arya Stark, has shared IHW’s unusual adolescence.
“It’s been weird for all of us, growing up on the show,” she tells me. “But Isaac has handled it like a trooper.”
It is interesting to compare Williams, Hempstead Wright and Sophie Turner, the other youngest Starks to make it to the end of the show. While the girls - Williams in particular - seem to have grown quickly into their fame and seem comfortable in the spotlight, IHW still has the air of someone just going along with all for a bit of fun, curious to see how it all pans out. There is no sense, speaking to him, of any grand master plan when it comes to his career.
"I knew people would be excited and there’d be a bit of fuss. But I could not anticipate the chaos"
“He is very outgoing but also quite measured,” Williams says of her co-star. “He has a good laugh but only with certain people.”
He is also, she says, ‘hard to pin down’.
“One minute he’ll be telling me about this rave he went to and the music he is into. The next he’s sat on the piano playing classical music. I honestly don’t know what Isaac will do next.”
Benioff find it similarly difficult to predict his future.
“If he wants to be an actor, he’s already proven he has the chops. But we could easily imagine him teaching in a university somewhere, or writing the Great English Novel.”
Back in the Royal Albert Hall’s Elgar Room, Yume Fujise (on violin) and Sten Heinoja (piano) are finishing their fourth and final piece of the morning: ‘Syncopation’ by Austrian composer Fritz Kreisler. Isaac Hempstead Wright has taken it all in with a steady gaze, following the rise and fall of the music, its twists and turns and fluttering complexities, while understanding - more or less - the difficulty of the undertaking and the immense talent required to pull it off.
As we file out of the room, walking a few feet behind the young pair as they talk giddily about their performance, he plays down my suggestion that, in another life, he could have been up there with them - or at the very least, one of their peers at the Royal College of Music over the road. He was never that good, he insists. I wonder whether that is true, or whether the hours he could have spent practising were instead spent ‘shivering in Belfast’ playing Bran Stark, son of Ned Stark, Warden of the North.
After a walk through Knightsbridge in the unlikely sunshine, where a few people do a double take but, mercifully, none ask for selfies, we arrive for lunch. With our time almost up, I ask IHW for a different kind performance to one we've just watched, though one similarly well rehearsed.
Ladder proof nylon roll-neck by Prada.
So, what can he tell me about Game of Thrones season 8?
He adopts a comedy American accent, like the voiceover in a movie trailer.
“It’s bigger! It’s better! It’s even more epic!”
And then he settles down, because he knows I’m serious. People always are.
“All the episodes are longer, more or less. Well, not the first two. Obviously there are some big battles. Episode three is going to be something else. There are definitely things wrapping up from many, many seasons ago where you’re like: oh, I never thought that would come back.
“And characters are now coming together who have never been together before. We saw that Daenerys is at Winterfell. It was cool getting to work with people on set that I knew in a social context, but had never worked with before, like Emilia [Clarke]. She’s really sweet.”
"It’s bigger! It’s better! It’s even more epic!"
So there you have it: whatever you do, don’t miss episode three. And watch out for an unlikely last minute power play by Hot Pie the baker. I ask IHW how he feels about ending the show.
“It’s definitely sad,” he says, “but it’s the right time for it to happen.
“The very last scene I shot - and it was a lot of other people’s last scene - it was actually quite pathetic, everyone was in floods of tears. It was so actorly. They read out ‘that’s a wrap’, then David and Dan gave a speech.
“And I remember thinking: I’m not going to cry. I’m feeling fine. Then they brought out our wrap gifts, which were these framed storyboards from a key scene, and the waterworks turned on.”
I ask for the bill, and the waitress steals a glance the 20-year-old opposite me before giving us the surprise news that lunch today is on the house.
Isaac’s eyes widen like a White Walker has just sat down at the table. He asks whether that usually happens.
“It does not,” I tell him, before adding gently: “I’m pretty sure that’s because of you.”
Just for a second, Isaac Hempstead Wright sits back and ponders this like it’s the strangest idea in the world.
Grooming by Liz Taw @ The Wall Group, fashion assistance by Stavroula Zoi.
From: Esquire UK