Liam Cunningham Didn't Exactly Jump At The Chance To Join Game Of Thrones

By the time "Game of Thrones'" ended in 2019, the show had burned a lot of the goodwill it initially generated for fantasy storytelling. Besides seemingly being designed to "break the cast," it flattened characterization in exchange for blockbuster action setpieces, invalidating nearly a decade of nuanced, complex narrative in the process. If the show had always operated in that mode, it might not have been as big a deal.

The fantasy series surprised people when it came out, not with massive medieval sets or dragon CGI, but with its dense scripting and political heft. The characterizations had depth, enough to ensure that any actor coming in would have a wealth of interesting material. A major character like Cersei (Lena Headey) made for one of the most intriguing antagonistic performances in recent television, and the righteous leader of the people Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) had a suggestive mean streak explored valiantly by Clarke.

Even a longtime supporting character like Ser Davos (Liam Cunningham), the Onion Knight serving under wandering general Stannis (Stephen Dillane), saw a richly felt performance. As Davos, Cunningham has an ineffable weight, adding gravitas and profundity to big setpieces or clunky exposition. The character's inherent warmth and tragedy, brought to life by Cunningham's vital work, turned him into a fan favorite that would play a major role in the show's final seasons.

When he was first pitched the show, however, Cunningham's response was a simple "not interested."

Cunningham didn't care

Liam Cunningham was first brought on the show for its second season, as an accomplice to Stannis, one of the brothers of the recently slain King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy). His storyline in this introductory season sees him as a strangely honorable figure in the midst of the cruelty and backstabbing that makes up a lot of "Game of Thrones." While Stannis plans to kill his other brother in the hopes of securing his own spot on the throne, Davos quietly fulfills his necessary duties. Cunningham plays him as a conflicted man who keeps his doubts on the inside.

For Cunningham, the man who almost played the Doctor on "Doctor Who" many years ago, this role was deep and probing, more challenging than most of what he was offered, and he took it very seriously. As he told GamesRadar in advance of the season airing, "You need to up your game when you're working on this stuff. It's tough, but incredibly rewarding as an actor, it's almost like doing theatre." That wasn't how he initially felt when the role was proposed to him.

Reflecting on his origins on the show for Sunday World, he claimed, "When I was first contacted about being on 'Game of Thrones,' I said very quickly that I was not interested." He was part of a long tradition.

Actorly disinterest

For starters, fantasy movies and series tend to cast a vast array of middle-aged or older British character actors to sell their authenticity. Many of the actors (including plenty who worked on "Game of Thrones") have no illusions about the quality of the material, thinking of it purely as a job. It's like Michael Caine doing "Jaws: The Revenge" and claiming in his autobiography "What's It All About" that it was worth it for the paycheck and the house he bought with it.

Even on "Game of Thrones," veteran actors like Ian McShane and Stephen Dillane (above left) had little interest in the material. McShane appears in the season 6 episode "The Broken Man" as a retired warrior type who rehabilitates the presumed-dead character of The Hound (Rory McCann). When he inadvertently gave away some of the story he would be involved in, he dismissively (and not entirely incorrectly) referred to the show as being "just tits and dragons." Meanwhile, Dillane had no real idea of what was going on in the show, telling Entertainment Weekly, "I didn't know what I was doing until we'd finished filming and it was too late."

Dillane's most common scene partner was Liam Cunningham, who, he claims, was incredibly invested in the material, in a way that was "quite moving." Cunningham was able to explain much of the dramatic subtext to Dillane, as well as how their material fit into the larger show.

Fighting for the character

Liam Cunningham became very passionate about the show and very protective of the role of Davos. As he told Sunday World, his initial biases against the material were overcome when he finally got the chance to dig in to the scripts, "I realized it was a story of power, legacy and paranoia, with the fantasy and dragons just a powerful backdrop for a fantastic drama." Because of Davos' lacking ambition and humble demeanor, the character proved valuable as the show began to move from conniving politicking to existential, fantastical threats. Cunningham continued to play him with the same inner-strength and humor, and his enthusiasm for the show's future plotlines was palpable in interviews.

In the "Game of Thrones" oral history, "Fire Cannot Kill A Dragon" (via IndieWire), it's revealed that Cunningham even fought with the show's writers against certain potential threads for Davos, such as a romantic interest in the young Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel). Cunningham recalled saying, "You're not undoing my hard work engendering the sympathy of the audience to have him be a perv."

"Game of Thrones" might have a complex legacy, one that has on occasion come close to poisoning the excitement that greeted the show. But the characters, from Davos on down, continue to be vivid and memorable, proving how lucky we were that Cunningham got involved despite his initial misgivings.