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John Bradley of 'Game of Thrones' Told Us About How His Nice Face Can Hide Inner Evil

The 'Traders' actor's take on Samwell Tarly—the nicest man in Westeros—is surprisingly dark.

by Mike Pearl
Jul 20 2016, 9:53am

John Bradley. All photos by the author

John Bradley plays Samwell "Sam" Tarly, one of the 33,250 main characters on HBO's monolithic TV phenomenon Game of Thrones, also known as "the only thing you care about in the world if you're honest with yourself." Game of Thrones—as you may already know—takes place in a gruesome, medieval fantasy world where everyone is always scheming and murdering everyone else. Sam, meanwhile, possesses a unique quality known as "niceness," and Bradley's role as the sweet, gooey center of a very cold, salty donut, has made him a breakout character, and a fan favorite.

Yesterday, HBO announced that season seven of Thrones is about to start shooting, but that fans won't be getting their show back until late next summer—meaning this will be a longer break than usual. In the meantime, if you need a fix of John Bradley's lovable face, you can always check out the new movie Traders.

But there's a catch: In Traders, Bradley plays a guy who is not at all nice. Traders is a thriller about a group of out-of-work finance bros who find themselves plunged into a sinister get-rich-quick scheme hatched by Bradley's character, Vernon. Vernon's scheme is called "trading," and it goes a little something like this: (1) Fight another guy—a willing participant—to the death. (2) Winner hides the body and takes all the other guy's money. (3) Repeat until rich, or until everyone is dead, whichever comes first.

Coming up with the scheme is only the beginning of Vernon's depravity.

For the guy who plays Sam, playing a villain seems to be a change of pace. But when we sat down for a chat with Bradley, he reminded us that there may just be evil lurking behind nice faces, and seemingly nice deeds. He even conceded that his own success as an actor could be viewed as a form of manipulation.

VICE: What's a nice guy like you doing in a mean movie role like this one?
John Bradley: The one thing that really attracted me to this part is the fact that as soon as they expressed interest in me for this role, I knew they were taking a very interesting approach to casting these parts. You get the good guy, and the bad guy. You look at myself and Killian [Scott, who plays the film's protagonist] and you see—one of us is 6'2" and in great shape and really good-looking and brooding. And then the other guy is considerably shorter than that and pudgy and looks like he's never done a day's work in his life—

Which guy is that?
That's me. So, you automatically assume that the imposing guy is the bad guy. He's the guy who's going to come up with all the bad ideas, he's the antagonist, he's going to affect the life of the good guy. He's going to come into the good guy's life and completely tear it apart. As soon as you get that [my character] Vernon is the bad guy, you understand that they're really playing around with those stereotypes.

As an actor, how did you craft a villain?
I've always likened Vernon to the Penguin in Batman. You expect him to be friendly and open. It's definitely a Freudian thing—round things you're drawn to. They seem comforting. And the thing about Vernon and the Penguin is they're both very soft and look very playful, but are incredibly sinister.

In the film, you've got a few scenes of actual hand-to-hand combat.
Yeah, that's right.

"Sam, over the course of the six seasons, has really revealed himself to be a master manipulator."

That's not new for you—there's tons on Game of Thrones. But to me, your fight scenes are more memorable than those involving other characters. Why is that?
Most of the characters I play, even when they're involved in fighting, they're being beaten up a lot of the time. People may think it's less of a skill than being active in a fight, but being hit and playing the part of being hit is really quite difficult. Because your body reacts in a certain way when you've been punched. You find it quite hard to synthesize that movement. A kind of explosive movement.

I actually think your fight scenes have more physicality even when you're on the offensive.
That's one thing that I really take pride in. I think that when I get beaten up—whether it be in Traders or Game of Thrones or anything else—it doesn't look graceful at all. It looks ugly, and violence is ugly. And I think a lot of the time, in things that you see onscreen—not things that you see onstage, but mainly on the screen—fighting looks incredibly balletical. It looks like it has no effort. And it's very graceful, and it flows. It looks like a dance number. It looks like tai-chi or something.

Kind of like fighting without violence?
I think violence isn't like that. Physical fights don't last 20 minutes. They're exhausting, and they take everything out of you. And one punch to the face, if it's right, will stop the fight. People don't tend to get 20 punches to the face and carry on fighting. That's something that happens in Traders: the fact that—for budget reasons—we couldn't film fights for a week at the time. We had to film most of them in one day, or sometimes two in one day, but I think that really helped, because they're short fights between two guys who don't fight. They've been driven to extreme violence by the desperation of their own circumstances. So it's not an examination of cinematic violence; it's some of the most realistic violence I've ever seen. And because of that, it's anti-violence.

Could Sam on Game of Thrones still take a dark turn?
Well, the capacity is absolutely there. Sam, over the course of the six seasons, has really revealed himself to be a master manipulator. Even back in season one, Jon is elected to be Commander Mormont's steward, and it's Sam that convinces him it's a good thing. He plays on Jon's emotions, and he uses his very persuasive language to get Jon to change his mind. He gets Jon to change his mind three or four times throughout the whole series.

If he's a "master" manipulator, the manipulation would have to have worked. Would you say it's worked?
The fact that Sam's at the Citadel at all is because throughout season five it was a major political campaign of manipulation. To get Jon into the Lord Commandancy at all—to manipulate him over the whole crowd of people who were voting—he gives a political speech. You think he's doing it for Jon's benefit, but he's not. He's absolutely doing it for his own benefit because if Jon is Lord Commander then Sam's able to get out. Every time that he manipulates Jon and convinces Jon that he's doing something for Jon's benefit, he's actually doing it for his own and Gilly's benefit. So in terms of Sam being selfish, he's incredibly selfish for him, Gilly, and baby Sam. And nobody else matters.

Is that really a bad thing?
I think he's got very little feeling for anybody else—the world has treated him very badly. He has contempt for his father. He has contempt for the wider world because he knows how cruel it is. What he's found is a nucleus, like an oasis of positivity and among it all, he cares fiercely about them. I don't think he cares [about the people outside of that group]—he even says it in season six: "I don't care about them. I do, but I don't really." So he has, within him, that kind of coldness and that detachment from the rest of the world. He just cares passionately about three or four people.

You have the exact same warm, friendly face as Sam and Vernon. Are you a manipulator too?
I wouldn't call what I do manipulation, but I think that to get what you want, no matter what it is, you've just got to use everything at your disposal. I don't think there's anything wrong with that until you start hurting people.

"Is it better to be nice or good? I think it's better to be good than nice."

So when is it wrong to use your niceness for your own benefit?
I was having this conversation with somebody else the other day—there's a huge difference between nice and good. Some people are nice. Somebody like Bob Geldof, for example, doesn't come across as a nice person, because he seems quite aggressive and surly, but he's a good person, because he does good things. Or you get somebody who looks nice, like Vernon, and he's actually very, very bad in his core. So here's the question: Is it better to be nice or good? And I think it's better to be good than nice.

Looking around online, it seems like you have a lot of gay male fans. Could that be a potential direction for your work in the future?
I think there's this kind of sub-category of people who like chubby men with beards, but I don't know what they're called. I should probably find out. I have heard about that, and I'm deeply flattered. But I think that, once again, to go back to "use whatever you've got," I'd never rule anything out. But as far as opportunities go—if you're talking about straight men such as me—[then] in what capacities do you mean?

There are regular old theatrical films about "bears"—just about people hangin' out. Could you see yourself in something like that?
Absolutely. I'd never do something because it was a "bear" thing, but I'd do a good thing if it was a bear thing. I'd be doing it because it was good, not because it was a bear thing.

It could just be drama that appeals to people who like bears, but it's arguably six of one and half a dozen of the other. After all, Game of Thrones...
GoT appeals to people who like violence and boobs. But I've been having a conversation with people about this—Hannah Murray [who plays Gilly] being one of them—and we're saying there must be a certain faction of the Game of Thrones fan base who really don't like our storyline—people who come to see people having their legs chopped off and getting disemboweled and huge, sweeping battles may not have time to see two broken, damaged characters falling in love.

You don't think your scenes are in danger of being back-burnered in season seven, do you?
I think that they know that enough people do like it to make its inclusion worthwhile. They know that not everybody's going to be delighted by everything. As long as that all kind of levels out, then everybody gets a kind of fulfilling experience. I think there are some who find Sam and Gilly's stories rather frustrating. But then there also some people who are sick of seeing boobs.

Traders is available to stream now on Amazon. Game of Thrones won't be back on HBO for over a year.

Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.

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