When Samwell Tarly first stepped foot at Castle Black in season 1 of HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” fans couldn’t have imagined he’d be dueling with a White Walker, training in the Citadel and delivering monumental news to the true heir of the Seven Kingdoms in the years to come.
Similarly, actor John Bradley looks back on his eight seasons as Jon Snow’s trusted companion in the series that became a worldwide sensation and notes a paralleled sense of personal growth. “When [Sam is] put in extraordinary circumstances, you find out what he’s capable of,” says Bradley, 30, who made his acting debut in the role of Sam in 2011. “I think that’s reflected on me as well.”
Midway through the series’ eighth and final season — which has so far included Sam’s involvement in the discovery of Jon Snow’s true lineage, a full-circle moment for the late Jorah Mormont and the epic Battle of Winterfell — the actor says goodbye to the series that’s changed his life and career.
Sam has gone on an incredible journey over these eight seasons, so far.
The progression of the character has been so steep and dramatic, you don’t come out of it being the same character you went into it as. Everybody has had such a transformation. The main thing that I take away from that period of self is reflecting on my own period of self-discovery as well while playing the part. At the start, you never would have thought Sam was capable of all of the things he achieved and he probably wouldn’t have thought that. As an actor, I wouldn’t have thought that about him as well. He was a complete write-off almost.
What have you learned from Sam? How has this character impacted you personally?
I had a lot of struggles with self-worth and self-esteem and self-doubt and self-love in my journey and I think everybody does. I think I’ve suffered with it maybe more than maybe a lot of other people do and over the course of the show — the show becoming what it is, my place in it — I was given different, more difficult and more important and central things to do. Our producers and the viewers, I was wanting to keep them all happy and not embarrass myself. I can do this. I can be an actor. I can play this part. I’m not going to be embarrassed by the talent that’s around me. I’ve found my place. That’s the journey that Sam’s been on: not believing he’s capable of much and then he learns what he is capable of. Our journeys have run parallel.
Did your final goodbye to Sam involve getting to take home anything special from the set?
I didn’t get to take anything, no. I really wanted to! I really wanted to take the thimble that Sam gives to Gilly back in season 2 because his mother was the only source of warmth and comfort and love in his early life. It means a lot to me as a symbol of what this character has meant to me. I’ve been wanting to take it. I always had it in my pouch, I had a little pouch, and I thought it was going to be in there and I reached into it on the last day and it wasn’t there. I don’t know where it is. But the memories are the most important thing of such a special time in my life. The show is always going to be there. I can look back whenever I want.
And I’m sure you’ll be looking back fondly for a while.
I’m sure I’m going to look back my entire life, even when I’m a very old man my memories are still going to be with that show. I can show the progress of my life alongside it. As long as I’ve got those DVDs on my shelf, or however people will watch in 50 years time, all the memories will still be there. Samwell, he’s hung up in a cupboard somewhere. He’s completely gone. There’s no chance I’ll ever slip into that role again. I’m not going to make contact with him again. He’s not in my life anymore. I have to come to terms with it in the next few weeks or months or years or a lifetime. It’s like if you have an old friend and you’ve lost their number. You think about them but can’t get in touch with them. The show itself is going to be very poignant and beautiful to look back on for the rest of my life.
What are you hoping life after “Game of Thrones” looks like for you? Are you hoping to use this platform as a launchpad for your career?
Yeah, I think so. I mean the question is an interesting dilemma really because we’ve been a part of this thing that’s taken over the world and you’ve become familiar and known because of that, but also you get a sense that nothing is probably going to match not only how big it’s been to the public but what it’s mean to our lives. For all of the actors, like myself and Emilia and Maisie and Kit, it was their first job — first big job at least. Nothing is ever going to mean that much to us. But in terms of being a launchpad, it taught me everything I know about how to be an actor for camera. I didn’t quite know what I was doing at times. … This show is going to be at the center of everything probably for the rest of my career. These chances come once in a lifetime. A No. 2 to happen is almost impossible. But I just want to keep acting, keep playing characters and telling stories and you don’t have to be on the biggest show in the world to do that.