Before the Scene with John Bradley

by AJ Buckley on June 24, 2014


Before the Scene is where we all start. In a small town with our families. In front of a mirror with our friends. The days spent sleeping on a couch. The nights working at a bar. Living with the unknown and surrounded by uncertainty. It’s about the times that define us. It’s about the darkness just before the limelight.

John Bradley is a theatre and screen actor from Manchester, England. After a small role on Tom Fontana’s Borgia, he was cast in the role he is best known for, Samwell Tarley, on the wildly successful HBO fantasy drama Game of Thrones. With Game of Thrones currently airing its fourth season, Bradley can next be seen in the independent Irish film Trader.

What made you want to be an actor?
I was fascinated by the concept of entertaining before I knew anything about the craft of the actor. I watched a lot of comedy and a lot of entertainment shows on TV and I went to shows when I was a child. I was so impressed by the power that these people seemed to exert. They made people listen to them. It amazed me. They could influence the mood of complete strangers. They could make happy people sad and sad people happy. And they could make people laugh and cry and that power was something that fascinated me before I even knew that it was something you could do for a living. I went on to become a student of entertainment. I started to do it. I realized that it wasn’t only something I wanted to do: it was the only thing that I felt I could do with any sense of accomplishment.

What was your biggest fear?
Just that I wouldn’t work. I think that is quite a common one. When I was at drama school, there were a lot of people who were very hard working and committed to the whole process of networking and writing to casting directors and agents. And I was always slightly concerned that if I didn’t hit the ground running straight away out of drama school, I wouldn’t have the industry required to be applying myself to these tasks maybe twelve months down the line. I was just worried that I would lose my passion for it and drop out of the game while, unbeknownst to me, something was going to be just around the corner. I was mainly just concerned that I wouldn’t have what it took to really struggle on if I didn’t come up with something straightaway.

What was your lowest point?
I went to such a stage-based drama school. It was just very theatre-orientated. When I first knew that I got the part on Game of Thrones, I knew it was going to be a big TV job and that it was going to be my first introduction into TV acting. I was going to be swimming right in the deep end. I got very, very paranoid about just not being able. Not having the tools required to be able to pull that job off. I was just so utterly nervous about being thrown in the deep end and being completely out of my depth. So I worried myself sick about it right up to the point I arrived on set. And I found it to be very inclusive and a very supportive atmosphere. But I still got very depressed that I was going to be kind of “found out,” if you know what I mean.

What was it that kept you from walking away?
Coming out of drama school and being thrust straight into Game of Thrones – and that’s something I’ve been working on the last six months of every year since – I’ve not really had the chance to think about walking away. Looking forward into the future, I think that some of the people I’ve worked with so far – some of the more mature actors like Peter Vaughan and James Cosmo – they’ve done everything in their career and they’re still so passionate about the job. Still so passionate about the process and the craft. It really inspires you to just keep going and to just accept any job that you might get because you’re gonna learn something from everything. Just keep on going in the acting profession, even if you might get down sometimes, because ideally you want to finish your career with a body of work that you can look back on and be proud of. Just keep going.

What did you walk away from?
I definitely walked away from my prejudices about the difference between TV and film acting, and theatre acting. And I was glad to do this. Like I said, I went to a drama school and it was very theatre-based and I felt so stimulated by that world and that type of performance. And I thought that theatre was the ultimate test for an actor and film TV was a pale imitation of that. A place where the same levels of discipline didn’t matter and you could bluff your way through it. When I worked in TV for the first time, I realized what a huge challenge of discipline and concentration and craft that acting in front of a camera can be. That was the moment that I realized that there were really huge seismic gaps in my knowledge. And I was happy to walk away from that ignorance.

gameofthrones14_127_web Samwell Tarley (John Bradley) and Jon Snow (Kit Harington) in Season 4 Episode 9.

Who has been your closest ally?
I would definitely say my agent. I had no experience of professional acting, or the industry at all, when I first went into the business. I could act. I knew I could pull off the job of acting a part, but I was just concerned that I would get swallowed up and lose sight of myself. My agent was always a very reassuring presence, telling me it was fine to maintain control of my vision and my lifestyle. She empowered me to believe that I was in charge. That I didn’t have to sell myself to get on in the industry. I just have to work very, very hard. And once that very close and understanding relationship was established, we haven’t really looked back.

What were you doing the morning before the audition that changed your life?
Oh, that would be the Games of Thrones audition. That was in spring of 2010 and I was still at drama school. That morning, I was still pleading with my director to let me go to the audition. They didn’t have to let me go. They were well within their rights to say, “You can’t go. You’ve gotta stay and rehearse for our last show.” It was because of their very good grace and generosity that I was allowed to go at all. And then my train was diverted from Manchester to London, so I was very nearly late. I look back on that morning quite a lot, actually. As your career carries on, you owe a huge debt of gratitude to certain people for certain little moments. They could have said, “You’ve got to stay.” And the train may have been delayed to such an extent that I was late, and they wouldn’t have let me audition. So looking back on such a pivotal moment, quite a lot hung in the balance.

What were some words that kept you going?
I’ve always remembered a quote. “A sad clown would be even sadder if he wasn’t a clown.” As I’ve gone on in my career, that’s really inspired me to recognize the importance of entertainment and drama and acting. It’s the perfect position to be in to forge these intimate connections with complete strangers. That’s why I keep on doing it. No matter how down you may feel sometimes, making those very special connections with the people you’re working with, I think, is making some of the most special kinds of relationships.

How do you feel like you’ve changed?
I’m no longer too self-conscious about my body shape or my weight or anything like that. I used to be quietly embarrassed by it. I used to put up a front that I wasn’t too embarrassed by it, but deep down it was something that was holding me back. I used to look with envy at muscle bound people and I wanted to be like them. But now I’ve embraced it to the point that it’s one of the biggest advantages of my career. If I’d been in perfect physical shape, I would have never been given the opportunity to play this part. Sam’s weight is such an important part of his psyche and such an important explanation of all those boundaries that he has within him. A large actor had to be found for that part. I’m not specifically advocating from a health point of view, and I know how damaging it can be. I’ve been working very hard in the gym for quite a few years to try and stay healthy and keep the shape. I’m just referring to a physical point of view from a casting perspective. And if anybody considers themselves to have any physical shortcomings as an actor, I think that you should embrace it. Because it may turn out to be used to your advantage.

What words do you have to inspire others?
Patience is a virtue, really. If you’re an aspiring actor, there will be a part out there that you are absolutely qualified for. It may not even be written yet because drama is a huge canvas on which to paint every different type of character. There will be a part somewhere in some time that you will be made to play. So just be patient and stick in there. Because imagine if you give up one day too early. You’d never forgive yourself. Always think about that. Imagine if I give up on a Tuesday, and something great’s gonna happen on a Wednesday. Just be patient.