The first thing Isaac Hempstead Wright wants people to know is that when ‘Game of Thrones’ is finished he’s not going to “do a Jack Gleeson”. Gleeson was the young Irish actor who played the vicious king Joffrey Baratheon on HBO’s swords and sorcery epic. When his character was killed off, Gleeson, then 20, retired from acting. He had been a lead player on the biggest show in the world, and yet wanted nothing more to do with the fame game.
“I do want to keep acting,” says Hempstead Wright over lunch at a favourite Italian restaurant near his London home. But first he wants to get through university. Now that ‘Game of Thrones’ has finished filming, with just the (admittedly huge) publicity and promotion for the final season to get through, Hempstead Wright will finally get the chance.
He’s tried once already, going up to Birmingham last year to read music and maths. It didn’t work out — after eight years as Bran Stark on ‘Game of Thrones’, he was simply too famous to be a student.
“I ended up being assigned a campus police officer. It was all quite surreal. My university address got published in the press, which meant that every time I walked out of my halls pretty much I would have to do a selfie with someone. That’s the last thing you want at nine in the morning when you’re trying to go to a maths lecture.”
This will be the first chance he’s had to live the life of a normal 19-year-old since he was cast in ‘GoT’ aged 10. Hempstead Wright deserves a little normality — he is smart, solicitous and very good company. Lunch covers topics from the books of neuroscientist David Eagleman to the band he’s just formed to Glyndebourne.
As that story suggests, he is not like most young actors: he is tall, wears glasses and is still a little gawky. But then his path to fame has not been like that of most young actors. He grew up in Kent, where he started going to the local drama club “because football club was too cold”. His teacher allowed him to do a few auditions and the last one he tried — after he’d failed to get a role in an ad for ‘Top Gear’ — was for an HBO pilot called ‘Game of Thrones’. He was cast as Bran, one of the children of Northern ruler Ned (Sean Bean).
In the opening episode, Bran walks in on Jaime and Cersei Lannister, brother and sister, having sex at the top of a tower. In the first of the show’s many shocking, violent moments, Jaime pushes Bran out of the window, paralysing him from the waist down. What did the Hempstead-Wright parents make of this show?
“It was a genuine dilemma. They had to think, ‘Should we let Isaac do this?’ Not least because this is a show about incest and murder. You have to be the right kid for it and you have to be the right parents for it.”
That Hempstead Wright is so obviously level-headed suggests he was “the right kid” (and the fact that his mother chaperoned him on set until he was 16 suggests she was the right parent). He saw some things that a 10-year-old probably shouldn’t, but he says the context was all-important.
“The violence, basically, was fine because it’s debunked instantaneously. When you’re watching Sean Bean literally playing football with this decapitated head [off camera], the magic is lost.”
‘GoT’ has helped him to grow that thick skin. In the age of social media, he is all too aware that some people just don’t like the character of Bran.
“Bran’s one of these unglamorous characters, and I know quite a few people are sick of him. But me? I have loved Bran. He is this character who lost everything. He’s a disabled 10-year-old, both his parents were murdered.”
And yet, not only has Bran stayed alive — no mean feat in ‘GoT’ — but in plot twists too knotty to detail here, he has morphed into an all-seeing oracle, the so-called Three-Eyed Raven. As such, while Bran never wields a sword or commands an army, he has become central to the narrative.
“He’s completely triumphed,” says Hempstead Wright. “Right now he’s the wisest man in the universe and I think that’s cool.”
It’s one thing to criticise Bran, quite another to go for the actor playing him. After Hempstead Wright returned to the series for season six, after a break of a year for narrative reasons, he received a lot of personal abuse.
“People just started being really rude about my appearance, and saying, ‘What happened to Bran? He’s so ugly now’. That was my first experience of thinking, ‘OK, people can be quite mean’. But then again, it’s nowhere near as bad as the girls get it.”
I try asking Hempstead Wright for information about the final series but it’s pointless: part of his education on ‘GoT’ has been learning how to talk about the show without revealing any particular plot details. There are rumours that Bran will claim the throne, I say, staring at his eyes for even a glimmer of recognition. Nothing. And if he did blurt something out? “I’d get sued. I’m sure we’ll probably be under NDAs for the rest of our lives.”
But he does say this: “You’re never going to please everybody with something as huge and as wide-ranging as ‘Game of Thrones’ but I do believe they’ve wrapped it up in the most convincing way. And, yes, I do think Bran’s storyline is one of the best.”