The Beguiling Sophie Turner
Dragons, treachery and bloodshed: Sophie Turner has grown up in the fantasy world of Game of Thrones and not only survived, but flourished in a drama that has defined the decade.
On the way to interview Sophie Turner ('Don’t call her Sansa,' I repeat to myself en route), a suited City boy barges in front of me on the escalator at Baker Street Station. I experience a bright, brief moment, somewhere between a dream and a hallucination, where I cleave him from collar to pelvis with a blade of Valyrian steel. I have, I realise, been watching rather too much of HBO’s award-winning swords, sex and sorcery drama, whose fifth series airs on Sky Atlantic in March.
I meet Sophie Turner at Home House on a bitter early-December day ('Winter is coming,' I say on arrival, a nod to one of the show’s leitmotifs). The interview has provided a welcome excuse to immerse myself anew in Game of Thrones. I’d tried when it first appeared on television in 2011, but my wife pulled the plug after the third or fourth beheading, deciding she’d rather spend time in the more genteel company of Don Draper and Peggy Olson. I hadn’t left Westeros altogether, though. Guiltily, and between more high-minded fare, I’d been working through the absurdly gripping novels upon which the series is based. As my meeting with Sansa Stark approached, I drew the blinds, banished the children and watched almost 40 hours of bloodshed and treachery, high Shakespearean drama and dark political machinations. And, um, dragons.
For the uninitiated, Game of Thrones is a labyrinthine, multi-layered epic set in a world that owes much to Wars of the Roses England and Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Based upon George RR Martin’s sprawling, densely plotted A Song of Ice and Fire novels, the series traces the fortunes of warring families on the fictional continents of Westeros and Essos. Most striking about the success of the franchise is that both the books and television series have ridden roughshod over traditional notions of genre. It was once thought that fantasy was a strictly male area of interest, and a very particular type of male, at that – bespectacled, hirsute, slightly grubby and snickering (Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons). But Game of Thrones, with its cast of beautiful, regularly nude starlets (of both sexes), its utterly compelling plot-lines and Wagnerian aesthetic, has drawn in a vast following from across the gender divide, tempting viewers and readers who would usually run as swiftly from dragons in fiction as in real life. Crucially, more than 60 per cent of Martin’s readership is female (in the US, at least).
The show is now a global success, watched by tens of millions worldwide (including Barack Obama, who was given an early copy of season four, saying he could not wait for it to air on television). This number rises to hundreds of millions, once you factor in that it’s the most pirated programme in the world (with, bizarrely, Australia leading the charge in illegal downloads). The series brings Martin, already worth upwards of $50 million, more than $15 million a year, and has made its cast, mostly more-or-less unknown pre-Game of Thrones, both extraordinarily famous and, particularly after a recent fee negotiation for series six and seven, hugely wealthy.
The reasons behind the show’s phenomenal success are numerous and complex. Sex and violence are necessarily part of the appeal. Unfettered by prim network broadcasting guidelines in the US, HBO has been able to present a world bathed in the milky glow of naked flesh and spattered with gore. These titillations are employed as narrative devices, providing regular frissons for the viewer that bind together the more abstract and political elements of plot. What George RR Martin (who is executive producer of the television series) and his scriptwriters, David Benioff and Daniel 'DB' Weiss, have managed to do is knit together a richly evocative and entirely credible fictional world, one which borrows from history and myth, from Scott’s Ivanhoe and Shakespeare’s history plays. The syncretism of the source material gives us a fertile backdrop against which a cast of largely immoral, convincingly human characters act out their venal, twisted power games.
It is this last element – the refusal to allow an easy clash between good and evil to dictate the show’s moral tone – that sets it above its peers. If Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings saga came out of the Manichaean struggles of World War II, then Game of Thrones is the product of the age of Guantanamo, drone strikes and suicide bombers, where good and evil are strictly relative terms. Martin’s heroes are occasionally forced by circumstances to act like monsters, and even his most odious villains are offered the possibility of redemption. It all makes for deeply compelling viewing.
Sansa Stark, played by Sophie Turner, is one of the show’s more demure characters. Only 13 years old in season one of the series, she watches as (spoiler alert) her father, the decent and upright northerner Lord Eddard Stark (played by Sean Bean), is drawn into the Machiavellian schemings of the southern Lannister clan. He leaves his home in the frozen north (close to the vast wall of ice that protects Westeros from ravening hordes of semi-civilised tribes) and takes his family down to King’s Landing, the capital, which is closely modelled on Borgia Venice. Stark’s decency is a hindrance in this world of intrigue and back-stabbing. Finally, Sansa looks on horrified as her father is framed for treason and beheaded by the vicious King Joffrey.
Over subsequent series, Sansa is the victim of attempted rapes; is promised first to the odious Joffrey and then his dwarf uncle, Tyrion (played to perfection by Peter Dinklage); sees most of her family murdered; then is suspected of poisoning the King and abducted by the wily Petyr 'Littlefinger' Baelish (Aidan Gillen from The Wire). Throughout, she maintains glacial calm, a picture of restrained suffering as the show’s writers pile indignity upon anguish on her slender white shoulders. Only at the very end of season four, when she has kissed Lord Baelish, helped do away with her unhinged aunt Lysa Tully, and appears with her red hair dyed raven-black, do we sense a darker current beneath her studied poise.
Sophie Turner sits cross-legged on a sofa in the Home House bar until a member of staff scolds her and she extends her long legs graciously under the table. A pale, Hyperborean beauty, in an ‘I Survived the Titanic’ T-shirt, wire-rimmed sunglasses tucked into the neck, she is garrulous and charming and, well, exactly what you would expect of a pretty, public-school-educated 19-year-old girl from historic Warwick. Sophie comes from a close, comfortably-off Midlands family who have long encouraged her acting. Her father works for an international pallet-distribution company, and her mother Sally was a nursery-school teacher before giving up to chaperone Sophie to Malta, Croatia, Iceland and other glamorous Game of Thrones locations. Sophie describes her two brothers, James, a doctor, and Will, who has recently graduated from university, as her best friends. A member of Warwick's Playbox Theatre, Sophie has been acting since the age of three. Only a slight American twang gives away her superstardom. Sophie has never tried eggs Benedict before and so I, avuncular, recommend them and she eats them in a gusty inhalation.
'I grew up in Warwickshire,' she tells me. 'In a tiny little village. It was really nice, a country upbringing. We had a paddock out the back where horses used to graze and we had three little barns, one for each of us. They were tiny, but they were ours. Obviously, my older brothers used the barns to hotbox weed or whatever, but for me it was just collecting sticks and childish things.' The Game of Thrones role came as a surprise, after Turner's school drama teacher had encouraged her to attend the casting call. 'I didn’t even tell my mum about the first auditions, but by the final audition in London, I said to myself, "I’ll die if I don’t get this part. I just know Sansa too well. I can’t not get it."'
There is, with Sophie, a sense that the separation between her everyday self and her on-screen persona can become blurred. It’s hardly surprising; she has spent the most formative years of her life on the set of the show, has risen and (mostly) fallen with the fortunes of her embattled character. 'Sansa and I have grown up together for the past five years,' Sophie tells me, 'and so when I’m reading the script and something happens to her, I cry all the time. There is a real connection between us – I feel everything she feels. I’d come on set and see something like Ned’s beheading, a heavy, heavy scene to shoot. Having my mum on set for the first three years was really important back then. Because if you get too wrapped up in that darkness, it can really damage you.'
I wonder what it was like for Sophie growing up in a world so soaked in blood and other, less mentionable, bodily fluids. Recently, Saturday Night Live filmed a skit in which a masturbatory 13-year-old boy directed an episode of Game of Thrones, sniggering like Beavis and Butt-head. 'I knew about sex before, of course,' Sophie says. 'But we weren’t shown the scripts in advance, and so my parents didn’t have a chance to stop me doing it.' The first time her mother and father visited the set together was for the filming of a scene where a gang of rioting serfs attempt to rape Sansa on a straw-strewn floor, before being squelchily disembowelled by the vicious strongman Sandor Clegane. I ask Sophie how it coloured her view of the world, seeing all this at such a tender age. 'During the read-throughs,' she says, 'we’d all sit down as a cast and go through the first few episodes of a series and little Isaac [Hempstead Wright, who plays Bran Stark] was sent out of the room. But Maisie [Williams, who plays Arya Stark] and I were allowed to stay for some reason. She was 12 and I was 13. That was when we first realised, "Oh my God! So that’s what they do in this show." But because we’d gone through it so many times, it didn’t seem as bad when we actually saw it on-screen.'
Adding to the instability of this unusual upbringing, for Sophie as for all of the actors in Game of Thrones, there’s the threat of an untimely death, George RR Martin’s pen poised like an axe above the heads of even his most likeable characters. 'I think we’re all very used to it by now,' she says with a slow smile. 'David and Dan will write in fake death scenes just to freak us all out, which is really not fun. We’re all very much on the edge of our seat. They sign us all up for all of the seasons, so we don’t even know via contract if we’re safe or not. We’re all expecting it – it’s Game of Thrones, after all.' I ask how she’d feel if Sansa were snuffed out in the sixth season (which begins filming this summer). 'Sansa had a very slow take-off,' she says, 'and I think if she was to die now, I’d be very disappointed. Because this is her moment.'
Game of Thrones has been repeatedly criticised, online and in the broadsheets, for the sexism, even misogyny, in its attitudes towards women. There are the 'sexposition' scenes, in which complex political points are expounded by a character while buxom prostitutes frolic in soft-porn Sapphic delight in the background. There is the prevalence of sexual violence, particularly a scene in which the rakish Jaime Lannister rapes his sister, the Queen, on the coffin of their dead son. There is the character of Sansa herself, whose impotence in the face of male brutality makes sometimes painful viewing. Sophie tells me that, far from being anti-feminist, the show re-casts history with female heroines. 'It’s based on history,' she says. 'On the Wars of the Roses, on Tudor times, where women didn’t really have a position in the world. But because it’s also fantasy, because it doesn’t need to completely recreate mediaeval times, they can put in these really strong female characters who have a voice in the world, really empowered women who can say what they want – like Daenerys, like Cersei, like Brienne of Tarth.' How does she feel, then, that Sansa remains so cloistered and passive? 'I definitely felt frustrated that mine wasn’t one of those roles. One hundred per cent. At first I thought it was her age, but then I watched Arya becoming this young warrior and it was so frustrating. I kept wanting to do a massive empowering speech or kick ass like Maisie. Then I started realising that Sansa’s got a whole different mindset, that she’s slowly but surely getting there in her own way. It’s how she survives.'
Rumours surfaced last year that Emilia Clarke, who plays the slave-freeing dragon-girl Daenerys Targaryen, had a nudity clause inserted into her contract. It’s true that she seemed to spend most of the first two seasons naked, and has been more regularly clothed in later series. Martin himself has denied any contractual stipulation, promising that he’d write in more nude scenes for Daenerys in future seasons. I ask Sophie whether, now she has turned 18 (indeed, she will soon be celebrating her 19th birthday), she worries that she’ll be asked to bare all in the name of art. She giggles and shrugs. 'I know that if they took me in that direction, it would only be because it was very necessary. David and Dan are like big brothers to me. I think if a scene like that was filmed with Sansa, it would make them feel very uncomfortable because they still see me as a 13-year-old girl.'
Finally, I ask Sophie whether she ever thinks about how she’ll feel about Game of Thrones in retrospect, whether she’ll miss it. 'I do think about what it will be like when it’s all over,' she says, suddenly frowning, looking past me towards the window. 'Although I don’t want to. My whole adolescence has been on Game of Thrones. I don’t know what I’m going to do without it. There’s this huge family that I’ve come back to every year. And the first time it gets to July and I don’t go back there, it’s really going to freak me out.'
The millions of devoted Throners, for whom Westeros seems as real and vital as the world outside the windows, all think that a little. The universe that Martin has created offers one of those critical cultural portkeys that humans seem to need, tapping into the same instinct for escapism that propelled Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings and even Star Wars into the forefront of our collective consciousness. The devotion it inspires is something like a religion, and we should only expect that fervour to grow as the next season is unleashed upon our televisions.
Sophie can’t reveal much of the coming series, but she does tell me to look forward to a 'darker, deeper Sansa Stark'. I leave her and step out into cold eddies of winter air. I walk up to the Tube with my nose in A Dance with Dragons, the fifth book in Martin’s sequence, ready to take on any unwary commuter who steps in my way.
By Alex Preston for the Spring 2015 issue of Town & Country. Photographs by Regan Cameron; styling by Miranda Almond.
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