The standard opening line when speaking to someone about the TV series “Game of Thrones” basically amounts to a spoiler alert.
It’s no different when talking to actress Michelle Fairley, who plays Catelyn Stark in the popular HBO cable series.
“I’ve seen Season 3 and I’ve read the books,” I tell her.
“I’ve read the third book and a little beyond,” she replies.
“Our photographer, Chieko, hasn’t started the first season yet,” I say.
Good. Our positions have been established.
Star Channel aired the first season of “Game of Thrones” at the beginning of the year and is currently screening the second season. The show has even popped up on download sites with fan-made Japanese subtitles. Last week, “Game of Thrones: Season 1” came out on DVD and Blu-ray in Japan.
The program, based on a fantasy medieval-era series of novels by the venerable U.S. author George R. R. Martin titled “A Song of Ice and Fire,” has been a hit for the HBO network overseas and a lot of the appeal comes down to plot shifts and surprises that send social networks into a spin when they are broadcast.
“If you want to know (the plot twists), you can go online and find them,” Fairley says. “But the main fans kind of made a pact that they wouldn’t discuss it. There’s a lot of respect out there for the experience and to not destroy the story for other people. Also, the series doesn’t always stick to the books, (scriptwriters David Benioff and D.B. Weiss) take artistic license. It’s based on George’s novels.”
Does that mean Fairley has to issue spoiler alerts every time she wants to talk about her day at work with family or friends?
“It’s unfortunate for them, they’ll have to keep up,” she says with a laugh. “I see them a lot more often than anyone else so I might just accidentally use a different verb tense (when referring to a character) and they’ll say, ‘What do you mean?’ (laughs). But of course I don’t go out of my way to spoil.”
Here’s what we can tell you. “Game of Thrones” is a TV series that centers around several families on two fictional continents called Westeros and Essos, which resemble medieval Britain and Europe. The Starks, that’s Catelyn, her husband, Ned and their five children — and Ned’s illegitimate son — live in and rule the North. The king, Robert Baratheon, suspects political treachery in the capital and asks Ned to help him rule Westeros. Meanwhile, the exiled son and daughter of the king whom Robert deposed are plotting their way back onto the throne from overseas. Oh, and there appears to be a budding zombie problem in the far North.
The show has been called a cross between “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Sopranos,” and as Fairley notes it is more than just an exercise in fantasy.
“As an actor, fantasy is completely new to me,” she says. “People may approach (the show) and think, ‘Hmmm, fantasy? I’m not so sure.’ But in ‘Game of Thrones’ (that element) comes in very slowly and gradually — it’s not full on. The show is mainly about the drama in people’s lives. A lot of people can’t really explain why they love it, but I think it’s because it’s a bloody good story and it looks incredible.”
Part of the reason “Game of Thrones” is such a visual treat is its locations, which include Northern Ireland, Iceland, Croatia and Morocco. Another key element is the costume work of Michele Clapton. Fairley describes, with a fair bit of awe, how Clapton and her team work on the set.
“You go into the room for a fitting and it’s covered in visual references and pictures,” she says. “There are mood boards for each district and kingdom in the show, so there will be colors that all the characters in the North wear — blues, grays, browns and greens — and as you go south to (Westeros’ capital) King’s Landing, the sun is shining more and there are lighter colors and fabrics. Northern clothes are functional and need to protect you.”
The idea of family sigils is very important in “Game of Thrones” (the Stark family’s magical symbol is a super-sized wolf), so first-time watchers should look for references to these in the fabrics and the costume jewelry the actors wear. When asked if Fairley gets to keep any souvenirs, she sighs, “No, though there are plenty of things I’d love to have.”
The producers are bringing “Game of Thrones” to an audience in Japan that already loves a good historical epic. National broadcaster NHK has a 50-year tradition of showing yearlong taiga dramas, which each center on an aspect of Japanese history (the current one is about Yae Niijima, a female gunslinger in the 1868-69 Boshin War).
So far, though, Japanese media hasn’t been concentrating on the historical aspect of “Game of Thrones.” Fairley’s Japanese media team says in addition to the standard questions about her character and what it was like to work with actor Sean Bean (who plays Ned), reporters have focused on the strong female characters that dot the series. “Game of Thrones” was originally criticized by some for being exploitive in the amount of nudity it features, but in many circles those critiques have subsided in favor of an argument that author Martin is a feminist.
Fairley says when it comes to the story, she has seen a difference in how men and women talk to her about the show.
“A lot of women I meet really love the representation of women on the show, and how strong they are,” she says.
Playing a lady on the show, Fairley says when people meet her in real life they often treat her in an incredibly polite fashion — as if they were addressing the nobility of her character.
“It’s very flattering,” she says with a laugh. “I look at them and can see they want to ask questions, because maybe they’ve read the books, but they also don’t want to ask and spoil it.”
I suspect Fairley is reading my mind at this point and I take my chance: “Because you know, I’m dying to ask you a certain question about a particular character that could pop up in Season 4.”
Fairley laughs and leans in: “And I won’t answer you if you do. As politely as I can put that, I think the enjoyment comes from not knowing and having the thrill of experiencing.”
“Game of Thrones: Season 1” is on sale now on DVD and Blu-ray.