Joffrey was about to die and everybody was pretty relaxed about it.
There was Tyrion, reading his iPad and occasionally making a joke. Sansa Stark was happily dancing in her chair. Lord Tywin was pacing, having a smoke. Prince Oberyn socialized, thrilled to be there. Lady Margaery took a stroll through the park, running her lines. Jaime Lannister practiced sword moves with his left hand.
On the set of Game of Thrones in Croatia last September, the largest gathering of series regular actors since the show’s pilot assembled in a Dubrovnik park for Joffrey’s wedding celebration. The sequence would be shot over the course of a week by director Alex Graves, with showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss both on hand. As a long-time fan of the books and series, there was something supremely satisfying about watching the story’s most despised villain, Jack Gleeson as Joffrey, meet his fate over and over again as the scene was repeatedly shot in different ways. In terms of satiating fictional bloodlust, it’s an experience that’s tough to beat. And when you’re surrounded by rows of tables lined with opulent piles of exotic food, 200 costumed extras, red and gold banners. and a 20-foot lion’s head, it was all so meticulous and immersive that it was hard to not feel like a King’s Landing wedding crasher.
During rehearsal, Gleeson’s well-known real-life politeness sharply contrasted with his character’s loathsome behavior. It was is a bit like viewing schizophrenia. The actor berated musicians played by band Sigur Rós and threw coins at them to go away, then as one band member noted, “He’s always giving us this ‘really-sorry’ face… He doesn’t want to throw them at us, but they keep telling him to throw them. It’s amazing how he can play such a bad guy and be such a nice guy.” Gleeson was told to throw a wine cup, yet set it down carefully, worried about breaking it. At another point, he kicked the same cup under the banquet table and Lena Headey exclaimed “Ow!” so Gleeson gave another “Sorry!” And though Joffrey tormented his uncle Tyrion (Dinklage) on screen, off screen their roles were playfully reversed, like when Gleeson spilled a couple drops of wine on that iPad. “Sorry, it’s just a little dribble,” said Gleeson. Dinklage shot back: “What did you call me? … God you’re such an asshole!”
A cynic might assume Gleeson’s politeness was part of the act since a reporter was on the set, or stemmed from wanting to improve his odds at landing future gigs since he’s leaving the show. Yet the Trinity College philosophy student has long shunned media attention and plans to retire from acting.
“He’s not like one of those method actors that goes into a dark place, because if he was he’d be horrible to work with,” says Sophie Turner, who plays Sansa. “You can’t meet anyone nicer on the cast—everyone wants to hang out with Jack.”
Showrunner Dan Weiss, wearing a “Don’t Hassle The Joff” T-shirt, watched as Sigur Rós made their acting debut. “If they look nervous in front of a total sociopath, it’s not the worst thing in the world,” he noted. Later, as Joffrey shouted at Tyrion to kneel before him, the producer joked, “I just want him to say, ‘Kneel before Zod!'”
During the pie-cutting scene, where Joffrey smashes into a four-foot pastry with a sword and birds fly out, there was some uncertainty. It was the type of stunt, the producers noted, that would typically get cut from the script of most other shows. The gag is rather elaborate and only accounts for a few seconds of screen time. Yet, the producers felt it helped typify Joffrey’s self-aggrandizing wedding celebration and fought to include it. Still, most shows would have at least used computer-generated effects for the birds, but not the Thrones team, which avoids using CG whenever possible.
“Live birds, what would go wrong,” Weiss deadpanned.
“They could fly back to Bosnia,” fellow showrunner David Benioff suggested.
“They could attack Jack and peck his face off,” Weiss countered.
Gleeson practiced with his sword, unable to resist making some whooshing sounds as he swings it about.
Once the cameras rolled, Gleeson snapped into character — swaggering up to the pie, soaking up the crowd’s attention like a rock star. He took careful aim. He swung down and a pneumatic blast puffed the birds into the air.
Gleeson looked startled. No matter how many times you’re told birds will burst out of a pie, you’re never really ready for it.
Graves took a moment to chat while scrambling to keep all the wheels turning in the complex sequence. “I have the burden of killing one of the most hated men in television history and I want to make it one of the greatest episodes of the show that’s ever been done in honor of Jack, because he is one of the most beloved cast members on top of being a phenomenally talented young actor,” the director said.
The trick with the wedding, Graves noted, was in its misdirection. Unlike the Red Wedding, set in the gloomy hall of House Frey, this celebration is deliberately staged on a sunny day in a beautiful park grove to delay the audience from suspecting a major death. Gradually, viewers would catch on that something serious is going to happen, but they’re not ever supposed to think Joffrey could be the victim.
“I’m trying to steer all the suspicion so it doesn’t occur to you that the strongest guy in the room is the one who’s gonna get it,” Graves said. “What we’re playing is that it’s all really fun, and then things start to get weird, and you assume they’re going to get weird with Joffrey the way they always have — meaning [others are] going to be his victims, and then there’s a twist. It becomes: Is this gonna be the near-death of Tyrion? Is this gonna be the death of Sansa in front of Tyrion?”
As Gleeson rehearsed dying on the floor, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau rushed into the scene and mock ad-libbed, “My son!” drawing laughs. Then, when Gleeson had to spend sometime playing “dead,” Coster-Waldau held an umbrella shielding the young actor from the sun between takes. “See? I care,” Coster-Waldau said.
After shooting the scene, the showrunners praised Gleeson’s performance. “There are so many other actors who would have chosen a much more flashy route — flopping all over the floor,” Benioff said. “He made it feel real, as he always has.”
EW’s full coverage of Game of Thrones royal wedding:
George R.R. Martin: Why Joffrey died THAT way — EXCLUSIVE
Jack Gleeson talks royal wedding shocker — EXCLUSIVE