Below Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss take you behind the scenes of Sunday’s royal wedding shocker as they say goodbye to one of the best TV villains ever. Here’s how Jack Gleeson was cast, their thoughts on his performance as King Joffrey, and plenty of discussion about the unique audacity of the latest twist in George R.R. Martin’s fantasy saga.
It’s all part of EW’s Purple Wedding coverage, which also includes an exclusive interview with Thrones author George R.R. Martin on why he killed Joffrey, an exclusive interview with actor Jack Gleeson and, of course, our recap of the best wedding ever (links below).
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: In some ways, Joffrey dying is the most tragic death for us as an audience because as the main villain on the show, he was so entertaining and was an antagonist to so many other characters. What are your feelings about his passing?
Dan Weiss: Jack has done such an amazing job of bringing this sociopathic yet completely understandable — I don’t want to say “relatable” because hopefully people don’t actually relate to Joffrey — but understandable. You can understand where he’s coming from. He’s the person people love to hate cliche. We were at Comic-Con and [director] Michelle MacLaren brought Samuel L Jackson over to us. And to hear Samuel L Jackson explain to you for five minutes why Joffrey absolutely positively had to die and all his reasons for wanting Joffrey dead…he’s just somebody that people really, really want to die. We’ve been denying them for a long time.
David Benioff: Which is why Samuel L Jackson is guest starring in season 4 as the assassin.
Weiss: He’s a center of gravity in a way that somehow personifies the worst that this world has to offer. It will be sad to see him go. And with Jack leaving, we have nobody to explain [the philosopher] Wittgenstein to us.
Martin gives us so many shades-of-grey characters, but he only gives us a few — and Joffrey is by far the most central — who are utterly reprehensible. He really doesn’t have anything in the way of redeeming qualities.
Benioff: No. The thing about Joffrey is that typically your villain is such an alpha. You think of Darth Vader — he’s so terrifying because he’s so powerful. But Joffrey is actually this scared little kid. If somebody stands up to him, he backs down in typical bully fashion. So what makes him so scary is he’s the ultimate spoiled boy who’s got unlimited power. So unlike a typical kid who might throw a tantrum when he doesn’t get what he wants, Joffrey has people decapitated when he doesn’t get what he wants. But part of what makes him so loathsome is there is something recognizable about him. Whenever you see some horrible spoiled brat doing something and you think, “Why didn’t the parents raise that kid differently?” Joffrey is the apotheosis of that.
Weiss: To George’s credit, that’s what makes him real. Far more often than an evil alpha male out to do evil for the sake of evil, bad things often come from people who are unfit to occupy positions of power, who find themselves in positions of power they are not suited for. They don’t have the moral fiber or leadership skills, but for some reason they find themselves sitting on the throne, and that’s where things go horribly wrong. For anybody who’s read history books or read the newspaper, that feels true.
One thing I really loved about this chapter in the book, is the wedding gives Joffrey the opportunity to remind us of all the ways he’s a horrible person right up until the moment that he dies.
Weiss: To preempt objections, it is not feasible, on a production level, to have a person riding a pig.*
But you looked into it.
Weiss: We did. We were told it was not fair to the pig. They said it would be okay [to have] a pig riding a person.
So it’s such a perfect setting for this because he’s already used to getting his own way, and now it’s his wedding so he’s feeling especially entitled.
Benioff: He’s like the bridezilla. Weddings bring out the worst in a lot of people and this is supposed to be a showcase of his power. His sigil is everywhere. He’s wearing his finest clothes. He invited the most powerful people. And of course, it goes terribly wrong.
Weiss: Hopefully the actual design of the wedding reflects Joffrey’s tastes. He’s writing himself on the world like he re-designed the throne room.
And the other thing is this is the second wedding in a row where a major character dies.
Benioff: It’s like what Illyrio says in the pilot: “A wedding without at least three deaths is a dull affair.”
Weiss: It’s a good death, though. You have to judge deaths in terms of quality, not quantity.
Part of the trick of surprising people is not only to do things differently, but also to sometimes shake it up and do things the same — like having a major character die at another wedding. Because if you always expect things to happen differently, that’s where it gets predictable.
Weiss: Exactly. Much of it is also structure and placement. By the time you get to the ninth episode, the end of the season, it’s expected that something momentous is going to happen. Doing something this world-changing in the second episode seemed fun to us.
What did Jack bring to the part? You’ve said before he always seems to know the most jerk-ish way to approach every line despite being the nicest guy.
Benioff: The amazing thing about Jack is we were auditioning for Joffrey and we found a kid we thought was perfect. We thought that casting was done and it was time to move on. Then we went to Dublin to cast for other characters and there was this one kid who had already been scheduled to read for Joffrey. And we didn’t want to cancel on this kid. So basically as a courtesy, we agreed to see Jack Gleeson. As he started speaking he changed our concept of what the character could be. I don’t think we expected to spend as much time with Joffrey until we cast jack. As Dan was saying before, there’s something so loathsome, yet so believable. He’s not supernatural, he’s not the servant of darkness, he’s a believably awful human being. There must be some dark part that Jack is able to access to play the role, but I’ve never seen it when the cameras aren’t rolling.
What was important to you to pull off in the wedding sequence?
Weiss: The trick with any long, lavish, production-heavy sequence like this one is that at a certain point, people start to think something: “It’s been 15 minutes in one setting, something momentous is going to happen in this sequence.” And the only way they don’t think that is if you constantly keep them engaged in the things that are happening. So one of the major tricks to pull off in a scene like this is to keep people in the moments with all the characters interacting with one another and not let them think about the bigger picture, about why we’ve been at this wedding for 15 minutes.
Benioff: One of the great opportunities about this scene is it’s probably the last time we’ll have this many characters for an extended period. Obviously, people will talk about Joffrey, but what was also important to us is have these characters get together. Cersei and Brienne, they meet at the wedding, like they likely would, what is that conversation like? Jaime and Loras, that’s interesting because Loras is engaged to Cersei and Jamie has just returned from being a prisoner of war — so what’s the encounter going to be like? In the pilot we had something similar with a lot of people gathered together at the feast. But at that point the audience didn’t know those characters as well — and we didn’t know those characters as well.
Weiss: It’s the kind of thing that’s very traditional on television. Most shows find ways to maneuver their groups of characters together in the same place. On The Sopranos, everybody lives in Jersey so you can find ways to have a wedding or dinner party to get those people together. But in our show, people are geographically spread all over this entire world. It’s much more rare to have this opportunity, so we wanted to make sure we took maximum advantage of it, because it will never happen again, most likely.
There’s something frustrating about his death, too. We want his death to be due to the actions of one of our heroes. We all want Arya to raise up his severed head in triumph. We’re denied the death we want.
Benioff: And that’s something we admire from the books. George doesn’t give you want you want right off the bat. A lot of people would have loved, after the Red Wedding, you would have loved to see Arya or Jon Snow kill Walder Frey and Roose Bolton. You want that, it’s a natural instinct to want to see your favorite characters avenged. At the same time, a deeper side of you wouldn’t really want that because it’s too easy and wouldn’t seem remotely real. There’s something wonderful about reading the book, the way Joffrey dies, because it’s completely unexpected. No hero came back to vanquish the evil king.
Weiss: One of the great things George did, is he does give you a triumphant f–k-you death — but that’s Robb Stark’s death. Walder Frey has that great one liner before he puts the knife in his heart. It’s got all the elements of a triumphant death, but it’s completely flipped ,and it’s the wrong side and happening to somebody you love.
It also gives you the great twist of Tyrion’s arrest. You guys have been laying the groundwork there for Cersei’s assumption pretty clearly in the show so that will feel earned when it happens.
Benioff: It’s one of the great relationships in the book and the show; these two actors [Peter Dinklage and Lena Headey] are such phenoms, and they’re so remarkable together, and it may be because they’re friends in real life and have been for so long, and that intimacy between them allows them to go to dark places together. At the same time, the wonderful thing is, as much as they might despise each other, they’ve needed each other. Nobody understands Cersei as well as Tyrion does, with the possible exception of Jaime. And Cersei has known Tyrion for longer than anyone else. They share a certain worldview, but it’s a bit askew. Cersei’s view is more cynical but Tyrion’s isn’t that far off. They were clearly raised by the same father in the same place but her experience has left her a little more bitter than Tyrion, who still has a shred of optimism.
How do you think Jack handled the death scene?
Benioff: As Jack has handled every scene he’s had since the very beginning. There are so many other actors would have chosen a much more flashy route — flopping all over the floor. He made it feel real as he always has, and it’s the same as when reading the book. It’s a character you’ve despised for so long and wanted to see him killed, yet you’re seeing a young man — still a boy, really — choke to death, which is a horrible thing to witness. We didn’t want this to be a stand up and clap moment so much as a horrible death of a horrible person.
Weiss: There’s something anti-climatic about it. The standard move would be to give you a sense of release, a sense of happiness … the idea somehow the moral calculus of the world has been made right, and that this person who’s had it coming for so long has finally gotten what he deserved.
Benioff: You think you want heroes to live. You think you want Ned Stark to come to King’s Landing and set the world right and triumph. There are things that, in retrospect, you are so glad George denied, but in the moment you’re thinking, “Oh no!”
Jack says he wants to retire now from acting.
Weiss: He wants his passion, which as it now stands is philosophy and ancient languages and all sorts of other things that none of us are smart enough to understand. If he does go through with that decision, we’re just honored and proud that we were his acting swan song — and lucky.
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
*In A Storm of Swords, Joffrey’s staging of the dwarf joust was done with the actors riding pigs.