'As soon as Arya produces the dagger he knows the game is up'
This post contains plot revelations from the Game of Thrones season seven finale, “The Dragon and the Wolf” …
Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish. The master of chaos, a climber of the ladders of power who finally reached for one rung too many. In trying to play Sansa and Arya Stark against one another (just as he once played their aunt Lysa against their mother Catelyn), the tactical manipulator laid bare his own villainy — especially with Bran Stark having access to all of space and time to probe his past. Littlefinger once aspired to reach the Iron Throne with Sansa at his side. Now, like so many others who sought to rule, his life has been cut short — and by a woman he might have even truly loved.
Below we spoke to Irish actor Aidan Gillen (The Wire, The Dark Knight Rises) about leaving the hit series after seven seasons of delivering a mesmerizing performance that humanized a character drawn with few redeeming qualities. The quiet, soft-spoken actor (I remember once finding him sitting quietly off by himself on the GoT set reading a David Foster Wallace book) doesn’t give interviews very often — Gillen generally prefers to let his performance speak for itself. And even during our chat, he was reluctant to say too much about his riveting final scene in Winterfell’s Great Hall lest his thoughts take something away from its impact. It’s perhaps the only trait Gillen shares with his nefarious character — he plays his cards close to his vest.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When did you get the infamous call?
AIDAN GILLEN: The infamous call. It’s so obvious what it is. [Showrunners Dan Weiss and David Benioff] never ring you up — maybe once in six years. I learned about that call from [Roose Bolton actor Michael McElhatton] when he told me about his call and he talked about how it made him feel. And I thought if I get that call — or rather when as this has got to happen sooner or later to a character like Littlefinger — I wondered how it would make me feel. Because the show is such a part of your life for so many years, you start to think, ‘What will your life will be like outside of it?’ It’s a potent loss.
So how did it make you feel?
You’re left a little bereft — for your character and for your experience. It also immediately makes you quantify the hugeness of what that experience has been over the last seven years, which has been massive.
Did the showrunners joke around at all, or were they straightforward?
No joke. They just promised me a “river of blood.” Well, it wasn’t really a river of blood, but they promised me more than poor Michael got. It’s better to go out at the end of [the season] with a good arc then at the start of episode 2. Even if I’m only in a few episodes — like last season I probably had less than any season — once your character is established as part of the world people feel like you’re there all the time. So it’s not really an issue for me how many scenes I’m in as long as the scenes are good, and they’re well put together, and your contribution is good. Then people feel like you’re there al the time. I’m glad I had a good story to finish with.
Littlefinger’s strategy in playing Arya against Sansa seemed really risky from the outset.
With carefully laid plans there’s always a bit of risk involved. He’s put himself in a situation that could backfire on him. I think he likes it. [His plans] are never fail safe. But he puts himself on the line like a good gambler.
What was your reaction to the finale script?
Obviously, I was expecting it.
But you didn’t know exactly how Littlefinger would go out, I assume.
Well, I did an interview with a publication [in 2015] and they asked me how I thought I would go. I said I thought Arya would deliver the blow. So it was as promised. And even within the scene, as soon as he walks in that room and Arya produces the dagger he knows the game is up. He at least suspected the game was up back in episode four when Bran told him, “Chaos is a ladder.” For Bran to come up with that is beyond coincidental. That’s when the ground started to shift beneath my feet. At that point, I knew the things I’ve done in private are not necessarily private.
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I haven’t seen your final scene but I’ve heard you’re fantastic in it, and that Littlefinger reveals some emotions that we haven’t really seen from him before.
I don’t want to say too much about that. I don’t want to lay my cards on the table. I want to preserve that. There were more feelings for Sansa than I’ve let on the in the past. It becomes obvious. It’s an emotional farewell. And it’s a humiliating position to be in. He’s back in the sort of humiliating position that has been a driver for him: The rejection of Catelyn Stark, the humiliation by [Ned Stark’s older brother] Brandon Stark — back when he cut him from navel to collarbone and didn’t kill him [after their duel over Catelyn in their youth]. He’s put back in that position again.
What was your last day like?
My last day on the set wasn’t that scene. [The execution] was the second scene I shot. I quite enjoyed doing things that way — shooting [Littlefinger’s death] and then shooting what comes before. When you know what’s coming you relax a little in the way you interact with the others. There’s something else that seeps into your performance — a kind of serenity. But yeah, I did find it quite emotional [shooting the finale scene]. And I don’t necessarily mean that I was sad, but it’s an emotional moment for the character so I felt what he was feeling. For the real last day at work Dan and David weren’t there but [co-executive producer] Bryan Cogman called people in and said a few words and my son was there with me. That was quite something. And I got my mockingbird pin. I had already let them know I wanted it, and I cleverly worked it so I got two. There’s one from my cloak and one from my tunic. So I got the large and the small size — one for me and one for my son.
Was your favorite scene that one where Littlefinger gives a speech threatening Ros? You’ve mentioned that one a few times before.
It’s one of my favorite scenes. It was a good establishing moment in season 2 and we learn more about him in that. There were others I’ve enjoyed as much — probably the scene with Sansa in the courtyard where I kissed her while talking about her mother; that’s where we start to see how this is all mixed up in his head. I’ve continued to try to bring a bit of warmth and affability to a character who is shadowy, villainous and even treacherous. I thought it was my job to try to make people like him.
Ultimately one could say it’s better to be the climactic death of the season 7 finale than potentially one of several major events within the final season, right?
You know, I did pretty well. The character did pretty well. They need to hone [the cast] down. That’s not an issue, really. The end is when it happens. I don’t think beyond that.
More “The Dragon and the Wolf ” coverage:
— Deep-dive recap
— Lena Headey reveals what Cersei really thought of Daenerys
— Game of Thrones stars react to that huge Jon Snow reveal
— How that Jon Snow twist changes everything
— Game of Thrones showrunners on that actor’s exit
— Your 10 biggest finale questions answered
— Finale podcast (coming Monday)