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Liam Cunningham: ‘I tell people I’m a migrant. It messes with them. You can see them getting a twitch’

The Game of Thrones star on reuniting with the show’s creators for 3 Body Problem, working with Cillian Murphy and challenging the far right

The gunfire started just as Liam Cunningham was thinking about bed. He was in South Sudan not long before filming was due to begin on the final season of Game of Thrones. He hadn’t told HBO he was going to the country, as it was a dangerous place to visit. “They would have said, ‘Absolutely no way’,” says the Dublin actor. “There was gunshots outside the compound, and all I could think of was, ‘I don’t want to be f**king killed here. How are they going to finish the show?’”

It was 2018, and Cunningham, who had become famous for playing Ser Davos Seaworth in Thrones, was in the landlocked African state as an ambassador for World Vision, an Irish charity that provides food and critical care to malnourished children and mothers. Cunningham has always been outspoken about causes he believes in: images from Gaza have dominated his X (Twitter) feed for the past few months. But in South Sudan his responsibilities as a campaigner and actor came head to head. As those gunshots rattled beyond the compound, he had a horrible premonition that he was about to meet a sticky end.

“It’s weird: you think of your family, you think of your work, before you think of yourself. When the gunshots happened I thought, ‘Oh, this is not great.’ Luckily enough they weren’t trying to kill us. It was some soldiers shooting off guns looking for their wages.”

I’m an old so-and-so – it wasn’t half of my life. From what I saw with all of them, I was astonished how well they handled it

—  Cunningham on the travails of Game of Thrones' young cast members

Game of Thrones changed everything for Cunningham. Before he played Ser Davos he was a character actor known for interesting work in smaller movies: he played a priest in Hunger, Steve McQueen’s H-block drama, and appeared opposite Michael Caine in the revenge thriller Harry Browne. Then came Thrones, in which he portrayed one of the few unambiguously pure and noble inhabitants of the fantastical realm of Westeros.


The series brought international recognition for Cunningham – he recalls being mobbed by fans in Brazil – but it was also an incredible feat of long-form storytelling. Which is why he was delighted when the series’ creators, David Benioff and DB Weiss, invited him to be part of their first big post-Westeros project, an adaptation of Liu Cixin’s mind-bending sci-fi best-seller The Three-Body Problem, which comes to Netflix next week (restyled as 3 Body Problem).

Saying yes was a no-brainer. Awkwardly, though, Cunningham was already in negotiations for a “big, big” series when Benioff and Weiss got in touch. Still, he knew he had to work with them again, whatever it took.

“It’s probably not the cleverest thing to do careerwise. I was talking about doing another show. I’d had a couple of Zoom meetings during lockdown. [Then] I got a phone call from the lads. They said, ‘Yeah, you’re not going with them – you’re coming with us.’ I had to go, ‘Yeah, okay,’” he says. “I had such faith in them. I love their writing. As millions upon millions did – look at the beautiful writing from Game of Thrones. People are still quoting lines among themselves. It became a cultural phenomenon. It certainly went beyond a piece of entertainment. Does lightning strike twice? We’ll see.”

The new series isn’t Game of Thrones: Part Two. No, 3 Body Problem has neither gratuitous nudity nor flame-snorting dragons. It is nonetheless an epic undertaking, its timeline extending from China’s bloody Cultural Revolution to contemporary London and encompassing mind-bending technology, alien vistas and conspiracies within conspiracies. It’s also an excellent showcase for the Irish actor, who plays a murky and morally ambivalent representative of the deep state named Thomas Wade.

“He’s charismatic. This guy is absolutely ruthless. He will do whatever it takes. As far as he is concerned, he’s the man for hire who will save the world. You’ll see what he gets up to. He’s a fantastic character and really cool.”

Game of Thrones was arguably the biggest TV show of all time. But, in the end, that success became a burden, and in its concluding seasons it buckled under the strain of its popularity. Everyone hated the ending; even cast members complained that the hugely rushed finale betrayed the complex, multifaceted world that Benioff and Weiss had spent so many years building (working, of course, from George RR Martin’s unfinished Game of Thrones saga).

The weight of expectations fell largely on Thrones’ stars. Kit Harington, who played the reluctant hero Jon Snow, had a stint in rehab. Emilia Clarke, aka Princess Daenerys Targaryen, suffered two aneurysms and felt the burden of the scrutiny on her, saying she was occasionally “really sad on that show, just simply because I was a young woman in her 20s”. No such stresses detained Cunningham: he has always been clear about where a character ends and he begins. Besides, he was well into middle age when Ser Davos entered his life. He could handle the hype. He speaks admiringly of his young Thrones colleagues and how they responded to overnight mega-celebrity.

“You do have to remember that the couple of them it may have got the better of ... they started when were incredibly young as this avalanche of fame was thrown at them. To be honest, they handled it incredibly well. Poor old Emilia – very life-threatening stuff. Maisie [Williams, aka Arya Stark] had a bit of a hard time ... that was personal stuff that was going on. The same with Kit. Kit is a very private guy – and he was thrown in front of people.”

Cunningham leans into the Zoom camera and continues: “And it wasn’t because of the last season. It was the whole thing. It was 10, 11 years of their lives, their young lives. I’m an old so-and-so – it wasn’t half of my life. From what I saw with all of them, I was astonished how well they handled it. A couple of them had a couple of blips. But that’s all. When you’re getting involved with something ... it happens to members of music bands, or writers who get fame like that, who work alone and are creative. It can get the better of you when you’re a sensitive soul. But they’re all coming through it very well.”

One of Cunningham’s earlier parts was in The Wind that Shakes the Barley, Ken Loach’s War of Independence drama from 2006, in which he appeared opposite a young Cillian Murphy. It was their third time working together: they’d previously collaborated on Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto and on Sweety Barrett, a late-1990s Irish independent feature in which Murphy has a small role as a barman. Cunningham is delighted for Murphy and his Oscar success with Oppenheimer.

“He’s wonderful. He’s a joy to work with. The character that you see talking [in public] is him. He’s totally unaffected by it. He’s very private. He doesn’t have much time for what’s going on,” says Cunningham, referring to the red-carpet hoopla. “Just give him the bleeding Oscar and let him get on with it. He’s a lovely individual and incredibly talented.”

Hollywood is not always an environment that encourages free thinking, and creatives are often reluctant to say anything controversial – witness the backlash against the director Jonathan Glazer and his comments about Gaza at the Oscars. Cunningham says whatever he feels, however, and his social media is full of criticism of Israel and the Irish Government and in support of left-wing parties such as People Before Profit. Does he ever worry that he’s ruining his job prospects?

“After 30 years I’m the same as most people my age: My mortgage is paid off, I own my car, my kids are grown up and working. All I’ve got to do is buy food and pay my energy bills. So shutting me down, if somebody decides to do that, it won’t really have much of an effect.”

Cunningham grew up on Sheriff Street, in Dublin’s north inner city. Last year nearby East Wall was the scene of protests against the accommodation of refugees in a former ESB office block.

“You know what? I can understand why they’re complaining about what they’re complaining about. They’re just complaining about the wrong people. We all know there’s a housing disaster here. The thing about it is: the far right have utilised the anger to push back against the easily identifiable minority. I saw it when I was growing up. I was a biker. I still am. I’ve just passed my test after 40 years. I was in a bike club, the Raheny and District Motorcycle Club. When I was out on my bike on a Sunday morning, they used to have signs in the window – No Bikers Allowed. Because they thought anyone on a motorbike was a Hells Angel. You couldn’t get into a pub. In a little way, it was like No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish. So I’ve been part of the easily identifiable minority who are labelled for the wrong reasons.”

The far right talks about “migrants”. But when he points out that he has been a migrant through his career, they don’t know how to react.

“They complain about migrants. They always get a bit of a fright when I go up to them and I go, ‘You do realise you’re talking to a migrant? I am a migrant.’ On 3 Body Problem I filmed in England and Florida. I’ve worked all around the world. I actually don’t work all that much in the Republic. So I am an economic migrant. It messes with them. You can see them getting a twitch – because I’m not the colour they think migrants are. They can’t use a racial epithet against me. But I am. I am a migrant, an economic migrant.”

3 Body Problem is on Netflix from Thursday, March 21st