With the fourth season of the world-renowned Game of Thrones set to return to Irish television screens, cast member Sophie Turner speaks to Jack Walsh about staying normal outside of Westeros, the character arc of Sansa Stark and the greatest drama lesson in the world
Standing with a sly yet confident smile, and draped in her trademark electric auburn hair, Sophie Turner has rather comfortably sat into her position of fame as one of the new generation of English actresses to have launched her careers in the last few years.
As Sansa Stark, one of the star characters from HBO’s TV series Game of Thrones (based on The Song of Ice and Fire series of books by George RR Martin), Turner has been at the forefront of the media for one of television’s most acclaimed shows. With millions watching at home, and even more watching online (along with a notoriously rabid fandom), Turner has shown incredible resilience to the dangers of success, shunning the predisposed idea of youthful wither in face of the spotlight.
Regarding the difficulties that young actors are forced to cope and the pressures of public perception, Turner relates her success to her inner circle, and those who keep her grounded. “I haven’t experienced being in the spotlight as much as some young actors, but I think what keeps me grounded are my parents, my brothers, my friends and the producers on Thrones.”
From holding court on Vine with her ever present co-star and sidekick Maisie Williams (Arya Stark), rapping on DVD commentaries, to her family’s adoption of Zunni, the dog who played her direwolf, Lady, Turner ensures a carefree and light-hearted response to the vigorous process of production.
“They treat me like an 18-year-old kid should be treated and not like I’m anything special, because at the end of the day I’m not, I’ve just been presented with great opportunities in my life and that’s all.”
Born in Nottingham and raised in Warwick, Turner as an actor has spent her life performing and maturing at the Playbox Theatre Company. “I first caught the acting bug when I was about 3-years-old.
“My mum and her friends used to catch up over coffee and my friends and I went to acting classes at my local youth theatre group. I got into acting professionally through my drama teacher at school receiving a call for young actresses to play Sansa and a few call-backs later, I got the role.”
Millions view every episode of Game of Thrones on HBO, and even when the show was in its infancy in 2011, it transitioned to a level of hype that only series such as Breaking Bad can boast. Even now, the show is still surprising people and has become notorious as one of the most illegally downloaded television shows of all time.
With the role of Sansa Stark representing Turner’s big break in acting so far, she will inevitably be associated with this role until she branches out into other projects. However, Turner seems very comfortable to continue on as Sansa and is confident in her acting ability.
She exudes the exact energies she has always held on something that is almost as natural to her as reading and walking. “My views on acting haven’t changed. I still think it’s just as wonderful and inspiring as I did when I was three. When I step onto set I’m kind of transformed back to my younger self and get all giddy and excitable when I step on.”
The story of Sansa Stark has certainly been one that audiences and fans have firmly registered on an emotional level, with the character continually entangled in a myriad of political issues. Raised by the valiant yet politically distant Eddard Stark (Sean Bean), Sansa grew up as a prototype medieval girl, concerned only with the latest fashions and her dream husband.
Sansa is characterised by her frailty and innocence in the first season, ultimately culminating as she sees the depths of the Lannister family’s lust for control, and witnesses her father be executed in front of her, in a scene that fully set the tone for the show in its following acts.
Within the second season, Sansa remains shocked at the actions of King Joffrey Baratheon (played by Irish actor Jack Gleeson), while being psychologically played with by the Queen, Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), and to the affections of the Hound, Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann).
Turner notes the steady change of Sansa, witnessing the acts she has witnessed has allowed her to break her role as a stereotype. “Sansa’s arc is just so exhilarating to portray. She’s gone from a young, naive, vulnerable girl to a strong, intelligent young woman who can hide behind the facade of her former self. She’s a dark horse and is easily adaptable.”
The great power of television as a medium for storytelling has been its ability to show a character’s development and evolution, based on the many situations that a series creator can fathom. Sansa and her sister Arya are perfect examples of this, with each actress forced to respond to new and unsafe situations. For Williams, it is a growing strength and coldness. For Turner, it is a hesitation to preserve her inner self and not resort to the actions of those around her.
Regarding the innate challenges of portraying a character that has faced an indescribable amount of psychological abuse, and over a sustained time period, Turner notes, “The challenges of playing Sansa is just how emotionally heavy and demanding that it takes a lot of dedication and focus to do justice to her.”
The third season saw the glimpses of Sansa’s post-traumatic growth as a character, as she slowly and surely began learning the craft of the politics of court, the titular Game of Thrones. With the death of many of her family members, Sansa’s political use was apparent.
As the oldest living Stark, she is the heir to the northern kingdom, thus adding significant weight to every one of her decisions, and more importantly, the decisions of those around her.
Having turned 18, Turner has literally grown up with Sansa as a character in her life. Having that constant thought of adaption in her mind has allowed her to progress quickly as an actor. For Turner, the process of playing Sansa and experiencing her growth provides Turner with her own development.
“I evolve as an actress as Sansa evolves as a character. I’ve gone from a somewhat insecure actress to a fairly confident actress. I have no idea what my performance is like but how I feel about acting has certainly changed.”
For the first time since the opening episodes, Sansa was presented with the power over her own life, with several choices offered to her. As the jewel of the eye of Petyr Baelish (Aidan Gillen) and one half of the political unity for the Tyrell household (the new major force within the already intertwined politics of Westeros), Sansa took a gamble, and it cost her dearly. Now trapped in marriage to the Lannisters, the Stark and the audience are certainly unsure of her future.
Turner loves the role of Sansa, and her enthusiasm is apparent when she begins discussing what the broad storyline and emotional evolution allows her to do as an actor. “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to have a storyline like Sansa’s in my life again. The opportunity to develop a character over a period of [hopefully] seven or eight years is a huge learning experience for me and is so rewarding.”
From a career standpoint, Game of Thrones has offered a launching pad for the 18-year-old. Nominations in the Screen Actors Guild Award and the Young Artist Award confirmed critical approval, and now commercial approval has followed.
“I have three movies coming out over the next two years; Another Me which is a psychological thriller directed by Isabel Coixet; Barely Lethal which is a funny comedy directed by Kyle Newman and Alone which is romantic drama directed by Matthew Coppola.”
Turner’s character, who began her journey in the northern kingdom, and now finds herself in the southern courts, meant that Turner herself has moved from Northern Ireland to Mdina in Malta and now Dubrovnik in Croatia.
With three units working simultaneously, Turner welcomes the challenges that a day on set can bring. “Being on the Thrones is the biggest and best learning experience a person can ask for. It’s a hectic set and there are always two or more units filming at one time. It’s so fun and there’s always something happening.”
One of Turner’s most poignant scenes involved telling the matriarchs of the Tyrell family (Diana Rigg and Natalie Dormer) the truth regarding Joffrey, a crucial scene in the evolution of the family’s relationship with the Lannisters. For Turner, the opportunity to be surrounded by such acting talent is the realisation of a dream, and she can’t quite pick a favourite person who she gets to act alongside.
“I definitely don’t have one particular actor that I prefer to work with. It’s always a joy working with people like Peter Dinklage [who is] hilarious, Nat Dormer who’s just like a mentor to me as well as Sibel Kekilli.
“There’s also people like Lena Headey who inspires me every time I’m on set with her, and Charles Dance and Diana Rigg who are just faultless in their performances. It’s such a fun and light-hearted set to be on and the best drama lesson that I’ve ever had.”
With the show’s fourth season approaching, Sansa’s future is uncertain. Having been forced into marriage with fan-favourite Tyrion Lannister (Dinklage), and still trapped in King’s Landing, it’s anyone’s guess to what executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss plan for the character in the long turn.
For now, there is no doubt that audiences are content to witness an acting talent emerge and grow in confidence on their television screens episode by episode.