He was a good man; the first good man. And though nearly eight years have passed since his death on Game of Thrones, his spirit lives on. Such is the legacy of Sean Bean’s Lord Eddard Stark of Winterfell.
As they say in the North, “When the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives.” Pure-of-heart Ned was the lone wolf cut down so soon in the game of thrones by King Joffrey’s executioner. (Shocking to anyone who hadn’t read George R.R. Martin’s books, at least.) That was all the way back in the penultimate hour of season 1. But his remaining pack — Sansa (Sophie Turner), Arya (Maisie Williams), Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright), and Jon Snow (Kit Harington) — ensure his memory survives, even as they prepare for the massive season 8 conclusion to HBO’s fantasy epic.
Bean, 59, was one of the first actors to join the cast of Game of Thrones, alongside Peter Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister); he even appeared in the elusive unaired pilot, shot (and later reworked) before the show officially got picked up. Ahead of winter’s long-awaited arrival in Westeros, the actor looks back on his time as Ned, the character’s lasting impact, and that one game-changing secret about his supposed bastard son.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: About that secret Ned took to his grave, did anyone from the show give you a courtesy call to reveal the truth about Jon Snow’s parents?
SEAN BEAN: No. Like with everything with Game of Thrones, it was kept very dark and secret. I think that’s the kind of magic and the glory of Game of Thrones — that’s why it’s so stunning and breathtaking when these secrets are revealed.
Did [showrunners] Dan [Weiss] or David [Benioff] tease anything to you about the character ahead of filming?
Yeah, we met for lunch in Soho, six or seven years ago now, before we started the pilot. We had a really good chat, and I was very thrilled to be asked to play the role. I think it was only myself and Peter cast at the time. I was very thrilled by the whole idea. I didn’t actually know at that time how enormous and massive this series would become. I was just getting my head around the part, as we all were. None of us really could’ve imagined it would be such a big-scale, tantalizing drama. Yeah, that was the beginning of the story for me. And, of course, I knew I wasn’t going to last very long. I accepted that.
During that meeting, were you able to get any teases for that big Jon Snow secret?
Not really. They said that some things happened, there were quite dramatic twists and turns. They let me know what they were within the first [season]. It was enough just keeping up with these intricate and complex story lines, with all the families and different worlds. Any more information would’ve probably been overload. As you can see, the death and how it’s developed, I think there’s only so much you can take at once. They only reveal what they want you to know, and that’s good, I think. That’s what makes it so exciting to find out.
Why do you think Ned resonates so strongly with people?
He’s very honorable, he’s very honest, he’s a man of integrity, and he does the dirty work, as he does at the beginning when he chops off the guy’s head. But he’s a man who’s very fair-minded, and he’ll stick to his principles through thick and thin, regardless of who he’s up against. With him going to King’s Landing and getting involved with such backstabbers, it’s something he wasn’t used to, and certainly not at that level. I think it was quite tragic to see him chipped away by these people until he was really struggling, and he was in very deep. Throughout, he maintained his honor and his integrity, and I think that’s something viewers really took to their hearts. He’s one of the very few good men. He was the first good man in Game of Thrones, and he stayed that way to the bitter end. His sons and daughters have taken those values for themselves, and it’s a much richer show because of that — because of him.
There was the pilot that we all saw, and then there was the original unaired pilot. What do you remember from filming the original?
I think there were some very good moments. It was experimental in some ways. I think they were trying to portray what could be achieved: the kind of wonder and awe, the vast scale and complexity, all these war-faring tribes, the magic, the beauty, and the treachery. I think trying to get that into a pilot may have been difficult, and perhaps the story was lost a little. But nevertheless, it gave you a sense of what it could be. We were just going along with what was down there [on the page], but though they didn’t use the pilot in its entirety, they used certain moments, and I think the pilot served its purpose. As I said, it shows you what could be done and certainly what was done thereafter. It was developed, it got bigger and bigger and bigger and more exciting and breathtaking. It was just an idea, I think. It’s impossible to get an idea of the whole season of Game of Thrones into a pilot. We were very pleased with what we’ve done, and we really enjoyed being on it, and we knew there was something special in that early stage.
What were some differences between the original pilot and the one that aired?
I remember a scene with Bran in the old tree and [his parents are] talking to him about life. He was very young at the time, when Isaac was playing the part. There are some nice scenes with [Williams as Arya]. I quite enjoyed those scenes because there was a lot of horrible backstabbing going on, and I think those scenes stood out because they were very natural and people could identity with them: a father and his children. I also remember the banquet, which was quite interesting. We shot it in Scotland, and it was a banquet with King Robert. All the families were coming together, there was a real feeling of this horrible tension, which represents what we did afterwards.
Coming full circle, what do you remember about filming your last scenes as Ned?
I suppose it was just the general downturn day, the slide into this pit of vipers that he couldn’t really extricate himself from. He was falling in, he was trying to keep his values, his dignity. At the same time, he had no support, but he still carried on. He stayed on for Robert as Hand of the King, and then he was on the throne himself and things got worse and worse. I remember filming that day. The death, that was wonderful because it was so unexpected. I thought it was amazing how they shot it. But I died, and then I had to do some scenes from earlier in the episode, so it wasn’t the end for me. We were in Malta; it was very hot. It was very colorful. Everyone was there, and with things like that there’s a sort of gallows humor to it. It’s awful what’s happening, and you start giggling and laughing. When the head fell off, there were mistakes. It didn’t quite work out sometimes. It was quite comic. So it breaks the ice a bit.
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