“Game of Thrones” fans were fully prepared for Sunday night’s big battle: They had laid their bets about who would live and who would die and had braced themselves for the worst. Given the show’s dark and unforgiving history, many prognosticators assumed that any character leaving a loved one behind was doomed.
Exhibit A seemed to be the Unsullied commander Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson) — or maybe even his translator girlfriend, Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel). Last we had seen them, they were not only sharing a passionate kiss but also making plans for the future. That usually spells doom, doesn’t it?
Grey Worm, however, has lived to fight another day. In a phone interview Monday, we spoke with Anderson about the Battle of Winterfell and what it means that his character lived to tell the tale. Following are edited excerpts.
Q: People are so happy that you’re not dead.
A: Imagine that! I’d seen so many memes beforehand that Grey Worm was a shoo-in, he’s a definite death this week. And I was just laughing. But the show still manages to surprise people, no matter how they take things. I was just amazed by reading the script and thinking I sort of knew where they were going with it, and just being like: “Oh, wow. OK, gosh, that’s surprising.” Even just the battle itself. “Oh, you guys are doing this in Episode 3? That’s brave.” I kept checking to make sure I was reading the right episode.
Q: It’s a little hard to track where Grey Worm is during some of the battle, because sometimes you have your helmet on, and all we have to go by is your heavy breathing. Other times, he didn’t have it on — presumably to help us identify him. Shouldn’t he have put it on at the soonest opportunity? And kept it on?
A: I know! I thought I was going to pass out. I was on the verge of passing out most nights when we were shooting this. I think we did about 20 minutes straight of heavy breathing, especially towards the end. The heavy breathing did not help. I might be speaking out of turn, but there was a whole thing about the helmet. I called it Helmet-gate. There are loads of characters where I was like, “Why are you not wearing a helmet? It could really help you right now, in this situation.”
There was a whole thing with continuity about whether my helmet was on or off, and how do you know if it’s Grey Worm or another Unsullied soldier? I made a suggestion that Grey Worm could have his own insignia on a commander’s helmet. The one difference that Grey Worm has is an insignia of the dragons eating themselves on his neck. The rest of the Unsullied don’t. It’s not the traditional Targaryen symbol. But it was too late in the game to build new helmets. So I share that complaint. We’re finished now; I can make complaints. [Laughs]
Q: Go ahead and complain! Or critique. Dany wasn’t following the original battle plan and improvises after the Dothraki get decimated. What did you make of that?
A: She didn’t follow the plan exactly, but plans have to change when their enemy changes. I’m not going to take all the credit here, but if Grey Worm hadn’t had seen that the trenches were not getting lit from the arrows and helped Melisandre get there to light the trenches, then they’d have been in big trouble. Sometimes, you just have to improvise.
That’s what Dany was doing with the dragons. They were sort of betting on the dragons being the thing that would ultimately take out the Night King, but then obviously that did not work! The plan had to change. In the fog of war, you never really know your enemy properly. There’s no way to know what they’re going to do. She did her best with what she had — if I had a dragon, I’d be on my dragon.
Q: I always just worry when they ride the dragons without saddles or safety precautions. That’s just me.
A: And they should have a helmet as well! Everybody should have a helmet! I think the show just falls apart if you try to apply that kind of logic. But you do, because you believe in the characters.
Q: What did you think about the moment when Arya killed the Night King?
A: I was surprised, but I like the way her story arc is set up in the show. The thing is, her last enemy is death. She has to face death. So to me, as a character moment, it seemed like there was a really beautiful poetry to that. She faced and conquered death. That’s what I’ve wanted for Arya since the beginning, really. Especially when you think about what happened to Ned, it’s been about having to face this thing that she’s terrified of and seen too much of, so that moment felt good. It felt really satisfying.
Q: In the episode when Missandei and Grey Worm got to talk about their future, there was a beat there that showed what it was like for them to be othered in the North. I was wondering if that came about because you two ever discussed race issues with the showrunners?
A: Nathalie and I have definitely had that conversation since the beginning. We talked about how it must be strange for them, but also not strange. We’re both people of color in England, so we completely understand it. I’m probably saying something I shouldn’t, but a version of that scene has been scripted in previous seasons, and we even shot one, but it didn’t make it to air. But that scene of them discussing their place, and what they want, I was really glad that it made it into the show. It’s an important element.
I know it’s not important to everyone, but to those who understand what it feels like — and I can speak to that because I’m one of those people — it felt really pertinent. I think the previous version that got cut had a different implication because it was funny. But narratively, this was the best time to do it, even though some people might think it could have come earlier.
Q: What was the previous scene that you shot like?
A: I think it had something to do with Tyrion’s governance of Meereen, so Season 6? It was part of his perspective on slavery, completely based on something he didn’t understand, and they were having a little tussle about the bargain he made with the slave masters to reinstate slavery for seven years. And Grey Worm was fed up, and rightly so. Who is this guy who is willing to reinstate slavery?
I’m not completely naïve. I know that there are people who wouldn’t fully understand, who don’t see the point of Missandei and Grey Worm. That relationship isn’t about the endgame. It’s not about the throne. It’s never been about that. It’s been about a greater purpose, and loyalty. Two people coming out of really extreme trauma and building lives for themselves and following someone they believe has their best interests at heart. I’m really proud that those characters represent something that’s not represented elsewhere on the show.
There’s been a lot of talk about quote-unquote diversity and coming to terms with representation, and how important that is. I never questioned that I was Luke Skywalker when I watched “Star Wars” as a kid. I didn’t have to check my imagination. But it’s lovely when I feel represented. So I’m glad that Missandei and Grey Worm’s story holds that place in the show.
Q: And now, if they both live, they can go to Naath together, as Missandei suggested. That said, the last time we spoke, you were partial to Skagos, where you could hang out with the unicorns.
A: [Laughs] I love that you remember I love unicorns. That makes me so happy. I want to be rich enough that, without being cruel, I could buy a horse, a white horse, and permanently attach a horn. A pearlescent horn. And then I could just be like, “Yeah, I have a unicorn.” But I don’t know how you do that without being cruel. And that would be more for me than the character. Grey Worm has no interest in unicorns.
And Grey Worm’s got no interest in going back to the Summer Isles. I don’t think he has any particularly fond memories there. For him, I’m going to stick to Naath. Naath’s the mission. That’s what Missandei’s looking for. And he would like to just pack up and go with Missandei somewhere.
Q: What can they do on Naath? Throw a music festival?
A: Naath doesn’t want the FYRE Festival. Naath doesn’t deserve that. If Ja Rule isn’t involved, we can talk. If all goes well, folks who would want to attend something on Naath would have to get through the Unsullied, or what’s left of them, so there wouldn’t be any funny business. That’s all I want for these two. I want them to be happy and chill out by the beach, because they’ve been through a lot.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.