It was November of 2008 when HBO gave the green light for the pilot of the upcoming Game of Thrones television series. I remember the day when I read a post in an online A Song of Ice and Fire forum suggesting possible candidates to play Ser Gregor Clegane, one of my all-time favorite characters from the book series. From the moment I saw Australian stunt actor Conan Stevens, he had my vote. At 7’ ¼”, 315 pounds, Conan, a non-competitive bodybuilder and former Australian Professional Wrestling champion, certainly had the size and the physique to bring The Mountain That Rides to life. The fandom agreed, Conan was the Ser Gregor we’d all been hoping for.
Upon seeing Conan in Season 1 of Game of Thrones, it was clear that he not only met, but surpassed, the expectations of the fandom at large. Gregor isn’t a big talker, so Conan’s job was even more difficult than many of the other actors, as he needed to convey his character effectively through his body language and facial expressions. He certainly delivered, succeeding in making Gregor Clegane one of the most memorable characters of the Season. When it was announced that Conan would not be returning to Game of Thrones for Season 2, the news left the fandom reeling. Many fans have still not gotten over the change, and have been holding out hope that Conan will return to play Ser Gregor in Season 4
Recently, I had the pleasure of talking to Conan about his role as Ser Gregor, his future, and what it’s been like to climb the ladder of success. Here’s what the stunt actor, MENSA member and former chess champion had to say.
MJ Snow– As you know, the rumors are flying regarding whether or not you’ll reprise your role as Ser Gregor Clegane in Season 4 of Game of Thrones, however in a recent blog post, you mentioned that you’d not been contacted by HBO about returning to the series. Is there still hope? Would you still be open to donning the armor again, if the opportunity should arise?
Conan Stevens – I’m not sure where Game of Thrones production are at the moment but I am pretty sure if there had been a plan of that sort that I would have been informed quite some time ago, so the answer would be, that barring some unforeseen occurrence, I won’t be back for Season 04.
As to me being open… let’s just say the upcoming scene, if it is indeed portrayed in the TV series, was the scene that I was most looking forward to when I originally read the books. It is the best acting scene for Gregor in the books to date, the most dialogue, and a strong chance to show who Gregor really is, and by that stage Gregor really has a reputation to live up to. As an actor it would be a huge challenge living up to the books portrayal of scene and the well read fans expectations.
As I mentioned in the recent article on my website, I already had an idea how I would go about doing this scene so it’ll be interesting to see how another actor with a different background approaches it.
Read Conan’s Blog Post – “Answers on GoT Gregor Clegane….” HERE
MJS – You have a big fan base who have really been pushing for/hoping for your return, as the contrast from Season 1 to Season 2 was extremely difficult for Gregor fans. Were you surprised by the loyalty that the Game of Thrones fans have shown you? When you took on the role, did you think that you’d end up having such a strong effect on the viewers of the show?
Conan Stevens – I’d like to address the second question first. Big Mike, a Hong Kong based mentor and friend says “There are no small roles, only small actors.” (and no, he was not talking about physical size). Even small roles played brilliantly or played for the intended effect can be impressive and gain audience approval, which is your job as an actor after all, also remembering that not only fans but industry people watch the show. If anyone remembers the character “Bull” on the “Night Court” TV series that was an example of a small role played well, he became popular then he was written in as a major character in the series.
It is also internally satisfying to do your job well, especially now that I am getting greater freedom to portray characters as I see rather than as closely directed as when I was less experienced.
This ‘small’ role landed me on the front page of HBO.com, a moment of great personal pride I might add.
This all reminds me of a quote from my youth “If a job is worth doing, it is worth doing well.”
I’ve been told by professional acting coaches and even what were previously long term good friends that I would never make it as a wrestler, nor as an actor. At this point I am very glad I never listened to them. The only person you need to believe in your goals is yourself. Forget the opinions of strangers, friends, family, and often professionals unless they have achieved what you desire. For example if Clint Eastwood offered me some advice I’d consider it seriously, my ‘friends’ who derided me and said I could not make it – I just stopped spending much time with them. Don’t tie yourself down to someone else’s limitations.
When I initially prepared for the role I knew it was a short appearance but yet it was designed to have a strong impact on the audience. I took it as my job to make Gregor as frightening as possible, keeping in mind the rages that he is famous for, even to the point that I stared down the King for a moment longer than the final edit showed.
One fellow wrote an email (John was that you? I can’t find the email) to me saying that his mother walked into the room as he was watching this scene and angrily she said “Why doesn’t somebody put that mad dog down.” That is the greatest compliment I have received to date on that scene, as far as I was concerned it was mission accomplished if I could get that sort of reaction from an audience member.
As to the first question I have received quite a few emails, tweets and Facebook posts regarding this (but I only usually respond to emails), even today I still get people in nations where GoT is airing for the first time writing to me about this – some are even electronic translations of their original language as they are non-English speakers. So yes I was surprised but not too much, it was after all the Westeros.org and WinterIsComing.net readers whom helped me significantly to attain the role in the first place.
Visit Conan’s website to read his blog post about the journey he took to become Ser Gregor Clegane HERE.
A quick aside: I have been training at a new gym for about four weeks now. Just in the last two days three people have recognised me as Ser Gregor from Season 01, the recognition coincides with me growing a beard again for my next role… and I always thought my height would be the recognising factor.
MJS – I know that you do some intensive preparation for the roles you play, and that really shows in the finished product. I understand that for your role in Game of Thrones, you read all of the books so far written/published in the A Song of Ice and Fire series. How did you go about getting inside Gregor Clegane’s head when preparing to become the character?
Conan Stevens – Yes, before I auditioned I had a fan, Jan G., help me by sending me copies of the pages of the character I auditioned for (Drogo would you believe? I auditioned for him for the pilot with the aim in mind to get the producers to see me should they ever have to cast Gregor).
We’re very excited to to be able to debut the footage from Conan’s original audition video here. Take a look at Conan as he auditions for the role of Khal Drogo! At this point it is important to remember that Conan had not read he books save for a few pages from the first book at this point, and had to audition as quickly as possible.
After that, and before I started filming, I read all the books that were then published, which gave me enough information to formulate a character for Gregor.
Many see Gregor as a violent brute, but how many people are just violent brutes in real life because they are evil? No one. I think this is one thing that ASOIAF teaches us – everyone is moral to their own codes and they all have their own valid reasons for what they do. So with this in mind I had to try to piece together what was ‘wrong’ with Gregor to make him as he is.
First up and most apparent is his loyalty to the Lannisters and his leadership in military endeavors. This would place him as a good man in his mind and not stupid, but not brilliant either, certainly no Littlefinger. He does not seem to be cunning or very devious either. I would place him as a strict military man, possibly even fair, but overly firm within his own ranks, and in his mind doing the best by his liege lord within his own set of rules that definitely do not fit our modern Western ideologies. Though if you look at history, his morals are not far divorced from many prominent examples where massacre of innocents was routine between warring factions. Also relatives of enemies were routinely put to death while they were easy prey rather than let them gather followers and become a dangerous adversary at a later date, as seems to be a common theme in Viking sagas, for instance.
Add in his obvious “might makes right” personality, along with massive migraines which would lead to sleeplessness and general grumpiness and you start to get a picture of Gregor. Then add in his not hate, but torment of his ‘little’ brother I would guess he wasn’t watched or cared for much as a child which can bring additional factors in to play with difficulties in relationships (as mentioned with the way he and his men treat women – which was also fairly normal for marching armies in times gone by).
He also likely had a hormone problem, somewhat similar to giantism, likely he had a high testosterone as well as growth hormone levels, this might possibly magnify any personality traits he possessed.
Lastly his migraines are the product of something, I reasoned it was an intracranial tumor or inflammation of the brain. This has a myriad of different effects that modern science is only just beginning to understand that may have had something to do with his rages, being off your guts on medicinal drugs would not help his reasoning ability either. (I now also know that playing with drugs like that, a long term illness, or even a bad diet can mess with your gut bacteria, also known as intestinal flora, and can cause a range of mental/emotional disturbances too, often leading to anti-social behaviors or even though epigenetics switching on the autism gene or some other DNA change.)
So that was pretty much what I considered when deciding how best to portray Gregor. Again though the screen time was small it was important to me to know Gregor so that he would be the same character throughout the series. (In rereading the final edit that last statement struck me as rather funny, all things considered).
MJS – My personal favorite Game of Thrones scene of all time is the fight between Gregor and Sandor Clegane. For fans of the books, getting to see the Clegane Brothers so perfectly portrayed as they clashed on screen was truly epic. The fight was so well choreographed, and you and Rory McCann working together was just incredible to watch. From seeing some of the behind the scenes footage, it looked like you and Rory had great chemistry. Did you get the feeling as you were training, that the scene would turn out to be so compelling?
Conan Stevens – I was sure the scene would be great, though it had little do to with anything I did, I was merely the vehicle. Kudos of course go to George R.R. Martin for imagining and writing the scene in the first place.
For the filming we were given a week sword training to get the fight, and here I must say a big thank you to Buster Reeves for giving the OK after one lesson for me to do something else – in this case horse riding with Finn Jones since I had not ridden a horse since I was a teenager. The Devils Horsemen Stunt Team gave us lessons thankfully so we could get right to the important bits like charging with lances, saluting kings, and galloping through forests (though that last one was unintentional), etc, as soon as I had the basics down.
Honestly I picked up quite a bit in that week, which again served me very well for filming Vikingdom when surprise, surprise we were riding horses for a few scenes, and again surprise, surprise the horses were not trained film horses and best yet they hated each other. There is a close up scene where I am doing a monologue while off camera I am hitting the horse next to me in the face with my large foam Thors hammer to keep it from biting my horses face, while simultaneously trying to control my horse as it attempts to maneuver to kick out with its back hoofs.
For my part most of the preparation came from my past. I did 9 years of Professional Wrestling and worked on stage with Sydney Dance Company for 3 years. I think I am the only ballet performer in the world to concurrently hold a national heavy weight wrestling title (those of you who did not know pro wrestling is choreographed to a fair degree – I am sorry to shatter your illusions), the point of this is that my ability to remember choreography is pretty good as I’ve had a bit of practice.
That’s all fights are, choreography, and a well-designed fight scene just flows. Remember the footwork and your arms and sword strokes will naturally follow, again Buster Reeves was the man responsible for this. I was just doing as I was told, and luckily the choreography falls within an area I learnt expertise in, in preparation for being an action actor.
I also fought with the Society for Creative Anachronisms in Australia over about a two to three year period. Before fighting we needed armour, so learned to I hammer out my own helmet from sheet steel and knit my own chain mail from a big roll of fencing wire. Then a bunch of big hairy blokes went to the commercial fabric center, somewhat shocking the old blue hair ladies that seem to inhabit those places, and purchased the components for my heavy quilted hauberk, which I then learned to sew on an industrial sewing machine. The splinted leather greaves and vambraces were easy after all that. In the SCA we would do our best to recreate the somewhat authentic, yet highly regulated and very protective armour of our characters while belting into each other with authentic weight, but blunt, rattan weapons – they left a bloody big bruise across you if you got hit too, and by bloody I mean a good solid hit would draw blood through the black and blue, foot long welt.
As to chemistry with Rory, to a degree. I certainly was not enamoured enough to propose, but we did get along like old friends. I think we had a lot in common and appreciated each other’s career position more than most people could, he even confided in me a couple of embarrassing/humorous stories that I found very funny, because I was guilty of the same.
Despite what the glitzy magazines portray, this industry is a difficult one to make progress in until you become a ‘name’, and even then the irregular flow of work is very trying.
MJS – Can you tell us a little bit about what it was like to film the famous horse beheading scene? That was such an unforgettable scene, and incredibly convincing!
Conan Stevens – Viewers might not have noticed this but the horse I ‘beheaded’ was not actually the horse I was riding for the joust, and the horse I rode for the introduction to the King was a ‘prettier’ one, again. So the ‘beheaded’ horse who was trained to fall did not know me as we had not spent time together, and he did not like the big man with the big sword at all.
This made it rather difficult to get the shot, even coming over and spending time patting him, feeding him an apple, and talking to him did not help. This probably read well at a subconscious level for viewers too as the horse was actually scared. We ended up using a sword handle and CGI’ing (computer graphics) the blade into the shot later.
After we got the CGI blade shot with the real horse the special effects guys rolled in the fake horses head/neck and I was able to chop into this with a real blade, thus giving the realistic effect that was seen in the final version.
Once we finally got the shot the horse stood up again, I saw him rotate his left eye backward and look firmly at me, I thought “What are you up to?” and he stomped on my big toe, which only had boot leather and light chain mail armouring it, neither good against blunt weapons. He got a stiff heavily armoured shoulder to the ribs for that, and I lost a toe nail.
MJS – Now that several years have gone by since it was filmed, is there anything you can tell us about Season 1 that we might not already know?
Conan Stevens – There is one interesting fact that I am sure the hardcore fans can and will speculate upon. I was originally signed for 4 episodes in Season 1, but due to some difficulties filming in Malta, the Irish film unit for GoT was also required to go to Malta and the 2 additional scenes were cut.
The scenes were of Tyrion fighting in and around, and between the legs of Gregor in a mass battle and of Gregor supervising a raid, and of course again establishing himself as big, strong and “efficient.” Speculation time – What do you think those scenes were? (No answers from me…)
There was one great suggestion emailed to me by a John Nixon and his wife, because of another website of mine, www.CookingWithConan.com, she suggested that I do a special recipe with a guest chef. Anyone remember a scene that would be suitable? Yep, I was going to get a mate in special effects to help me do Vargo Hoat stew with guest chef Ser Gregor Clegane, do it for a laugh.
MJS – You mentioned that you get recognized when you’re out and about. I know that you’ve got an awful lot of wonderful fans, but I’m sure being recognizable must have its ups and downs. What’s it the strangest fan encounter you’ve had? Do fan encounters take up an awful lot of your free time now that you’re getting to be so well known?
Conan Stevens – I was in a bar in Manila where a bartender had named a cocktail she designed the “Spartacus” I asked her why and she exclaimed that she was a great fan of the show. Now, I’d just finished signing the official Spartacus Trading Cards from www.scifihobby.com, (I’d also signed a bunch of the official GoT trading cards from the same company) and I had brought along copies to show my friends I was meeting that night. The bartender did not believe I was in the show, (it had not aired in the Philippines at the time) so I pulled out the cards and showed her.
So excited to meet me, she grabs a photo on her phone, and then posts it to Facebook bragging to her friends how she met and hung out with me, but when I tried to talk to her she gave me the cold shoulder – she already got what she wanted. Too busy pretending her online life was more wonderful than anyone’s, yet too self-absorbed to actually live her real life and maybe actually meet someone different. This has happened more than once and is a sad indication of where these people’s heads are at.
The other one I like is someone saying “I am a big fan” I ask “Which movie did you see me in?” and they cannot answer – I walk away from these people too, It’s best if they just think about it without me commenting.
I also have a good anecdote about Jean Claude Van Damme at the Bangkok Film Festival pushed into a corner by ‘fans’ I looked over at him he looked up I nodded and smiled he smiled back but looked very tired as one girl said to him “I am a big fan I’ve watched all your movies” Jean Claude said “Oh thank you, which is your favourite?” she then answered “I like the movie where you did the spinning kick”, politely Jean Claude signed something for her and said thank you, I shook my head, that’s like saying I like the movie, you know, the one in which you said something.
Times like this are very testing on one’s patience.
Similarly I dislike when people find out “he’s famous” and come to interrupt my workout in the gym to ask inane questions which shows they don’t know who I am and ask for a photo (that they duly put up on Facebook to show off to their “friends”). First up why do people nearly worship any/all celebrities, it’s silly. If it is someone you watch and like their work, that is different. Secondly the gym is my work. I don’t like being interrupted for nothing. Saying that, it all comes down to how someone presents themselves, if someone takes the time to introduce themselves properly and politely I will always take the time to answer in an appropriate manner, the same with emails. “I’m a good actor, get me in a movie” emails are duly ignored, intelligent well written emails that have thought behind them, I endeavor to answer.
Gym staff sneaking about taking photos while I train is another annoyance, fair enough if they offered me to train for free but when I am paying and getting harassed it can be a little too much, as to the gym employee who actually followed me into the toilets, let’s just say at least he was in the right place when I scared the sh#t out of him.
MJS – Bangkok Adrenaline is one of my favorite movies and I’m excited to know that you’re writing another script! Is it top secret, or are you able to give us an idea of what you might be working on?
Conan Stevens – Actually I have written 4 ‘finished’ scripts and 2 half done, one of which I am working on now as I have a financial backer and a Producer/Director interested too (he should be, I am writing his story idea – I just hope he likes the direction I have taken). Writing is a good pass time, it keeps me involved with work even if I am doing ‘nothing’ and it takes practice at writing scripts to get better at it.
Read about the making of Bangkok Adrenaline on the “unofficial” fan site HERE
Of the four scripts I have written only one, the first, Bangkok Adrenaline as you mentioned, has been produced. It had cinema release in Thailand where it played for between two and four weeks in most cinemas and six weeks in Pattaya with no advertising budget at all, movies stay in cinema only as long as they are profitable, many don’t last opening weekend. Bangkok Adrenaline was sold and released as a DVD in all other 80 or so territories. Unfortunately the finished product had very little to do with what was originally written (the original shooting script is on my website), but it was a great learning experience and has helped me as an actor immeasurably, getting to know how production works and what it expects from an actor.
Two of the other scripts will probably never get made. Maybe one day I’ll cut and paste some scenes out into a new movie idea, maybe they’ll rot in digital limbo. I don’t think they are good stories just basic, cheap to film 80’s style action. It was good practice writing them though.
The other movie I have written in full currently has an inappropriate working title (to annoy a good friend) but the tag line is “Assigned to a tropical paradise a war correspondent with a death wish finds he can love again… until he uncovers that she is really the Mafia Boss’ son…”. The story idea started as a joke over drinks, and ended up a full script awaiting the proper time to present it.
The current script is planned to be a trial of some new technology, for this reason we are designing the movie to be as cheap to shoot as possible, while maintaining production and acting quality. Also it is a friend of mine interested in funding it so I want to minimise his exposure to potential loses.
The benefit in writing is that I can ‘do’ movies that I’d never be cast in, and it opens a new area of the movie industry for me as well as paving the way to future releases that I write and star in. Finally it adds to me as an actor when I understand what is happening at all levels, I understand better what is needed of me, what I can bring additionally besides my screen time, and allows me to read scripts differently. All in all it is experience with all round benefits.
MJS – You’ve been really busy with so many projects; Spartacus: Vengeance, History’s The Bible miniseries, The Hobbit, Vikingdom and A Man Will Rise. It’s wonderful to hear that Vikingdom now has cinema release dates we can look forward to! Of course we want to know a little bit about your upcoming releases and projects. What else can we expect from Conan Stevens in the future?
Conan Stevens – My most recent project is A Man Will Rise starring Tony Jaa and a long time inspiration of mine – Dolph Lundgren. It has us acting in an Asian spaghetti western, it’ll be action/comedy and of course Dolph, David Ismalone and myself play the hired gun cowboys on choppers. Working with Dolph was interesting, it’s always good to watch how long term, very experienced actors work (both on and off set). Dolph was a complete gentleman at all times. His Stunt double, Tony Messenger, and I got along very well – we had common associates back in Australia (he’s English but visited us colonials for a few years).
Vikingdom is set for release soon as set out in my website article. This is the one I am currently most interested in because it is the first International cinema released movie that I play a starring role in and the teaser looks good, really good. And I play the lead bad guy, well the lead bad God to be precise… Thor, who is angry with his followers leaving he and the pagan Gods for the “white Christ”.
A Viking movie in Malaysia? Well, have a look at the trailer and judge for yourself how well they have done. I am so fully impressed. This could end up being a big thing for myself and my career.
Mystic Blade is by a friend, Don Ferguson, who wanted to star in his own movie so he wrote and funded it himself. I did a small spot at the beginning of the movie to help out a friend. It classifies as an ultra low budget Indie so it’ll be a DVD release, though I have no idea when that might be.
Lastly Extinction deserves a mention. It has been in pre-production for about 4-5 years now and my original agreement with the producer expired 3+ years ago so I’m not holding my breath in regards to that one.
Of course there is the movie that I am writing now, I do plan to make this one this year though I won’t be acting in it, maybe a cameo but I’ll be involved with production. It’ll be a good learning experience and set up for future collaboration.
I just signed a Letter Of Intent for a large budget US indie, which means they can use my name when discussing the movie with other actors/investors/etc and have word that another well-known project might be looking at me. Also a Indian big budget Bollywood movie has expressed interest – all these are best looked at as possible leads. The number of times something looks good then nothing eventuates is a prime reason for actors dropping out of the industry.
I have a plan regarding a highly suitable and popular TV series, on a channel I have worked with before, and showreel from a certain Viking movie about to release shortly.
On top of all that I check my email first thing every morning as I never know when a new previously unsuspected offer might come in overnight as happened with Drona and The Bible.
MJS – This is all so exciting! Thanks so much for talking with me, Conan. This has been amazing, to say the least! We all wish you the best of luck with everything you do!
Make sure to watch for the release of A Man Will Rise. Vikingdom has a possible release date for Russia on July 8th, confirmed release dates of Malaysia/Singapore on September 12, and in the Ukraine on October 8th, and Thailand 3rd Oct 2013, making us pretty jealous of some our international readers! We’ll definitely be on the lookout for more release dates as they are announced, and will be anxiously awaiting the US release.
I’d also like to add a very special thanks to Conan for being so kind, gracious and for giving me so much of his time. Also for sharing his personal collection of photos and trusting me with the never-before-seen footage from his original Game of Thrones audition. That means an awful lot!
MJ Snow is a Canine and avian behavior specialist, role player, blogger and writer. A long time George RR Martin fangirl and Game of Thrones Addict, MJ spends way too much time in Westeros and her favorite is Ser Gregor Clegane. MJ is the founder ofThe Snow Keep, a short story and fan-ficiton blog,TheBrothersClegane.com, a Sandor & Gregor Clegane tribute blog and the co-founder ofCastlesofSnow.com, a tribute to Petyr Baelish and Alayne Stone.
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