‘Game of Thrones’ Star Iain Glen on His New Aboriginal Superhero Series and Ser Jorah’s Future
The dashing Scottish actor, who plays noble knight Ser Jorah Mormont on GoT, discusses his new, trailblazing Sundance TV drama and much more.
Game of Thrones’ noblest ex-knight, Jorah Mormont, he had just declared his undying love for his khaleesi—“I will always love you,” he said, cueing our tears—and rode off in search of a cure for greyscale, the usually fatal disease that threatens to turn him to stone. No one knows if or when the lovelorn son of Bear Island will ride back into Daenerys’s army (and into our hearts) again, but happily for those in Jorah withdrawal, Scottish actor Iain Glen can still be found lighting up the small screen in Sundance TV’s supernatural drama Cleverman.
The six-part series, being billed as the first Aboriginal superhero story told onscreen, takes place in a dystopian society where a humanoid race of people (derogatorily called “hairies” for their physical appearance) are restricted to a slum known as “The Zone.” The “Subhumans,” as they’re alternately called, possess superhuman strength and speed—and in one of them, called the “Cleverman,” a connection to an alternate world.
It’s a gritty and timely vision of a future not unlike our present, in which the majority still struggles with fear of a rising ethnic minority. Hysterical TV news reports chronicle jarringly familiar acts of violence, discrimination, and police brutality. Politicians bluster uselessly. Smugglers profit from hairies’ desperate desire to escape. And in the midst of it all, shadowy figures like media magnate Jarrod Slade (played by Glen) play both sides of the debate, in service of his own inscrutable ends.
Whether Slade is earnestly an ally in the hairies’ struggle for acceptance is left ambiguous. He’s wealthy, he wears sleek suits (goodbye to Jorah’s sweat-stained yellow shirt!), and he’s chummy with the media power players who exploit the public’s fear. And yet, he funds a medical center within the Zone, where his wife works as a doctor. And, as he regularly reminds us, he was friends with the Indigenous community’s original Cleverman before he died and passed the mantle on to a younger, more reluctant successor.
Glen hopped on the phone with The Daily Beast to discuss his new character, the perks of traveling, Europe’s refugee crisis, and of course, Ser Jorah’s fate on Game of Thrones.
Filming in Australia must have been a nice change of pace from Croatia, where most of Game of Thrones’ Meereen scenes are filmed.
You know, I filmed there many years ago for this series about Vietnam with Kevin Dillon called Frankie’s House and we had had a ball during that. I’d been back there since I’ve become good friends with Nicole Kidman, so I had a bit of a knowledge of Sydney and what great fun it is to live and work there. It was a dream offer.
It’s one of the lovely bonuses of film and TV work, it takes you to lovely places. I honestly never take that for granted. It’s a lovely aspect of the job. They’re always fearful that you’re gonna walk under a taxi or something. Once they’ve got you there they look after you, mainly because they just don’t want you to take lots of drugs or do a bungee jump or something. They tend to keep an eye on you and look after you. So you’re always treated very well. That was true on [Cleverman.] But it’s lovely, I was right in the heart of Sydney, I was in a gorgeous hotel, and they were lovely people on it. Really, really good bunch of primarily Aboriginal actors, which was great.
The show’s notable for its cast of 80 percent Indigenous actors, which makes it the new “benchmark” for diversity on Australian TV, as Sally Riley, head of Indigenous at ABC TV, has said.
Yeah, well I think that’s right and that’s the story. It’s sad to say, but it’s almost unusual in itself to have an Aboriginal-inspired, six-part drama on television. Of course, there have been famously a number of films that have been done, but it’s too rare and there's such, such talent there in all areas. It was one of the attractions, definitely, of the job. I knew a bit about [the culture] but not enough, and I enjoyed researching.
Your character, Jarrod Slade, is inscrutable in a really fascinating way. I’m four episodes in and still can’t quite tell what his ultimate goal is and what his connection to the old Cleverman was like.
I think that’s right, I’m glad that you feel a duality within the role, that was always incorporated into me—that I didn’t fall too heavily on one side or the other, in the sense that if I describe Jarrod Slade, he’s basically an inordinately wealthy media magnate who has a very big business empire in pharmaceuticals and real estate and right across the media. The kind of figure we talked about was Richard Branson, in the sense of a self-made man who is often quite anti-government, very independent-minded; more a man of the people—not an elite kind of wealth, but more fighting for the people. So that’s kind of who he is and when the drama begins, there’s this very malfunctioning society where there’s this huge fear between different groups, as you’ve seen. And part of his instinct is to try and bring the two parties together. He’s funding medical help through a medical organization within the Zone that his wife is running. So there are good things and also there’s a darker side to it. I think he has a great scientific knowledge, he's very interested in science. He starts to get rather too involved in experimentation and trying to work out what exactly the DNA difference is between the hairies and the rest of the modern populace. And again, these are all current metaphors for things that are going on in the world today, scientifically as well. People are a little suspicious of that and probably rightly so.
Another clear metaphor is the majority’s hatred of the hairies themselves. How do you read their internment as commentary on real-world oppression of minority groups?
Well I think, you know, certainly within Europe, the whole migrant crisis is probably the biggest thing, as well as terrorism. It’s very, very difficult for all the governments of the European countries to know how to deal with the migrant crisis, which is genuine. In its most basic form, it’s people who on the whole are trying to escape dire circumstances, otherwise they wouldn't be doing what they're doing, risking their lives to try and seek a place to land, a peaceful place to exist. And it’s how those countries are in a safer place and have a safer society. How do they react to the others wanting to coexist? That’s kind of the most central theme of
And it’s very hard. It’s really hard. I’m fairly left-wing by nature. But my instinct is to try and help as much as possible. And on the whole, apart from the German government, there was a sort of kneejerk reaction of doing too little and not doing enough. Now the Germans have got their own issues and they’re backtracking slightly, but I was very glad that they took that position. I think it’s very easy to see migrants not as fully blooded human beings with children and in dire need. So it’s a very real issue and one that doesn’t have simple answers, but I hope that the drama kind of looks at these issues and asks us how we should behave.
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Those are questions America is dealing with as well, especially with the xenophobic rhetoric coming out of certain candidates in our presidential election.
(Laughs.) Yes. I think often, if you were doing okay in whatever it is, as a person or a nation or whatever, I think you have to be careful about saying [in a booming voice], “Listen, we did it right, we’re all right, so just back off. You figure it out for yourselves and stay away from us ‘cause we’ve got what we’re happy with and we want to keep it.” I think we should be more sympathetic humans than that and more welcoming in sharing the good things that we’ve been lucky enough to gain.
In Game of Thrones, one of the last scenes we saw Ser Jorah in was the moment Daenerys burnt down the khals’ temple and emerged from the flames unscathed. In that moment, as the khalasar and Daario Naharis bowed down, only Jorah raised his head, with devotion and reaffirmation written all over his face—at least, that’s how I saw it.
Yeah, I think that’s absolutely right. For me, it really strongly echoed the culmination of the first season when, I don’t know if you remember, she walked into the pyre of Khal Drogo and [the camera] went up with the flames into the night sky. And when we came back, we were at Ser Jorah’s feet as he walked through these prone, bowing people toward this godlike woman who had shown herself in a completely different light.
He’s always adored her. He’s always hugely admired and known that she would be a benign leader of people. But then there’s always been this other side to him that understands she’s beyond his knowledge, she possesses things that are so extraordinary they can’t really be spoken. So yes, in that moment I think probably he was reminded of why he’s decided to dedicate his life to this woman and how right he is to do that.
Your role next to Emilia Clarke as Daenerys continues a great pattern over your career, in which you’re often playing opposite iconic women—from Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft to Milla Jovovich in Resident Evil to the khaleesi herself.
I suppose I am! Yeah, I’ve done quite a lot of things with strong, iconic women. I couldn’t imagine better work, really. I’m very happy to be a part of that. There’s rightly been a fair amount of complaint about drama, that there are not enough strong women’s roles and not enough properly developed female roles for all ages, really. Part of the problem, certainly in the U.K., is that even when you go back to Shakespeare’s time when even the girls were played by boys, a lot of the best-written roles are for men, written by men. So it’s good to try and redress that balance a little bit, but it’s coincidence, it’s not my doing.
Jorah finds such fulfillment in service to Daenerys, which allows him to set aside his unrequited feelings for her. He’s really become one of the purest, most noble-hearted characters on the show.
It’s one of the lovely things about Game of Thrones: You have such contrast in personality within it, don’t you? But I certainly like that aspect. There are probably more people within the series with ill intentions or conflicted intentions than good intentions, but he has a pure line. And just, you know, my job is just to make it as deep or as believable as possible without being saccharine in the wrong way, but just to be a profoundly loyal man. But I also wanted him in some ways to be an ordinary man, because I think she is extra-ordinary and that’s what fuels his huge passion for her.
I think in the hands of a different actor he absolutely could have come across as obsessed or saccharine or too good to be believed.
Yeah, I think that’s right. But you know, that being said, Dan and David are wonderful writers and they grade these things very, very well for you. They do a lot of that work for you. You know, you have to play each scene for what it is, but they never overwrite them, they never give you too much of one thing. They always offer degrees of contrast. In some ways, Season 5 was about me traveling with Tyrion across the landscape again to try and get back to her, but you almost needed that breath away from our story, for us as actors, for the audience, between Daenerys and Ser Jorah, to see the separation, to sort of again understand his need, and perhaps her need, and the conflict of when they came back together again. They’re such gifted writers. I think they measure everything very well, so if you play it moment by moment, I think you’re pretty safe in their hands.
All right, now is that time when I ask you to speculate on Jorah’s chances of survival and you come up with a really creative way of dodging my question.
(Laughs.) All I can say is it’s been a dream job from beginning to end. It’s been nothing but a ball doing it. It’s extraordinarily exciting to be part of such a successful and appreciated series. If you can count on one hand at the end of a long career things that have come close to resonating in the way that Game of Thrones has, then I think you should be a pretty happy bunny. It’s been pretty transformative for most people on the show, certainly the principles of the show. It’s sort of changed all our lives for the good. I’m hugely grateful, really, for the experience of being on it. The show is bigger than any single person within it. It just fills me with excitement every year at the prospect of reading those next scripts and going back to work and getting into that costume again and hanging out with the same people. It’s a ball.