LOS ANGELES — The chilly breeze blowing through a restaurant patio sent “Game of Thrones” actress Michelle Fairley reaching for her blazer and her television daughters, Sophie Turner and Maisie Williams, reaching for the ominous tagline that’s become so associated with HBO’s big-budget fantasy series.
“Winter is coming,” chimed the teenagers in their lilting English voices, the trio laughing at the notion that a bracing late winter wind would attend a reunion of the women of House Stark, even on a seasonably pleasant Los Angeles spring day.
In the world of Westeros, seasons can last for years, making the approach of a bleak and bitter winter a fierce proposition indeed. But even in the sunniest of days, the fantasy realm first created by author George R.R. Martin in his “A Song of Ice and Fire” novels can be an unforgiving place where acts of principle are most typically rewarded with betrayal.
“Honor doesn’t get you that far,” Fairley acknowledged between sips of tea.
The show’s third season, which kicked off last week, finds Fairley’s matriarch, Catelyn Stark, still fearful for the welfare of her girls, the long-suffering Sansa (Turner) and the rough-and-tumble Arya (Williams), both of whom are very much in jeopardy.
Watching a sprawling cast of characters play that game has become something akin to an obsession for those hooked on “Game of Thrones.” The series’ unique blend of diabolical dealings and underhanded intrigue, not to mention explicit nudity, graphic violence and supernatural underpinnings, has seduced a mainstream audience — a feat rare for such an elaborate work of fantasy.
An average of 10.4 million viewers tuned in last season, making “Game of Thrones” a marquee success for HBO. The show has enchanted critics too, earning a Hugo Award (given for achievement in science fiction or fantasy) and a Golden Globe for Peter Dinklage, who took a statuette for his supporting performance as the calculating Tyrion Lannister in 2012.
Additionally, the show has won eight Emmy Awards (including one for Dinklage) and was nominated for 16 more.
Heading into this year’s 10 episodes, show runners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have promised a number of “reversals of fortune” for the players jockeying to survive in a land torn apart by a war for control over the Iron Throne.
There are a number of new faces set to be introduced, including Diana Rigg as Olenna Redwyne, the Queen of Thorns, and Ciaran Hinds as Mance Rayder, the fearsome King Beyond the Wall, who plans to lead his invading Wildings into Westeros.
Tracing out the many narrative threads that connect the characters can require hours of concentration, and a familiarity with Martin’s novels helps immensely. At this point, “Game of Thrones” newcomers might be best advised to binge-view the series to catch up.
A willingness to study serves one well in Westeros — there are House lineages to remember, along with key alliances and dangerous adversaries, even the tenets of various religions grow more important as the story lines progress. “George is extremely intricate (in his writing),” Fairley said. “He loves to describe the world these people are in.”
Season 3 tackles roughly half of the third book in the saga, “A Storm of Swords” — which clocks in at upward of 900 pages in its hardcover printing — a fan favorite that’s been referred to as “The Empire Strike Back” of the series for its shocking revelations.
“Game of Thrones” has never shied away from shocking moments though. Before the first season had concluded, the show’s hero, Ned Stark (Sean Bean), was killed off. The noble character lost his head at the order of the sadistic King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), who at the time was betrothed to Ned Stark’s daughter Sansa.
That act set the stage for much of the action that has followed, with Ned and Catelyn’s eldest son, Robb (Richard Madden), assuming the mantle of the King of the North and amassing an army against the Lannister clan, who hold the throne and Sansa prisoner. But his campaign left the family seat of Winterfell vulnerable to attack, and Catelyn, who is traveling with the soldiers, believes that in its capture, her two youngest sons were murdered.
“She’s wrestling with her own demons,” Fairley said of her character’s state of mind as the story resumes. “She has a son who is king, she doesn’t want him to be king. … That’s a hard thing, letting her son grow up. Season 3 for Catelyn is a progression, she becomes very introspective, and she goes to very dark places.”
Only Arya has a real ray of hope. Having survived by posing as a boy, she’s escaped from the castle Harrenhal with the help of the mysterious Jaqen H’ghar (Tom Wlaschiha). She’s determined to make her way to Winterfell, not realizing that her homestead has been seized by a traitor.
If the best acting requires concealing more than you reveal, then “Game of Thrones” consistently demands the best from its actors. Rarely do any of the characters communicate honestly with one another; almost every exchange involves deception of some kind.
For a veteran such as Fairley — who has an extensive theater background and has appeared on television and in films including a turn as Hermione Granger’s mother in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1″ — that presents an intriguing creative challenge.
“It’s about showing what you want to show but holding a lot back,” she said. “They’re very skilled poker players. It’s the voice, it’s the words, but internally something else is going on that’s completely different.”
The precision of the scripts themselves proves instructive, Fairley said, almost as though Benioff and Fairley are directing the performers on the page.
“The words are there for a specific reason,” she said. “You can never change them. If you say them incorrectly, the continuity lady will come over and say, ‘David says, “Say it like this,” or Dan says, “Say it like this.”‘
Neither Turner, 17, nor Williams, 15, had much in the way of professional experience on screen before being cast on the series, although both studied dance and were interested in performance. At one point, Turner was accepted to London’s Royal Ballet School but chose to pursue acting instead; Williams landed an agent at a dance showcase who encouraged her to audition for the show.
“I think they did it very tactically, David and Dan, bringing in people that hadn’t really done anything like this before,” Turner said. “Because we’re so young and this is really kind of an emotionally testing series … we could connect to our characters going through the same thing. We’d never done anything like it, neither had Sansa and Arya.”
Although the girls are close friends off screen, they rarely have the opportunity to act together or with Fairley for that matter. Circumstances have separated Sansa and Arya from each other and from Catelyn for well more than a season, though the actresses said they find ways to spend time with one another on the series’ Belfast, Northern Ireland, set. (The show also travels to exotic locales in Iceland and Croatia.)
Turner and Fairley have read the first three of Martin’s novels, but Williams has decided to wait until her time as Arya is over before she sits down to the saga: “At the moment, the scripts are complicated enough,” she said.
As to what exactly happens in those scripts, Fairley, Turner and Williams won’t say. They, like every member of the “Game of Thrones” cast, have been well schooled to keep mum about what adventures their characters undertake this season, with an eye toward preserving the show’s many secrets in the age of Internet spoilers.
After all, secrets are perhaps the most prized currency in the series’ cutthroat world.
“Maybe in the future Sansa will do a crazy ninja Arya move,” Turner offered.
“And maybe I’ll get to wear a dress!” Williams exclaimed. “Look like a girl maybe? It would be nice to look nice on camera.”
Fairley turned to her young costar and offered an expression of maternal support. “You look beautiful on camera,” she said with a warm smile.