Having worked on Game of Thrones since season 5, stunt coordinator Rowley Irlam has a pretty succinct description of his job: “I always want the audience to sit there, and when they see something, to go, ‘Aww, f— me,’” he tells EW with a laugh. “I’m always trying for the ‘f— me’ moment.”
Irlam and his team choreograph and execute each of the show’s major action moments, from exhilarating sword fights (like Arya and Brienne’s sparring session in season 7) to massive war sequences (like season 6’s Battle of the Bastards). For a show with so many combat scenes, Irlam’s challenge is to make each one feel unique, whether that means dropping Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen) in the Meereen fighting pits against multitalented opponents or choreographing Ser Arthur Dayne’s (Luke Roberts) two-handed sword attack for the Tower of Joy flashback scene.
Irlam has a team of expert stuntpeople, but he also works with the actors on their combat techniques. “They’ve cast some very talented actors that can actually do their own fights,” he says. Although occasionally the players can get a little too enthusiastic. “Sometimes you have to hold them back a little,” he says. For instance, “Kristofer [Hivju, who plays Tormund] is very full-on, but in a very positive way. He’ll go, ‘Hey, Rowley, I’ve got this great idea. I think I’m gonna jump on this guy and kick this guy in the head!’ And you have to go, ‘No, no, Kristofer, we can’t do that.’” As for Jorah, “Iain Glen is a very serious actor, and he’s very physical,” says Irlam, adding that the stuntpeople who work with Glen call their bumps and bruises a “Jorah badge of honor.”
Despite all the fisticuffs, Irlam must ensure everything is meticulously planned so there are no serious injuries. “It needs to look like a complete maniacal riot, but you have to make sure that no one gets so much as a chipped tooth or a sprained ankle,” he says. “We’re trying to make it look as dangerous as possible, but we also try to keep it as safe as possible.”
One of the ways Irlam does that is by using a safe word rarely heard in Westeros. “When we’re doing these battles and people are screaming and crying and dying, you might not know if anyone’s in trouble,” he explains. “So our safe word was always ‘banana.’ If someone started shouting ‘banana!’ at the top of their voice, you’d know they’re in trouble.”
Game of Thrones returns for its eighth and final season April 14 on HBO.
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