Liam Cunningham had been acting for two decades before he joined Game of Thrones as Ser Davos Seaworth, aka The Most Honorable Man in Westeros Who Happens to Be a Former Smuggler. His star-making turn as the Onion Knight has brought him a higher profile and, one presumes, the ability to be more selective in the projects he takes on. But Cunningham says he’s always been picky — for him, it’s all about doing good work with good people.
With its drawn-out production schedule, Game of Thrones is a significant commitment for an actor in a major role like Cunningham. A regular gig on a show like that leaves less time for other projects, so it’s perhaps not surprising that his latest role comes in an anthology series, Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams. The show consists of 10 stand-alone episodes, each of which is based on one of the legendary sci-fi author’s short stories.
Cunningham doesn’t see the actor’s hustle that way, though.
“It’s not a time thing, because before Game of Thrones, that was more or less what I did all the time,” Cunningham told Polygon during a roundtable interview at New York Comic Con on Friday. “I hit the ground running, I’d do a job — maybe a movie for three months — and then was unemployed and had my nails bitten down to the quick.”
He’s certainly grateful for the security of a regular job; thanks to Game of Thrones, he’s “actually got a couple of quid in the bank for the first time.” But the nature of any part he’s considering is just as important. Asked about scheduling concerns with jobs other than his role on one of the biggest shows in television history, Cunningham said, “I don’t really think of it in terms of that.” In essence, it’s worth finding the time for a good part. And that’s what he found with Electric Dreams.
Cunningham stars alongside Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) and Essie Davis (Game of Thrones) in Electric Dreams’ sixth episode, “Human Is.” Davis plays a woman in an unhappy marriage, and Cranston plays her emotionally abusive husband. When Cranston’s character returns from battle, he seems like a different person, which confuses his long-suffering wife.
Cranston’s “completely professional, completely passionate” attitude on set impressed Cunningham, but it was Davis’ character that hooked him in the first place.
“Essie’s just — it’s Shakespearean, what she’s doing, especially towards the end of it,” Cunningham said. “And it’s science fiction, and it’s Philip K. Dick, and it’s ... you just want to go, ‘Oh!’ I hopped out of the bed in the morning. There was no difficulty tearing myself off my pillow when I was working on this; it was really lovely.”
Cunningham’s enthusiasm for acting was evident during the interview, and his effusive reflections on starring in both Game of Thrones and Electric Dreams felt genuine. It was perhaps more noticeable because his expressive gesticulating stood in stark contrast to his dry, understated role as Davos. But the same sentiments came through in his excited description of one of his favorite parts of being an actor.
“The greatest moment is hearing — used to be the script hitting the carpet in my hall when it came from my agent,” said Cunningham, noting that things are a bit different in the digital age. Sifting through the dreck that comes in can be disappointing, he acknowledged. “But when something — you open an email or whatever, and you start getting into it ... that’s the bit that you’re kind of, internally, you’re just screaming for.”
While Cunningham cares about the talent that’s attached to a project — he noted the importance of being able to “see yourself in the company of people that you respect” — the quality of the writing is what matters most to him.
“I don’t care whether it’s a 10-minute short from a film student, or it’s Spielberg or Fellini or whoever it is,” said Cunningham. “I mean, I’ve turned down jobs for people that I wanted to work with because their script wasn’t good enough [...] and been pissed off about it.”
When you’re an actor, being selective may not be in your best interest, whether for your finances or your career prospects. “My agent’s had to pull her hair out of her head many times when I’ve gone ‘no’ to big projects. My accountant’s done the same thing,” Cunningham said.
That might’ve been tougher to bear in his pre-Thrones days, to be sure. But it was clear from the passion and conviction in his voice that Cunningham — who worked as an electrician for years before getting into acting in the early 1990s — doesn’t take anything for granted.
Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams is currently airing in the U.K. on Channel 4. It will debut in the U.S. in 2018 exclusively on Amazon Video.