Warning: This article contains storyline and character spoilers for the season premiere of Game of Thrones.
Readers of the books may be surprised to see Varys (Conleth Hill) greeting Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) when the box is opened in the Season 5 premiere of Game of Thrones. It’s an especially fortuitous change, because the pair’s conversations are among the show’s most entertaining moments.
As the season progresses, we’ll see more of the duo as they make a road trip worthy of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. We spoke with Hill about the expansion of his role, as well as his journey from probable bad guy to almost certainly good guy. He’s as humble and self-effacing in real life as he is devious and captivating on the screen; you’d almost want to sit and have a beer with him, if it weren’t for the nagging fear that he might have poisoned it when you weren’t looking.
When the series began, Varys was just one of many dark and potentially evil presences in King’s Landing, each vying for some unknown objective, and all of whom seemed out for their own gain. But now that he’s revealed his allegiance to Daenerys Targaryen, it’s clear that his spying on the Mother of Dragons was to help, not hinder her. He’s trying to make Westeros a place “where the powerful do not prey on the weak.” It’s a far cry from the Varys we thought we knew in Season 1, but for Hill, he’s never seen his character as a villain.
“I think I’ve been given some kind of insight by a combination of [showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss] and George R.R. [Martin, the author of the series] that ultimately he was positive,” says Hill. “It wasn’t malevolent or greedy or egotistical on his part — it’s bigger than that. But it’s a real divergence from the books, so it’s as new and exciting to me as it is to you.”
Of course, that insight could change, since alliances in Game of Thrones shift frequently, but Hill feels that what we know now is probably true. “I think in Season 3 his confession to Tyrion was pretty comprehensive. It kind of told you where he’d come from, how he’d got to where he is now.” His motives appear mostly to line up with the book version; Varys believes that a Targaryen on the throne is best for the country. “It could be a double bluff,” Hill posits without much conviction. “It could be anything coming up, who knows?”
Really, the actor doesn’t find Varys mysterious at all. “When he knows people or trusts people, he’ll talk away. I think his reasons for holding his cards close to his chest are purely for survival. He’s learned the hard way he’s got to look after himself, because nobody else will.” Which is the reason Varys and Tyrion get along so well, says Hill: “You have two guys who had been victimized their whole lives, but were survivors. I think they had that much in common, you know?”
Their distance from King’s Landing means that Varys and Tyrion will be spending some time alone with each other for the next couple of episodes, which is fine with Hill. He enjoys working with Dinklage more than anyone else in the cast, but also — given the number of deaths on the show — he jokes, “I’m just grateful to have a job and to be still alive in the series, so I’m happy to work with anyone.”
While Hill doesn’t read the books, he loves the fact that many of Thrones’s viewers do. “The great advantage of having a book audience was that everyone who reads that novel has their own idea of who he is. So, as an actor, you don’t have to do that much because they’re doing all the work for you.” And now that we know more of him — especially now that it’s clear that he’s been helping Daenerys all along — there’s another facet of what that book knowledge brings: “He was suspected and he was suspicious just because of how he was rather than who he was,” explains Hill. “I think that says more about those who judged him than him.”
This season, the production has been especially good to Hill, as most of the interiors were shot in Northern Ireland, in Belfast and Banbridge, close to where Hill lives, in Ballycastle. “It’s just very, very fortuitous to wrap for a day’s work and be in my garden before the sun’s gone.” And when they do go abroad, the locations have always been “somewhere nice and warm and hot.” (The season premiere was shot in Croatia, and Hill’s also been sent to Malta for some episodes.)
And when he’s not working, Hill doesn’t have problems being harassed by people on the street: “My hair grows back in between seasons.” But will there be a Season 6 for Varys? “I’m quite fatalistic about the whole series,” says Hill. “If it ended this season, I’d say ‘Thanks for the ride — it’s been brilliant.’ I’m too busy enjoying my life to be wondering what might happen and where it could go.” Which is a good thing, because at this point, with the series growing increasingly apart from the books, not even Martin knows whether Varys will make it out alive. All Hill will say about his future is this: “Keep watching.”
Game of Thrones airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.