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When Jon Snow’s Northern army marches into battle against the White Walkers — not to mention a triumphant Cersei Lannister — in the seventh season of Game of Thrones, a little child may very well lead them. Sound improbable? Not when you consider that the child in question is Lyanna Mormont, the head of House Mormont and ruler of Bear Island. One of the breakout characters of the show’s Emmy-winning sixth season, little Lyanna’s three appearances sent the Internet into overdrive, generating fan art tributes and numerous online memes. So it’s no surprise that Game of Thrones showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff will be keeping Lyanna in the mix next year. On-set spy photos spotted British actress Bella Ramsey on the show’s Ireland sets in October, although the 13-year-old scene-stealer is keeping mum about Lyanna’s current rank in Jon’s traveling army. “You’ll have to wait and see,” she tells Yahoo TV in an email interview that launches our Toast of 2016 series.
The first cousin of exiled and disgraced knight Ser Jorah Mormont (last seen embarking on a lonely mission to find a cure for a serious case of Greyscale), 10-year-old Lyanna assumed command of her House after her mother, Maege, fought and died alongside Robb Stark during his unsuccessful bid to become Westeros’s new King of the North. And with the rest of House Mormont’s army decimated at the Red Wedding, the young leader has inherited a severely diminished 62-man fighting force. Luckily for them, Lyanna has the courage of a thousand soldiers. “She is a strong, firm female,” Ramsey says. “She doesn’t dither about wondering whether to do this or that, go here or there. She gets the facts, weighs them up and makes her decisions from there. Whereas I’m a ditherer — I take about 10 minutes deciding whether to have salt-and-vinegar or prawn-cocktail chips!”
Ramsey cites Lyanna’s steely resolve as the chief reason she’s become a fan favorite, comparing her to another wise-beyond-her-age warrior, Katniss Everdeen of Hunger Games fame. And the character’s first onscreen appearance in Season 6’s seventh episode, “The Broken Man,” marked the young actress’s on-camera debut as well. Having performed in community theater programs and school plays since age 4, Ramsey was accepted into prestigious British training program The Television Workshop three years ago, and auditioned for Game of Thrones in the summer of 2015, beating out five other candidates for the role of Lyanna.
Based on the Internet’s reaction on the night that “The Broken Man” aired, viewers were as immediately impressed by Ramsey’s portrayal as the show’s casting directors were. That’s no small accomplishment considering that she was acting opposite three of the show’s most popular characters: Jon (Kit Harington), Sansa (Sophie Turner), and Davos (Liam Cunningham), who have come to Bear Island to essentially beg for the support of House Mormont as they look to assemble a force capable of seizing back Winterfell from the clutches of Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon). Lyanna establishes her authority immediately, short-circuiting Sansa’s tentative attempts at flattery and Jon’s lame stabs at small talk. “You don’t just want my allegiance, you want my fighting men,” Lyanna says, cutting right to the heart of the matter. “Why should I sacrifice one more Mormont life for someone else’s war?”
It takes Davos to win over the young pragmatist with the eminently pragmatic logic that this war will affect everyone in Westeros, whether they want it to or not. In the end, Lyanna pledges all 62 of her soldiers to Jon, a triumphant moment that resulted in a lot of unintentional laughs on set. “Every time I had to say ’62’ with a completely straight face, I cracked up,” Ramsey confesses. “Other than that, the scene was really good [to film]. I didn’t know what to expect, but the actors were all so welcoming and lovely. I remember that Kit liked my Doc Martens.”
Game of Thrones viewers, meanwhile, really liked the actress’s so-called death stare — the look she shot at Ramsey Bolton upon taking the battlefield for the epic Battle of the Bastards. Because of the show’s demanding production schedule, that scene from the season’s penultimate episode was actually filmed before her earlier Bear Island confrontation with Bolton’s fellow bastard, Jon. “I didn’t know I was doing a death stare in that scene,” she says now. “I guess Iwan is just an incredibly good actor to make me pull such a face! He’s nothing like his character.” Lyanna’s horse, on the other hand, proved a less cooperative co-star. “The horse did not want to stay still. She was fine when the camera wasn’t on me, but as soon as it was, she decided she wanted to change places with the horse next to me!”
For understandable reasons, Lyanna didn’t stick around for the carnage that unfolded during the Battle of the Bastards, instead reappearing in the postbattle season finale to rally the troops — and shame the other non-Snow supporting Houses — as they prepare for the war ahead. Likewise, Ramsey, who was only 12 at the time of the shoot, wasn’t present for the tedious (and gruesome) act of filming that bloody s**tshow. And she won’t be witnessing Jon’s hard-fought victory onscreen anytime soon. “I’ve only watched the scenes that I’m in. When I’m 18, I’ll be able to watch the whole series. I hate watching and hearing myself anyway. My voice sounds weird! And I’m constantly picking out things I could have done better.”
Game of Thrones Season 7 premieres in Summer 2017.
Read more Toast of 2016 interviews: