Liam Cunningham on Game of Thrones and privilege: ‘All the big stars in England are from money’

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Liam Cunningham as Livius in Domina - Sky Atlantic/Stefano C Montesi
Liam Cunningham as Livius in Domina - Sky Atlantic/Stefano C Montesi

Liam Cunningham imagines what it would be like to return to his old job as an electrician: if someone needed an emergency callout and Cunningham – best known as Game of Thrones’s bearded good guy Ser Davos Seaworth – turned up with his old toolbox.

“Hopefully it doesn’t come to that,” he laughs. “If I do have to go back, it might be a bit weird knocking on someone’s door. ‘I’m here to fix your fuse box.’ ‘Are you not Davos Seaworth?’ ‘Yeah, things are bit tight at the moment…’”

Cunningham was originally an electrician but was inspired to move into acting after a three-and-a-half-year adventure in the Zimbabwe bush in the early 1980s, where he worked as a rural electrical linesman. He was just 22 when he arrived. The experience, he tells me, had “a profound effect” on his life.

Zimbabwe had been independent for four years and Zimbabwean officials went to Ireland looking for skilled workers. Cunningham, who grew up on the north side of Dublin, had never been on a plane before. “I’d had a week’s holiday on a motorbike in Scotland,” he says. “That’s as far as Irish Marco Polo had travelled.” He married his girlfriend, Colette, so she could get a visa and go with him. “The wonderful human being I’m still with after three-and-a-half decades,” he says.

He describes a defining moment shortly after arriving: sitting by a lake, watching a family of hippos, and cooking a breakfast of steak, onions and tomatoes on his shovel. “I remember thinking, ‘I don’t think I’ll ever be more content than this,’” he says. “It was an extraordinary feeling.”

Liam Cunningham as Ser Davos Seaworth in Game of Thrones - HBO
Liam Cunningham as Ser Davos Seaworth in Game of Thrones - HBO

Returning to Ireland, Cunningham was compelled to find a passion. He began acting at the ripe age of 29. Indeed, it’s a remarkable journey, from Zimbabwe to Westeros – and now to Ancient Rome for Domina, an eight-part Sky Original series set in the aftermath of the assassination of Julius Caesar.

As Ser Davos, he was one of the lucky few to survive the carnage of Game of Thrones – carnage which spilled over into a social media reaction against the show’s divisive, fan-riling climax. “There was no way we were going to please everybody,” he says.

The 59-year-old actor, however, came out of Game of Thrones pretty well. Davos was one of the series’s true moral crusaders – so popular and delightfully rugged, in fact, that a female fan in Brazil once fainted in front of him. Cunningham’s star has been rightly polished with a touch of Ser Davos’s grounded dignity. Cunningham feels like the go-to actor for prestige drama’s most decent, principled, honourable men.

Speaking on the phone from Dublin, where he lives with Colette and his three children – “We’ve got a bit of sunshine in Dublin, that’ll keep me going for a few months” – he talks about his Game of Thrones fame in down-to-earth terms (“being fairly visible,” he calls it). Cunningham has previously described being “obliged” to use his celebrity platform to do some good. Last year he received an award from the Irish Council for Civil Liberties for humanitarian work, after visiting refugee camps in Greece, Jordan and South Sudan.

His latest role is in Domina, which debuts on Sky Atlantic this Friday. Created by Simon Burke (Fortitude), Domina is set during the fall of the Roman Republic and rise of the Empire. As impressive as the Roman Empire is, it stands in the shadow of Game of Thrones. The show is unmistakably Thrones-like – a grandiose production with plenty of sex, bloodshed and sneaky political wrangling.

Liam Cunningham in Strike Back 2 - Left Bank Pictures/HBO
Liam Cunningham in Strike Back 2 - Left Bank Pictures/HBO

Cunningham plays Livius, father of lead character Livia (played at different ages by Nadia Parkes and Kasia Smutniak). Livia marries powerful men (no spoilers) and becomes a behind-the-scenes power player herself. Livius is an alternative-universe ancestor to Ser Davos – one good man among a city of power-hungry, self-serving rotters. “That’s men for you!” laughs Cunningham. Livius’s rationale for not joining the plot to murder Caesar – “It was un-Roman” – sounds distinctly Davos-esque.

One reason for joining the series, he explains, was its power dynamic – the point where Domina finds its own identity beyond Game of Thrones comparisons. It’s a story about a world-shaping patriarchy, but told through the eyes of a shrewder-than-she’s-credited-for woman.

If you’re not up to speed on your Roman history, Domina will have you scrolling through the Wikipedia pages on the Judio-Claudian dynasty. A fan of both I, Claudius and Up Pompeii! (“Frankie Howerd!” he says. “Up Pompeii! always put a smile on my face”), Cunningham is particularly interested in the dramatic potential of Ancient Rome. “They had such beautiful poetry and architecture and love of the arts,” he says. “And at the same time this bestial love of war.”

Domina certainly doesn’t spare the violence – or the sex. It’s another high-end show that portrays its history as a sexual free-for-all. “You have an obligation to show it, warts and all,” says Cunningham. But he admits – like any other dad – that it can get “a bit awkward” watching shows like Game of Thrones with the family.

“I had to keep my son away until he was about 15,” Cunningham says of Game of Thrones. “He’s a bright boy but it’s always difficult when a sex scene comes on. I would throw my hands in front of his eyes and start singing loudly. Obviously it went on for eight seasons. As he got older he would just start laughing and say, ‘Dad, take the hands away!’”

Game of Thrones, particularly its controversial ending, has been circling Twitter again in recent weeks following the similarly divisive conclusion to Line of Duty – part of the increasingly fractious relationship between fans and their chosen films or series.

Cunningham takes the negative response in his stride. “People never like having something they’ve loved taken from them,” he says. “There was so much speculation about who was going to be king, how the story was going to roll out. Line of Duty is a perfect example… if you outwit people, they think they’ve been hoodwinked. If they get it right, they turn around and go, ‘Well, I knew that was going to happen.’”

One problem, perhaps, is that after eight seasons of gut-churning violence, tragedy and our favourite heroes getting skewered or having extremities lopped off, Game of Thrones ended on a relatively hopeful note: the good king Bran, relative peace, and a much-less wintery Westeros. “Maybe people weren’t happy that it was a happy ending,” laughs Cunningham. “It’s possible.”

He still beams about the show and recommends a second watch. “People are more than entitled to feel unsatisfied if they feel unsatisfied,” he says. “I think history will be kind, let’s put it that way.” He also laughs, almost affectionately, about the Twitter mob petitioning to remake Game of Thrones’s final season. “They’re just demonstrating their feelings,” Cunningham says. “That’s OK. It was two years ago and people are still talking about it every day…”

Liam Cunningham and Brian McCardie in Domina - Sky Atlantic/Stefano C Montesi
Liam Cunningham and Brian McCardie in Domina - Sky Atlantic/Stefano C Montesi

Cunningham looks back and credits his career to his Zimbabwean adventure. “Without a shadow of a doubt,” he says, “the reason I’m an actor is primarily my time in Africa”. It took just weeks after returning from Zimbabwe to realise that he needed to change direction. “I’d had the scales pulled off my eyes to what the world was like,” says Cunningham. He walked away from what’s known in Ireland as the “grand secure job” to act.

“When I was resigning people said, ‘You’re really brave,’” he recalls. “I said, ‘No, it would have taken bravery not to do it.’ Because I really felt I had to. In a weird way, the choice was out of my hands... I almost felt like a bystander while it was happening to me. It was very strange. I just had such an appetite for it. I still do.”

The onscreen appeal of Cunningham is that his earthy, decent humility – as instilled into Ser Davos – isn’t entirely a performance. It’s a quality that seems to come with actors from working-class backgrounds, of which there are increasingly few on screens. Game of Thrones certainly had its share of posh lads in the ranks.

“In times of austerity, the people who are most affected are the people who need scholarships,” says Cunningham. “It’s always the people who don’t have access to funds. Which is why you see the big stars in England at the moment are privately educated people from money backgrounds. They have the financial wherewithal to back up their poverty, their ambition.”

When asked about a connection to his working-class roots, Cunningham says, “It’s just something you can’t shake off.” But he’s unimpressed by the idea of defining people either way. “I know working-class people who are d–––heads, I know rich people who are d–––heads,” he says. “It doesn't denote your value as a human being.”

Domina begins on Sky Atlantic at 9pm on Friday, May 14