HBO's new series, "Game of Thrones," has power struggles, family friction, sibling rivalry and sex — plus hairy men on horseback, sword fights and the supernatural.
The show is a departure for the network best known for character-rich dramas like "The Sopranos" and "The Wire." It's a fantasy adventure saga — but not your typical fantasy adventure saga. Earthy and explicit, it has been described as fantasy for people who don't like that sort of thing. Executive producer David Benioff has called it "The Sopranos in Middle Earth."
"It's a bit like `Lord of the Rings' for grown-ups," says Mark Addy, who plays King Robert Baratheon, embattled ruler of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. "This is definitely not one that you can watch with your kids."
Adapted from George R.R. Martin's novel series "A Song of Ice and Fire," the series charts the bloody struggle for control of Westeros, a rough-and-tumble land where the seasons last for decades. The books' many fans are already in a high state of online excitement about the series, but HBO also hopes to attract an audience not usually drawn to sword-and-sorcery stories.
The 10-part series, which debuts Sunday at 9 p.m. EDT (and on Britain's Sky Atlantic the next day), is set in a world that mixes medieval Europe — England's fratricidal Wars of the Roses were one inspiration — with elements of chivalric legend and Norse saga.
The early action revolves around Robert and his longtime friend Lord Eddard "Ned" Stark (Sean Bean), who is recalled from his northern fiefdom to become "Hand of the King," the monarch's chief adviser, and to fight off challenges to the throne. The conspirators include the king's conniving wife and her beloved — possibly too beloved — twin brother.
Martin's sprawling saga also includes a rival claimant to the throne, a band of fierce nomadic warriors and a monklike order of knights charged with protecting the kingdom's icy northern frontier.
Addy, whose roles have ranged from steelworker-turned-stripper in "The Full Monty" to Friar Tuck opposite Russell Crowe's "Robin Hood," plays Robert as a good man gone slightly to seed — Richard Lionheart crossed with Henry VIII.
"He's discovered too late that he's surrounded by enemies, and the only person he can trust is Ned," Addy said. "But he also knows that by making Ned `Hand of the King,' he's putting him in danger. It's a hard one for Robert to call, but he has no choice."
Fans of the books love them for their complexity, pace and a level of realism unusual in the genre — something the series has tried to retain.
"It's a fantasy world, but I think they've made it look and feel so realistic that you go, `All right, I buy that this is them and this is where they are,'" Addy said.
He said it's not a stereotypical action saga — "big fight, big fight, little scene where people chitchat, then a bit more fighting."
"This is more about the characters and their story," he said. "There are some battles that take place that will be big set pieces, but in the main it's the political intrigue."
For Bean, an actor best known for action roles, that was a welcome change.
"There are so many battles in films you just become anesthetized to it," said Bean, who has fought in quite a few himself, from the Napoleonic Wars of the "Sharpe" TV series to Middle Earth showdowns in "The Lord of the Rings." "There's one killing and another killing. ... It just goes on for too long.
"Game of Thrones" has an element increasingly unusual in television — surprise. For those unfamiliar with the books, the story provides some real shocks.
"George Martin writes such a vast number of fascinating characters that he's not afraid to kill people off," Addy said. "There are people who appear to be kind of hovering on the periphery that later come very clearly into focus and become the main player in the big picture."
It also has — even by HBO's frank standards — quite a bit of sex.
"I was surprised when I read some of the scenes," Bean said. "I thought, `Can he get away with this?'
"But it's not gratuitous in any way, the violence and the sex. If you didn't have that, you wouldn't have the story. It would be a very sanitized version."
The show juggles dozens of characters and multiple strands with skill, capturing key relationships, such as the friendship between Robert and Ned, in simple gestures and very few words.
It helps that Addy and Bean go way back. Both hail from Yorkshire, the northern English county that prides itself on its bluff, no-nonsense character. They were in different years at the same drama school and co-starred in the dark Yorkshire-set cop series "Red Riding." Laughing easily and frequently during a joint interview, they clearly have a relaxed and easy rapport.
"We've had a few pints together," Bean said, with typical Yorkshire understatement.
They had the chance to renew their friendship during a grueling six-month shoot in drizzly Northern Ireland. "Game of Thrones" has a largely British cast, though American actor Peter Dinklage gives a scene-stealing performance as the queen's reprobate elder brother.
"It was hard work," Bean said. "You couldn't afford to be messing around, nobody could be the prima donna. It was tough work and you had to get stuck in.
"I think it's quite incredible they achieved what they did in that amount of time. The trouble is, they might try to do it again next year."
HBO is owned by Time Warner Inc.