Playing Sansa Stark in Game of Thrones – growing up on set and facing peril on screen – has been quite an education for Sophie Turner, as she tells Jessica Salter
It feels appropriate that when I meet Sophie Turner, the 19-year-old actor who plays Sansa Stark in the phenomenally successful television series Game of Thrones, a solar eclipse is plunging part of the earth into darkness. It almost sounds like a plot line. Sadly, neither of us sees anything – where we are in east London it is cloudy and cold. Turner has arrived bang on time, dressed in high-waisted skinny jeans and a parka, yawning. “Excuse me,” she says immediately. “I’m not used to getting up at 9am.”
Perhaps not this week – she has had a week of premieres and evening events promoting the show – but when she is on set, as she has been from July to December for the past five years, she works a 12-hour day. “I sleep whenever I have a spare moment,” she says, laughing. “If I arrive on set and they tell me I have five minutes before hair and make-up, then I head straight to my trailer for a nap.” Filming for the show takes place in Northern Ireland, Malta, Croatia, Iceland and Morocco – “I’ve mainly been in Ireland lately,” Turner says. “I wish I was back in the sun.”
For the uninitiated, Game of Thrones is a medieval fantasy epic, adapted for HBO from the sprawling novels by George RR Martin, that features a cast of thousands. It is set largely on the battle-scarred continent of Westeros, where clans scheme and slay each other in attempts to seize the throne and rule the seven kingdoms while facing imminent threat of attacks from the queen of the dragons and her army across the sea, the former king’s youngest brother, who has a creepy priestess on his side, and an even darker force – the terrifying “Others” – bearing down from the north. Everyone fears the changing seasons – winter, which is coming, can last for decades.
The series, which starts its fifth season tomorrow night, drew 19 million viewers in the US alone for the season four finale broadcast last June. Turner has been playing Sansa Stark, one of the show’s leading characters, since she was 14. “I’ve grown up with her,” she says. “I really feel what she feels; I probably know her better than I know myself.”
Sansa is the eldest daughter of Eddard “Ned” Stark, Lord of Winterfell, and his wife Lady Catelyn. Lord Stark (played by Sean Bean) was beheaded at the end of season one (at the order of Sansa’s betrothed husband); Lady Catelyn had her throat slit at a wedding two seasons later.
The threats of violence to Sansa have increased each series (“Every scene has been a crying scene for me, it’s been very emotional,” Turner says). After killing her father (and forcing her to look at his decapitated head), King Joffrey switched from admiration to sadistic hatred of Sansa, now held hostage and terrified to put a foot out of line. In one scene he aims his crossbow at her while trying to get her to confess treason. Then he promises to serve her brother’s head at their wedding feast. “When I read the script my heart just breaks,” Turner says. “I don’t need to imagine something sad, because to me what is happening to her is so real.”
Game of Thrones is notorious for its sexually explicit scenes. How much did the very young actors at the centre of it all understand? “It was strange to start with,” Turner says. “When I first read through the full script I was with [her on-screen siblings] Maisie [Williams], who is a year younger than me, and Isaac [Hempstead Wright, who plays Sansa’s brother, Bran], who is three years younger, and we were sitting there, reading, looking up at our parents – like, what is this?”
As child actors, each had a parent on set as a chaperone. Turner’s mother gave up her job as a nursery-school teacher to accompany her daughter, mainly in the first three years, to Croatia to film. “I really needed her with me,” Turner says. The first time her father came out to the set, as a surprise, Turner was about to film an attempted gang-rape scene. “It was horribly awkward,” she says, cringing. “My dad didn’t know this scene was going on, he just thought he’d turn up. We were like, Oh, bad day, Dad.”
Were her parents shocked? “I think in the beginning they were – there were so many sex scenes in the first series – but after that they got used to it. They knew it was a good-quality show. If it hadn’t been I don’t think they would have been happy. But they appreciated that it was all necessary.” Difficult scenes like this are “rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed”, Turner says (“I think the stunt guy felt worse than I did”) and cast and crew were always there for support at the end of tough days. Amusingly, Turner says, her mother still sat her down aged 16 to talk about sex. “I said, this isn’t necessary, I know everything. I know every single thing that a person can do – and more. The show is very inventive.”
Sophie Turner started acting aged three, when her mother took her to drama class, “mainly so she could have a cup of coffee for an hour”, Turner says. She grew up in a large Edwardian house with two older brothers, whom she adores, near Leamington Spa. “My childhood was pretty fun. We had pigsties, barns and a paddock, and used to muck around in the mud.” The pigs and horses have now been joined by Zunni, the Northern Inuit dog that played Turner’s on-screen pet dire wolf, which she adopted after the first series.
All through her childhood Turner knew she wanted to be an actress. She remembers when she was 11 telling someone that she would have to break into acting relatively soon if she was going to make it. “I’ve always had my business head on, it’s never been just a hobby,” she says. She turned down a place at the Royal Ballet School the same year. “I knew it would have to be drama or ballet, and I chose drama.”
Her drama teacher at The King’s High School for Girls heard about the audition for the role of Sansa and suggested Turner, then aged 12, try out. “I had been for other auditions before, and didn’t get them. This was the first audition that I didn’t really try very hard for,” she says now. After four more auditions – a charming video of one of them is on YouTube – she got the part. Her mother was initially anxious. “But my dad said, let her have a go. Now they just treat it like a job, which it is. They’re not pushy showbiz parents.”
Family is evidently important to her. She describes her brothers, James, 27, and Will, 25, as her best friends. “They definitely keep me grounded. If we watch an episode at home I’ll ask them what they thought and they’ll tell me it was OK. I need that,” she says. The Game of Thrones cast and crew are like extended family too – Kit Harington, who plays her bastard brother Jon Snow, is a surrogate brother, as are the American directors David Benioff and DB Weiss. Maisie Williams, her on-screen sister, is a cross between a best friend and a sister. But it is Lena Headey, who plays Cersei Lannister, King Joffrey’s mother, from whom Turner says she has learnt the most about acting. “She’s so fascinating to watch. She can convey so much with just her eyes.”
Until she was 16 Turner had a tutor on set, and would email her homework back to her teachers at school. She achieved five GCSE A-grades and four Bs. “I got a B in drama,” she says, sighing. “I don’t know how that happened.”
While Turner’s Instagram feed does feature some famous co-stars – lately there are pictures of the American actress Hailee Steinfeld, with whom Turner has just shot a new film, Barely Lethal, about teenage assassins – it is mainly full of her with her school friends, pulling silly faces. Whenever she is not working she visits them at university. She would like to go herself at some point, to study history or psychology. “I just don’t know when I will have time.”
I ask her if she’s interested in politics – hesitantly, given that young actresses rarely like to nail their colours to the fence. But she says, “Of course I am. I care about who runs the country. My family have always voted Labour, but I think I’m more Green Party. My childhood was so country-based, I want to protect that. I feel passionate about things like that.”
What other aspects of teenage life does she think she has missed out on? “Maybe relationships,” she says. “But I was never that fussed about it. I’ve always been more dedicated to my work than boys.” She had a rather public relationship with James McVey from the band The Vamps after he messaged her on Twitter saying he fancied her. Two days after announcing their relationship they broke up, again via Twitter. But has she had any moment of teenage rebellion? “I haven’t had the chance to be rebellious. I did start going out a bit when I was 18, but it lasted for about a month. I’ve probably got that all to come. I’ll probably turn into Lindsay Lohan,” she says, laughing.
It seems unlikely (except perhaps for the dyed red hair; she’s naturally blonde). At the global premiere of the first episode of season five – held at the Tower of London two days before we meet – Turner spent an hour greeting fans, signing autographs and taking selfies with them as she walked down the red carpet. She must have been freezing – the night was cold and she was wearing a sleeveless, backless dress by Marios Schwab. “Yes, it was cold, but they had all been waiting there for hours, so it only seemed right,” she says.
Getting to wear designer clothes is, she admits, one of the perks of red-carpet events. “They [designers] send sample sizes. I see which one I fit in and choose that one,” she says. “I’m learning a lot about fashion, but I haven’t quite figured out my style,” she says. “I mainly wear jeans and trainers.”This morning her trainers are in a box somewhere. She moved into her first flat in London two days before, but she is barely going to have a chance to unpack before a Thrones premiere in San Francisco, and others around the world. Then she is back in Los Angeles in April to start filming X-Men, before more promotion for her two films out this year – along with Barely Lethal she has another called Alone – and filming season six of Game of Thrones in July. “I’ve booked myself up for a year,” she says. “I hate the thought of not working.”
The writers of the show are notorious for killing characters off suddenly and violently. Every season they pull a prank on a member of the cast, giving them a fake script involving their death. “Then they leave it for about three weeks before they tell them they’re OK,” Turner says, shuddering. The thought of Sansa being killed off fills her with dread – and not just because of the lack of work. For a child actor who has played her for a third of her life, it is more profound. “I would miss Sansa,” she says, “I love her. She’s half of me and I’m half of her.”
Series five of “Game of Thrones” starts on Sky Atlantic tomorrow night