By Bryan A Westfall
This past weekend, people from all across the Seven Kingdoms descended on Nashville, Tennessee for “Con of Thrones“. Over the course of three days, fans of both the literary and television versions of “Game of Thrones” were treated to panel discussions on a range of topics, including some featured panels with stars from the HBO series.
One of these spotlight panels featured “The First Sword of Braavos” himself, Miltos Yerolemou, who played “Syrio Forel” in the first season of the show. He also teaches Syrio’s “Water Dancing” to con goers lucky enough to score a spot in his coveted class (pictured above).
When I learned I was going to have a chance to sit down with Miltos for a one-on-one after his panel, I sent ravens to Thrones fans online, soliciting questions or comments regarding Syrio. One fan comment immediately jumped out as a pretty commonly held sentiment:
“Compared to the length of the series, he was only in a few episodes. Yet, because of an unforgettable performance and character, every time I think of Arya’s character arc, I think of Syrio. The two are inseparable for me.”
This seemed to be the perfect jumping-off point for our conversation about the man who set Arya Stark up for survival along her eight season long path (and beyond):
When you took the part, did you get the impression that Syrio was shaping Arya’s future in such a significant way?
I think so. Although we didn’t know what her ultimate destiny was going to be in the story in the TV show, we always knew that she was going to end up being an assassin. I definitely remember having those conversations with Maisie. She was only 13. She was only told what her mother had told her. We did know that she was going to become a blind assassin.
So, it was quite clear that her pursuit of these lessons – and being good at them – was going to be the constant in her character. That was quite profound. Obviously I didn’t realize that “What do we say to the God of Death”, would turn into the *most literal interpretation* of that. Of her *literally* killing death.
One of my favorite parts of that episode [Season 8 Episode 3, “The Long Night”], is when “The Hound” really loses his shit and he just starts cowering “There’s nothing we can do. We cannot defeat death. You can’t kill death.” and Beric goes “Try telling her that”. And it’s like “OH, YES. OF COURSE”. It was that moment when I went “This is all about the God of Death” and this is when I first thought “She might be the one to do it”.
And then, of course, when they literally had Melisandre going “What do we say to the God of Death?” I was like “OK, this is what’s going to happen.” I really felt it.
What drew you to the role initially?
It’s that kind of Eastern mysticism. I think that’s the thing I loved the most. I grew up on martial arts films and Bruce Lee films. Films about the Shogun. I used to love all of that. I mean, I loved “Monkey”. In the 70’s there were two shows: One was called the “Water Margin” and the other was “Monkey”. It was badly dubbed, but were these stories about how god-animals take this Buddhist priest on journeys. I always had this deep fascination with Eastern philosophy.
That was the thing that connected with me the most. I really understood when he talks about “The seeing. The true seeing, is not with your eyes”. How you are in the moment. We talk about this a lot when we do acting exercises. How do you become in a place where you are so relaxed and so open that your reaction is instinctive & precise & clear. I love all that stuff. I completely understood it, so I could say those lines and believe them. That’s what I think I connected with the most.
– and also playing a character who is much cooler than you, as a human being. It was incredibly daunting, because you have only a little bit of time and you really need to look like you were born with a sword in your hand.
During your panel you brought up learning the “Water Dancing” with the fight and stunt coordinators –
– and with William Hobbs. William Hobbs was my mentor. He was the one who really created the vocabulary with me of the “Water Dance”. The fight and stunt coordinators actually put the fights together, but the actual quality of what that movement would be…that was William Hobbs.
You mentioned having experience with stage combat. Was learning the “Water Dance” something like a musician learning a new song?
I guess so. It’s interesting because I always had a natural aptitude to be shown movement and I could replicate it. You could show me a couple of times, and I could do it. Some people can do that, and some are really good at maths. When I was younger, I loved all that. I would do circus skills, and anything that was kind of physical. If you ask me to do aerial trapeze, I’d go “YES I want to do that”. Learn to do back flips, “I want to do that.” All the kind of crazy stuff.
So, learning dance choreography I really enjoyed. When I got a chance to work at the “Royal Shakespeare Company” where there was lots of dueling to do with sword play or knife play – I played Mercutio once in “Romeo and Juliet” – I *loved* that. The fight choreographers would love me because they could give me something really complicated to do and I would learn it and they’d look really good.
The thing is, you don’t cast an actor *ever* based on how good they are at stage fighting. You cast someone that can play the part. So when it comes to the fight choreography, you have to work within what you’ve got. Some people are good with it and some people aren’t. So when you do find someone who picks it up quickly, it allows the fight choreographer to do much more complicated things.
It sounds like you have something like a growth mindset, wanting to explore these different skills.
Yeah, I think so. It’s also that it’s the way my mind processes things. If I can do it successfully, I want to do it more. If I did it and I was rubbish at it…“I’ll do something else now”.
How long before the first shoot day for the scene with Arya and Syrio did you start training?
I worked for about two weeks in London with Maisie’s stunt double, because Maisie was in Belfast prepping. We shot that first lesson pretty early on. I remember doing the read through of the first three episodes, which was one of the first things we ever did as a group. We were shooting two weeks later.
I’d already been working with William Hobbs in London, because I said “I need to work with someone. I need to get up to speed so that when we start filming I kind of understand what I’m doing”.
The thing about filming is you don’t really have time to rehearse these things. So, they asked me whether I could sword fight before they gave me the job. Because with the little screen time he has, you need to really believe that he is the “First Sword of Braavos”. I think they had in their heads that if they could just get someone who was just good at it, that would sell itself.
Me and Maisie both took it very seriously. “We’re not going to use our stunt doubles. We’re gonna do everything ourselves.” And we stuck to that. We were very proud of that. I’m sure Maisie has done all her own stuff, because she’s so good at it.
So, about two weeks in London without Maisie, then I went to Belfast and we spent two days and I showed her what the movement would be in the scene. She picked it up really quickly. And then we just shot it.
We honestly didn’t know it that well. It was a three and a half minute scene. Not just lines to learn, but *really* intricate movement. And the stunt coordinator [Buster Reeves] said: “Do not worry. They’re going to shoot it in bits, so you’ll only have to remember one bit a time.” He said that to reassure us.
When we turned up, on set, in costume…even then Buster was still going “Don’t worry we’re gonna do it in bits. So just remember this bit first. Just focus on that, and then we’ll move on and you’ll have half an hour while they’re resetting stuff to rehearse”. Then the director comes up and goes “Right. We’re gonna shoot it all in one take. We’re gonna do three cameras. We’re gonna have a tracking shot, steady cam, and a static. And…just do the scene, and we’ll catch it all.”
So we start, and Maisie and I are like…fumbling our way through. “I’m gonna get sacked. It’s my first day and I’m already gonna get sacked”. The thing is, we spent nearly three days doing that scene, because David & Dan said “This scene is really important, and we’re going to do it a lot because I want you both to be really comfortable”. It’s also that we had lots of time because it was really the beginning of shooting anything for “Game of Thrones”. They just wanted to get this one scene right because they said it’s really going to be important.
That’s when I realized this was going to be important. Let’s just spend the time. We’re not gonna rush it.
We’re gonna get it perfect.
[NARRATOR: And they totally did.]