‘Game of Thrones’ was Richard Madden’s big break. Now he’s breaking away to play a former soldier in a new BBC drama

Richard Madden has just told me how Game of Thrones ends.

“Jon Snow saves the day and kills everyone,” he says, gleefully.

There’s a pause. Has he really just given away the ending of one of biggest epics ever to hit our TV screens? A conclusion so secretive the cast are given digital scripts which self-destruct after filming so as to avoid spoilers? Of course not. He’s having me on.

“People often ask me if I know what’s happening next,” he explains. “I don’t, but I’m going to start making things up.”

If Madden is fed up with answering questions about the HBO series based around George R.R. Martin’s best-selling fantasy books (the series that made his name) he hides it well.

He appeared in the show – now in its eighth season – for the first three series, starring as Robb Stark, King of the North, before he was killed off in 2013 in the now infamous Red Wedding scene. After watching his new (and pregnant) wife suffer fatal stabs to her abdomen, Madden’s character has a dagger driven through his heart.

It was visceral stuff that had fans reeling but Madden found his exit hard to watch for reasons other than gore. “It was riddled with a lot of other things for me because that was my family for five years,” he says. “There was a death of the character and then a death of a big chapter in my life.”

But when one door closes, another opens. Madden played Prince Charming in Disney’s 2013 live action version of Cinderella. In 2015, he appeared as Oliver Mellors, the lover in the BBC’s adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. And in 2016, he took on Romeo in Romeo and Juliet, a West End production directed by Kenneth Branagh.

A theme was appearing: Madden as the romantic lead, the floppy-haired love interest, the lithe young buck hankering after the pretty leading lady.

Changing times

It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that his latest role is a concerted move on Madden’s behalf into something completely new. In Bodyguard – a six-part series written by Jed Mercurio, creator of Line of Duty – the actor plays a troubled former soldier who is enlisted to serve as a bodyguard, protecting the UK’s Home Secretary, played by Keeley Hawes, whose political beliefs are a world away from his own.

Madden’s brooding war veteran exhibits clear signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and thus the scene is set for a meatier drama than, say, Cinderella.

“It was good to take on a much more adult character,” he says. “We tried to handle his PTSD in a delicate way that wasn’t all defining but in a way that we could touch on it sensitively and gently and see how it was affecting this man’s every day life.”

The actor did as much research into the disorder as he could. But it was hard. “One of the problems with PTSD is that people don’t talk about it,” he says. “A lot of the time their experience is so traumatic that they don’t want to share that experience because they don’t want people to know how bad the world is.”

Certainly one of the things the actor felt, as he filmed the series, is that more needs to be done to help war veterans. “There is a lack of support there and maybe a lack of dialogue,” he says. “It’s a taboo.”

Talking politics

There is also a political thread running through the series – it does, after all, follow the Home Secretary. But Madden insists the story is actually more personal than political, revolving as it does around the central characters of David and Julia. Parliament is, he says, merely a backdrop.

The series’ opening sequence, in particular, will feel horribly familiar. It’s a scene many of us will have played out in our nightmares: a terror threat on a commuter train. “It was a very tough week of shooting,” says Madden, who admits he had sleepless nights while filming. “It’s terrifying. You don’t know how you’re going to behave in that situation.”

Madden grew up just outside Paisley, the son of a classroom assistant and a firefighter. He was 11 when he got his first onscreen role after joining Paisley Arts Centre’s youth theatre and was later cast in children’s TV series Barmy Aunt Boomerang which he starred in from 1999 to 2000 before returning to school. “That was really difficult because I’d spent a couple of years being an adult… and then I went back to school and suddenly I was a student again.”

His school had no drama department so Madden was one of four students who were shuttled back and forth in a taxi to take drama lessons at another school.

The actor – who, incidentally, failed his drama Higher – won’t be drawn on whether it is wrong that people from privileged backgrounds are more likely to populate today’s casting lists. “The issue is less about people in privileged positions being actors and more that people who aren’t in privileged positions are not getting the chance to be.”

Right to a private life

Perfectly amiable though he is, Madden is clearly not comfortable with being as high profile as his job necessitates. “I don’t feel famous,” he says. “I choose to stay out of that world as much as possible.”

He refuses point blank to speak about his personal life – he is, reportedly, dating actress Ellie Bamber – claiming he doesn’t believe anyone is interested. The decision to keep his private life just that was one he made early on. “Once you open that door it’s very hard to close it.”

The pressure to reveal every scrap and morsel of his life is not the only concern facing Madden as a young male actor. The actor admits he worries “all the f**king time” about his appearance.

“I try to take jobs where the nudity is relevant. But if it’s just a gratuitous: ‘And now we’ll have a scene of him in the shower’ then that’s pointless.”

Every script he reads, his character is required to take his shirt off within 15 minutes. “I try to take jobs where the nudity is relevant. You talk to someone differently when you’re naked so if its necessary because it is showing an intimacy, I take those things into consideration. But if it’s just a gratuitous: ‘And now we’ll have a scene of him in the shower’ then that’s pointless.”

His next role is, again, something new. Next year, Madden will appear as Elton John’s manager John Reid in Paramount’s Elton John biopic Rocketman.

One senses, as well, that this is yet another role chosen specifically to set Madden apart even more starkly from the character that made his name. He does, after all, admit he has made a conscious effort not to be defined by Game of Thrones.

The actor, who still watches the series, says he’s glad it is finally coming to a close. “I think it’s the right time for it.”

Perhaps, too, there is an element of relief. Maybe the series’ conclusion will allow Madden to break free once and for all.

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