Between the myriad plot machinations and massive viewership of “Game of Thrones,” it’s easy to overlook another remarkable aspect of the show: Throughout its run, the HBO fantasy-drama has propelled many actors and actresses in its sprawling ensemble from little-known status to international recognition, complete with robust film careers extending well beyond Westeros.
John Bradley, who plays good-hearted Samwell Tarly on “Thrones,” has emerged as one of the series’s many rising stars with a key role in the new movie “American Satan.” In this hard-edged supernatural thriller, a young rock band makes a pact with the devil (Malcolm McDowell) after falling upon hard times, with unintended consequences for their lives.
In a far cry from “Thrones,” Bradley, 29, plays band manager Ricky Rollins, whose commitment to the music is tested by the band’s increasingly sinister path to success. After a screening at the Boston Film Festival last month, the film has a limited theatrical release this Friday.
Bradley spoke by phone from his native Manchester, England, about the appeal of “American Satan,” working with McDowell, and what the future of “Thrones” may hold for his beloved Samwell.
Q. How would you describe “American Satan” in 30 seconds or less?
A. “American Satan” is a very effective, youth-oriented spin on the Faustian legend. Everybody knows the Faustian legend — a man struggling with his career, determined to make a success of himself, sells his soul to the devil and is granted unknown riches and unknown success. . . . That’s an age-old story. But when you have a story that everybody knows, you’re able to hang a lot of other stuff off it, like disco, an emerging rock band, and all manner of things relevant to a more youthful culture.
Q. Your character, Ricky Rollins, seems almost diametrically opposed to Sam on “Game of Thrones.” Did that influence your decision to take the role?
A. That’s what first attracted me to this project, the fact that Ricky seems to be so different from any character I’ve ever played before. I tend to play characters that exist in quite a dark psychological space. If you take Samwell from “Game of Thrones,” for example, he’s somebody who has to carry around quite a lot of psychological scars with him, he’s been very damaged by his upbringing, and he lives in a very dark space crippled by self-doubt, anxiety, and low self-esteem. He believes that he’s completely worthless and has absolutely no abilities at all to affect anything for the positive. What you get with Ricky is the exact opposite: He’s someone brimming with self-confidence and faith in his own abilities. He goes into any room, lifts people up by the scruff of their necks, and says, “We can do this.”
Q. What was it like working with a veteran character actor like Malcolm McDowell?
A. It completely legitimizes the whole thing to have an actor with the caliber of Malcolm on board. It would be possible for a certain bunch of cinema snobs to say, “Oh, this is just a bunch of guys from bands who got together to make a film as a vanity project, and it’s not necessarily a film with any cinematic credibility.” And then Malcolm enrolls, and it really legitimizes it as a piece of cinema. . . . There’s an unsettling quality to Malcolm. There’s a danger, a glamorously dark danger, and there’s an unpredictability to him. Whenever Malcolm McDowell is on the screen, you can never get comfortable, because you don’t know what he’s going to do next. It sends shivers up your spine; he’s very powerful, and he has this tangible darkness to him you can see in his eyes.
Q. Let’s talk “Thrones.” The series has this epic quality — and a cast sized to match. Where does Sam fit in?
A. The thing about Sam — and this is something Sam has only very recently uncovered about himself — is that he has a very unique set of skills nobody else in that game, fighting a great war against the army of the dead, can claim to have. Some people can swing a sword, but a lot of people can swing a sword, be incredible on the battlefield, be physically proactive, and get things done physically by engaging in all that hand-to-hand combat. Sam’s the only person with a quest for knowledge and a thirst to solve problems through academia and study and the application of all that information no one else ever seems to learn. Jon Snow might be able to swing a sword around with the best of them, but he’s not able to absorb knowledge and apply it in the way Sam can.
Q. You’ll soon be gearing up for pre-production on the final season. It must be exciting to go into that knowing your character holds, in some ways, the key to everything.
A. Sam has a very critical role to play in all that’s left to come. We don’t know how it ends because we haven’t seen any scripts yet, but I’d imagine what Sam has to give is so significant and individual, and he can bring something special to Jon’s war that no one else really can. It’s exciting I’ll get to watch him fulfill all this promise, after seasons of studying and learning things. Sam’s unique set of skills he’s bringing into this war could decide it in favor of the people who we believe to be in the right. It would be a very satisfying moment, particularly for Sam, if the pivotal turning point in this war came down to books and knowledge and learning and not necessarily swords and hammers.
Q. Given the revelations Sam made in the Season 6 finale, particularly involving the familial connection between Jon and Daenerys known only to him and Bran Stark, next season’s going to put him in a pretty awkward position. What are your thoughts on that?
A. It’s going to be awkward. Yeah, it’s going to be awkward. [laughs] But I’m sure that Jon, as much as he hates to hear it, will be happier to hear it from Sam than anybody else. We often hope we get scenes to do together in the future, though we haven’t seen any scripts; but I think both Kit [Harington, who plays Jon] and I are keeping our fingers crossed.Isaac Feldberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @isaacfeldberg.