The epic nature of "Game of Thrones," a 10-part HBO series premiering Sunday, April 17, announces itself from the very beginning, as the camera dives and soars like a tipsy falcon over a living map of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. It's a realm that encompasses both the balmy southland of King's Landing, whence King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy) rules from the Iron Throne, and the frozen northland where the king's warden and lifelong best friend, Lord Eddard "Ned" Stark (Sean Bean), maintains order from his home at Winterfell.
Several years before the series begins, Ned helped Robert, a fellow soldier, overthrow Aerys Targaryen, an insane monarch who was terrorizing and murdering his own people. In the aftermath of that rebellion, the two planned to rule the Seven Kingdoms together, but their subjects needed a single monarch, so Ned and his family happily returned to the northland, where an ancestor of yore had erected the Wall, a massive structure designed to protect Westeros from the darkness to the far north.
Based on George R.R. Martin's best-selling fantasy series "A Song of Ice and Fire," "Game of Thrones" opens as Robert comes to Winterfell to entreat his old friend to come south to King's Landing, which has deteriorated into a place of corruption and violence. There are rumblings that descendants (Harry Lloyd, Emilia Clarke) of the mad king are planning a rebellion of their own, but Robert's biggest problem lies closer to home. At the urging of an adviser, he has married Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), a ruthless beauty whose lust for power makes Lady Macbeth look like Betty White.
"What Robert didn't realize is that he was marrying into possibly the most power-hungry family imaginable, including his wife and her brother, Jaime (Nikolaj Coster Waldau), who was known as the Kingslayer, because he killed the former king," explains Addy, best known to American audiences from his role in the long-running CBS sitcom "Still Standing." "He realizes too late that he has placed himself in a position where he is surrounded by enemies, and there is really only one man he can trust -- Ned -- because his advisers all have their own agenda as well. But by making Ned the Hand of the King, he is drawing Ned into the same dangers that he is in. It's a real quandary for Robert, but he really doesn't have a choice."
Bean, an action movie regular who played the flawed hero Boromir in Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring," freely admits that he never had heard of Martin's fantasy series before one of the producers on this project started talking to him about playing Ned, but he became hooked as soon as he started reading.
"The characters were just very rich and multilayered," the actor explains. "They're there for a reason, not just for padding. I particularly enjoyed the relationship between Ned and King Robert because they're old friends.
"It made things even more enjoyable that Mark and I have known each other for a long time in real life. We were at drama school together, and I know some of Mark's mannerisms and his laughter and stuff like this. I know his mind, so I can play off that. We have good chemistry, and it made the relationship feel more natural and spontaneous. Mark and I are actually from the same county in England, Yorkshire, so that might have a little to do with it, too. We understood each other's nuances and humor."
Both actors give the HBO creative team high marks for the rich detail of the production.
"They've just done a terrific job, all of them, taking elements that look familiar and make you think, 'Oh, that looks medieval,' and then you'll see a vaguely samurai kind of look," says Addy, a newcomer to the action fantasy genre. "They're familiar, yet not specific, so you build up a world, or even a series of worlds, which are fully believable. You arrive on that set, and it's a world you can believe in. You can become these characters without having to fight against Lycra or whatever crazy costume they put you in. Everything in this looks real and feels real and smells real."
"I was fascinated because I would come onto these sets, and I would see a crack in the corner that had been painted in," adds Bean. "You might see it (on screen), you might not, but it was there, because someone cared so much about how it looked."
The story line for the series also features secondary and very touching story lines involving two fascinating misfits: Jon Snow (Kit Harington), Ned's illegitimate son who goes to help guard the Wall, and Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage, who nearly walks off with the entire project, despite a free-range accent), the dwarf brother of Cersei and Jaime whose own painful life experience has given him a compassion and perspective that his siblings totally lack.
Epic fantasy can be a dicey prospect for television, but HBO hasn't hedged its bets with "Game of Thrones." It's a stunner from top to bottom.