In addition to racking up roughly a zillion Emmy nominations and turning the once-benign observation "winter is coming" into a harbinger of menace, the HBO fantasy series has taken a sprawling ensemble of largely unknown character actors from Scandinavia and the British Isles and turned them into global celebrities. Even for actors who got killed off — and that's a healthy chunk of the cast at this point — the outlook has been sunny.
For younger stars like Sophie Turner and Maisie Williams, who've been in "Game of Thrones" for nearly half their lives, the show is like a home movie — albeit a very expensive one with "weird costumes and more incestuous sex," joked Isaac Hempstead Wright (Bran Stark).
Some of the the show's still-surviving stars recently gathered to discuss the show, its legacy and why it's resonated far beyond the usual fantasy fan base.
When they knew it was going to be big:
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jaime Lannister): "After Season 1, we went to Comic-Con in San Diego. Up until then I was in Denmark, the show was on a tiny channel. No one was really aware of it. I'd heard from my agents it was doing well in the U.S., but they're agents and they'll always sell you stuff. But then we went into that Hall H with 6,000 people, suddenly you realize the whole energy, that excitement, and I realized it could be around for a while."
John Bradley (Samwell Tarly): "When you find out President Obama watches the show, you start to think maybe it's good. This guy uses his precious free time watching your show, it makes you feel 10 feet tall."
What moment was most shocking:
Kristofer Hivju (Tormund Giantsbane): "When they killed Ned Stark, it's something I don't think had ever been done in TV. You spent a whole season building up a relationship with the main character, you follow his journey and you really are invested in him and you kill him off. Of course, that created seven new main characters. It's brilliant. But I couldn't speak for a day after that."
Iain Glen (Ser Jorah Mormont): "Right from when Ned Stark got beheaded, it set a precedent: Expect the unexpected. You can't take anything for granted. Bran's push from the tower, the Red Wedding, the Battle of the Bastards, there's been many twists along the way. Also people who you were really sure were bad guys became people you wanted to back, and vice versa. It's one of the benefits if you've got 80-plus hours of TV that you can allow a real story to evolve. It's also part of the reason people get very attached to series. You bond with the characters and then they surprise you."
Carice van Houten (Melisandre): Me burning Shireen. Do I really have to do this? It was going to be another epic scene, but that's not going to win people over, per se.
What it was like to join the series:
Pilou Asbæk (Euron Greyjoy): "It was very intimidating. You don't want to be the guy who ruined it. That's how selfish I am. I thought I could ruin 'Game of Thrones' for everyone else."
Hivju: "It felt like joining the Beatles."
Van Houten: "I [soiled] myself the first night doing that scene [a scene at night involving a fiery beachside ceremony]. I was not very comfortable in my dress and being extremely cold and doing a speech in front of so many people. I had to nail it as a strong, confident woman and that was real acting. Normally you start on your first day with a getting-out-of-a-car shot and this was immediately, as a performer, getting thrown into the deep."
Why it's been such a sensation:
Jerome Flynn (Bronn): "In the same way that Shakespeare does, it's like a mirror into the human condition and also into our past where life was more raw and wild and exciting. I think a part of us longs for that because we're in quite an anesthetized society, we're distracted by all this materialism. It's also I think a very attractive kind of time. That medieval freedom people had, even though it was tough, I think it's attractive."
Liam Cunningham (Davos Seaworth): "The writing. It's always, always, always the words. I think it was David Lee Roth from Van Halen who said if you can't get up on a stage with one light bulb and a bare floor, the songs aren't worth doing. No amount of explosions and noise is going to cover that up. It's the same with us."
Jacob Anderson (Grey Worm): "You get like five shows for the price of one. I've heard a lot of people say they come for the battles, but there's action, there's romance, there's some comedy, and there's a fantasy show with dragons and zombies."
Conleth Hill (Varys): "It's so well-made, every department is brilliant but the thing I think got people talking around the watercolor was the human politics. That family, the Lannisters… I think that's what hooked people."
What made their characters great:
Gwendoline Christie (Brienne of Tarth): "I don't think on mainstream TV we've been allowed to have those kinds of women. A lot of people spend a lot of time just saying that they don't really approve of her or they find her disagreeable in some way and she continually overcomes that obstacle with her deeds, and her moral compass. That's what I love about her. It's a lot of the things a patriarchal society has said these things are wrong or unacceptable. She lives in her own skin."
Bradley: "When people come up to me and say because of my character arc they've summoned up the courage to ask out the person they've loved all their lives, never had the courage to, they become a couple, you realize your tiny little part of the show is affecting somebody's life forever and ever. That's a real privilege."
Asbæk: "I knew the character would be very evil and if there's something 'Thrones' is very known for, it's the evil characters. It was very important to me he wasn't just evil evil, he would be one of those guys you didn't know if he was going to kiss you or kill you."
What it's like keeping all those secrets:
Maisie Williams (Arya Stark): "I've definitely started sentences and gotten three words in and been like … It's difficult because it's not like we want to tell everyone but everyone works so hard to keep these secrets, it feels so disrespectful. The pressure of being that one to ruin it is terrifying."
Glen: "I feel like I'm trained like a greyhound now. Sometimes you get so cocky about it that you deliberately give away red herrings."
On life after "Thrones":
Williams: "It feels like we're graduating from university. We've got a really great degree and we're like, what now?"
Sophie Turner (Sansa Stark): "You get to play this character from a child to an adult. You're not going to get that arc anywhere else. We've definitely been spoiled. Now you walk onto sets and you're like, is this it? You're like, this is what an indie film is like?"
Van Houten: "I'm only going to do summer films now. Summer comedies with a lot of singing."