Irish actor Liam Cunningham’s eclectic career includes playing fan favorite Davos Seaworth in HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and starring roles in Ken Loach’s Palme D’Or-winning “The Wind that Shakes the Barley” and Steve McQueen’s BAFTA-winning “Hunger.” Cunningham has won acting prizes at the Irish Film and Television Awards three times. Next up for him is the Amblin and Universal film “The Last Voyage of the Demeter,” by “The Autopsy of Jane Doe” filmmaker André Øvredal. The supernatural thriller, adapted from a chapter of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel “Dracula” called “The Captain’s Log,” is set aboard the schooner Demeter, which was chartered to carry 50 unmarked wooden crates from Transylvania to London. One passenger happens to be Dracula. Cunningham plays the captain of the ship, on which strange and horrible events occur. Cunningham also has Netflix series “3 Body Problem,” based on Liu Cixin’s bestselling books, from “Game of Thrones” creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, on deck for January.
Variety spoke with Cunningham before the SAG-AFTRA strike.
What’s your relationship with Bram Stoker and “Dracula”?
About a kilometer down the road from me is the house that Bram Stoker was born in. I drive by his birthplace probably 10 times a week. I consider him a neighbor.
What attracted you to “The Last Voyage of the Demeter?”
The attraction for me was that there are no movie stars in it — everybody’s actors. Almost all of us were from theater backgrounds and yet Amblin had the bravery not to need a marquee name. It’s not a cheap movie, you can see the money on the screen. And that immediately brings, to my opinion, a certain amount of confidence, that they’re gonna get behind something like this and want to make it well, because they didn’t take the easy route.
I knew André’s work, I’d only recently seen ‘The Autopsy of Jane Doe’ and I really liked that — that was almost a theater piece as well. I liked his use of tension.
The thing that tops the plot is always the characters. And there are wonderful characters in the movie. You’ll really feel for these guys, because they’re not heroes. They’re not military men. They’re working men, they’re blue collar guys, who have one of the most horrendous literary monsters ever invented on a ship that they can’t get away from. And in it you’ve got the makings of something really interesting.
What can you tell us about Thomas Wade, your character in “3 Body Problem?”
He’s an extraordinary individual. It’s been a long time since I’ve played anything close to this guy. I suppose the irony is what they [Benioff and Weiss] wanted me to do was nothing like what they wanted me to do in “Game of Thrones.” He [Seaworth] was seen as a soft moral compass kind of character in “Game of Thrones” — that’s not Wade. He’s going to be a bit of a shock for people who think I play one kind of character, shall we say? He’s a bit of a handful is Mr. Wade. And he’s involved in the intelligence community. It’s very much grounded in theoretical physics and quantum entanglement and all sorts of scientific pursuits. However, there are those people that we come across at the beginning of the show, [that] come into the circle of Mr. Wade’s business, which are most definitely not scientific.
You have had a long and distinguished career, but in what way did “Game of Thrones” change things for you?
It not only was one of the most beautiful jobs I’ve ever done and was beautifully written, it was just a fantastic character. It just gave me a little bit of security, which was most definitely new to me as a jobbing, strolling actor. It obviously raised my profile and all that sort of thing. It’d be probably written on my gravestone because it was a cultural phenomenon, it exceeded just becoming a very good television program, which nobody knew would happen, it was the audience that obviously did that. But when you’re part of a cultural phenomenon, it’s difficult to shake, I don’t want to shake it, I’m very proud of the work I did, and very proud of everybody else that was in it. And the ensemble thing, I’m a big fan of that, because it’s most difficult to write for, because they take the most amount of effort.
You have a theater background. Are you doing any more stage work?
I am constantly guilty about not going back on the stage. But as I like to say, my children have got used to wearing shoes, and theater’s not great for that. Most of the actors, they’ll tell you that the theater is the gymnasium for an actor. And that level of concentration, when curtain is up at eight o’clock and down at 10, the two areas of concentration and fear focuses an actor’s mind wonderfully and lends itself quite well when you’re doing much shorter periods of intense concentration. On television and film, I’ve often used a ballooning metaphor, that film and television is very like ballooning. It’s hours of boredom followed by seconds of terror. And in theater, it’s hours of terror but incredibly rewarding.
I’ve been a year-and-a half, two years, at the Royal Shakespeare Company, I’ve put in my time. But any theater I’ve walked by, I’ve walked by with my head low because I’m slightly ashamed of myself for not doing more of it. And I do imagine I’ll do it again at some stage, but you do get the fear that you’ve been away for so long that those particular set of muscles, which are very different than film and television, may have atrophied beyond beyond use.
Things you didn’t know about Liam Cunningham
Earlier Profession: Electrician
Favorite Book: “Puckoon” by Spike Milligan
Organization He’s Passionate About: Children’s charity World Vision
Character He’s Played That He’d Most Like to Have a Beer With: Thomas Wade