Many people might blame Walder Frey or Roose Bolton or Tywin Lannister for the death of Robb Stark in “Game of Thrones” Season 3, but according to Michael McElhatton, the actor who plays Roose, the fault is Robb’s alone.
Though Roose Bolton did end up eventually betraying Robb by allying himself with the Freys and Lannisters in the execution of the Red Wedding, McElhatton says that never would have happened if Robb hadn’t also betrayed his promise to Walder Frey by marrying Talisa Maegyr instead of one of Frey’s daughters.
“I just play the cold, pragmatic side of [Roose],” McElhatton tells Zap2it. “In some ways, that single-mindedness you have to admire, really. I mean, obviously we don’t approve of it. Loyalty and love are nice qualities, but that single-mindedness of just going and getting what you want [is admirable]. Robb, he had weakened the thing. He had made a huge error for love, and to Roose, that was just.
“Walder Frey was a very powerful man with a huge amount of money and a huge, huge army, which they couldn’t access because of that. That was politically a very, very stupid move. It is sad, it’s awful, but there you go, you see?” McElhatton continues. “I think a great description — and all you need as an actor, really — is that description where Roose says he was offered any of Walder Frey’s daughters and he could get her dowry in her weight in silver, and he chose the fattest one. That’s all you need to know about your guy.”
It might have shocked some viewers to learn that Roose, a long-time Stark ally, would betray the house he was sworn to, but McElhatton knew for a while where his character would end up on the “Game of Thrones” spectrum of villainy.
“There’s also that other thing — and I only know this from the case histories that we did — that the Boltons had to, centuries earlier, bow to the Starks, so there’s always a grudge with some family further down the line,” McElhatton explains. “It goes back and you’ll pay for those things. If they get the chance, they will do that.”
He admits that at times in earlier seasons he tried to play Roose in a more evil manner, but that he was told to dial it back until the Red Wedding reveal.
“In the books, he’s a more obvious baddie and more obviously creepy — the leeches and all of that — but [showrunners] Dan [Weiss] and David [Benioff] wanted to hold back on him,” McElhatton says. “He’s very a peripheral character really in the second series and even in the early part of the third series. All you do is play it day-to-day with what you’re given. If anything, I was playing it a little bit creepy, and the director said, ‘You’re the good guy. You’re the good guy. You’re the good guy. Let’s not give it away.’
“Even at the wedding, I still had the hangover of the thing that Roose never smiles. He doesn’t show any emotion, and it was at the Red Wedding that the director, David Nutter, he was doing a panning shot and he said, ‘Give me a big smile.’ I said no, and he said, ‘I saw you in that movie and you smile loads,’ and I said, ‘It doesn’t matter, let’s not give it away.’ It’s just building, building, building, not taking you away, and it was brilliant. It was really well done.”
McElhatton describes the week of filming for the Red Wedding as “very emotional” and “like being in a Vermeer painting.” Nutter initially had the cast run the entire sequence like it was a play, and then broke the event up into segments over the various days of shooting.
“At the end of the first day, we ran the whole action of the wedding. I know it was intercut, but we ran it like a play and he called out orders — ‘Robb, you’re hit with the first arrow,’ ‘Michael, go’ — bam, shouting orders, and we went through all the actions,” McElhatton says. “I didn’t know how he was going to do it in five days, let alone two weeks actually. It was so, so complex, but it was amazing. It was very emotional, and I know Michelle [Fairley] was so heartbreaking and she really gave it her all, and she was so amazing in it.”
He adds, “There was a very sad but respectful air in that. It was very palpable, what was happening. They knew that was a huge part of their lives and a huge thing in their careers and it took them to another level, and it was all going to be gone. You could feel, it was palpable.”
Though David Bradley, who played Walder Frey, says he hasn’t been invited to many weddings since his infamous betrayal, McElhatton says the response to him has been very respectful. “I’ve received, ‘I hated what you did, but can I shake your hand and get a photo with you?'” he says. “There’s not too many nutters who have crossed the line and think I’m really Roose Bolton.”
So now that Roose Bolton earned the title of Warden of the North thanks to his part in the deaths of Robb and Catelyn Stark, what is the character’s next goal?
“I think it’s to be the most powerful man in Westeros,” McElhatton says. “I don’t know what his endgame is, but I can only imagine that he wants more power. They like power, they all want power, and they want more and more power. At the moment, he’s got to the place at the end of Series 4 and it’s like, here we are now. It’s not sit back and rest on your laurels by any means, and he never does that.”
“Game of Thrones” Season 4 premieres April 6 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.