Actor James Cosmo on Game of Thrones, film and life in Surrey

James Cosmo

James Cosmo - Credit: Archant

He's been a larger than life presence on our movie screens since the late Sixties, but even James Cosmo wasn't prepared for the level of fame that Game of Thrones would bring. Here, the veteran actor shares some insider secrets of the show - and reveals how he unwinds, south of The Wall, back home in Surrey

For a man who has been savagely stabbed in the back, James Cosmo is looking surprisingly good. In fact (spoiler alert!), when we last saw him, James – alias barrel-chested Lord Commander Mormont in the hit HBO series Game of Thrones – was suffering an agonising death after a bloody mutiny at the opening of season three.

It was a sad end for the fur-clad warrior, affectionately known by the men of the Night Watch as ‘the Old Bear’, but James, 65, is philosophical about his demise. “I’m glad I was given a noble death,” he laughs. “It seemed fitting because, out of all the characters in the series, Lord Mormont is possibly the only decent person there.”

He had known his death was coming for some time, despite deliberately steering clear of George RR Martin’s books on which the acclaimed fantasy series is based. “My friends, who are Game of Thrones fanatics, made it very clear that I wasn’t going anywhere after book three. But it was a great exit.”


Ahead of the game

Appearing in the drama, which scooped the Radio Times Audience Award at this year’s Bafta Television Awards, has been an undoubted fillip for the veteran actor, best known for playing the hairy clansman Angus MacLeod in Highlander, William Wallace’s right-hand man in Braveheart and Ewan McGregor’s dad in Trainspotting.

Most Read

But though he was delighted to be a part of it, he jokes that he won’t be coming back as a White Walker – the demons made of snow and ice who roam beyond The Wall (a colossal ice fortification stretching along the northern border of the series’ Seven Kingdoms).

James, who filmed his death scene in Northern Ireland, will never forget his first day on the vast set during the filming of season one. “The Wall was constructed in a quarry outside Belfast and sprayed white to look like snow,” he says. “The production values were amazing and it was just like walking onto the set of any major movie.”

Having filmed his death scene for the latest season, he then sprang to life for the prequel in Iceland, which doubled up as the hinterland beyond The Wall. “It’s the most extraordinary place – of snow, fire, volcanoes and geysers – and the pristine, snowbound landscape was perfect for the frozen North.”

But the extreme weather conditions posed considerable challenges for the crew who had to film in freezing temperatures in just four hours of daylight, and could only scale the icy glaciers using vehicles with giant snow wheels. “There was one occasion when the weather came in quite suddenly and we were advised to get off the glacier,” says James. “The production crew said: ‘Okay, we’ll just get this extra shot first,’ but they were told if they didn’t get off the mountain, they wouldn’t be getting off the mountain.”

James is not surprised that the award-winning series has been a huge critical and commercial success. “HBO are working from some fantastic books, which already had a huge fan base. And if you like sex, violence, bogeymen, vampires and political intrigue, it’s all there,” he laughs.

“HBO also has this extraordinary knack of identifying what the public wants a year ahead of everyone else and is willing to put its money where its mouth is. I don’t think any other film company could have brought this level of expertise. And thanks to the incredible popularity of the show, I think they plan to stretch each book to two seasons, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it runs for another eight to ten years.”


Archery in Oxshott

Away from the limelight, James lives a quieter life with his wife Annie and their two boys, Findlay, 19, and Ethan, eight, near Chertsey. “Previously, we lived in Twickenham, so we’ve been in the area for about 20 years,” he says. “We like its proximity to London and the gentle, lush countryside. I’m a keen fly-fisherman, so you’ll often find me standing beside a Surrey lake or playing archery with my old pal James Whale in beautiful Surrey woodland at Oxshott.”

Perhaps it’s no surprise that James ended up in the business because he is the son of the Scottish actor James Copeland, who enjoyed a successful career in the West End. “I grew up with actors. As a little boy, I used to play cricket with Sean Connery on Hampstead Heath and Dad was always in the pub with Peter O’Toole. My father was also one of the main character actors in a film called Maggie, and I have faded photographs of my sister and I on set. It was a wonderful introduction to the business.”

Having grown up between Highgate in north London and Clydebank in West Dunbartonshire, Scotland, James left school at 15 to work in a ship-breakers’ yard. But it was a tough job, so he decided to try his luck as an actor, landing his big break in the long-running TV series Dr Finlay’s Casebook.

He made his movie debut in the 1969 war classic Battle of Britain, before paying his dues in everything from the oil rig drama Roughnecks to Casualty and Between the Lines. But his career changed when he took an unexpected call one evening when he was down on his luck.

“Annie and I had a babe in arms, we were living in a one-bedroom flat and managing on Annie’s earnings because I was going through one of those bad periods that every actor has. Then, one evening, the phone rang and I said: ‘If it’s for me, I don’t want to speak to anyone. I just want to have my curry and watch the television.’ So Annie answered and she said: ‘It’s for you.’ I said: ‘Didn’t you hear me?’ But she said: ‘It’s Mel Gibson.’ And it was. He said: ‘Will you come and play Campbell with me in Braveheart?’”

He has huge admiration for Gibson, who directed, produced and starred in the hit movie – despite the bad press he has attracted in recent years. “I found him an absolute delight – and so supportive. He brought an awful lot to that movie and I never saw him flag once. The film may not have been historically accurate, but it was a great piece of cinema.”

Suddenly, Hollywood sat up and took notice and his imposing stature has meant he is often cast as veteran warriors in historical epics – such as Glaucus in Troy and Hrothgar in The Last Legion. True to form, he is about to play Vikings in two upcoming movies, Hammer of the Gods and Berserker (in which he will be a first-time producer), as well as a detective in an American/Irish co-production called Sacrifice alongside Charles Dance.

He will also be playing Susan Boyle’s husband in another big-budget movie called The Christmas Candle, due for release in December. Adapted from the best-selling novel by Max Lucardo, it tells the legend of a village’s beloved Christmas candle and the problems that plague the villagers when it disappears.


Future projects

“I play Herbert Hopewell, the church-warden, and Susan sings three beautiful songs that will blow everyone away,” says James. “She coped very well with the filming and we forged a good relationship because we come from the same area of Scotland. When I said I hoped we were having stovies for supper, a well-known Scottish dish with potato, lamb and turnip, she was the only one who understood.”

But it isn’t all work and no play for James, who has been devotedly married to Annie for the past 17 years. They met at the BBC while James was filming a comedy series called The Sharp End in which he starred opposite Gwen Taylor. The fact that Annie, who worked in production, understands the business, has been a huge asset, he says. “She understands if my filming schedule is extended. Mind you, I was away for three months when my youngest son was born and I just couldn’t cope – it was awful. After that, I vowed I’d never be away for longer than four weeks – and I’ve stuck to that.”

But James admits he’s rarely away from a movie set for long. “It’s what I do,” he shrugs. “If I’m honest with myself, apart from the time I spend with my family, that’s where I come alive. It has always been that way and probably always will.”


My Favourite Surrey...

Restaurant: The Dining Room in Reigate. My pal Tony Tobin is the proprietor and chef, the food is stunning and the ambience is warm and welcoming. It’s posh, but comfortably posh.

Shop: Lakeland, the cookware shop in Guildford. I could spend far too much on things I would never use, but I always love going there.

View: From the Star and Garter Hotel in Richmond. You can see the meadows and the River Thames winding through it – and I like to imagine all the history that has taken place there.

Place to relax: I’m very much a home bird really, so it would have to be there.

Place to visit: RHS Garden Wisley near Woking. The range of rare and unusual plants is fantastic and we’re privileged to have it so near us.