Liam Cunningham (Game of Thrones): “F1 is where my heart is”

The TV series Game of Thrones has attracted record numbers of viewers on HBO and attained an exceptionally broad and active international fan base. It has received widespread acclaim by critics, particularly for its acting, complex characters, story, scope and production values, also becoming the most downloaded TV show of all time. We are lucky enough to sit down with one of the stars from Game of Thrones, Liam Cunningham, who calls himself a Formula 1 geek and has now become a solid ambassador of the sport.

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Liam, you’re almost a regular at Formula 1 races. Tell us more about your fascination with the sport.

It probably started before you were born. I used to watch Nico’s dad racing, it was the times of Keke Rosberg and Alan Jones. I’m not a big fan of ball games. I love the World Cup and the Olympics, but don’t tell me about football and similar stuff – I really don’t have much concern for it. But I respect the idea of a team event, I also admire the technologies and the fact that racing is really interesting in itself.

There was a time when I grew up and matured, I used to have another job then, and kind of dreamed to do two things: either be a racing driver or an actor, which is usually considered a stupid teenage thing to think about. I couldn’t afford to race, acting was much cheaper. So I sort of became an actor because of that, didn’t have the money to raise and I had no rich daddy. But I loved it and then I was very, very fortunate to do a movie which had a royal premiere and I was introduced to none other than Bernie Ecclestone by the Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson. She was in the charity with Bernie and she said there’s a man you should meet, a guy called Bernie Ecclestone. I went ‘what?!’, spent a little time with Bernie and he, God bless that man, literally got a napkin, wrote his number down, and said ”any Grand Prix”, because I had never been to such a race. So I was invited to my first Grand Prix by Mr Ecclestone. Yes, I’m a very lucky man.

Eventually, when I started poking my nose into the paddock, I saw an absolutely different, interesting side of racing: the politics, the people, the teams and especially the intrigue. It’s like a modern soap opera in the best possible sense. I met Eddie Jordan, and he became a friend of mine – we’ve been buddies for nearly 20 years now. I’ve just been one of those lucky idiots who fell on their feet and got to be so close to the sport that they cherish.

At a time when Formula 1 is losing its global audience, there are still people like you who are regulars despite that, with full enthusiasm and admiration for the sport. And you’re somebody who has been deeply interested in it and followed it long enough. How would you convince fans worldwide that this is the ultimate drama/entertainment or reinstate their interest in the thrills of it?

The thing is, when you see something like NASCAR, where everybody has the same engines and the same cars, they perform very similarly. At the same time, there’s a bit of agricultural engineering that goes into NASCAR cars, and there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s fantastic entertainment. But that’s not what Formula 1 is about. Formula 1 is at the pinnacle of motorsports for a reason. It is about advantages. It saves lives because there’s stuff in the cars like ABS, traction control, the magnificent suspensions. All of that has come from the research and development of race cars onto the road cars, and we all benefit from it. However, the idea is that the best professionals come up with the best ideas and get those ideas to work in cars. That’s how advantage is gained here. So the problem is when you’ve got somebody like Mercedes for the last couple of years – they have got such a large advantage. It can sometimes take away the entertainment value of it all, and fewer people will watch it, but that’s just human nature – it will pass.

But that hasn’t stopped somebody like you from coming to GPs with equal enthusiasm every time.

Well, I know what it is, I get it. I kind of understand that it is a temporary thing for Mercedes. Even as the season progressed, Ferrari has been catching up. Next year the Mercedes team is surely going to have a tougher time. I feel sorry for McLaren, they just rolled a dice – a truly expensive dice – on a car that just didn’t come together in the end. But it just shows you how far they are pushing technology – it can be magnificent like Mercedes or a temporary disaster like McLaren. Therefore it’s difficult for Bernie, the ringmaster, to find the right balance. I mean they can all have the same engines and paint them with different colours, but then it would just be an open-wheeled NASCAR. And that’s not the way big manufacturers are going to get involved and put huge amounts of money into it. I know exactly what you’re saying – the audience might not see this complex side of the affairs.

The best circuit you have been to so far is…

I used to visit about five a year, but have been busy for the last few years. So I always try to do Monaco. I bet to meet friends out there. I go to the Cannes film festival and then I come down for the Grand Prix. Monaco obviously is the jewel in the crown of the sport – every time I come there and I hear the cars going, it just puts a ridiculous smile on my face. I feel like I’m in a movie, it’s very strange – the hair goes up at the back of my neck every time I walk into the paddock. I get gooseflesh. If I lose that sense of excitement, I will stop coming and I will stop watching as well.

I haven’t visited the circuit in Melbourne, which I’d really like to do. Even old cynics claimed Mexico was just amazing this year, so I would love to go there. However, I have a special place in my heart for Montreal. Canada is one of the best races when you had four days of nothing happening, the tension of is it going to rain and all of that. I had fun because it is a semi-street kind of circuit, and Formula 1 takes over the season.

Your favourite team in terms of hospitality in the paddock…

I have to be very careful about how I answer that, that’s a dangerous question! I have two favourites, there’s Force India, because of Jordan. I have watched them change from Midland to Spykar to Force India. And I’ve watched Andy Stevens go from chief mechanic to sporting director. There’s also Red Bull, who have been very good to me, and I think that I feel sorry for them this year that they had such a beautiful car and not a very good engine. That’s going to change, I’m sure. So I have to say I have been spoiled by Force India and Red Bull, but I can’t make a distinction between the two.

I must mention that you’ve stated in a TV interview that Cannes is usually an excuse for you to attend the Monaco Grand Prix.

Correct. I even go to Cannes when I don’t have a film out – I meet some old friends once a year, filmmakers, people who I have worked with before. But I love Monaco so much that twice, not once but twice, I didn’t trade it for Cannes. Here’s what happened. I was in a movie in 2006 that won the Palme d’Or, the big festival prize. I was having a few drinks in a Monaco bar when I got the call saying we won, it felt like winning an Oscar for me. However, I didn’t go back to Cannes – I was with my Formula 1 friends! Two years later, we won the Camera d’Or – the award for best first-time filmmakers – for a movie called Hunger, and at that particular time, I was in the very same bar in Monaco when I got the news.

You can sort of say Formula 1 is my passion, it’s where my heart is. I love my job – I love acting, but once the film is finished, there’s not really anything to do with me.

One sees a lot of celebrities in Formula 1 for various reasons, there a lot of people with loads of money here, some mark it more like a social event on their calendar in order to be spotted here or at a particular GP. As a sincere fan, how do you make your experience different to enjoy it more?

Yes, some people will come along because of Formula 1’s reputation, with its glamour and all that sort of thing. For around 20 years, I’ve managed to stay an actor and have not raised my head above. From time to time people look at me strangely, some of them are probably thinking “I know that guy from somewhere”. This whole Game of Thrones thing has pulled off my mask in a way. For instance, the mechanics of Force India look at me and say “hey Liam, it’s good to have you back”.

I’m even getting strange looks from people that I’ve known for 20 years! They never thought of me as an actor, they just thought of me as this Formula 1 groupie.

If you had to promote this sport to your Game of Thrones fans, what advice would you give them?

I’d tell them “don’t watch a race”. And I have said it to some people. When you’re into this, it’s just cars going around, in horse racing it’s about horses running in a field, and football is 22 people kicking a piece of leather around and then saying “no, no, it’s much more than that”. I’d say Formula 1 is like that as well at first sight. I tell people that if you’re interested and want to find out more – watch qualifying and don’t watch the race. That’s because qualifying is so technical, commentators will tell you who has what tyre choices, who has what engines, who has the biggest budget – there’s a huge amount of background information that helps you enjoy the sport much more.

You’re still filming season 6 of Game of Thrones, and you’ve made it to Abu Dhabi. Was that a break or is it for the love of the sport and the finale that you came there for?

Well, I was really lucky as there are a lot of races that I can’t go to because they clash with my work schedule, and work comes first, I have to feed my children. But this time I had about a week off, so after the Abu Dhabi weekend I went back to Dublin on Tuesday, a couple of days to prepare, rehearsing on Saturday, started filming on Monday, and I will finish on the 17th of December.

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