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

How do you convince your directors that you need to take a Formula 1 break?

Actually, that conversation never happens. I get a piece of paper saying when I have work. Game Of Thrones is incredibly difficult to shoot, the scheduling is insane. Regular TV shows have one unit and one crew, almost all of them. At one point we had four crews shooting, while even Hollywood movies sometimes have only two at a time.

We’ve heard season 6 is really going to be mental…

It is bigger, brasher, bolder and weirder. It’s written by the two biggest fans of the books, so they treat the story with great delicacy, grace and with a tremendous amount of love. So we’re in safe hands. Kind of.

Have you ever managed to convert anyone in the cast or crew into a fan of this sport?

Yes, some of them are into it. There is a possibility that when the next Formula 1 season starts, we might be able to bring some people from the show for 2 or 3 races.

Have you able to convert at least one person into a proper Formula 1 fan?

Unfortunately, no, and I don’t think that’s how it works. I believe Formula 1 has to be discovered on your own. Because it’s not just the top layer of noisy four-wheel motor cars going around on the tarmac, nor is it’s about huge amounts of money. I think for those who could be interested in the sport, it’d be useful to look into why somebody like Honda is here and is struggling, why Renault is struggling, why Mercedes is beating the crap out of everybody. The people in Formula 1 are here for a reason.

My fellow actors on the show are extremely jealous of this passion. They may not watch the races regularly, but they know the reputation of Formula 1, they have an idea about the glamour. So when they hear I’m going to Monaco, usually quite a few of them say “oh, you’re lucky”. I think they would really love to go, even for the entertaining event if not for the sport.

I simply must ask who is your favourite driver. 

I have loads of favourites, it’s like asking who is your favourite actor – I have favourite performances of actors, some you would have heard of and some you wouldn’t. For example, a guy like Tom Cruise does a lot of crowd-pleasing films, but occasionally he throws a performance where you’ll go “wow, that’s really good”.

I loved the way Nigel Mansell drove with Nelson Piquet, he was a real fighter in the Ferrari, he would just never give up. They called him the British Lion. When you look at Lewis this year, he had a similar instinct as well. Nico had the same equipment and he’s beautifully smooth and great to watch driving a car. But Lewis is a killer, he was a shark this year, and you could see that when Nico got really annoyed towards the end.

Obviously, Michael Schumacher is another favourite, he was simply the king, a phenomenon, a force of nature and an extraordinary individual. I’m still heartbroken over what happened to him and even Jules for that matter. It’s terrible, but they’re always has to be an element of danger to the sport, and the drivers know that.

At the moment, Kimi is probably my favourite. He’s old style, old school, the real deal. He still feels like one of us, not a corporate man, I really like that.

And look at young Max (Verstappen)! I have a hunch that it’s not going to be long before he’s in Red Bull, that is if Ferrari won’t pay a huge amount of money to grab him first. Michael was over 40 when he stopped, so that gives Max at least 20 years of driving a Formula 1 car. He’s so hungry, he’s like a rabid dog on the track. That’s absolutely fantastic. I’d bet that he’s going to get a World Championship at least once.

As for Kimi, we all keep discussing whether he still has it in him or not.

Statistically, on paper, Vettel looks like the superior driver. But the gaps between them are tiny, they are probably smaller than the gaps between Lewis and Nico. It’s that little thing that you can’t buy that matters, it’s the thing that Lewis has this year: it’s confidence when you know you’re in the best car, you know you can push it a tiny bit more, and you know that this is what gives you the edge when you’re looking for half a tenth with some very expensive equipment.

There has been Formula 1 in Ireland in the years of Grand Prix racing (Phoenix Park 1929, 1930, 1931). It was called the Irish International Grand Prix. As an Irish motorsport fan shooting the most popular show in the world in Ireland, do you think Formula 1 should return to your home country?

Bernie had a team that used to race in Phoenix Park, but it wasn’t called Formula 1 back then. I don’t know, it’s so expensive, and I don’t think a smaller country can afford a big Formula 1 race. It’s quite funny with the sudden drop in European races – I’m not sure Europe is a priority any more for Bernie. Let me put it this way – I wouldn’t hold my breath for an Irish GP, but I would love it if they’d let me drive the safety car.

What’s your take on Irish drivers in Formula 1 so far?

Derek Daly, Eddie Irvine and who else have we got… Martin Donnelly. I mean Eddie was a serious driver, he was fantastic, Donnelly too, until his awful accident. He was lucky to survive it, and I remember seeing the photographs at that time, thinking “how can anybody survive something like that?” I suppose the most accomplished one was Eddie, and he gave Michael a good run for his money in the Ferrari. An Irish man in a Ferrari, I like the sound of that.

Game of Thrones off-season or Formula 1 off-season – which one gets you more restless?

There are so much travelling and publicity to do in the off-season when I’m not filming, it all just takes up a lot of precious time. The Formula 1 off-season is so short now, with 2016 being 21-races-long, which I’m sure the teams are happy about. I’m interested in what developments they are going to be making on the car, what upgrades they have for next year. Obviously, I’m not satisfied with the sound of the cars. It’s a shame that they have to do something cosmetic to tweak the sound of the car. It’s pure heaven to listen to the GP2 cars when they go by. The sound was one of the main attractions when I first came to a race. The first time I heard a Formula 1 car, I said “you have got to be kidding me”, that just put a huge smile on my face. They sounded like wild animals before and now they sound too tame. Technology has turned a lion into a pussy cat.

The ending of season 5 of Game of Thrones has led to a lot of speculation, there was a certain cliffhanger to the show and even the books. Do you find it odd when people try to squeeze a line or two on that from you at a Formula 1 event?  

When I attended Silverstone and Monaco, the season was already airing, but the big stuff hadn’t happened. Now I’m grabbed immediately and people are quizzing me. Each one of them goes “look, I have one question – the Jon Snow question”. Even Barack Obama said that to the directors of the show. And if they are not going to tell the President of the United States of America, I’m not going to tell anyone either (laughs).

After that impressive ending in season 5, playing it low-key must be difficult, especially today, when anything and everything goes viral. How do you manage it?

I wish it was low-key… When I entered the Abu Dhabi circuit, I kept my phone on silent. But in five minutes Twitter was like “Davos Seaworth is in Force India” – they don’t even call me by my real name… Somebody even put up “Westeros has come to Abu Dhabi” and then the Jon Snow questions were all over the place. I’ve read all the scripts of the show and I know exactly what’s going to happen. Some people ask about it, others don’t like to know. It was actually very funny and interesting to witness all these reactions.

It would be awful and stupid of me to spoil anything. Thankfully, not even large, very large sums of money, not even Bernie’s wallet could get it out of me.

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