Liam Cunningham: ‘My wife married an electrician and ended up with some d**k off the telly’

Actor Liam Cunningham in Dublin. Photograph Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times
The Game of Thrones actor talks about the refugee crisis, Ireland's failure to take action, the election fallout and why women faint in front of him 

Liam Cunningham is an hour late for our meeting in the Westbury Hotel in Dublin. When he arrives, legging it up thickly carpeted stairs, past family gatherings grappling with afternoon teas, the Game of Thrones star is mortified and all apologies.

To put him at ease, I tell him I won’t mention his late arrival, but he insists it goes into this article “as long as you say this is the first time I’ve ever been late for an interview with a journalist in my 30 years as an actor”.

He “slept it out”. I assume he was suffering the ravages of an epic celebrity night out but apparently he was just having “an afternoon nap” in the north Dublin home he shares with his wife of 36 years, Colette, his two sons, his daughter and her fiance. At 58 years old he is at the napping stage of life and loving it.

Cunningham has hopped out of his scratcher to talk about an award he is being given by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) for his humanitarian work. Since winning global fame as the Davos Seaworth he has travelled to refugee camps in places such as South Sudan, Greece and Jordan.

You hear about four million Syrian refugees, and the numbers take away from the humanity. In the camps we met all sorts of people, oncologists and architects

While there he educated himself, made friends and took photographs in refugee camps before coming back home to spread the word about the plight of migrants, calling on EU leaders to do more for stranded refugees.

How does he feel to be the recipient of the ICCL’s Lifetime Contribution to Human Rights Award?

“Like a lot of people, I’m not good with compliments,” he says sipping a cup of tea and grabbing handfuls of five star hotel peanuts. “Especially for something like this, which is so serious ... when I started getting involved, it was to go out and witness and then come back and advocate, it’s not for awards.”

He felt he had to do something with “this ridiculous stupid celebrity platform I’ve got for five minutes. You’re obliged to use it, or otherwise you’re a narcissist as far as I’m concerned”

His first experience of humanitarian work came six years ago when HBO, who made Game of Thrones and have a partnership with the International Rescue Committee, invited him and other stars to visit refugee camps in Greece. Cunningham travelled to the overcrowded, chaotic camps of Lesbos with fellow Throners Maisie Williams and Lena Heady.

There are riots on Lesbos these days, as locals struggle to cope with the influx of refugees. Back when Cunningham visited, one local politician called the refugees “our guests”. “They were incredibly hospitable at the beginning,” he says. “It’s turning now because Europe is not doing enough”.

I just want to go: ‘you really want to come up and say to his face that you don’t want to help?’

The trip was formative. “You hear about four million Syrian refugees, and the numbers take away from the humanity. In the camps we met all sorts of people, oncologists and architects .... people who were at the opera on Saturday night and on Sunday their relatives were dead and their houses blown up ... it was completely maddening. Once you start on this you can’t f***ing stop and nor should you”.

Another trip followed with World Vision. He visited the sprawling Azraq refugee camp in Jordan just ten kilometres from the Syrian border and while there made friends with a young man from Syria called Husam Alhraki “an ambitious, funny, quirky character.”

“Husam’s story is horrific. He was in class and an artillery shell hit the school. He pulled his best friend out of the rubble, dead”. The family paid smugglers to leave Syria, moving through the desert in the dark, a treacherous journey which led to them being split up.

The teenager and his mother ended up in Jordan while the rest of the family made it to Stuttgart in Germany. When Cunningham met the Syrian refugee he was teaching himself German for two hours a day, determined to join the rest of his family in Stuttgart. He eventually made it to Germany and the unlikely pair kept in touch.

Liam Cunningham and Husam
Liam Cunningham and Husam

“Husam had not even heard of Game of Thrones when we met,” says Cunningham who made a surprise visit to Stuttgart for the premiere of his young friend’s school movie. “I tried to dissuade him from acting, I said for f**k sake you’ve had enough problems in your life ...”.

It was Husam who presented the actor with his award this week. “When I look at him ... all he’s been through and he’s still the victor. They’ve done everything to try to ruin his life and wreck his family and his home and he just keeps bouncing back.”

He brought Husam with him onto the Late Late Show this week “to give another smack in the face to the anti-migrant and anti-refugee people. I just want to go: ‘you really want to come up and say to his face that you don’t want to help?’ ... the argument is so simple. At the time of the famine we’d a million and a half people die of starvation ... we were blessed that North America and Australia took our huddled masses.”

“It’s an ugly, filthy look on our government not to take care of business ... we’re not doing as much as we should be doing and as much as we said we would. It’s terrible.”

This has been a great kick in the cahones for the same government with just a slightly different name for the last 100 years

Liam Cunningham is an angry man just as he was an angry young fella growing up in North Wall and Sheriff Street. The anger exploded during his “rebellious period” as a punk rocker in Dublin. “I’m still complaining about the same things I was complaining about then,” he says. “The interesting thing when you complain [as a youngster] you’re seen as a rebel. When you’re as close to death as I am, you just come across as curmudgeonly, you know what I mean? A grouchy grinch.”

This grouch is impervious to critics on Twitter who accuse him of “preaching” from his “gated community in LA”. “F**k you dude, I live in Killester,” he grins. If he wasn’t still complaining it would mean he had “turned me coat ... I wouldn’t be able to look in the mirror. My kids would batter me”. Everyone in the family home is “pretty right on”.

Cunningham is a joy to interview, fizzing with energy and excellent, sweary company. He has no interest in holding back. He doesn’t know how. Here are just a few examples of him not holding back:

On the latest Irish election results: “This has been a great kick in the cahones for the same government with just a slightly different name for the last 100 years.”

On Mary Lou McDonald: “She’s intellectually superior to the two oafs that she’s taken on. It’s not a fair fight”

On the housing crisis: “The government are a bunch of f***ing idiots who can’t even plan to allow young people to afford their own houses”.

On working class representation in Ireland: “You only ever hear working class people on commercials on the radio talking about plumbing”

On private health insurance: “I don’t have private health insurance. I have never have had it because nobody should. It would be very easy to start a national health system here. Just make it illegal for TDs to have private health insurance, and we’d have a f***ing great health service here very quickly.”

The occasional circles I swan in are shitting themselves business wise. I keep asking them, what are you afraid of? It’s democracy

The last time I interviewed Cunningham, 14 years ago, we talked about the “subtle” kind of fame he enjoyed back then. He was fresh from his role in acclaimed Ken Loach movie The Wind That Shakes the Barley. He’d come a long way from his job as an ESB electrician, which took him on an extraordinary adventure in Zimbabwe as a young man in his twenties. The story goes he came home and couldn’t face driving around in his little yellow ESB van in the rain after three years in Africa. Acting was the escape route.

Liam Cunningham as Davos Seaworth in Game of THrones. Photograph: HBO
Liam Cunningham as Davos Seaworth in Game of THrones. Photograph: HBO

Eight years ago he was cast in George R R Martin’s Game of Thrones. There’s nothing subtle about the level of fame that comes from tens of millions tuning in. “It’s like being in a boy band,” he says. “In Brazil I had a woman faint in front of me ... my wife laughs her head off. She married an electrician and ended up with some d**k off the telly”.

He finds it hilarious that some of his wealthier friends in Ireland are not too impressed with the rise of Sinn Féin: “The occasional circles I swan in are shitting themselves business wise,” he laughs. “I keep asking them, what are you afraid of? It’s democracy ... people who are making a few quid like the status quo.”

Cunningham might swan in elevated circles now but he has his own financial philosophy. “If you keep your bills low you don’t need to rely on people. I need the freedom to tell whoever I want to go and f**k themselves ... the power of no is a great luxury.”

What is he working on at the moment? “I’ve said no to everything. I’m not in the humour. I’ve said no to six jobs in the last two weeks. I’ve nearly got the mortgage paid off. I drive a four year old Volkswagen. I’m trying to do a few bits around the house. F***ing Ikea wardrobes, very glamourous.”

His most recent project was a Sky Original TV series called Domina set in ancient Rome. He took that job “because I fancied wearing a toga” and because it was “dramatically interesting ... it’s about the clever, dangerous women who weren’t supposed to have the power, but a lot of them did.” He enjoyed working on Way Down, a heist movie set in Madrid. He’s chipping away on a long term project, a movie he wants to direct about “sexual politics”.

Actor Liam Cunningham in Dublin. Photograph Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times
Liam Cunningham: The government are a bunch of f***ing idiots. Photograph Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

The Game of Thrones karma is still strong. He shows me pictures on his phone of the Lamborghini he was sent to drive for a week. He was once loaned a huge yacht in Monaco, where he often indulges his love of formula one racing. He invited his Game of Thrones costars Kit Harington and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau to join him. “I was the ugliest man on the boat”.

He likes the high life? “Who doesn’t?” he replies. “It’s all so superficial. As soon as people forget me, as soon as it’s Game of Wha? I won’t get a f***ing bag of Maltesers off anyone.”

You don’t try and weasel your way out of it by saying we have our own problems. F**k right off

What does he sees as the main purpose of his humanitarian work? “It’s about not letting people forget we were in the same position as those refugees once ... and now we’re sitting in a five star hotel and our time has come to take care of the people who deserve the help we got.”

“It’s not about right or left or whatever. It’s moral and it’s ethical. You don’t try and weasel your way out of it by saying we have our own problems. F**k right off.”

“We’re a glorious country, we’ve been loved around the world because we never had an empire. We’ve never oppressed people. And I would most definitely like to keep the world’s opinion of Ireland, the same as it is now. Us not taking care of people will tarnish that.”