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'Game of Thrones' star Cunningham reacts to controversial rape scene

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TORONTO - The third episode of this pitch-black season of "Game of Thrones" featured one horrific scene that ignited much heated discussion — even in the home of star Liam Cunningham.

Spoiler-phobic sorts behind on their DVR homework had better not proceed. In the controversial scene in question, Jaime Lannister sexually assaults his twin sister, Cersei, over the altar containing the body of their dead son.

Cunningham, who plays the noble Ser Davos Seaworth on the fiercely loved HBO Canada series, watched the episode with his wife and daughter — whom he describes as a "hardcore feminist," before adding in grinning jest: "she's a pain in the ass sometimes."

An intra-familial discussion of the divisive rape scene — which was a consensual encounter in George R.R. Martin's source novel — ensued and stretched for 30 minutes.

Cunningham points out that the action was so heinous in part because the once-dastardly Jaime had been in the midst of a two-season redemption arc. Further, he notes some "moral ambiguity" given the twins' bizarre incestuous relationship.

Mostly, he doesn't seem sure what to think — and he says that's sort of the point.

"I kind of think about it in terms of doing a painting — you don't always need a painter there to tell you what your interpretation of it is," said the friendly Irish actor during a visit to Toronto this week.

"It's a grown up show for grown ups, made by grown ups; it doesn't necessarily expect you to take any sort of position on this. ... It's not up to me or anybody who made the show to tell anybody what to think about what they've seen.

"I think it would be arrogant of us to say this is what it is supposed to be," he added. "It's patronizing for anybody to do that. It's there for what you want to take from it. And I think that's intelligent and I think it's as close as you can get to a piece of art for what it is."

Cunningham, 52, was in town for the opening of "Game of Thrones: The Exhibition," running through Sunday at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

The internationally touring exhibition features 100 original artifacts, costumes, weaponry, storyboards and other ephemera from the consistently shocking fantasy series. The hyper-intricate props, elegantly displayed, are a convincing testament to the show's meticulous attention to detail.

"It's the real stuff, you know?" Cunningham said. "It's not some kind of cheap-ass replica they're throwing in."

An accomplished character actor with an exhausting resume of film credits, Cunningham is no stranger to large-scale productions.

He was featured in the swords-and-sandals-and-CGI extravaganza "Clash of the Titans," in the costly 2008 saga "The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor" and the starry thriller "Safe House," more recently, but says the famously ambitious "Thrones" is in a league of its own.

"Each one you do is a different set of pain-in-the-ass problems that you have to try and get over and different levels of enjoyment," he said. "But doing 'Game of Thrones,' it's a peculiar beast.

"You need to do your work. You need to do proper acting. You're not looking over your shoulder dodging bullets or whatever it may be," he added. "It's so different and it's not a movie. It's not following one guy who meets the girl, gets in trouble, kills the bad guy, saves the girl and marries her in the end.

"It's not dopey."

Cunningham has resisted the urge to read Martin's books, in which Ser Davos arguably plays a larger role than he does in the show — "I don't know what's coming and I don't want to know what's coming," he says — but he's savoured watching his character's tale unfold.

A reformed smuggler who had four finger tips lopped off in penitence, Davos acts as the moral compass for throne hopeful Stannis Baratheon. Cunningham calls his character a "simple man in a nest of vipers," comparing him to Robert Duvall's mild-mannered Corleone consigliere in "The Godfather."

Cunningham's even shared several tender moments with Kerry Ingram's scarred young princess Shireen Baratheon, who teaches the older man how to read.

"You know there's that old cliche, don't work with children or animals?" he said. "I've done loads of stuff with kids. Kids, their whole reason for living is to play. Actors, when you grow up, you have to re-learn (that)."

Such connections between "Game of Thrones" actors can be fleeting, given the series' ever-growing body count and the worldwide sprawl of its production.

The show's fourth season has shot in Northern Ireland, Croatia and Iceland, and Cunningham's plotline has been isolated to the point where he's never shared a scene with many of the show's stars.

So, does it still feel like they're all on the same show?

"It feels like we're all in the same phenomenon," he replied with a laugh. "That's what the weird thing about it is. We pass each other in hotels, or somebody's finished for the day and you're going to be working tomorrow so you have a couple of beers in the bar with them. (But) Emilia (Clarke) shoots everything in Croatia, in Morocco — we're not even, in a sense, on the same continent.

"It's kind of really weird. And because everybody's a link in this chain, in this big cast, what's kind of cool about it is when you do get to see it we're watching it like fans.

"We've only shot our bit," he added, "so I'm as eager as anyone else to see what the results are."

___

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