You might know Greek Cypriot actor Miltos Yerolemou from Game of Thrones, the HBO hit series, where he plays Arya’s first mentor – the mysterious Syrio Forel, a clever, wise warrior from Bravos. He teaches the young Stark daughter the secrets of water dancing, and saves her from being imprisoned by the Lannisters when he fights Meryn Trant, a knight of the Kingsguard.
What you might not now is that Mr. Yerolemou has quite an impressive list of film appearances: Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Danish Girl, The hitman’s wife’s bodyguard, staring alongside actors like Harrison Ford or Samuel L. Jackson.
Thanks to the efforts of Darius Hupov, lead organizer of The Galactic Imaginarium Film Festival (where Mr. Yerolemou is a special jury member) we managed to wriggle ourselves in his tight filming schedule, and he was kind enough to grant us an interview. We talked about his role in Game of Thrones, about the importance of Syrio Forel in Arya Stark’s journey, his favorite and least favorite characters from the show, and also about the different experiences he had on the sets of the blockbusters he has been credited with. And also about stage fright, castings, and next projects.
Cristi: Thank you very much for this opportunity, it means a great deal to us. I can tell you that we are fans of Game of Thrones, and obviously a huge fan of Syrio Forel, as he is the one who starts Arya`s journey. So my first question is this: what is the secret of water dancing? Is it a fighting technique that you invented? How did you come up with it? I am asking this because Arya becomes a great warrior afterwards and this is the first step to her becoming a fierce warrior.
Mr. Yerolemou: It’s a funny answer because George R.R. Martin created the term water dance, so I didn’t invent it, but he didn’t really describe it. Syrio calls it something very different from the hacking and the slashing of the broadsword, and the way the hairy, big, northern warriors would wield the sword. So the idea is that if there is an equivalent, it’s much more Southern-European, even like Persian – shorter blades, lighter blades that could be wielded with much more articulation and dexterity and not like the sword that Ned Stark wields, which is as long as he is. And then the rest was literally me and my mentor, William Hobbs, who was my adviser when it came to creating the vocabulary of the water dance. We kind of cooked up the language and the style by looking at the character, at who is Syrio Forel.
And then, obviously there were the stunt coordinators and the people that put the fights together, alongside the Hungarian stuntmen whom I work with. So, in a way there were three stages: the creation of the term by George R.R. Martin, then William Hobbs and I creating the vocabulary, and obviously the production team which created the way the fights would actually look like. It was a very organic way of working. Maisie Williams and I, we had very good chemistry and she is an excellent dancer and an excellent mover, she picked up that stuff, as you can see in the rest of the show, and she just got better and better. And we are very proud that we had stunt doubles, but we never needed them on the set. We did everything ourselves.
Cristi: You are Arya’s first mentor. How much do you think your character has influenced her story arc? How much do you think that she would have been different if she had not been able to start her training with Syrio? Not only her training as a swordsman, but her intellectual preparation as well.
Mr. Yerolemou: Well, our training keeps her alive. I think if it wasn’t for where she was and what she was doing, she would probably have gotten rounded up and killed, or at least imprisoned, like what happened to Sansa… But of course it’s very important as a story trope, as a fundamental key to how you tell a story about protagonists like Arya Stark. You see it a lot, you have a young pupil, naïve, wet behind the ears, who gets his story started through someone else, and usually it’s the unconventional teacher like mister Miyagi in Karate Kid, or Ben Kenobi and Yoda in Star Wars. All of these people teach the young protagonists and launch their stories, and I think it’s fundamental to who she becomes.
Of course, if you think about all her teachers, you know, The Hound, Jaqen H`ghar, you really get the sense that she goes toe-to-toe with Tywin Lannister in season 2 and she really holds her own and that’s really important because she gets to understand some things and it makes her a very wise person. Of course these things are what makes her so successful ultimately, because she’s like a sponge, every experience kind of makes her who she is. And of course I was the first. That makes Syrio special.
Cristi: I want to ask you about your performance. So obviously, a great deal of your character in the series was written by Martin. It came out with certain characteristics, but I’m sure as an actor you felt complied to bring something to it, to make it your own character. Can you tell me what that was?
Mr. Yerolemou: I used to think that If I was casting the Game of Thrones I would choose Ben Kingsley as Syrio Forel. Because in the books he is described as being sleight and older, and bald. It made me think of Ben Kingsley. I, obviously, am not in any way how he is described in the books, apart for my personality, I think. But I’m not particularly an academic actor. I’ve never been an intellectual in any way, shape or form, but I have good instincts and I think my experience as an actor has thought me one thing, which is not to try too hard. I sound lazy to most people but there is a capacity in most actors to overthink and although that can be very good, there are certain things you need to base on instinct. How you respond to a script initially is usually how you get most of your clues.
And what’s interesting about Syrio Forel is that my audition was my first lesson. And it was a 3-minute scene, I had to learn it all and what they saw was the reason why they cast me. I remember being on the set the first day and we were going to do the scene, and I said: “How do you want me to play this character?” We haven’t talked about it. I just made something up when I created Syrio for the casting. They said: “Do it like you did it in the screenings. That’s why we cast you. Your instincts, your natural reactions to the part, the initial reaction, the way you respond to a part, we liked that”. A lot of the times casting directors choose you for a reason and usually it’s not particularly complicated. You just look right; you have the right energy.
And luckily I really relate to everything that Syrio says. I’m a part time Buddhist, I practice as much as I can, my approach to all life and things is very much like that. My experience in doing martial arts have let me be in a very similar place to a lot of the things that Syrio talks about.
Cristi: I guess this speaks to the importance of your character in this movie and I think it’s quite interesting that’s it’s all based on instinct. You compared Syrio with other great mentors from sci-fi and fantasy movies, and it makes sense because there were all balanced and composed and their purpose was to give the main hero a clear path to their purpose. I have to ask you now, and I think you’ve been asked this a thousand times before: what ever happened to Syrio? Because GOT is a series which did not shy from showing the deaths of its characters in very explicit ways. But Syrio is discarded off screen. So what did really happen to him?
Mr. Yerolemou: I think that he was killed. It’s a bit of an anomaly because it works very well in the book, where you get the sense of dread, you get the sense of hopelessness, but also the sense that this is all about honor and about protecting a girl you barely know. But then you film it and it raises so many questions because he is obviously a much better, a much faster, a much more brilliant swordsman than Meryn Trant, so of course people are going to say: “This doesn’t make sense”. I remember Pat, George Martin’s wife saying to me “I was so angry with George for killing Syrio off, it was one of those things I was most upset with him about”.
The real reason why it happens this way is that the lesson has to continuingly be learned by Arya. I think that the device of not seeing Syrio’s death is really important. First of all, the books are written from a point of view, so as soon as Arya leaves the room, you fallow her, you don’t stay in the room, because the POV is always Arya Stark`s in that chapter, so you don’t see what happens. But his death leaves an echo with her. And I think that allows Syrio to live in her head in a different way, the same way Obi-Wan Kenobi lives in Luke. It’s the same device, but written in a different way. And it’s a really nice way how she stays alive because of him, continues the training without the trauma of seeing him cut down.
Cristi: Before we move on to a different question, I would like to ask you which is your favorite character from the GOT books and series, though that might be obvious, and which is your least favorite character?
Mr. Yerolemou: My favorite character, you may be surprised, is Jamie Lannister.
Cristi: I would have thought it was Arya.
Mr. Yerolemou: She obviously is my favorite but I thought about it a lot and I thought about me as an audience member and the most I enjoyed was Jamie Lannister’s story. I really found it surprising and also really conflicted. In the beginning he is a very different character to the one he ends up being. I think in the end he kind of goes full circle, returns to the place where he began. And of course it’s about Nikolaj Coster Waldau being such a fantastic actor, being able to transform himself from this handsome, arrogant shit, into someone you really want to survive and who gets lots of opportunities to show us how complicated he is.
My least favorite is Ramsay Bolton. I could barely watch him. That little shit! He wasn’t even enjoyable to watch. Maybe even Joffrey, he was horrible to. But nothing tops the unmitigated disaster that was Ramsay Bolton. I caught an episode when I was in some hotel working this year and there was a scene where he kills his dad and then the baby and I was like OH MY GOD! Unrelenting disaster. So yeah, I couldn’t even watch him, it’s nothing personal for the amazing actor that played him, but really, I did not enjoy that character in any way. Unrelenting horribleness. Must be fun to play him though.
Cristi: What is your take on the last two seasons?
Mr. Yerolemou: I think that the reaction to the last two seasons, and certainly the last season, was so vocal and divisive because you’re not dealing with a normal TV show. This show changed our perception and our expectations of storytelling in so many ways that I think it spurred us, so we wanted it to be exceptional. It’s not good enough just to be great. It has to blow our minds. Maybe that was its problem, that it couldn’t sustain blowing our minds for 8 seasons. But it was great while it lasted.
Cristi: Moving on from GOT, you’ve been actually part of the new Star Wars Trilogy too. You had a part you in The Force Awakens. I would like to ask you how did that happened and if you could tell us a bit about the Star Wars atmosphere, how was it to work on a Star Wars movie?
Mr. Yerolemou: It was very exciting. It was Nina Gold, who cast GOT, and she was the one who cast me in Star Wars. And I was in America doing a tour on A Midsummer Night’s dream, and she call me up and she said “Do you fancy being in the new Star Wars film”, and of course it was really exciting because I didn’t know anything about what was happening. It was such a strange experience I did a costume fitting with the designer, you know, such a legend. He designed the original Blade Runner and of course, the original Star Wars. He showed me the drawing of the character. Its incredible technical and you’re on location, and it’s a fully build set, there are animatronics and there’s people in the suits, and at one point I had to have this huge argument with a big guy, this animatronic which was been operated by 3 people. I was such a fan boy, especially when I was standing next to Harrison Ford. I didn’t even go “That’s Harrison Ford!” I went “That’s Hans Solo!”.
Cristi: Now, in 2021, you played in a new movie “The hitman’s wife’s bodyguard”. I think everybody is exciting because it has a great cast and a great story. Can you tell us about your role there? And also, after you met Hans Solo, now you’ve played with Mace Windu!
Mr. Yerolemou: What a legend that man is, Samuel L. Jackson. I have so much admiration and respect for him. I mean, literally, I’ve never known a more prolific actor. He`s done everything. And continues to do so. I don’t know where he finds the time to do all those roles. But he must have a very good agent and an excellent organizer because he’s literally everywhere.
That was a genuinely exciting job, because I got to be in the very first scene of the movie, the reintroduction of Darius Kincaid. I just played kind of a Sopranos casual Italian gangster who thinks he’s clever, and he has just captured him, Darius, I mean. And he’s going to sell him in some kind of auction with other fucking terrorists. It’s ridiculous and it’s not a spoiler to tell you that it doesn’t go very well. But it was a thrill. And the team was fantastic. I really like the first one. It didn’t get great reviews in the UK, but our critics are a bit snobby when it comes to movies, but I thought I was really funny. You got Ryan Reynolds and Salma Hayek, she has a major part in the sequel and she’s fantastic.
Cristi: You are in Prague now, filming for a TV series. Can tell us something about it?
Mr. Yerolemou: They’re doing a Stars TV. It’s an American studio, but it’s doing more European stuff. For a long time, they were making content for the American audience, but they now moved into making much more European drama. So the first thing I did for them was a small part in the first episode of Becoming Elisabeth, which is all about the early years of Elisabeth I, right before she became queen. The actress who’s playing Elisabeth is sensational. Great, great team.
And now Stars is doing a TV adaption of Dangerous Liaisons, the original play that stared Alan Rickman back in the 80s. It was a huge success, went on Broadway and they turned it into a film with Glenn Close, John Malkovich and Keanu Reeves. All about the dying days of the French aristocracy, just before the Revolution. I get to play a character named Franz Anton Mesmer who is the inventor of hypnotism. I don’t even know if he is a complete charlatan, but he genuinely believes in it. He invented the term animal magnetism. But his story is interesting. It’s all about discovering trauma. The play is about people who manipulate each other. The stupid games of the rich that have devastating consequences. The idea is that Mesmer was kind of an aristocrat really, but in our production he’s going to be much more feral. Like an animal. He’s going to be like Rasputin.
Cristi: You seem very excited and a bit keyed.
Mr. Yerolemou: (laughing) I’m terrified, I’m not the kind of actor who is very confident at all. I can’t sleep the night before. I’ve always been like that and when I got older, it got worse. I’m more terrified. Sometimes the pressure is too much. I don’t even know why I’m an actor sometimes. I can’t handle the pressure. Just looking forward to retiring. That’s all I want to do. I want to go to Cypress and look after cats and dogs.