Meet Miltos Yerolemou, the "Dancing Instructor" of Game of Thrones

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Chuck Cook Photography
Miltos Yerolemou at Comicpalooza 2014

George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones novels have plenty of characters with ambiguous morality, but a few were written as heroes. Syrio Forel was one, and he (apparently) died to save his swordfighting student, Arya Stark.

Forel's death was "offscreen," both in the books and in the television adaptation, so some Game of Thrones fans hold out hope that the former First Sword of Braavos is still alive.

The Greek actor who brought Forel to the screen, Miltos Yerolemou (pronounced Yur-rel-le-mou,), was certainly alive and well in Houston at Comicpalooza, signng autographs and teaching classes on the water dancer-style of swordfighting to attendees.

(By the way, if you want to learn some of these swordfighting moves for yourself, the last class is today at Comicpalooza at 3 p.m. Cost is $50. Sign up at Yerolemou's booth in the autograph area at Hall E in order to attend.)

How did he land the part of the beloved character of Syrio? (By the way, did you know he read for an entirely different character?) What is in store for Yerolemou next? We found out all of this and more.


How did you land the part of Syrio Forel?

I've known Nina Gold, the casting director, 15 or 20 years. When she was tasked with casting Game of Thrones, she got in touch with me through my agent and asked me to read for the part of Varys. They liked the reading but obviously didn't think I was quite right for that part [which ultimately went to Conleth Hill].

So, that's when they had me read for Syrio. I had to do a screen test five times, and it was the first lesson with Arya, a three-and-a-half-minute scene. It was quite intense for a screen test!

They were, of course, looking for someone with swordfighting experience. I had worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company over the course of ten years, and in those shows we have a lot of swordfights. You have an opportunity to use different blades and types of swords. I've always had a natural aptitude for it, but I still needed extra training in addition to my experience in order to figure out what that "water dance" was.


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HBO Publicity Still
Yerolemou as Syrio Forel gives Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) her "dancing lessons" while her father Eddard Stark (Sean Bean) observes in the background.
What swordfighting methods did you draw on for "water dancing"?

The use of the sword was European rapier, but the sword itself was a long sword which isn't a rapier at all. It was wooden, quite heavy and used with one hand instead of two. [Since in Game of Thrones, Syrio is training Arya, wooden swords were used in the scenes.]

The movements incorporated Tai Chi and certain Japanese disciplines, but we never deliberately said, "Oh, we're going to take that style and mix it with this style." I worked with William Hobbes, who is a legend in sword choreography. He's choreographed films like The Duelist and Dangerous Liaisons amongst many, many others. He came at it from a very character point of view. Instead of just putting some moves together, he wanted to understand who the character [of Syrio] was. Anything we did came from that point of view. That's why Hobbes is so good. He doesn't just let you show off. You have to have a reason.


Do you think Syrio is really dead?

You should probably ask me if I want him to really be dead, which is the easy answer! No, of course I don't want him to be dead! Yes, I'd come back and play him again! George R. R. Martin wrote that episode. He could have tied up any loose ends, but he didn't, quite deliberately so. The men of Braavos are enigmas. Who knows?


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Chuck Cook Photography
Yerolemou poses with a practice sword imprinted with a Braavossi truism: "All men must die."
Syrio Forel was like Ned Stark; both were unambivalently good and trying to do the right things. Both die as a result. In Game of Thrones, the good guys don't win and often pay for doing the right thing with their lives. What do you think about this?

It's a terrible thing in a way, because I'm an eternal optimist. I believe in positivity and karma; the things you do dictate the way your life pans out. But the difference is that if you're going to deal with that world, which is based on medieval times, the fact is that is what life was -- completely ruthless. If you were naive and trusted people just because they say, "Oh, trust me. I want to be your friend," you're asking for trouble.

When it comes to power, we're still living in that kind of world. The difference is that we play politics and diplomacy. We have gotten better at disguising our true intentions. I don't think things have changed very much. It's exciting to see something like Game of Thrones because it makes us question what we're watching. If it's drama, there has to be an element of tension where you don't know what's going to happen next. Game of Thrones does that better than anyone else and that is why we keep watching it. It confounds our expectations all the time.


What are your current projects?

I'm about to start work on a TV adaptation of Wolf Hall based on the bestselling novels by Hilary Mantel. They're about King Henry VIII and the Reformation of the Church of England. It's a story that we know, but the books come at it from a gritty political point of view.

I'm about to go to the UK and shoot some scenes for it. I'm playing the King of France. The show stars Damian Lewis as Henry VIII and Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell. It's co-produced with PBS, so it will be shown here in the United States as well.


One of Syrio's most powerful lines is "There is only one god and his name is Death, and there is only one thing we say to Death: 'Not today.'" Have you ever had a close call that made you say "Not today"?

I have been blessed to have not been in that kind of situation, but I meet people at cons like this one who have had those experiences. Those words have been a real inspiration to them, and I find that incredibly humbling.


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2 comments
Gotfan
Gotfan

Just watch him around the fangirls, he's quite a predator at most conventions.

phaedra.cook
phaedra.cook

Just an add-on... Miltos was pretty much the last celebrity to leave the autograph floor when the con closed on Monday, still smiling and cheerful the whole time. A great guy and I'm glad I had the opportunity to speak with him.

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