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We’ve come to know Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen and Kit Harington as Jon Snow. But who were the actors who auditioned or refused roles on Game of Thrones? With the premiere of the HBO series’ eighth and final season, we can’t help but look back at eight years ago when the show was still casting and finding the now-household-name actors who play Cersei Lannister, Sansa Stark and more. So, who were these actors who auditioned for Game of Thrones roles once upon a time. Well, they include a two-time Oscar winner (one of which was won in 2019), a former Hunger Games star and a cult-favorite actress from a beloved ’90s sci-fi.
We can’t imagine anyone other than Maisie Williams, Nicolaj Coster-Waldau and Gwendoline Christie as Arya Stark, Jaime Lannister and Brienne of Tarth, but as Hollywood would have it, they weren’t the only actors to have auditioned for the roles. Several well-known stars have also considered Game of Thrones as their next career move, and though they weren’t offered the part in the end, their audition stories are still interesting to hear. From those who turned down the roles to actors who were recast after the pilot, check out the actors who were almost cast on Game of Thrones.
Sam Claflin — Jon Snow, Viserys Targaryen
Claflin, best known for his role as Finnick Odair in The Hunger Games franchise, revealed in a 2016 interview with Cinema Blend that he auditioned for two Game of Thrones roles: Jon Snow and Viserys Targaryen (Daenerys’s brother). “I think I speak on behalf of every British actor when I say, we all auditioned for it,” he said. Though Claflin wasn’t cast in the end, he doesn’t have FOMO. He told Cinema Blend that he’s happy to watch the show as a fan. “I like getting into things like that [as a viewer] and not being a part, because I always find it’s very jarring if I was part of it,” he said. “But I’m a big fan.”
Gillian Anderson — Cersei Lannister
Best known for her role in The X-Files, Anderson was offered the role of Cersei Lannister (played by Lena Headey) but turned it down. The offer came at the same time as an offer for Downton Abbey. “My 18-year-old cannot believe that I would turn down Game Of Thrones or Downton—things she loves to watch,” But if I am going to be spending that amount of time working on something I would rather be working with a director like Martin Scorsese,” she said. Anderson didn’t confirm which GOT character she was offered, but fans have theorized it was none other than Queen Cersei.
Tamzin Merchant — Daenerys Targaryen
Merchant, best known for her role on The Tudors, was actually cast as Daenerys before Emilia Clarke and filmed a pilot of the show. She was recast after creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss received a lot of negative feedback for the pilot and were forced to reshoot it. One of the big changes was the recasting of Daenerys. “Watching them watch that original pilot was one of the most painful experiences of my life,” Weiss told Time of when he screened the pilot for some of his friends. “As soon as it finished, Craig [Mazin] said, ‘You guys have a massive problem.’” George R.R. Martin, who wrote the GOT books, has praised Merchant’s acting on The Tudors and spoke positively about her readings for the Mother of Dragons. No official reason has ever been given about her recasting.
Jennifer Ehle — Catelyn Stark
Like Merchant, Ehle, who has starred in The King’s Speech and Fifty Shades of Grey, was originally cast as Catelyn Stark for GOT‘s pilot. She eventually turned down the role before it made it to series, so she could spend more time with her newborn daughter at the time, which is when Michelle Fairley was recast as the Stark matriarch. “It was too soon for me to be working, emotionally and bonding-wise, but I needed to do it and I was also passionate about the books,” she told the Daily Beast. “I loved the idea of telling that story.”
Mahershala Ali — Xaro Xhoan Daxos
In a 2017 interview on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Ali, who has won Oscars for his recent roles in Moonlight and Green Book, revealed that he auditioned to play Xaro Xhoan Daxos, a Qartheen merchant who Daenerys locks in a stone vault at the end of season 2. Because of the character’s storyline, he planned audition with chairs. But when he walked into the audition room, there were only stools. “I had this whole thing worked out with this chair. I was working with doing all these power moves and stances and what not. And then I go in for the audition and I walk into the HBO offices and there’s these two stools…with no back behind them,” he said before calling the experience “one of the worst auditions of my life.”
Sam Heughan — Loras Tyrell, Renly Baratheon
Heughan, best known for his role in Outlander, auditioned for several roles including Loras Tyrell, Renly Baratheon and a few members of the Night’s Watch. In an interview with Vulture, he revealed that he auditioned for the show seven times. In the end, though, he isn’t mad that he wasn’t cast in any of the seven roles. He explained that the GOT audition experience gave him enough confidence to land the lead of Outlander. “I auditioned for Game of Thrones seven times! Loads of times. I auditioned for Renly, Loras, some of the members of the Night’s Watch. And I’d always get so close! I’d be like, ‘Guys, just give me a sword!’Everyone was going in for those parts,” he said.
Izzy Meikle-Small — Sansa Stark
Meikle-Small, who’s starred in Never Let Me Go and Snow White and The Huntsman, was almost cast as Sansa Stark. She revealed that she was neck-in-neck with Sophie Turner, until HBO cut her in the final two. “I got to the final two to play Lady Sansa Sark,” she told The Telegraph in 2013. “I was a bit sad, because the show’s massive, but I’m not that unhappy, because they all show a lot of flesh, don’t they? I don’t think my parents would be happy.”
Lily Allen — Yara Greyjoy
Unlike the other actors on this list, Allen already has a connection to GOT. Her brother, Alfie Allen, plays Theon Greyjoy, so when HBO was casting for Theon’s sister, Yara Greyjoy, the first person it went to was his real-life sister. “They asked me if I’d be interested in playing Theon’s sister,” Allen wrote on a Reddit AMA. In a 2014 interview with Vulture, Allen revealed that she turned down the offer after she learned that it would have to involve some inappropriate touching with her real-lie brother. “I felt uncomfortable because I would have had to go on a horse and he would have touched me up and shit,” Allen said. “Once they told me what was entailed, I said no thanks.”
Charlie Hunnam — Rhaegar Targaryen
In an interview with The Sun in 2017, Hunnam, best known for his role in Sons of Anarchy, revealed that he was offered a cameo as Rhaegar Targaryen, Daenerys’s older brother. Though he would’ve loved to do it, Hunnam revealed that he turned down the offer because he was filming something else at the time—however, he is still open to a cameo in the future. (Season 8?) “I would love to do a Game of Thrones cameo, they offered me a cameo on that show a little while ago but I was shooting something else so I wasn’t able to do it but maybe in the future, who knows,” he said.
Mark Strong — Stannis Baratheon
According to Digital Spy, Strong, who starred as the villain in 2019’s Shazam!, was offered the role of Stannis Baratheon, played by Stephen Dillane. He turned down the role, however, after he was cast as the lead in AMC’s Low Winter Sun, which was canceled after one season. Strong hasn’t commented on the casting, but it’s been reported by several sites.