Miltos Yerolemou on Being Arya’s Obi-Wan and Syrio Forel’s Fate


On April 17, 2011, a new HBO drama about warring families, icy zombies, and CGI dragons premiered, and whether you loved it or hated it, there’s simply no denying the kind of impact Game of Thrones had not just on television, not just on pop culture, but on the world in general. Its epic journey was a wild, weird, and fascinating adventure, and to mark the occasion Collider presents “What Is Ten May Never Die,” a ten-week retrospective on the show’s legacy — what we remember fondly, what we wish we could forget, and everything in between.

Death be dammed — all these years later, Syrio Forel is still teaching water dancing. Well, to be clear, what’s going on is that actor Miltos Yerolemou, who played the iconic swordsmaster who served as mentor to a young Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) during the first season of Game of Thrones, has developed a basic program on the art of sword-fighting, one he says is accessible even for wheelchair users and the blind.

Originally, Yerolemou began giving classes while attending fan conventions, a tradition that began after, according to him, “someone dared me to do it,” which he kept up with because “you know what’s better than sitting behind a table signing autographs, is actually having some form of interaction with people.” But in quarantine, he’s found a way to teach them online, one-on-one, and he’s even in development on an app that will let you book lessons with him directly.

The fact that Yerolemou is still in demand as an instructor is just one tiny indicator of the impact that his character had on the show — despite only appearing in three episodes of Season 1, Syrio Forel created a lasting impression not just on Arya but on the entire world. Today marks the 10th anniversary of his introduction in Episode 3, “Lord Snow,” but when Collider spoke with him via phone his memories of the production were sharp and clear.

Yerolemou’s credits include The Crown, The Danish Girl, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens — he currently has roles in the upcoming Apple TV+ series Slow Horses and the feature film The Hitman’s Bodyguard’s Wife (“there’s me trying to kill Samuel L. Jackson — it’s not a spoiler to say that it doesn’t go quite to plan.”) But it’s clear Game of Thrones holds a special place in his heart.

Below, we get into the Game of Thrones role he originally auditioned for, the biggest change made for Syrio Forel in his adaptation from the books, his experience attending fan conventions, and what in general he makes of his character’s legacy as well as the show’s — including his theory as to why many fans reacted like they did to Season 8.

Collider: So it seems like Game of Thrones is a project that has stayed very alive for you, despite the fact that your time on it was a while ago.

MILTOS YEROLEMOU: I know. Can you believe it? In fact, all the way back to that very first season before we even knew that it was going to be the wild cultural phenomenon that it ended up being. We knew that there was going to be, certainly interest because George [R.R. Martin]’s books had been around for a while. They had their own very strong and growing fan base.

But in the UK, we had never heard of them. The first time I’d even heard of his books, and this goes for a lot of the cast members. When I wanted to do a bit of research on the role, I wanted to go and find the book. And lo and behold, the big major bookseller in the UK, in the science fiction and fantasy section, there it was. Game of Thrones was number one in the charts.

So, that was the very first time I’d heard about it. So, it was obvious that it was successful in its own right. And of course, I made the terrible mistake after I got cast to go and have a look at some of the Game of Thrones forums and realize just how excited the fans were that they were turning it into a TV show. But that was really it. We knew that HBO had created amazing TV shows like The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, and True Blood, and all of that kind of stuff. We knew that the studio was going to make it, and it was going to make it for the right reasons. The creative team were really serious about how they were going to tackle this story.

We knew all of those things, so the ingredients for a good TV show were there. But, I mean, it’s one thing having a successful and well-watched TV show. It’s another thing to do what Game of Thrones did, which changed all of our viewing habits overnight, really.

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Image via HBO

Yeah. I think what you said speaks to something I find really fascinating about the show’s success — I had friends who were big fans of the books before the show premiered, but they hadn’t crossed over into mainstream popularity. So the fact that a few years later, it would become one of the most discussed and popular TV shows, not just in the fantasy and sci-fi world, but in general… It’s a fascinating shift.

YEROLEMOU: Yeah. Yeah. Definitely the fact that it became a show that you had to watch when it aired because of the nature of it. The fact that there were so many twists in it. If you didn’t watch it when it aired, you were very likely to get spoiled. I had the fantastic experience of being able to watch the show aired live in big viewing parties in Greece, in Texas, in London. I kind of had that amazing experience, and I’d never had that experience before. Especially at the time when things were moving from the terrestrial… That whole way of watching TV was already shifting. I mean, now we’re all into the streaming medium and binge-watching. But Game of Thrones kind of straddled that transition, and really took us back to a place where it was exciting to watch that show all together and at the same time. I thought that was pretty, really important as far as for the television industry. That’s for sure.

You’ve kept up with the show even after no longer appearing on it — what was that experience like for you? Just in terms of… To use a not-perfect metaphor, I don’t talk to most of my exes.

YEROLEMOU: That’s a great metaphor, because that’s normally how I approach my jobs. I don’t even watch most of the jobs that I do. I’ll do an episode of something, and I’ll never watch it. And that is because, obviously you film it and then time passes, and you’re on to something else. And then, are you at home when it airs? Any of those variables mean that I end up missing it. In fact, the only time I really watch what I do is when I’m doing the ADR thing. So, I think that’s really true about me. That’s very apt.

But the issue that I’ve had with Game of Thrones is that… I mean, I feel very privileged and humbled that I got to play a character that people seemed to really, really love. And even though his presence was very small on screen, he obviously had a huge presence within Arya’s story. I always say this, and it’s probably incredibly arrogant of me to say it. But I always consider him to be the Obi-Wan to Arya Stark’s Luke Skywalker. He’s the guy that sets off the story and hangs around in her head saying, “Use the force, Luke.” Instead, I’m just … She repeats those mantras in her head.

And so, I guess that’s why it captured people’s imagination. We all love that, the unconventional teacher who sets a protagonist off on their journey. I think that is the wonderful gift that Syrio Forel gives to the show. And Arya Stark is such a fantastic protagonist that we can’t help but really root for her story. So, I’m just very humbled and really lucky that I got to be part of her story.

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One thing that I hadn’t known until prepping to speak with you today is that you also auditioned for Varys.

YEROLEMOU: Yeah. Yeah, that was my first read. That was the first thing I read for.

What was that experience like? Just because the characters are extremely different.

YEROLEMOU: Yeah. It was a great scene. It’s the scene where Ned is imprisoned after being injured by Jaime Lannister. And he is in prison and he goes to him and he says, “Look, just renounce what you said about Cersei and just basically take the black. Your family will be safe. And that’s the way to deal with the situation.” It’s almost like a confessional. And it’s such a brilliant scene. I had no idea what I was reading — I hadn’t read the books, and it literally was just that scene. But it was so brilliantly written… I don’t think I’m being too disrespectful to other jobs that I’ve been for. But, it’s not often you get really good scenes to read in your castings. And when you get a really good scene like that, that is so well-written, you go, wow. You really want to do this job, because if this is the standard of the scripts…

So it was really good, and they really liked my reading, but they just didn’t think I was right. But they saw something in me. I was lucky [casting director] Nina Gold and me go back a long way, so she knew who I was when she gave me that thing to read. But I think once she saw it, or once the producers saw my casting for Lord Varys, they were like, “Oh, hang on a minute. Maybe we should get that foreign dude…”

I feel like there are lots of stories about actors going in for certain roles and not being quite right, but the producer seeing something and being like, “Okay, we’ll do something else with them.”

YEROLEMOU: It happens a lot, and it happened a lot in Game of Thrones. In fact, I was really surprised by how many of the cast members I spoke to when we were shooting who said, “Oh yeah, I read for Jon Snow.” There were so many people that read for other parts and then ended up with their parts. Especially the initial castings.

I mean, with Varys — would the character of Varys have always had a shaved head?

YEROLEMOU: Well, Conleth [Hill] has hair. So, I think he had a transition where he shaved his head and then ended up with a bald cap, or vice versa. But in the books, Syrio Forel is described as bald, with a nose like an eagle. We had lots of discussions about, “Are you going to shave your head?” And I was like, “Yeah, of course, if you want me to.” I’m one of those actors that loves the transformation. I really like changing my appearance as much as possible when I do roles. So, I was all up for it.

But in the end, George R.R. Martin said, “The reason why I wrote Syrio the way I did was because he had to be different from all those hairy guys in Westeros. The long hair, the beards.” When I saw him, he said I exuded a certain European-ness that kind of meant that there was no way that they were going to mistake me for a hairy guy from Westeros. So, they said, “There’s no need to shave your head. You’re different enough. As long as you look different, that’s the most important thing.” There’s a sophistication to those Braavosis anyway.

Yeah. And you also have the accent, which is so distinctive. How much of that was just you incorporating various other nationalities versus working with a dialect coach?

YEROLEMOU: I had no dialect coach. In fact, when I was shooting, I said to David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss], I said, “How do I pronounce Braavosi?” And they were like, “You’re the first person to say it, so however you say it is how we’re going to say it.” So, that was quite funny. They were very hands-off, and they were just like, “You know, we love the way you did it in the casting. So, just trust your instincts. Just do it the way you want to.” And I always say this, and it is true, that the inspiration for my accent was basically I was doing an impersonation of my father, who is Greek Cypriot.

So, I just didn’t want it to be distinctively Greek. So, I just kind of pushed it a little further east, so it was a bit more Persian. And obviously, there’s tinges of Spanish and Italian in there. It was a bastardization of a lot of dialects. But it all began with the way my dad speaks.

Lovely. How much fight training and stage choreography had you had before the show?

YEROLEMOU: So, interestingly, the casting breakdown specifically asked for someone who had sword-fighting experience. And I always joke that unless you’re a sports fencer, you do it for the Olympics, it’s kind of illegal to be an experienced swordsman in this day and age. So, how does that work? But I did actually have experience. Most of the time, actors put on their CV that they can horse ride and tap dance, and sword fight. And usually, all of those three are lies that just make our CVs look better. But, for the first time, certainly in my career, it was true.

It was like, yeah, I’ve had lots of experience. Mainly because my background is as a dancer. I was very much a physical performer. I danced, I did a lot of contemporary dance, modern dance. It was something that I had a natural aptitude for. I was lucky enough that my brain could process that kind of information and I could just repeat it. And of course, it’s completely the same as if … When you get fight choreography, it’s the same kind of process. You have a master choreographer who’s going, “Let’s try this and let’s try that.” I was very lucky when I worked at the Royal Shakespeare Company over a number of years. But we got a lot of experience of doing a lot of choreography, and I worked with some fantastic fight choreographers, and they took a shine to me because they could give me really complicated stuff and I could replicate it.

That’s kind of how I developed my experience. But, of course, when I got cast [in Game of Thrones], I said, “I really need someone to train with. This guy has to appear like he knows what he’s doing.” And I knew we didn’t have a lot of time to do any rehearsal, so I said, “Find me someone to work with.” And I was so lucky because I didn’t ask for him, but I was so blessed that they got me William Hobbs. Sadly, he died a couple of years ago, but he was a sword fighting legend. Him and Bob Anderson are the two legends of fight choreography. And he had done everything from Ridley Scott’s The Duelists, Dangerous Liaisons, the magnificent fights in Rob Roy. You name it. On film and stage, anything that had historical period dueling, he was the guy who was choreographing it. And he was my mentor. He was my mentor. Him and me cooked up the water dance together — he was my Syrio Forel. I was really lucky.

In re-watching Syrio’s last scene, the thing that really sticks out for me is it’s such an unmatched battle, but the choreography works to make it clear just how good Syrio Forel is, that he’s able to take down five guys with a wooden sword. What went into locking all of those elements into place?

YEROLEMOU: Having a great stunt coordinator. The team on Game of Thrones were fantastic. Let’s be absolutely straight here — the Hungarian stuntmen were the people who really made me look good, because they flipped and fell over, and reacted to my movements in such a way that made it look even more phenomenal. So, it’s a collaborative effort, like it always is.

Ultimately, it’s a matter of creating the choreography and then making sure that you just practice it. In the end, with the Lannister fight, I think we spent a few days. But also, part of mine and Maisie’s agreement or deal was that we made sure that we did everything ourselves. So, even though we had stunt doubles who were brilliant at what they did, they never got a chance to film any of the stuff because … And Maisie, herself, is a dancer — as you can see as her fighting develops through the show. All of that is her because she’s a natural. And so, the two of us just were in our element. We relished that. In fact, I remember Maisie saying to me when she was filming Season 2 — I think I met her at a convention and she said, “I really miss doing the sword fighting,” because I think in Season 2 she didn’t get to do hardly any. And she was like, “I really, really miss it.”

So, it’s a collaborative thing. Ultimately, it was having people that just created really good choreography and then we just worked our butts off.

In terms of working with Maisie, you can tell watching the first season that she’s a young actor who’s really going to move forward in life. Was that something that you felt on set as well?

YEROLEMOU: Yeah. I mean, it was her very first job that she’d ever done. She was 13 years old. She was still at school. She had an amazing mom that read her the bits that she couldn’t read because those bits were quite adult. She had a really supportive mother. And the team around her really looked after her. But I always say this, that working with actors like that is a real lesson to older actors like ourselves, because we bring so much baggage and we can sometimes be overly critical, or overthink what we’re doing. And when you get to work with a natural young actress like Maisie Williams, who just is just in the moment, it’s a reminder that you need to just let all of that go and just respond to what’s going on right there, right now. And to let all that stuff that we sometimes overthink and overanalyze, let that go, because we’ve all done that work. The process has happened and it can sometimes trip us up.

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So I’m legally required to ask you the big question, which is “what do you think happened to Syrio Forel?” But I want to ask you about it in a slightly different way, which is this: How has your answer to that question changed over the years?

YEROLEMOU: It’s a really good question. I’ll say it is a really good question because it has changed a lot over the years. Initially, I knew very much about the fan theories about is he dead? Is he alive? Is he Jaqen H’ghar, are they faceless men?

I would never say one thing one way or another, because the whole point, especially while the show was still going on, was that I didn’t want to give anything away, one way or another, because the mythology is what is exciting about a lot of things. And who knows? Certain things happened in the series that never happened in the books. And vice versa.

So, there was ambiguity there. But ultimately, each time I answered that question, I would formulate a clearer idea of really what happened. And to me, it makes a lot of sense because I remember asking George, who wrote the episode — Episode 8 in the first season — I remember asking him, “Why don’t you answer the question that everyone has asked since you wrote that chapter in the book? Why don’t you do that?” And he said, “That isn’t what I want to do. That doesn’t serve my narrative purpose.” And that’s all he would say. And I understood it. And yet, now I really understand it because to me, it makes a lot of sense that you don’t get the traumatic ending of Syrio, because in the books Arya remembers his words. It’s like the training is kept alive, in the same way … I keep going back to Star Wars. The presence of Obi-Wan Kenobi is still there because he’s kind of still there. No one really ever dies. That kind of thing.

It’s not mystical in the same way as Star Wars. But the resonance and the echo of the words, the mantra, the training is alive in her head. And I think the ambiguity allows that to exist. And if she’d seen him cut down, I think it wouldn’t have the same effect on her, or it would be too traumatic for it to live on in her head in the same way. So, as a narrative device, I think it’s brilliant. And I think that is the reason why George did it. And I think that is the reason why, ultimately, Syrio Forel sacrifices himself to save this girl he barely knows. And that’s also very poetic. And also, there aren’t that many good guys in Game of Thrones, so you got to have at least a couple.

I know that fan conventions haven’t been a thing for a little while now. But it seems like that was something that you really were engaged with for several years.

YEROLEMOU: Yeah, I genuinely liked them. I genuinely like these fans. It’s so rare as an actor to really get that kind of feedback. We do what we do, even in theater, and you don’t even see audiences at the end of shows nowadays. The idea of sitting in bars and people coming up to you, that really doesn’t happen anymore. It takes so long to get ready after a show. And by the time you’ve come to get a drink, everyone else has had to catch the last train home, or get the car out the car park. Those kind of things mean that we don’t really ever get a chance to meet the people who watch us.

There is a difference though, with Game of Thrones, because of the enthusiasm. It’s also the reason why Season 8 had the “crisis” it had — I’m saying “crisis” in inverted commas — because the fans feel that they own it. That’s what happens when you create worlds like this. It makes everyone’s imaginations burst. And so, people feel like they own it as much as the creators.

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Image via HBO

And so, that is quite a phenomenon and quite something to experience when you go to fan conventions, to realize how much it means to people. Because for a long time, I think, especially going through the pandemic that we’ve been through where you look at doctors and nurses and healthcare professionals and people that have kept our society going when all of the rest of us have been locked at home. You realize how important people like that are. And sometimes, I have a real sense of, “Well, I’m only an actor. What is the point of what I do?”, when you realize how important some people are to us literally staying alive.

But those lines that I spoke, about the God of Death and “not today” — I’ve had Marines tell me that they say before they go on operations. I’ve heard that people facing cancer say it in the mirror every morning. It’s really humbling. And sometimes it’s very difficult for me to hear. But it’s a nice reminder that for some people, [the show] has a profound effect.

Absolutely. So, I’ll make this my final question: 10 years out, how do you feel about when you’re walking down the street and having people call you Syrio Forel?

YEROLEMOU: I never expected it in my wildest dreams, especially after only being in three episodes of Season 1. I honestly did not expect that my gravestone will say, “Not today,” but with the not crossed out. Now, you can hold me to that. But I really did not expect that to be my reality, but it is. And like I said, I’m thrilled, embarrassed, and humbled by it every single day.

Wonderful. Will you be watching the spinoffs?

YEROLEMOU: Yeah. Of course, I’m going to be incredibly curious.

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