What It's Like to Play a Giant on 'Game of Thrones'
When Neil Fingleton was a boy in Northern England, he admired Richard Kiel, the American actor who played the steel-toothed villain Jaws in two James Bond movies. On screen and off, Kiel was naturally imposing and full of character. Maybe Fingleton could be like that, too. Although if the two had ever met, the 7'2" Kiel would have found himself looking up for a change: his admiring fan stands just over 7'7".
Fingleton, who currently holds the Guinness Book of World Records title of "Tallest Man in Britain," jumped into the acting pool at the right time. After receiving a scholarship to play basketball at the University of North Carolina and, later, Holy Cross, and embarking on a short-lived pro career, he took a cue from Kiel and tried show business. After Fingleton signed with the talent agency Oh So Small, which specializes in actors of "extreme height" (big or small), Fingleton quickly landed parts in movies and TV shows. When Game of Thrones needed a giant to plow through the gates of Castle Black, there was only one man for the job.
"When they've got somebody extremely tall bringing their character to life, it's got the human touch on it," Fingleton says of Game of Thrones' giant strategy. "I guess you can always tell when stuff is just computer-generated. Don't get me wrong, it looks cool, but some directors and shows, they want it to have this human touch on it."
Like last night's giant action -- Game of Thrones' version of Hulk vs. Loki -- Fingleton's Mag the Mighty is a mix of live action, costumed acting and clever CGI. To showcase the "human touch," Game of Thrones crew members designed Mag's costume to be nimble, allowing a tall actor's particular gait to read on screen. Fingleton could run, jump, swat soldiers away in combat, lift the castle's gates, and ride a wooly mammoth (which, in the pre-special effects shoot, is a glorified mechanical bull with shaggy hair). The costume is custom-built to the actor's exact dimensions, in a process that's basically plaster-of-paris mummification. Once Game of Thrones costumers have a cast of their future giant, they fill the mold with fiberglass and create a mannequin replica, which can be outfitted with dressing from beyond the wall.
Unfortunately, nimble doesn't mean breezy. Fully built, the costume weighs over 75lb, and Fingleton is constantly training -- blistering cardio regimens over four or five days a week -- to avoid injury. Which is not easy for a 7.5ft-tall man. "When I was playing basketball, I was getting hurt quite a bit," he says. "Back injuries, dislocated shoulder, breaking ankles, toes, fingers -- things like that. My body couldn't take it anymore, with all the running, the pounding. I just found, being my height, it was just incredibly hard to stay healthy."
A Free Folk raid is less intense because an actor like Fingleton gets in and gets out. An action scene like the Battle of Castle Black required two weeks of shooting, six days a week, 14 hours a day. But basketball was months and months of strenuous activity. Fingleton prefers the fantasy life, even if it requires waking up at 3am, applying facial prosthetics for three hours, and then trudging off to work. "It can be incredibly frustrating at times. You go to get some food, and all of a sudden you're eating your beard instead of your sandwich."
Fingleton and his giant cohort filmed most of their scenes in modified versions of existing sets. That could mean shooting in a green-screen volume, where the giants would be essentially cut and pasted into the staged battle and scaled appropriately. Or it could whisk Fingleton to a physical set. Mag the Mighty's power charge through the Castle Black tunnel required the Game of Thrones production to replicate the set at smaller proportions, creating the oversized illusion through forced perspective.
Fingleton's performance doesn't change based on location. "When you're doing costume work, you just try to come to terms with how the director or the producers, they want to see this character," he says. "And they wanted [the giant] to be one of those things where people say, 'Oh shit, this character can move.'"
As anyone following our dead-character bracket knows, Mag the Mighty didn't survive the Battle of Castle Black. And Fingleton certainly remembers his death scene. It wasn't elegant -- one minute Mag is raging, the next he's bleeding out on the floor -- but it took work. "When you're laid out on the floor, getting up wasn't... easy," the actor recalls. The costume's construction requires two extra sets of hands to lift off the ground. Not glamorous.
Fingleton doesn't mind. This is still his dream come true. "When you see the finished product, you just think, 'Yeah, that's what it's all about, really.'"
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Matt Patches is Thrillist’s Entertainment editor. He previously wrote for Grantland, Esquire.com, Vulture, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Guardian. He stands with the wildlings. Find him on Twitter: @misterpatches.