To say that Game of Thrones is a big deal is kind of an understatement. The epic fantasy TV series has both delighted and horrified viewers ever since its inception in 2011 and has an avid worldwide fanbase that loves it like a family member. However, there are a small group of people who won’t have been watching the show in the same way— the actors who turned down the chance to appear in the show.
While TV audiences revealed in all the heart-stopping action and drama, these actors watched on imagining what their careers might have been like and considering how huge Thrones has become, that has to suck. From the smallest roles to the main players, Game of Thrones has made lifelong stars of its cast, because Thrones is far from just another TV show— it’s a phenomenon and the following people have learned that the hard way.
We’re sure these actors would have made a good try of these roles, but could we really imagine someone other than Emilia Clarke as our all-powerful Daenerys? Or picture any other woman beside Lena Headey as the most Cersei Lannister? (We swear, that woman has villainous sneering down to a T). Perhaps it’s a good thing the casting went the way it did. But try telling that to these poor people. Here are 15 famous faces who said no to the biggest thing on TV. [Warning: major spoilers ahead!]
15 Gillian Anderson (Cersei Lannister)
X Files actress, Gillian Anderson, has an apparent habit of turning down huge TV roles, much to the astonishment of her teenage daughter at the time who couldn’t believe Anderson's decision to reject a role in the show. And not just any role. Although it’s not known for sure, it was reported that Gillian was offered the role of everyone's favorite love-to-hate character, Cersei Lannister, herself. Lena Headey went on to completely slay as Queen Cersei, but Anderson must be kicking herself now.
The Hannibal actress later revealed that she couldn’t imagine being away from her two younger kids who were four and six at the time, confessing, “I can’t justify spending that kind of time away from home – unless I’m working with Martin Scorsese." Burn. How was Anderson to know that Thrones would become as big (if not bigger) that Scorsese himself?
14 Dominic West (Mance Rayder)
The awesome part of Mance Rayder, a.k.a. the King beyond the Wall, was originally offered to the actor, Dominic West. Unfortunately, West couldn’t commit to the show’s long working schedule at the time and declined what could have been a memorable part of him. Speaking to Huffington Post about his regret, The Wire actor revealed that the idea of leaving his family for so long would’ve been too hard, as West would have been scheduled to spend six months in Iceland for the part.
The British actor already felt bad about having turned them down, as he watched the show’s popularity soar, but he remarked on feeling even worse when his family all admitted to how much they loved the show, “I hadn’t seen it, but my nephew and his father said ‘Gosh, Game of Thrones is the only great show on!’ I felt terrible.” Ouch.
13 Mark Strong (Stannis Baratheon)
Every actor’s nightmare surely has to be getting a huge role in something that ends up flopping, and, unfortunately, for the British actor, Mark Strong, this was exactly the same. Around the time, he was approached to play the highly significant role of Stannis Baratheon in the fantasy series, Strong, had already made plans to star in the 2013 AMC crime drama, Low Winter Sun.
The trouble is, Low Winter Sun didn’t have the best reception from critics and TV audiences and after just one season, it was shelved. Meanwhile, fellow British actor, Stephen Dillane, was offered the role of Stannis and it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the brooding role. Mark Strong has had moderate big screen success with roles in The Imitation Game and Kingsman: The Secret Service, but saying no to the Lord of Dragonstone? That had to suck.
12 Jennifer Ehle (Catelyn Stark)
The actress who plays the late, great, Cat Stark is kind of imprinted on the minds of every Game of Thrones fans since she was involved in perhaps the single most horrific episode ever #StillNotOverRedWedding. It’s pretty hard to imagine anyone other than Michelle Fairley in the role of the strong Stark matriarch, but it was about to be this way before the producers first choice backed out.
The original Catelyn Stark would have been played by Jennifer Ehle, the US actress best-known for playing Elizabeth Bennet alongside Colin Firth’s, Mr. Darcy, in the most popular Pride and Prejudice adaptation. Ehle had even begun shooting the pilot episode of Thrones when she backed out to spend more time with her newborn daughter. Putting her children first at any cost? She definitely sounds qualified to play Cat, but we’re glad things turned out differently.
11 Lily Allen (Yara Greyjoy)
This is a bizarre and downright disturbing casting suggestion if you ask us. For those who may not realize, the actor behind Theon Greyjoy is played by Alfie Allen (who just so happens to be singer Lily Allen’s kid brother). And if you remember the early scenes between these two characters, then that is a big bowl of odd right there.
Understandably, Lily Allen had to refuse the offer of playing Reek’s sister Yara Greyjoy and even though she admits to being a huge fan of the show, it wouldn’t have been right. (You think?). The outspoken British singer confessed: “I would have felt uncomfortable...” We’re with you, Lily. No-one wants a Game Of Thrones role that badly.
10 Gillian Anderson (Melisandre)
That’s right, the actress Gillian Anderson was up for two huge parts in the series and turned both down – she must be doubly kicking herself by now. As well as being offered the part of Queen Cersei, The X-Files and Hannibal actress was also in talks to play another unpopular woman on the show, The Red Priestess, a.k.a. Melisandre.
Perhaps it had something to do with the frequent nude scenes, the themes of witchcraft and sorcery or maybe the fact that Melisandre gives birth to an actual demon at one point in the show— whatever Gillian Anderson’s reasons for turning down the role, we can’t be sure. But as she mentioned in her response to rejecting the role of Cersei, it may be more to do with leaving family behind than nude tub scenes and freaky alien births.
9 Brian Cox (Unknown)
When it came down to it, the veteran actor, Brian Cox, walked away from a role in the show purely because of money. On the grounds that he wouldn’t earn a big enough salary from the part, Cox turned down the kind of opportunity any actor would cherish and probably came to regret it as the series gained in popularity (and big bucks).
Although it’s not known which part he was offered, Brian has since spoken about his “silly, silly attitude." The actor was approached in the early days of the show when the studio hadn’t the huge funds to lure in established names. Cox has since become an addict of the show and has commented that if HBO is still interested, he'll “be waiting for the call." Fingers crossed for Season 8 eh, Brian?
8 Perdita Weeks (Roslin Frey)
The character that may have been able to prevent the Red Wedding from happening, if only Robb Stark was in love with her (sorry, still not over it) was very nearly played by a different actress. The role of Walder Frey’s eldest daughter, Roslin, was originally to be played by Welsh actress and star of The Tudors, Perdita Weeks. Unfortunately, Weeks had a scheduling conflict and turned down a small but memorable role on Thrones, because what better TV publicity than the Red Wedding episode?
Perdita, known for playing Mary Boleyn in the popular Henry VIII drama, was involved in a smaller TV project that ultimately fell through, and when this didn’t happen she tried to win back her rejected Thrones role. Sadly, the show already had their Roslin Frey in the fair and pure-looking, Alexandra Dowling.
7 Tamzin Merchant (Daenerys Targaryen)
Another star of the popular raunchy 2007 drama, The Tudors, had her sights on the role of none other than Queen Khaleesi herself. The role of the mother of dragons and breaker of chains was originally given to and accepted by the British actress, Tamzin Merchant (we know, just let that sink in for a second). Apparently, even George R.R. Martin himself liked her take on Danny (we’ll let that sink in too).
The star of The Tudors and the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice offered no comment as to why she turned down the role, but we’re so glad she did. As much as Merchant seems qualified to play someone like Daenerys, having already played the fierce former Queen of England Catherine Howard in the past, we just can’t and won’t imagine anyone other than Emilia Clarke as Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea.
6 Ray Stevenson (Unknown)
When it comes to starring in Game of Thrones, it’s never a case of being too late to the party (look at Ramsay Bolton’s character, for instance!). No matter how late in the show actors have been cast, they almost certainly go on to make an impact on the show in one way or another. Regrettably, for the actor, Ray Stevenson, though, being offered a role in 2015 meant that it was too late to star in Thrones and he feels pretty silly about it.
The Irish actor behind roles like Titus Pollo in the popular Rome TV series and as Volstagg in the Thor franchise was offered an as yet unknown role in the show, but he declined believing that he “wouldn’t add anything” at such a late stage. Stevenson confessed that he would’ve preferred to be part of the show’s growth even with everyone “getting bumped off left, right and center.” Dunno if you noticed, Ray, but this is kinda how Game of Thrones operates!
5 Jamie Campbell Bower (Night’s Watchman Waymar)
If you’re unfamiliar with the name, you’ll likely have watched something with this dude’s face in it. The young British actor, Jamie Campbell Bower, has had his pick of popular fandom type roles in his short career span— landing roles in everything from Harry Potter and Sweeney Todd to the Twilight saga. Bower also had the chance to add Game of Thrones to his already long list of fandom-magnet projects but quit after a shooting the opening episode.
The part originally offered to Jamie was Waymar Royce, a brother of the Night’s Watch who (if you can’t recall) is the first character to ever be killed on the show by White Walkers in the opening scenes. Having that accolade in itself should have been the reason to stick with it and become a part of TV history. Instead, for whatever reason, Bower quit before his shots could be used in the show and was replaced by Rob Ostlere.
4 Sam Claflin (Viserys Targaryen)
It’s hard to imagine Khaleesi’s slimy brother played by anyone other than Harry Lloyd— he gave the character such a creepy, sniveling quality that made him so easy to hate. But we reckon, given the chance, Sam Claflin could’ve done a pretty good job too. Unfortunately, he turned down one of TV’s most detested characters in favor of small movie roles at the time.
The Brit actor is best-known for his turns as Finnick in The Hunger Games and as Philip Swift in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. He is also no stranger to the Game of Thrones cast, having played Emilia’s Clarke’s love interest in the rom-com, Me Before You. Long before these successes though, Claflin turned down the chance to play Clarke’s onscreen brother in the show.
3 Danny Dyer (Pyp)
The name, Danny Dyer, might not be so familiar to US audiences, but it might have been, had the British actor never turned down the role of Pyp, one of Jon Snow’s closest friends in the Night’s Watch. Across the pond, the cockney actor, Danny Dyer is best-known for gangster flicks and his role in the long-running soap, Eastenders. Reportedly, Dyer chased up the role numerous times before backing down to focus on soap acting instead.
The role of Pyp eventually went to Josef Atlin and this was probably the better choice since Dyer’s super thick, cockney accent might have distracted from things somewhat. We know that Game of Thrones is no stranger to a multitude of British accents, but if you’ve ever heard Danny Dyer speak, you’d see why they dodged a casting bullet!
2 Sam Heughan (Renly Baratheon/Loras Tyrell)
This Scottish actor was originally up for the part of not one, but two fairly major Game of Thrones characters – Renly Baratheon and his ill-fated lover and brother of Margaery, Loras Tyrell. Sam Heughhan is best-known for his role as Jamie Frasier in the mystical Starz drama, Outlander. The show has since gone on to be pretty successful, but one wonders how his career path might have turned out had he accepted the roles of Renly or Loras.
Heughan definitely has a look of Finn Jones, who would eventually go on to play Loras in the show and would no doubt have done a fine job of either character but decided to drop out. He can’t have known how integral these characters would become in the show, but with hindsight, it must be more than a little frustrating to see how big Thrones has become.
1 Izzy Meikle-Small (Sansa Stark)
Some might argue that no matter what the part, a great acting gig is worth pursuing, as it will get your foot in the door and lead to bigger things. Unfortunately, no amount of star status and opportunity can disguise the fact that certain Game of Thrones actors (especially female ones) are asked to take off their clothes, like a lot, and this was the deciding factor for Izzy Meikle-Small when she was offered the role of Sansa Stark.
Compared with the rest of the female cast on Game of Thrones, Sansa’s character may have been fairly covered up at this point (not counting the controversial scene where Ramsay Bolton had his wicked way with her), but the X-rated nature of the show didn’t appeal to the British actress, Small, mostly with the knowledge that her parents would be watching, so she said no to Lady Sansa.