When HBO began producing Game of Thrones, they faced the same major challenge as any adaptation of a huge literary work: Getting the right cast. In one case it was easy as every fan agreed Peter Dinklage was born to play Tyrion Lannister and he jumped to take on the role. Also, Sean Bean was a great choice for the part of Ned Stark. But other parts were more challenging, finding the right actors, getting their schedules together and seeing who could fit in well. The show has managed to make stars of several actors like Maisie Williams, Sophie Turner and Emilia Clarke. It also boasts a variety of veteran actors who are getting their big break at stardom. It’s hard to argue over the cast as it all worked out to be a huge hit.
But it’s still notable to see people who could have been in the show. The “almost cast” is very interesting, especially with the famous original pilot that was completely retooled and reshot. That meant a few actors who originated roles didn’t get to play them on the regular series. Other times, actors turned down parts for various reasons despite how they could have been pretty good in them. It’s amazing to think of how differently the series could have been for these castings as they would have altered some of the show’s chemistry. It’s also interesting to see how some who missed roles ended up getting bigger fame later. Here are 15 actors who were nearly cast in Game of Thrones and how they could have changed so much of the series.
15 Mark Strong as Stannis
The casting of Stannis on the show has always bugged book readers. The younger brother of Robert, Stannis is meant to be mostly bald with whiskers and a young vibe. Stephen Dillane is 60 with grey hair and a more haggard appearance. Thus, many fans wish the producers had gone with their first pick for the role, Mark Strong. While in his 50s, he looks younger and his bald head better fits the character. The actor is well known as mostly the bad guy in various movies like Sherlock Holmes, Green Lantern, John Carter, Robin Hood and most recently a good guy in Kingsman. By reports, Strong was a strong contender for Stannis but turned it down for the AMC cop drama Low Winter Sun. That ended up a bad move as the show (massively mocked for its over-the-top melodrama) was canceled after one season. A real shame as Strong would have been a better pick for Stannis and a much better career move to help the series out.
14 Brian Cox as Tywin Lannister
If there’s an actor you’d think would be perfect for Game of Thrones, Brian Cox is it. The veteran actor has been a star in movies from X-Men 2 to Troy and the Bourne movies. With his imposing manner, deep voice and gravely face, Cox would fit in well in the series. And the producers recognized that by offering him roles in the early seasons but Cox “stupidly, I turned it down in the early days because they didn’t pay enough money. Now they have more money. And I was silly. I was silly, it was silly, because I’m a complete addict now.” He’s referring to his love of the show and rumors abound over which role he was offered. Some say Robert but others insist he would have been a fine pick for Tywin Lannister and even more imposing than Charles Dance was in the role. Recently, Cox praised his old Deadwood co-star Ian McShane’s one-episode role and some suspect he was offered the part and one hopes Cox can end up getting a role on the show before it ends.
13 Lilly Allen as Yara Greyjoy
It sounded absolutely perfect. Alfie Allen had been a key player in the show as Theon Greyjoy, an adoptive ward of the Starks who ends up turning on them. So when it came time to cast his sister, Yara (Asha in the books), who better than Allen’s real-life sister, Lilly? The popular singer was a hit in England with her records and some acting credits, known for her fun interviews and funny style. The fact she resembled the book version of Yara just made it all the better. The producers did turn to her as their first choice but then Lily read the bit where Theon (not knowing it’s his sister) feels Yara up. She was horrified by that and the tone of the show and declared it just wasn’t for her. Gemma Whelan took the role instead and Lily has stated as much as she loves to support her brother, acting such scenes opposite him just wasn’t for her.
12 Jamie Campbell Bower as Waymar Royce
Somewhere in the vaults of HBO there lies the Holy Grail for GoT fans: The original pilot. It had a totally different tone, mixing in flashbacks, different scenes, a whole new flow and more. It had a very bad reaction from the network so it was totally redone and while it’s been discussed by producers, it’s never been shown in public. Among the changes was the casting of some characters, including Waymar Royce, the knight killed by White Walkers in the very first scene. Originally, it was played by Jamie Campbell Bower, a man well used to epic projects. He played roles in Harry Potter and Twilight as well as a young King Arthur in Starz’s short-lived Camelot. When the role was reshot, Bower was unavailable due to other projects so his part was filled by Rob Ostlere. Bower now stars on TNT’s Will and shows how he might have fit for the unique setting of Westeros.
11 Izzy Meikle-Small as Sansa Stark
This British actress isn’t too well known, her biggest credit being the younger version of Charlize Theron’s character in Snow White and The Huntsman. But that could have changed as Meikle-Small was “neck-in-neck” for the role of Sansa Stark. She seemed to get into how the girl considered herself living a fairy tale life with no idea how things were going to get so bad for her. However, she ended up losing out at last to Sophie Turner who the producers felt better suited the book character. On the one hand, Meikle-Small has said she regrets losing a part that could have made her a star. But she also confesses she may not have been able to handle the dark material and “my parents would not approve” of some of the stuff happening. So Turner seemed able to handle the darker material much better than Meikle-Small would have so the actress shouldn’t feel as bad missing out on the role of Sansa.
10 Jennifer Ehle as Catelyn Stark
As noted, a big change for the show was the original pilot being reshot and redone majorly. It was done to make things easier for viewers to get into and cut away more of the complex backstory of the realm. A big change was the role of Catelyn Stark. Originally, Jennifer Ehle was playing the part. The actress was well known in England, winning a BAFTA for the acclaimed Pride & Prejudice mini-series and a two-time Tony Award winner. Thus, casting her as the warm matriarch of the Stark clan looked good. However, when the pilot was reshot, Ehle took advantage to tell the producers that she couldn’t commit to a regular show. She had just given birth and decided it was better to spend time with her newborn daughter. Ehle has admitted regret as she enjoyed the part but has given credit for Michelle Fairley taking on the role and confesses the Red Wedding would have been too much for her to handle.
9 Sam Heughan as Loras
When GoT was cast, numerous actors auditioned for several roles. Among them was Scottish actor Sam Heughan who read for several roles. Among them were Renly and members of the Night Watch but the most notable was Loras Tyrell. The knight had a good arc defending his sister, fighting in battle and then an affair with Cersei that led to a hard fall. However, the producers decided to cast Finn Jones in the part. But Heughan has no room to complain about missing this role. Today, he stars in that other hit fantasy literary adaptation, Starz’s Outlander. His role as handsome Highlander Jamie Fraser has helped make that show a smash hit and turned Heughan into a huge favorite among female viewers. Heughan himself is open on how, as fun as GoT would have been, it would have cost him a much better part and thus doesn’t mind being an “almost cast” for the HBO series.
8 Gillian Anderson as Cersei Lannister
The idea is daring: Agent Dana Scully as the queen of Westeros. The Emmy-winning actresses has risen beyond The X-Files to a variety of roles in movies and TV such as the acclaimed Hannibal and others. While promoting her British crime drama The Fall, Anderson revealed that she had been offered roles in both Game and Downton Abbey and turned them down. She laughed that her daughter Piper simply could not understand why her mother would turn down any roles in such series. For Game, it’s long felt she was an early choice to play Cersei and the idea of Anderson in the part is interesting. She may be smaller in size than Lena Headey but would back it up with her fantastic talent and seeing her handling the powerful scenes would have this show even more out of this world.
7 Sam Clalfin as Jon Snow
Kit Harrington has managed to make Jon Snow his own. The way this bastard son rises from the unwanted child to a king has been an amazing journey. The producers have expertly used the fan love such as how they planned his “death” knowing he would come back but even the rest of the cast were convinced Harrington was gone for good. He’s arguably the most popular actor on the show now but it could have been different. Up for the part when it was auditioned was Sam Clalfin, the young actor best known as the arrogant Finnick in The Hunger Games. He also auditioned for Viserys, the brother of Daenerys known for having gold poured onto his head. But Clalfin is happy he missed out as he’s much happier as a fan of the show, enjoying it majorly and would have been harder for him to actually be part of it. Still, amazing to think how Harrington almost missed on his star-making role.
6 Tamzin Merchant as Daenerys
The biggest change from the infamous unaired pilot was the key role of Daenerys. Tamzin Merchant was cast in the part as George R.R. Martin was a big fan of hers. He’d caught her as Catherine Howard on The Tudors and thought she’d be great for the role of the Mother of Dragons. She seemed to handle it well with the wig, the complex backstory and even the first nude scene. But when the pilot was retooled, the producers decided to recast her with Emilia Clarke. No reason has ever officially been given and Merchant herself doesn’t want to discuss the matter with no footage of her performance released. Martin continues to champion her but she appears to simply have been a victim of the retooling needed to make the first episode work. A shame but interesting to think how Clarke almost missed on her star-making role and a different look for the Mother of Dragons.
5 Jared Harris as the High Sparrow
To many, getting Jonathan Pryce to play the conniving leader of the Sparrows was a genius casting of the show. The veteran actor was known for playing bad guys in everything from Bond movies to various dramas and brought a great gravitas to the part. However, one could easily imagine Jared Harris being just as great. The British actor is best known for his role as the ill-fated Lane Pryce on Mad Men but slews of credits of bad guys like a sinister scientist on Fringe. He also played Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows and numerous TV shows. With his slow drawl, unique looks and intensity, Harris could have made the Sparrow even more dangerous a figure. He did audition but seemed to lose out as the producers wanted the bigger star in Pryce. It’s not a strange experience as Harris lost out on Westworld for the role played by Anthony Hopkins. Just as on the show, Hollywood has its own Game that costs Harris some prime parts.
4 Ray Stevenson as Robert Baratheon
The veteran actor is well-versed in various major projects. He’s played everything from Volstagg in Thor to Firefly in G.I. Joe Retaliation to Porthos in The Three Musketeers. Stevenson also had experience with HBO epics, having starred on the acclaimed Rome series. He’s spoken about being offered a role early in development and while he hasn’t confirmed what it was, most believe he would have been perfect for the part of Robert Baratheon. While Mark Addy was good as the drunken king, Stevenson could have given the role more gravitas and such. However, he wasn’t sure about the long shooting of four to six months and wasn’t able to make such a commitment down the line. He does seem to regret it as he would have loved being involved in the series from the start. Stevenson did play famed pirated Blackbeard on the Starz series Black Sails and showed he could have been a darker take of this king than what Addy was.
3 Dominic West as Mance Rayder
The British actor is no stranger to HBO. Dominic West became famous playing tough cop Jimmy McNulty on The Wire, still acclaimed as one of the greatest television series of all time. He added credits from 300 to The Hour and known for an intense manner. West was offered the role of Mance Rayder, the imposing leader of the Wildlings who gives Jon Snow a unique education. However, West was reluctant to travel to the distant locations needed for filming and being away from his family for so long. Thus, as much as he hated to do it, he had to turn the part down. He’s open on how Ciarán Hinds did a far better job than he could have in the part and he was better off turning it down. West can currently be seen on Showtime’s The Affair and prefers more down-to-earth roles than the wild time GoT promised.
2 Perdita Weeks as Rosilin Frey
This one is really just bad timing. Perdita Weeks was cast as Rosilin Frey, the daughter of Walder Frey whose nuptials are the kick-off to the infamous Red Wedding. Like some other GoT stars, she broke out on The Tudors as Mary Boleyn and a variety of mini-series. She was offered the role but had to turn it down as she had a commitment to the mini-series The Heretics. But then that show was delayed due to complications with its Romanian shooting setting and ultimately would be canceled. So Weeks raced to the GoT producers to “beg” for the job only to find they’d cast Alexandra Dowling. While the role is small, Weeks clearly hates having to lose out on a role on a show she truly loved for a mini-series that ended up never being made. Looks like bad luck isn’t confined to just Westeros for dark twists of fate.
1 Mahershala Ali as Xaro
For years, this handsome actor was a regular face on television, often in genre shows. Crossing Jordan, The 4400, Treme, Alphas and House of Cards are only a few of his credits. Had things gone differently, Ali could have added GoT to the list. During an interview with Jimmy Kimmel, Ali revealed that he was up for the role of Xaro Xhaon Daxos, the suave banker who takes in Daenerys in the second season only to be revealed as a con man locked in his empty vault. Ali laughs he had the whole thing planned out using chairs as props to help. But when he went into the room, he found just stools which threw the whole thing off. He ended up losing out on the role to Nonso Anozie. But Ali has no room to complain as he rose to huge fame with his Oscar-winning turn in Moonlight. Interesting to think how close GoT came to having an Academy Award winner in their cast.