Note: The following article contains spoilers for “House of the Dragon” Episode 5.
When a “House of the Dragon” audition opportunity came along for actor Fabien Frankel, he had no idea that the character he was up for – Ser Criston Cole – would become so pivotal to the drama at King’s Landing.
“I didn’t know anything about it,” Frankel said across a Zoom from the U.K. after being asked by TheWrap if he knew he was up for “Game of Thrones” prequel “House of the Dragon” when the opportunity came around. “I just knew the character I was auditioning for was called Ser Clint. And so I was like, ‘Oh, here we go.’ And the scenes — I actually have yet to ask Ryan [Condal] or Miguel [Sapochnik, both Season 1 co-showrunners and executive producers] where that scene came from, whether it was just written by them for the purpose of auditioning, or whether it’s from something else. But yeah, I couldn’t find any indication of [it] existing in any world prior to this audition.”
When Frankel, a graduate of the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (“Stranger Things’” Joseph Quinn was an upper classmate), landed the part of Ser Criston, he found similar mystery. He was playing a character who was – at least in the realm of the television franchise – as yet unknown.
Ser Criston Cole, the common-born and son of Lord Dondarrion’s steward, as viewers learned in the first episode, had no known ties to the mothership’s major families. And that presented a sort of freedom in Frankel’s approach to the character.
“There is no one really like him in any of the original show or in the books – you know, this kind of looming figure that appears out of nowhere and all of a sudden is right at the heart of this whole thing,” the actor said. “I felt very excited to get the opportunity to bring that to life.”
In Sunday’s installment, he did more than bring him to life – the actor, whose first professional role was in the Emilia Clarke-starring “Last Christmas” (“she was lovely,” he said), had a breakout episode as the quietly and charming knight went through a maelstrom of emotions after the woman he’d given his heart to, and who he asked to run away with him – Princess Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock) – refused because as her father’s heir, she couldn’t consider that option. She also suggested they could carry on their relationship in secret, something Criston thought equated him to a “whore.”
“Cristen Cole, up to that point, is made up of a number of quite short scenes and the idea to get to do some more long form acting opposite Milly [who plays Rhaenyra] was very exciting to me,” he said. “And, you know, it’s one of those things, it’s the boy asks girl to run away with him. It’s like a pretty iconically classic scene in the history of cinema. There’s been so many of them done in so many movies, and TV shows forever. So I felt very much like, ‘Well, I’m excited to do one of them.’”
The let down, which happened on the boat back from Driftmark, where Rhaenyra was betrothed to Lord Corlys Velaryon’s son Laenor, was a game-changer for the actor’s character. A few scenes later, back in King’s Landing, Ser Criston Cole spilt blood at a wedding (certainly an entry for one of the “GoT” spinoff’s most shocking moments) as the Dornish knight killed Joffrey (Solly) in a very Mountain/Prince Oberyn-style gruesome way after the man had a quiet chat with him about keeping their relationships with their respective lovers — Rhaenyra and Laenor — secret.
Preparing for that scene was left to the moment since Ser Criston — throughout the banquet — has few, if any, words.
“I don’t think there’s anything premeditated about him killing that character,” Frankel said. “It’s a completely reactionary thing that happens very impulsively, and so there was very little I could do to prepare that scene, if anything at all.”
For much of the wedding scene, Ser Criston was silent, but on edge as he watched Rhaenyra dance, drink and eat at the bash to celebrate her wedding.
“It was just being there and imagining what kind of a circumstance it would be to be stood at the wedding of the woman that you love, merely a few days after having made love with her and asked her to run away with you, and then having to stand there in front of all these people, essentially on display as a representative of her power, and watch this whole thing unfold,” he added of filming those moments.
Having committed murder, betrayed his Kingsguard celibacy vows, and lost the woman he loved, Ser Criston was left in a desperate place by the end of the episode. But, just as the character was about to plunge his dagger into his chest, Queen Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey) came by where he was near the godswood and creates the interruption he needed to stop. And to Ser Criston, that moment meant “everything,” Frankel said.
“It means life rather than death. That’s what that means. She arrives 10 seconds later, he’s dead. It’s like someone picking you up from the lowest point of your life and giving you hope that there is a life beyond what you knew with Rhaenyra,” he said. “And obviously, is very indicative of the kind of person that Alicent is, that of all the people and after the events of what’s just happened at the wedding, she feels it necessary to go and save him to some extent.”
And it’s a real turning point – quite literally – for the character in the days ahead.
“I’ll say this: Think carefully about what that moment would mean were you in those shoes – i.e. the moment of Alicent stopping him from killing himself. That’s all I can say, really.”
Frankel learned from the day he was cast that sometimes, it’s best to say nothing.
“I’m still handcuffed for the rest of eternity, but you know, pretty nice handcuffs to be in,” he laughed.
“House of the Dragon” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.