One of the most popular and widely-watched series of the young 21st century, Game of Thrones has spanned eight seasons and several continents, coming to an end in the spring of 2019 with a shortened, highly anticipated six-episode season. Over the course of nearly a decade, Game of Thrones has totally overtaken the pop culture landscape, inspiring parodies and memes, winning multiple awards (including a whopping 47 Emmy Awards to date), and even spawning its own beer, wine, a cookbook, and somehow, its own Oreos.
As such, the show has boasted an enormous cast over the years. Even though many of the characters didn’t end up surviving the entire run of the show, Thrones‘ mix of established actors and new faces has made its core cast into household names across the entire world. From Emmy winners and nominees to members of the Fellowship of the Ring to Hot Fuzz veterans, here’s why you might feel like you’ve seen these Game of Thrones cast members before (or after) they appeared on the hit show — even when wigs, prosthetics, and heavy makeup make some of them look very different.
As Tyrion Lannister, often dismissively referred to as "the Half-man" or "the Imp," veteran American actor Peter Dinklage has turned out years of impressive, deeply emotional, and even extremely funny performances, even winning three Emmys for the role (in 2011, 2015, and 2018), alongside plenty of other awards and nominations. Tyrion’s biting wit, political wherewithal, and surprisingly generous heart make him one of the most complicated and fascinating characters on television. Thanks to Dinklage’s layered portrayal, he has become one of the show’s most beloved facets, escaping a variety of dangerous situations to serve as the Hand of the Queen to the Khaleesi herself, Daenerys Targaryen.
Dinklage was already well-known before he was cast on Thrones, with his breakthrough role coming in The Station Agent in 2003. His film career has only flourished since, from pre-Thrones appearances in comedies like Elf to post-Thrones roles in everything from Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri to Avengers: Infinity War. However, the world almost missed out on Dinklage’s performance on Thrones — having made a promise to himself to never take offensive "magical dwarf" roles, Dinklage often passed on genre projects for fear that they would take advantage of his stature. However, creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, with some help from author George R.R. Martin, eventually convinced Dinklage, the first and only contender for the part, to sign on. The show and its fans around the world are lucky he did.
One of the primary contenders for the Iron Throne, Daenerys Targaryen, (known by a veritable laundry list of names that range from "Breaker of Chains" to "Khaleesi" to "Mother of Dragons") has grown from a meek young bride to a warrior queen with a massive army and a litter of dragons behind her. Daenerys has given the show some of its most epic moments, and that’s thanks in large part to Emilia Clarke‘s performance, as viewers might guess from her multiple Emmy nominations in years past. As a fearless leader who can do everything from ride a dragon to walk through fire to inspire whole civilizations, Daenerys has become another of the show’s most popular characters, and even a feminist icon.
Clarke rose to prominence in her role as the Dragon Queen, but since she began her turn on Thrones in 2011, the high-profile part has earned her plenty of other opportunities. In 2015, Clarke took her first big mid-Thrones role in Terminator: Genisys, where she played Sarah Connor. She would eventually admit she was relieved by the film’s negative reviews, as she was glad to not be obligated to return for any sequels.
Romance fans, meanwhile, might remember Clarke from Me Before You, where she appeared as a caretaker to Sam Claflin’s disabled character. But her most popular (non-Thrones) part yet came in Solo: A Star Wars Story, where she played the lead character Qi’ra, a former lover of Han Solo.
Though Sean Bean only appeared for nine episodes of Game of Thrones as Eddard "Ned" Stark, his shadow has loomed over the series ever since. The honor-driven patriarch of the high-born Stark family stands as the Warden of the North before being dragged into political intrigue in the Westerosi capital of King’s Landing. There, he briefly serves as Hand of the King to Robert Baratheon, until ending up imprisoned on charges of high treason for (correctly) implying that Robert’s apparent heir, Joffrey, might not be Robert’s legitimate son. Though Ned confesses to treason and brands himself a traitor in order to stay alive for his family, Joffrey impetuously beheads him, setting off a land war between the North and the South.
Bean himself is an accomplished actor who has appeared in everything from Troy to Goldeneye, but one of his most well-known roles was in The Fellowship of the Ring, the first film in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. As Boromir, heir to the throne of Gondor, Bean played an honorable character turned treacherous turned honorable again, as he found himself corrupted by the power of the One Ring before he was felled in battle protecting the rest of the Fellowship. Thanks to the stand-out sacrifices of characters like Ned and Boromir, Bean has become known for dying quickly and spectacularly, making death scenes something of a calling card for this recognizable actor.
As Lord Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish, Aidan Gillen spent seven seasons playing the sneakiest man in the Seven Kingdoms, whose constant conniving and plotting help him rise quite high before his eventual downfall. As the story begins, the main conflict hinges on the alleged murder of Jon Arryn (the former Hand of the King), which it turns out was entirely orchestrated by Littlefinger (a simple brothel owner at the time). Though his supposed love for Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) is what seems to drive Littlefinger’s actions throughout the show, it becomes clear that Littlefinger is out for himself and himself only, and when he tries to turn the Stark sisters against each other in the show’s seventh season, he meets his match, ending up executed in a public court for his many crimes.
Long-time HBO fans likely recognize Gillen from his similar role on another one of the network’s critically-beloved series, The Wire, where he played Tommy Carcetti, a corrupt politician who rises through the ranks of the Baltimore government before ending up as the governor of Maryland. Film audiences across the world were introduced to Gillen in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, where Gillen had a small role as a CIA agent, though he has since said he prefers smaller films to big-budget blockbusters.
Cersei Lannister, erstwhile occupant of the Iron Throne and multiple-time Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, is one of the show’s most complicated and often despicable characters, thanks to her desperation for power and her utter ruthlessness. A conniving strategist who is only out to serve herself, Cersei’s first introduction to audiences ends with the revelation that she has been carrying on an affair with her twin brother for years, resulting in three children that Cersei is passing off as legitimate heirs to the Throne. Mistrustful of her younger brother Tyrion and protective of her twin and lover, Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), Cersei has spent seven seasons waging war against those who rise against her. Though she often comes out on top, she has lost all three of her children along the way, giving viewers an insight into the small piece of humanity inside of her.
Beginning her film career with a small role in the period piece The Remains of the Day, Lena Headey rose to prominence thanks to her starring role in 300 as Queen Gorgo, a powerful leader of Sparta who does everything she can to help and protect her royal husband (she also reprised the role in the film’s sequel). Headey followed up 300 with the role of yet another powerful woman, Sarah Connor, in Fox’s Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, for which she received particularly positive reviews. During Thrones, she also appeared in a leading role in horror franchise-starter The Purge.
Throughout Thrones‘ run, legendary knight Jaime Lannister has gone from one of the show’s most morally compromised characters to one of its most beloved heroes. Known as the "Kingslayer" after turning on King Aerys Targaryen during Robert’s Rebellion, Jaime begins the show by trying to murder a child after said child catches Jaime in a very intimate moment with his twin sister, Cersei. Though his loyalty to Cersei could have been his undoing, he eventually turns his back on his sister in order to help fight against the looming threat of the White Walkers. A venerated knight, Jaime is also knocked down several pegs once he loses his sword hand in the show’s third season. His genuine friendships with lovable characters like Bronn (Jerome Flynn) and Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) — as well as his love for his younger brother Tyrion — have ultimately humanized Jaime, making him a fan favorite.
As Jaime, Danish actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau has brought heart and humanity to a complicated character. Though he has appeared in plenty of Scandinavian films, he was likely best known to American audiences pre-Thrones for his role in 2001’s Black Hawk Down. During his tenure as Jaime, Coster-Waldau has appeared in everything from romantic comedies like The Other Woman (alongside Cameron Diaz and Leslie Mann) to horror films like Mama (alongside Jessica Chastain) and big-budget epics like Gods of Egypt, showcasing his wide range.
Born Sandor Clegane, the heavily-scarred Hound is yet another one of Thrones‘ more complicated characters, at once a murderer and unlikely hero who viewers find themselves rooting for despite his more despicable crimes. Even though he kills a child during the very first season of Thrones, his nurturing side also becomes apparent when he becomes intensely protective of Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) during her doomed engagement to the sociopathic King Joffrey. Eventually, he ends up traveling alongside Sansa’s sister Arya (Maisie Williams), who ultimately removes him from her "kill list" (even though she does leave him to die after he loses a fight), and continues his travels until he joins up with the magical Brotherhood Without Banners. Fearful of fire after his savage brother Gregor "The Mountain" Clegane burned him as a child, the Hound has a firm idea of right and wrong (despite some of his actions). Many viewers are hoping he will exact revenge against the Mountain, with fans referring to the anticipated fight between the brothers as "Cleganebowl."
As the Hound, Scottish actor Rory McCann has risen to worldwide fame, though viewers may have seen him in a few films before he took the role on Thrones. Aside from a supporting role in 2004’s Alexander alongside Colin Farrell and Angelina Jolie, McCann’s best-known role besides the Hound is likely as Michael "Lurch" Armstrong in Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz, the second film in the "Cornetto Trilogy."
The Lannister family is one of the most power-hungry and conniving clans in the entire universe of Game of Thrones, and Tywin Lannister, the patriarch of the family, is no exception. Played with cold perfection by Charles Dance, Tywin is constantly looking out for the Lannister family and will stop at nothing to keep them in power. He’s clearly a shrewd strategist and warrior, ultimately helping defeat enemy forces attacking King’s Landing during the Battle of the Blackwater and being named Hand of the King to Joffrey. However, Tywin both enables Joffrey’s cruelty and shows nothing but cruelty to his own son, Tyrion, only putting up with Tyrion’s presence because he carries the Lannister name. This makes him one of the show’s obvious villains — and fittingly, he meets his end at Tyrion’s hands.
A role like this requires a veteran actor, and Dance fits that profile perfectly — the established British actor even earned an OBE in 2006 thanks to his work on both stage and screen. Since getting his start with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Dance has appeared in everything from the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only (not to mention playing Bond author Ian Fleming in a biopic) to genre blockbusters like Alien 3 to prestige television dramas like Bleak House (for which he received an Emmy nomination). Aside from Thrones, American audiences likely spotted him in his supporting role in 2014’s Oscar nominee The Imitation Game alongside Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley.
As Margaery Tyrell, the kind yet conniving flower of House Tyrell, Natalie Dormer brought a calculated, entertaining, and fascinating presence to Game of Thrones, with many viewers wondering if her manipulations would earn her a seat on the Iron Throne. Originally married to King Robert’s brother, Renly Baratheon, Margaery ends up married to both Baratheon-Lannister bastards, Joffrey and Tommen (though her marriage to Joffrey is literally short-lived, since he dies at his own wedding). A generous spirit who genuinely cares for Sansa, Margaery is a formidable contender against Cersei, though she eventually meets her end when Cersei blows up the Sept of Baelor at the end of the show’s sixth season.
Before her turn on Thrones, Dormer had already appeared in plenty of projects, but one of her most well-known was as yet another calculating queen: Anne Boleyn in the first two seasons of Showtime’s The Tudors. After her character’s death, Dormer went on to appear in Captain America: The First Avenger as Private Lorraine as well as in Madonna’s W.E. as the Duchess of York. During her run on Thrones, Dormer took on another high-profile role when she appeared as Cressida in both installments of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay. Since Thrones, she has earned critical acclaim for projects like Amazon’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, proving that Dormer has a bright career ahead of her.
When it came time to cast Olenna Tyrell, the "Queen of Thorns" and imposing matriarch of the House of Tyrell, a formidable actress like Dame Diana Rigg could be the only choice. A wise and intimidating high-born lady with an especially biting wit (and a strong preference about when cheese should be served), Olenna, like many other characters on Thrones, would do just about anything to protect her family. In fact, she orchestrates the murder of King Joffrey once she realizes what kind of man he is.
After losing her entire family in the Sept of Baelor thanks to Cersei, Olenna sides with Daenerys Targaryen, but is eventually cornered by Jaime Lannister, who offers her a gentle death by poison out of sympathy. Not content to go quietly, Olenna tells Jaime just before her death that she is responsible for his son’s murder and asks him to tell Cersei, in perhaps her most powerful moment of the entire series.
Rigg was extremely well-known before her multi-season turn on Thrones, earning her fame as Emma Peel on the iconic ’60s British TV series The Avengers before becoming a Bond girl (specifically, Tracy Bond, 007’s only wife) alongside George Lazenby in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. That gained her exposure across the pond and paved the way for several projects to come, including her eventual role on Thrones.
As Robb Stark, the eldest son of the Stark family, Richard Madden brought an honorable presence to the show. Of course, Game of Thrones isn’t exactly known for rewarding honor, and Robb’s death during the infamous Red Wedding is one of the series’ most notorious moments.
Up until his death at the end of the third season, Robb serves as one of the show’s moral centers. Nevertheless, he brings his fate upon himself (in a way) by going back on a de facto engagement to a daughter of Walder Frey, one of his family’s allies, when he falls in love with Talisa (Oona Chaplin), a foreign-born healer. Ultimately, his marriage costs him his life, and he, Talisa, and his mother Catelyn are brutally slaughtered at the wedding of his uncle, Edmure Tully, to one of Frey’s daughters. The scene remains powerfully upsetting, thanks largely to the devastating performances from Madden and his onscreen mother, Michelle Fairley.
Madden’s breakthrough role was in Thrones, but after his on-screen death, he racked up a number of new opportunities. After parts in Medici: Masters of Florence (alongside Dustin Hoffman) and Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Cinderella as the Prince, Madden made a departure from period pieces and fantasy by playing a DJ in Netflix’s Ibiza opposite Gillian Jacobs. Most recently, he gained international acclaim for his leading role in the BBC series The Bodyguard, for which he won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Television Series (Drama).
Since Thrones premiered, one of the hearts of the show has been Jon Snow, the assumed bastard of Ned Stark who joins the Night’s Watch in the first season in order to help protect the Wall from the approaching White Walkers. As the series has progressed, so has Jon. After joining forces with the Wildlings beyond the wall, he is murdered by his own men, but is eventually revived to fight another day alongside Daenerys Targaryen.
At the close of the show’s sixth season, it’s officially confirmed that Jon is not Ned’s bastard at all, but the royal son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark (Daenerys’ brother and Ned’s sister, respectively), who married in secret before their deaths. Not only does this make Jon the top contender for the Iron Throne, it also makes him Daenerys’ nephew, which is pretty awkward considering that they consummated their newfound relationship at the end of the show’s seventh season.
Kit Harington has mostly focused on Thrones thus far, but he’s had some other notable roles. He lent his voice to the well-received animated film How to Train Your Dragon 2 and re-teamed with HBO for both the limited series Gunpowder as well as the raucous sports mockumentary 7 Days in Hell. In early 2019, Harington also made his Saturday Night Live hosting debut, enlisting several Thrones co-stars (including his real-life wife, Rose Leslie) for his monologue and showing bold comedic chops throughout the episode.