After seven seasons of playing the legendary sea captain Ser Davos Seaworth on Game of Thrones, as well as appearing as the infamously luckless captain of the Demeter in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Irish thespian Liam Cunningham has a confession to make. He doesn’t like boats.
Don’t misunderstand him. Cunningham’s got buddies with boats. Some of his best friends, in fact, captain their own sea vessels. But Cunningham? He gets seasick. When he goes boating with pals he even has to psych himself up because he’s “always expecting to be nauseous soon.” And as he confides with a raconteur’s twinkle, “I like boats best when they’re nailed to a wall.”
Perhaps, then, this is what might make him the perfect choice for playing a guy like Captain Eliot in André Øvredal’s The Last Voyage of the Demeter: Here is a fellow who for all his learning and worldliness quickly sinks in over his head after his shipmates start dying. But they’re not being felled because of a storm or even a plague; it’s because there is a vampire onboard.
“I needed [Eliot] to be a good captain of a merchant sea vessel who I thought was educated enough that he probably shouldn’t have been doing that job,” Cunningham explains. “He probably should have been working in a university or something like that… [So] when Dracula shows up, he’s not the man for the job.”
The production, which is the latest attempt to reinvent a Gothic horror classic from Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment, led to the construction of a nearly full-sized replica of a 19th century cargo vessel, which was the biggest sailing rig ever conceived for the film’s water tank in Malta. And to get in the film’s mindset, the entire cast, including co-stars Corey Hawkins and David Dastmalchian, were required to learn how to work together as a crew, even taken out on a sailboat in one of the more watery parts of Germany. And the way Cunningham tells it, it was an experience to remember.
“We went out on a sailboat with some people,” Cunningham recalls, “and the guys had to learn how to use the ropes and put sails up, and all that sort of thing. So they did ask me if I wanted to get involved and I went, ‘I’m the captain, I wouldn’t do that. But I’m so happy to watch!’” After a knowing chuckle he adds, “So I watched the rest of the cast getting welts and blisters on their hands while I laughed uproariously while drinking a beer on the back of the boat. It was fantastic! Best kind of research I’ve ever done.”
When we sat down with Cunningham, it was some weeks still before the SAG-AFTRA strike commenced, and the veteran actor seemed to be in good spirits about The Last Voyage of the Demeter, because in his mind it’s the first Dracula movie in ages to attempt to return to the genuine horror of Stoker’s 1897 novel. Traditionally, Cunningham doesn’t read the source material (if there is any) for his roles. The way he sees it, “My job is to interpret the script that’s there.” This philosophy even led to him being at occasional odds with the author whose literary masterwork inspired Game of Thrones.
“George R.R. Martin was not happy with me because I hadn’t read any of the books,” says Cunningham. “He kept asking me at every premiere I went to if I’d read them yet, and I said ‘no.’ I just don’t have the attention span for books that look like house bricks.”
And yet, in the case of The Last Voyage of the Demeter, the source which inspired this entire two-hour movie was a mere five pages—and it’s the scariest portion of that book, by far; a grim and doom-laden log written by the terrified hand of Cunningham’s character. “It’s weird because it fires up your imagination,” Cunningham says. “It’s so sparse and you get to use your head to horrify yourself.” He even suggests it gets to an age-old debate at the heart of horror fiction: You either don’t show the monster at all or you show him all over the place. But The Last Voyage of the Demeter, like Dracula, hovers somewhere in the middle. You see glimpses: a silhouette in the storm; a clawed hand around a dying man’s face; a figure standing before Cunningham’s crucifix, which shakes beneath the weight of a torrential downpour… but Bela Lugosi, this ain’t.
Having read the captain’s log in preparation for Demeter, Cunningham “very much” believes Stoker should be counted among the long line of Irish authors whose literature is weighed down by fixations with doom and despair.
“Incidentally, Bram Stoker was born less than a kilometer away from where I live,” Cunningham reveals, “and I pass his house on a daily basis which is a bit insane.” After learning this, he even improvised a line of dialogue in the script about where his Captain Eliot announces his intention to retire after the current voyage across the Mediterranean.
Says Cunningham, “That was one of the reasons I threw in at the beginning of the movie that this is my last voyage and I’m going to buy a little cottage in Ireland at the end of it. It was a little nod to Bram Stoker that I threw in there.”
And it is that fidelity to the dread of Stoker’s text which Cunningham thinks puts The Last Voyage of the Demeter a cut above typical Dracula fare.
“You have to remember the book and all of the Draculas it has produced over [more than a century],” says Cunningham. “It’s a credit to the book that the reinterpretation lends itself creatively to story-making, and it’s fascinating that it’s taken so long to go back to the book and bring out the original ideas Bram Stoker had.”
The Last Voyage of the Demeter is in theaters Friday, Aug. 11.