Liam Cunningham Has a Few Thoughts

Born and raised in Dublin, Liam Cunningham speaks in Joycean streams of consciousness that often have no discernible beginning, middle or end. He talks with his hands and taps his feet, salting his anecdotes with friendly F-bombs, catching his breath only long enough to take a puff of his distinctively scented e-cigarettes. They aren’t very popular on the set.

“They smell like if you took the cardboard that comes with a dry cleaned shirt and held it over a burner,” said D.B. Weiss, who, with his production partner David Benioff, has given Cunningham choice roles in “Game of Thrones” and now “3 Body Problem.” A heady new science-fiction series, based on a trilogy of novels by the Chinese author Liu Cixin, “3 Body Problem” premieres Thursday on Netflix.

In it, Cunningham plays Thomas Wade, the no-nonsense spy master who leads a team of physicists chosen to save the world from a very slow-moving but ominous alien invasion. Unlike Davos Seaworth, the emotionally vulnerable knight Cunningham played in “Thrones,” Wade is gruff, bellicose and secretive, an enigmatic authority figure whose back story left even Cunningham with questions.

With Benedict Wong, right, on “3 Body Problem,” Cunningham plays a no-nonsense spy master who leads a team of physicists.Credit…Ed Miller/Netflix

“So little about him is known, and everybody you talk to that’s seen this thing is like, ‘What’s his story?’” Cunningham said on an Austin hotel patio during the South by Southwest Film Festival, where the series had its world premiere. “He’s got the U.N. Secretary General on the end of the phone, and people do what he tells them to, and you go, ‘Who’s giving him this authority?’ And the funny thing is, I never felt the need to talk to the boys” — Weiss and Benioff, that is — “they never offered, and I never asked, which probably is not a good thing to say, I should probably say to everybody, ‘Oh, I know everything about him, but I’m not telling you.’”

Breath. Puff.

Cunningham, 62 with salt-and-pepper hair and bright blue eyes, came to acting relatively late in life. He worked as an electrician until he was 29, spending a chunk of his 20s in Zimbabwe bringing electricity to rural communities. “You know the song ‘Wichita Lineman’?” he asks, referring to the ’60s country hit by Glen Campbell. “That was me, except I was the Zimbabwe lineman. For an Irish, pale-skinned elf from Dublin, it was mind-blowing.” For a time he worked in a national park, “the size of Belgium and with 16,000 elephants.”

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