Game of Thrones star Liam Cunningham: 'Africa was the reason I became an actor'

The Hot Zone (Photo: Showmax)
The Hot Zone (Photo: Showmax)


In 1984, 22-year-old electrician Liam Cunningham left his hometown, Dublin, for a job in Zimbabwe. 

"I came back from Africa at 25," he said in an interview with Post Magazine some 30 years later. "Having been with 16 000 elephants, looking after the national park, which is the size of Belgium - when you go back to driving a yellow van around Dublin, it just doesn't have the same glamour. I was kind of bored after the expanse of Zimbabwe and was looking for a distraction. I saw an ad in the back of a newspaper for an acting school. I was looking for a hobby, but I completely fell in love with the process of acting. And hence you find me talking about Game of Thrones, 20-odd years later. Africa was the reason I became an actor." 

"I was treated with so much kindness and generosity by the people of Zimbabwe that the continent is in my heart," Liam, aka Ser Davos, told Screen Daily. "If I'm offered a job that's going to be filming in Africa I take it very seriously because I love going to the place and I love filming there."

Liam recently visited the continent with humanitarian organisation World Vision, travelling to refugee camps in Uganda, and has worked on several projects shot in South Africa, including Black Butterflies, Anner House, and The Hot Zone, National Geographic's scripted drama that is now streaming on Showmax

The Hot Zone, is "the closest thing to a living horror film you can come across," says Liam. The Game of Thrones actor stars alongside Golden Globe winner Julianna Margulies (The Good Wife) in the mini-series, which is based on the best-selling non-fiction thriller of the same name by Richard Preston, about an outbreak of the Ebola virus in the U.S. in 1989.

Although it is a dramatisation, the six-part series is inspired by real events. U.S. Army pathologist Colonel Jaax, a wife and mother of two, had one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Every day, she donned layers of protective gear to enter the Biosafety Level 4 lab at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), where she handled the world's deadliest viruses. One day in 1989, she tested a sample from a research laboratory in Reston, Virginia, and quickly feared they were dealing with one of the deadliest viruses known.

What followed was a nightmare of accidental exposures, the discovery that there were no protocols in place for dealing with an outbreak, and bureaucratic in-fighting that saw Jaax forced to put her career, and her life, on the line to prevent an outbreak of the Ebola virus.

In addition to its two main stars, The Hot Zone's cast includes Emmy winner Topher Grace (BlacKkKlansman), Critics Choice winner Noah Emmerich (The Americans), People's Choice nominee Robert Sean Leonard (House M.D.), James D'Arcy (Agent Carter, Broadchurch) and Grace Gummer (Mr. Robot). 

If the scenery in the Kenya flashback scenes looks suspiciously familiar, that's because it's very close to home. The story follows two timelines - the 1989 U.S. incident, and the horrifying outbreak in Kenya almost a decade earlier, which makes up the back story of Liam's character, Wade Carter. The Kenya scenes were filmed in South Africa in 2018, mostly in and around Durban and Richards Bay, so keep an eye out for cameos from South African actors Neil McCarthy (Jozi-H), Bohang Moeko (Ring of Lies), Sive Mabuye (Scandal), Sylvaine Strike (Black Sails), Joe Vaz (Good Omens) and Camilla Waldman (Wild at Heart).

Liam is passionate about the importance of this story. In an interview with Red Carpet Report T.V. at The Hot Zone's L.A. premiere, he said, "People try to protect themselves when an enemy is invisible, like this virus. They don't want to give themselves bad news. Also, when it's halfway around the world, it's somebody else's problem. Unfortunately, we know from this story that, in 1989, Ebola was unleashed 10 miles from the White House. And even though our story is in 1989, [2019] is the second-worst outbreak of Ebola on record. It's happening now. So this is really timely, this story. It's a terrific drama, but if we can also kick a couple of people up the backside and get them moving on this because we have the power to contain it, to help the people who are suffering from this appalling thing. But if it gets into a central population, big towns and cities ... it goes rampant." 

With the ongoing Ebola outbreak in the DRC, the series is a timely arrival to our screens, and we're not the only ones who feel that way. Its U.S. release drew 7.5 million viewers when it aired in June last year, making it Nat Geo's most-watched scripted series ever, with viewership numbers 350% up from the channel's previous six-week average. It topped acclaimed scripted series Genius: Einstein, as well as MARS, and claimed second place (after The Story of God with Morgan Freeman) as Nat Geo's most-watched series of all time.