Shelf Life: Isaac Hempstead Wright

The Game of Thrones star shares five books that have shaped him, from pondering the price of fame to discovering London's secrets to laughing his way through a long-haul flight.

What people don’t realise about being on TV is that only about 25 per cent of it is filming and acting. The rest is sitting around waiting for things to happen. On the Game of Thrones set, I used to find myself twiddling my thumbs or wasting hours on my phone. Then I realised I had this luxurious opportunity to read. My Mum’s bookshelf is where I discovered Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932). To be fair, it’s where I found most of the books on this list. 

'I’m going to tell my new university: things could get a bit hectic...'

Last year I was about to board a really long flight and I saw Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis (1954) at Waterstones in Heathrow. I loved it right away. It’s about this university lecturer who wanted to be a bit more, but didn’t quite manage it and is struggling to come to terms with that. It’s a masterclass in comedic writing. Everything goes as wrong as it possibly can! You’re despairing for poor Jim. 

It made me think of my own experience of going to university, which feels quite distant now. I was only there for a short amount of time [Hempstead Wright briefly studied maths at Birmingham University in 2017]. It wasn’t the place – or the course – for me. I’m going to try again this year though, this time in London to study neuroscience. I can’t wait. But I am going to send an email in advance preparing them for the fact it might get a bit hectic. I want to try and make sure I’ve got an email address that isn’t publicly available on the university system. That was the problem last time: everyone emailing me saying: ‘Hello three-eyed raven!’

I still get recognised a lot, and I think that’s because of where Bran ends up in the finale. I went and bought a coffee the other day and the guy said: ‘there you go, Your Grace’. I thought: I'll take it! At least they’re not shouting abuse at me. It was extraordinary and quite touching how strongly people felt about those characters. They were furious about the fact that this fictional person murdered another fictional person in a fictional universe. Stories are powerful, I guess.

Isaac Hempsted Wright for Penguin 2019
Photographed for Penguin in London, August 2019 by Ryan MacEachern.

This next book is called The London Nobody Knows by Geoffrey Fletcher (1962). I picked it up just as I finally moved to London after filming season eight. I wasn’t working and had all this free time, so I used to take myself off to my local park in East Dulwich, sit on a bench and read this. 

It completely changed the way I looked at London. Geoffrey Fletcher was an architect and an artist who had a real fondness for old, eccentric Victorian buildings. The book turned London into a living museum for me; every bus journey became a guided tour. Like in my park, there’s some beautiful old ironwork I’d always just walked straight past. Or down the road from the Savoy Hotel, there’s a lamp that’s powered by using fumes from the sewers. Cool stuff like that. I just found it had a really quaint, comforting writing style that I know I will come back to again and again.

'Could I have made it as a professional pianist? I did get a scholarship, but I wasn't quite good enough'

Franz Liszt is my favourite composer, ever since I started playing the piano when I was a child. His pieces are all fabulously difficult to learn and I never got through a whole one, but I’d always enjoy trying. When I was at school I didn't really go out because I lived in the middle of the countryside, so I'd often just sit at home on a Friday night listening to Liszt's music and reading about him and feeling a real closeness to him. 

The great thing about Franz Liszt: Musician, Celebrity, Superstar by Oliver Hilmes (2016) is that it’s really accessible. It’s very good at documenting all the small details about his life, and Liszt had a pretty wild ride: being a child prodigy, love affairs, joining and leaving the church, hanging out with Victor Hugo and Balzac… he was a big figure in 19th-century Europe, and his music mirrored his own life, from all this flashy, exciting material when he was young to really quite dark, modernist stuff as he grew older.

Could I have ever made it as a professional? I did get chosen for a scholarship when I was a teenager that could have led to becoming a concert pianist, but I just wasn’t quite good enough. I was a very poor sight reader so it took me too long to learn any of the pieces. Unless you’re like Listz and you’ve been playing since you were four years old and you’re an absolute virtuoso, you haven’t really got a chance. But I’ll always play for pleasure.

Isaac Hempsted Wright for Penguin 2019

My Mum and my girlfriend are the big influences on my reading. They’ve both given me a big pile I need to get through. My favourite time and place to do it is probably on a plane. I end up doing a lot of long-haul flights, and there’s just something about being in the clouds, completely entombed and away from the outside world that’s the perfect time for getting engrossed in a story. 

I do write a little myself, and an autobiography is something that’s been in the back of my mind. I’ve had quite a unique experience over the past ten years which maybe people will be interested in. But I think I really need to live a bit more first.

Isaac Hempstead Wright was talking to Sam Parker.

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