Game of Thrones: Joe Naufahu goes from Glasgow Warriors to Emilia Clarke

Joe Naufahu
Joe Naufahu at a Game of Thrones premiere in 2016

"It was like a rugby team, the Dothraki rugby team."

Joe Naufahu had lights in his eyes, an iconic actress in front of him, and a backdrop of the Essos desert. His past life as a Glasgow Warriors centre could not be further away.

It was through turmoil and heartache that Naufahu, a New Zealander of Tongan descent, found salvation in fitness and more bizarrely acting, a pursuit that landed him a recurring role in Game of Thrones, the television epic which is brought to a conclusion this weekend after eight series.

Naufahu tells BBC Scotland of his tale, including nights out in Glasgow, the agony of retirement at the age of 26, and how he ended up in Spain as a protagonist in the battle for the Iron Throne.

'Emilia Clarke's standing in front of me'

The third instalment of the final series of Game of Thrones was apparently the most-tweeted-about television episode in history. In America alone, it is reported that more than 17 million people have watched the army of the dead march on Winterfell.

Naufahu landed a recurring role on this mother of all shows courtesy of a self-shot tape, sent off to the producers and consigned to memory until a call from his agent and the summons to attend a beard and wig fitting in London.

Emilia Clarke
Emilia Clarke, centre, while filming in Spain

He played Khal Moro in the sixth series, a horse-riding warlord of the savage Dothraki, monstrous fighters who maraud, butcher and pillage their way through the desert. A "terrible man", as Naufahu puts it.

Khal Moro met a suitably grotesque end after three episodes when Emilia Clarke's character Daenerys roasted him alive inside a temple - but only after she had been brought chained before him in her guise as heir to the throne and a Dothraki captive.

"Emilia was lovely to work with, very humble and very funny," Naufahu says. "She's a very big star, so she enjoyed her privacy when we weren't shooting, but at the same time, she was just really nice and hung out with us. That first scene where I was in my temple and Emilia was brought up to me, that was probably the most memorable one and a bit of a wake-up call - you realise, 'man, I'm on the set of Game of Thrones'.

"I don't think I realised how big the show was until I had my first day on set in Spain, the cameras everywhere, the amount of extras, Emilia's standing in front of me shackled up and it's like, wow, okay, let's go. You get flown around the world, it's a huge operation. It was like a rugby team - the Dothraki rugby team. We had guys from England, France, Brazil - all good guys. No egos, no-one above anyone else.

"One minute you're staring down the barrel of retirement from the thing you love, the next you're on a set in Spain. Crazy."

Glasgow Warriors tweet

'I'll come back and have a turbo shandy'

Naufahu was a bruiser of a centre reared at the Canterbury Crusaders with age-grade caps for New Zealand under his belt. Glasgow were a pretty modest operation when he arrived at Hughenden in 2002, playing in front of little crowds but still holding their own in the old Celtic League.

He was never able to leave the mark he wanted. A degenerative knee problem saw to that. Still, Naufahu loved the city and the people, the fervour of the fans, and the parties on the cobbles of Ashton Lane, typically propelled by a hideous-sounding concoction of lager and Smirnoff Ice known as a turbo shandy.

"I will come back one day and have a turbo shandy - you don't get older and wiser," Naufahu, now 41, says.

"The weather made for a different style of rugby to what I was used to back home, where there's generally a faster track and opportunities with defences being freer, but I had mad respect for the boys playing and coaching in Glasgow. For me, it was just a case of not enjoying the rugby so much because of injuries.

"As rugby players, you have a pre-built community that you walk into. You don't really have to go outside it, but at the same time it's a little bit of a bubble and when it pops you're like, 'what do I do now?'"

Joe Naufahu in action for Glasgow
Naufahu played for Glasgow in the old Celtic League, but injuries limited his game time

'When you can't play, you don't feel like you're enough'

Naufahu loved lifting weights, but the cold reality that he would never play again left him feeling ashamed of picking up a dumbbell.

He went back to New Zealand and worked on construction sites while reviving the adolescent interest that led him to Game of Thrones, and opening a gym with no mirrors in Auckland.

"When you can't play anymore, you don't feel like you're enough, you don't want to go to the gym," he says.

"I'd done a little acting as a teen. At the time, there weren't many Polynesian actors in New Zealand, so I got a small part when I was injured.

"I never went to formal drama school or whatever. But what acting did was give me a creative outlet which had been closed when I lost the ability to play rugby."

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