Jan. 20, 2014 at 10:24 AM ET
After the arduous film shoots for "Game of Thrones," star Richard Madden thought, "Nothing's going to be as hard as this."
And then he landed the lead in "Klondike," Discovery's first scripted miniseries, which chronicles the 1896 gold rush in the treacherous terrain of Canada's Yukon region.
Madden — who plays real-life adventurer Bill Haskell — told TODAY that hours into the 55-day Alberta shoot, "I realized that 'Game of Thrones' was an absolute walk in the park. ... This was 100 times harder."
"At least in 'Game of Thrones' sometimes there was a tent to go back to with a heater in it," the actor added. "(But in 'Klondike') you're up a mountain, you know, the tents would blow away. We didn't have anything. ... It was the most difficult thing I've ever had to do in my life."
The shoot was so grueling, Madden said, "I slept in my clothes most nights. I'd get home and have my script in my hand and wake up and have to go back into work in the same clothes — kind of being disgusting."
No wonder he was so exhausted: The actor insisted on doing all of his own stunts. "I always had stunt doubles there that never actually got to do their job because I did it all — which is probably kind of infuriating for them," he said with a laugh.
"I wanted it to be as real as possible — I wanted you to be able to see my face when I fall into the river rapids and not, 'And cut to back of stunt guy.' Or when I'm, like, on fire, I wanted to be set on fire. ... I just didn't want anything to break the wall for people to remember that they're watching a television show. I wanted them to be sucked in and be in it and be with us on that journey. I consider it part of my job."
Even when he was off the clock, Madden devoted his time to training — just as he did for his role as Robb Stark in "Game of Thrones." Of the HBO fantasy series, he said, "We had to horseride. I trained a lot ... to make sure that I looked as if I'd been riding all my life."
But there were no horses in the Klondike. The prospectors there traversed the icy landscape on dogsleds, which Madden learned to ride like a pro. "You have no idea how fast that was because it was on a frozen lake — it was ice, and the dogs can go so fast that the snowmobiles were (going) full speed keeping up with the dogs. It was amazing."
That frozen lake is where Madden found himself on the second day of shooting — and when he felt the most frightened. Not only was he adjusting to the altitude (nearly 6,000 feet), but he was still sinking into his new role — and the ice itself.
"I had to do a whole sequence ... on the ice, which was melting. You felt it would drop a couple of inches when you were standing on it and the whole crew would run back to the shore. But you were the farthest one out because you're the one on camera! So that was terrifying. ... By the fourth (take) I was so physically, mentally, emotionally exhausted ... I got into the back of this car and I couldn't bring myself to sit up. Someone carried me into makeup, (and) I just had, like, full nosebleeds running down my face."
Now that he's learned to race across the ice in a dogsled, navigate raging river rapids and scale an icy mountain, what's next for Madden?
"I don't think I want to film anything in the cold for a while," he laughed. "I think I need to film something tropical on a beach in a bar."
But he's ready to toast the new season of "Game of Thrones," returning April 6, even though it's going on without him.
"I'm super excited," he insisted to TODAY, "because I don't know what's going to happen this year. ... I'm still very close friends with a lot of my cast ... and they're like, 'Oh my God, the scene in episode three is ...' and I'm like, 'Don't tell me anything, please!' Because I just want to enjoy it as an audience member for the first time. ... I'm very proud to be a part of it and I'm very excited to keep watching it."
Meanwhile, the rest of us are very excited to watch Madden in "Klondike," which premieres Monday, Jan. 20 at 9 p.m. on Discovery.