Interview by Andrew Davies-Cole
Fantasy fans are an impatient lot.
Not content to simply wait for news of Game Of Thrones’ second season, some were eagerly “fore-casting” its return before the clouds of season one had even cleared.
Fansite Winteriscoming.net earmarked London-based actor Gwendoline Christie in a shortlist of actors who could play the role of warrior maiden Brienne of Tarth months ahead of auditions actually taking place. One particular enthusiast emailed her agent to alert him to the part.
“Because of the stuff I’d seen online I’d already talked to my agent about it,” Christie reveals. “But he did say to me: ‘Someone’s emailed me about this – what’s going on?’
“I suppose that’s the power of the books – people feel so passionately. I thought that was lovely.”
She certainly must stand out at the auditions. One might be forgiven for thinking Christie – whose six foot three frame was once crowned by waves of blond hair – would have it made in the business from the very beginning. Few of her peers can match such a striking appearance. Yet she’d baulk at the suggestion she’s had it easy.
“It’s difficult, because many people can’t see past my height, and it’s been very difficult to be considered for parts simply because I’m six foot three.”
Raised in a small hamlet at the foot of the South Downs, tales of Sussex’s famous son Sir Laurence Olivier served to inspire Christie as she grew up.
“I graduated in 2005 from Drama Centre London, and had a very complex but wonderful training there,” she says. “I got a First as well… which made my father proud, and that pleased me.”
Pleasing too was her recent coup in being cast as master swordswoman Brienne who first turns up in episode three of the new season of Game Of Thrones, which UK viewers will get to see next Monday at 9pm on Sky Atlantic.
“I wanted the part so very badly because from reading the books the character was so like elements of myself and the kind you’d always want to play. I’ve not come across a part like this before, whereby the complexities of being an extremely tall woman are explored. So I decided I had to go all out for it.”
Previous stage roles – including Mrs Hubble in a 2005 RSC adaptation of Dickens’ Great Expectations and as the Queen of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline (opposite Tom “Loki” Hiddleston) in 2007 – helped hone her craft, as did a small role sharing scenes with future Academy Award winners Heath Ledger and Christopher Plummer in Terry Gilliam’s film The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus. Beyond these roles she’d also been mentored since drama school by actor and author Simon Callow.
But the lengths Christie went to ensnare the part in Game Of Thrones took her into new territory.
“I wasn’t someone who went to the gym, but a big part of this character is her physicality,” she says. “She’s not just tall, but big, broad, phenomenally strong. She’s extremely athletic, a master swordswoman and horse-rider.”
So she got some training in to prepare for the audition.
“Over six weeks a dear friend of mine worked with me: I started working out and lost a stone and a half,” she reveals, adding: “We did cardio-vascular exercises and I began to do yoga regularly. I stopped drinking, changed my diet entirely, and when I learnt I had a meeting coming up, I started kickboxing. I couldn’t find any sword-fighting places…but I read all of Brienne’s story throughout the books in detail and started watching the series.”
Christie felt tapping into the lifeblood of the character – discovering her psychology – was vital too.
“Because the character is very masculine, I changed what I wore. Because I was trained as a dancer – which helps feminise you if you’re extremely tall – I deliberately started wearing very unisexual clothing. I’d always been someone that’s had long blonde hair, wore lots of make up, dressed up and wore high heels, and this part was very far away from that.
“I’m the type of person that has to make those kinds of external changes to get in touch with and increase my own masculinity.”
After impressing at auditions, her metamorphosis continued.
“Once I got the part I worked out with a trainer called Phil Learney, a strength and conditioning expert,” she says. “I put on over a stone of muscle, working out three or four times a week. He tailored my workout specifically so I’d develop the kind of body structure of someone that rode horses and did sword-fighting.
“I was given extensive horse-riding lessons, so that not only was I confident on the horse, but I could ride. And a brilliant stunt coordinator called CC Smith taught me how to fight and swordfight. My physicality was altered so I was much heavier in the way I walked, less upright and a lot more masculine.”
It’s not the first time Christie has been involved in a process urging onlookers to ask themselves questions about femininity. Over a period spanning her college years and more, she modelled for photographer Polly Borland (whose other subjects have included Nick Cave, Germaine Greer and The Queen). The resulting shots – collectively known as “Bunny” – found Borland reassessing Bunny Girl iconography using disturbing, makeshift costumes that do anything but titillate.
Despite Christie’s determination to take a cue from Lady Macbeth and “unsex” herself to better achieve the task in hand for Game Of Thrones, the loss of one part of her old persona was a particular blow, even as the shoot on location in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter loomed last year.
“When they cut my hair off, the transformation was complete,” she says. “I really, really miss it. When I had it cut I was a good girl on set – I went to my dialogue session and my horse-riding session – then I went to my hotel room, shut the door and sobbed for two hours.
“I found it deeply upsetting. It’s such a minor thing, but I think women tie-up so much of their femininity in their hair. I certainly did – being six foot three and having that gone and playing such an androgynous character, I felt I’d lost so much of the person I identified as me and who I knew. It felt like a bit of a death.”
It was a sacrifice Christie was prepared to make for the hordes of readers eager to see Brienne brought to life on screen.
“I wanted it to be as real as possible and I didn’t want to let down the huge amount of people who I’d discovered had really taken this character to their heart.
“My perception of Brienne is that she’s an outsider,” Christie explains. “She’s someone who’s been ostracised from society because she doesn’t fit in. She’s had to develop an outer strength that often matches or supersedes that of any man in order to be treated with equality.
“She doesn’t want to get married. In the novel A Feast For Crows she describes the numerous times her father tried to marry her off: she tells each of her suitors ‘I will marry you if you beat me at sword-fighting,’ and every time she manages to win. Yet she’s internally romantic.
“The character is so brilliant because it draws up so many issues about gender stereotyping, about equality, and about people’s personal prejudice.
“She’s a woman that is amongst men all of the time; she doesn’t properly sleep at night because she lives in a constant climate of fear about being raped. Imagine what that must do to a woman – having to maintain one’s outer strength for that reason.
“And she’s shouted at, abused, harangued, told she’s ugly, mocked and humiliated. But she has an overriding sense of honour and what is right, and that’s what makes her such a brilliant character to play: that her outer is so stable and masculine, but inside she’s so fragile.”
The part is testament to Christie’s claim the long-bemoaned dearth of strong parts for women is gradually being addressed.
“I see things changing a little. It’s heartening to see actresses like Kristen Wiig, who wrote Bridesmaids: someone who’s not an archetypal young blonde ingénue, and who wrote a film about a group of women outside considered social norms, and starred in it. I think she’s over 35 and is a sexy, intelligent and funny woman, and it’s empowering to see that.”
Christie’s not only enthused by the great roles being created, but also the new ways in which actors might hear of them. Being linked to the Brienne role online by fans she’d never met is a case in point.
“It’s so interesting, when you think about how actors used to just have the telephone at home. As a poor actor you’d be told: ‘If you only pay one thing: pay your phone bill.’ Simon Callow’s book Being An Actor describes literally hanging around the phone, waiting for it to ring.”
Now, though, it’s more likely she’ll be stopping for autographs, rather than “waiting for the phone to ring”.
“I’ve been recognised once before, but I don’t really see it happening,” Christie says. “There’s such a big transformation that takes place; I look very different in the series to how I look in life. I’ve always been stared at because of my height, but I just think it’s not going to happen to me. I can’t imagine why anyone would be bothered…is that a bit naïve?”
Including repeats and On Demand ratings, last season’s Game Of Thrones episodes averaged more than 8 million viewers apiece – and that’s in the US alone.
“Naïve?” Perhaps a smidge.