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Gwendoline Christie: Natural Born Warrior

Game Of Thrones is about to make Gwendoline Christie a global name. Stylist meets the surprise star of the television phenomenon making geeks of us all…

Words: Debbie McQuoid Photography: Rankin

The woman I’m about to meet can break a man’s nose with her elbow. I’m not an advocate of violence in any shape or form, and, in real life, neither is she, but I’m very excited about asking her how it feels. That’s because, like 5.6 million of the population (never mind the half a million plus of you that have bought the box sets), I’m obsessed with Game Of Thrones. And the woman I’m about to meet is Gwendoline Christie, who plays the most amazing, kick-ass and, on a serious note, progressive, female character on television at the moment, Brienne of Tarth.

For those of you (fools!) not yet familiar, the Emmy and Golden Globe-winning show is based on a series of epic fantasy books, A Song Of Ice And Fire, written by George RR Martin and set in the world of Westeros, where seven families are competing for the throne. There is sex, violence, politics, double-crossing and more sex. The first book, A Game Of Thrones, was published in 1996 and Martin is currently writing the sixth. They’ve sold more than 15 million copies worldwide and have been translated into more than 20 languages. In short, it’s a titan.

Charlize Theron, Mila Kunis and Eva Longoria have all outed themselves as fans, countless websites are dedicated to the show (check out westeros.org and winteriscoming.net), and its Facebook page has over five million ‘likes’. If, and when, you start watching yourself, it will be the mix of politics and sex that will have you hooked. Like Coronation Street mixed with The West Wing on steroids and set in a magical medieval world.

But it’s Brienne who has fast become a favourite for fans and critics alike. A female knight who makes her debut in the second series, Brienne’s size and strength strip her of traditional femininity. Martin attributes many male traits to her in his books; she’s a behemoth, ungainly, plain even. She’s fiercely loyal, propelled by good and untainted by sexual desires. But she is also unmistakably sensitive to her plight as one of society’s outsiders. When Jaime Lannister questions her gender, she is affronted. She wants him to know she may be a warrior but she is also all woman. And Christie was born to play her.

A Sussex native, Gwen had an impressive theatre CV and a small role in Terry Gilliam’s 2009 film The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus when Thrones fan sites backed her as their choice to play Brienne. A friend gave her the heads up and she read the books and fell in love with the character. Utilising social media, she started tweeting how much she wanted it. At 6ft 3in, she lost a stone in weight, gaining it back in muscle. She chopped off her long wavy hair and began dressing androgynously. But by this stage the stars had already aligned. The casting director for the show had seen Gwen in her debut theatre role – the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Great Expectations in 2005 – and decided she was right for the part.

We meet in London’s Renaissance Hotel for breakfast, round the corner from Gwen's King’s Cross flat and I’m afraid my first impressions are boringly obvious. Flip me, she’s tall. She even seems taller than she actually is. This has mostly got to do with how gloriously proud she is of her height. No stooping or shrinking. The heels are on and the chin is high. It’s very impressive.

Folding herself into her chair, she orders a latte and spends three minutes stirring a cube of sugar into it while she… flirts with me. But her confidence isn’t unnerving; she’s too warm for that. Bursts of filthy laughter are accompanied by excitable drumming on the side of her chair. At one point, she accuses me of playing footsy with her. [Our feet touched but it was an accident, I swear]. She’s enthusiastic about nearly everything. Thrones, her most recent work on another Gilliam project with Tilda Swinton, Christoph Waltz and ‘possibly’ Matt Damon – “attractive because he has a brain” – and, of course, her Stylist cover shoot with Rankin. The only time she doesn’t answer directly and passionately is when the subject of a relationship comes up. “I’m not talking about it. Sorry,” she says, hiding behind her latte. “Do you mind? Why? What have you heard? [Laughs] I’m married to my work…”

And then she’s off again; shrieking with laughter, winking at the waiter and philosophising about Shakespeare in the same breath as professing an everlasting love for Nando’s…

Photography: Rankin. Dress, £865, Gareth Pugh; cuff £145, Fleet Ilya; collar, £85, Paul Seville

Is it true that you could have been a professional gymnast if you hadn’t been an actress?

At a time. From the age of seven, I just loved dancing. I did ballet, tap, and rhythmic gymnastics. I grew up in the countryside and it was really remote. I had quite a strict upbringing, so it was an opportunity to be totally free; to express myself really.

How strict an upbringing are we talking?

You were expected to be quiet and intelligent. It was vaguely Victorian. I’m quite jealous of people who ask their kids, “What do you want to do?” The idea of having that kind of liberty as a child is quite exciting. But instead I did lots of dancing and was obsessed with it. I lived and breathed it. I loved the discipline of dancing coupled with the total freedom of letting one’s spirit go. And then I had a back injury when I was 11 and had to stop.

How did that happen?

I was over coached. But also I was growing really, really fast. My body decided that was it; no more. And I was told I could never dance again.

That must have been really devastating for an 11 year old to hear.

Yes, but somehow when I examine it now it was easy; I decided I would be an actress instead. I knew I’d get to wear frocks, dress up, wear make-up, and high-heels, or not… And then the obsession switched to classical works and Shakespeare.

How did your parents react when you said you wanted to be an actress?

Rather disappointingly my parents were incredibly supportive. Particularly my dad… I can’t begin to tell you the levels of support my father gave me. He’s no longer with us unfortunately, but he worked in sales and marketing. And my mother is a housewife. Acting couldn’t be further from the existence I knew, but that’s what I wanted. I was a very shy child but also precocious. I watched Marilyn Monroe in Bus Stop and found her performance utterly captivating and knew that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted excitement and to taste life. I read endlessly – Freud, Shakespeare and Vogue. [Laughs]

You studied at Drama Centre London which has a tough reputation…

It was really tough, but I received a lot of education and it married the two things I’d always loved; classical work with the method approach. It was hard though; 12 hours a day, seven days a week, I wasn’t getting any sleep. I was told I was rubbish all day, every day; I wasn’t going to work, I was too tall, etc. But really that prepares you for the amount of rejection you get on the job. It’s relentless.

You say that, but your first job after drama school was the RSC’s Great Expectations.

I was so, so lucky. It was directed by Declan Donnellan. It was a little part but he is, in my opinion, one of the best directors in the world. That was an extraordinary experience.

You mentioned your height, and obviously that’s been a huge focus of the press you’ve had so far…

[Laughs] Yes. I love being objectified.

Actors tend to be small. Did you think, ‘Crap, everyone around me is actually below average height and here I am over 6ft’?

I don’t think I ever took it into consideration. Plus there is something of the Noughties about me. I think it’s important to shake up the norm and people’s perceptions of what beauty is. But it’s not always been amazing. I found it so frustrating, particularly at the beginning, because I would be told, “Sorry love, you’re too tall.” At one stage I was like, “I’ll give this another six months and if this persists, I’ll become a nun”.

A nun? What’s the appeal there?

You don’t need to worry about wardrobe options in the morning; you don’t need to worry about make-up. Food is slops and it’s supplied for you. All they ask for is a dedication to God.

It’s still an option. As a student in 1998 you collaborated with Polly Borland on her collection of photographs, Bunny, where you appeared mostly nude. Have you always been that comfortable with your body?

At the time it was exciting, it was the opportunity to share my ideas and for that work to be realised by someone. And I felt that it would help me come to terms with my body. It’s only in retrospect that I’m shocked I did it. It was giving so much of one’s self and I wouldn’t want to do that now.

Photography: Rankin. Dress, £1,765, Alexander McQueen; harness, £580, and cuffs, £145, Fleet Ilya; shoes, £535, Camilla Skovgaard

That’s youth for you…

Exactly. I was at drama school and it was the first time I had an awareness of my size and the negative connotations. Before then you experience bullying and whatever, you experience all those things, but you’re not aware that the way you’re born and the way you look could inhibit your opportunities of achieving your ambitions and desires and dreams. I also wanted to challenge notions of femininity and what it is to be a woman. Unfortunately that didn’t happen [with Borland], but it might happen in the future…

You are! Brienne in Game Of Thrones is hardly an archetypal model of femininity.

Yes. It’s really vitally important to me the way women are portrayed. As someone who has always felt at times pretty genderless because of my size, it interests me to challenge ideas of prejudice and femininity and what it is to be a woman. It’s still something that I don’t have all the answers for but I would like to make a bit of a difference; do something, anything, that causes people to have more sense of equality.

Do you find as you become more successful, more public, that you’re judged for what you do? That you can’t just take an acting job with no consequences?

I never wanted ‘a job’. I’m actually far too lazy to ever have ‘a job’. I can’t really see much purpose for me and my own existence other than being in service for an idea that is greater than me. It happens to be that I’m interested in equality and femininity and women. Combining that with my work justifies my existence.

You seem born to play Brienne.

Oh my god, it’s what actors dream of; to find a part that fits like a glove, that you can totally connect with. But also, as we discussed, it’s the most extraordinary opportunity to portray this kind of outsider that hasn’t really been explored much, particularly on mainstream TV.

You say you are lazy but you put a lot of work into changing your physical appearance before you’d even been offered the part didn’t you?

But I don’t think I’ve ever wanted anything as much. I was getting quite comfortable. I was even developing a bust – all those jacket potatoes and bars of chocolate were paying off – and then I lost a stone in weight. I started working out, going to yoga, I completely changed my eating habits and didn’t drink for about two months, just in the service of this part.

Was it incredibly exciting to be able to lose yourself in a process like that?

Not just lose myself but expose myself as well. It was frightening. Imagine; I used to have really long blonde hair, always wearing heels, lots of make-up. I had been someone who was highly feminised and had chosen to look that way, partly because I was 6ft 3in but also I was into that aesthetic. I knew it had to be stripped away. I knew this would be an important part not just for my work but in terms of my own development, because I would be confronting elements of myself that I didn’t want to confront. It was actor’s vanity and personal vanity. To see yourself displayed as unattractive, large, masculine, it’s quite tough… But I know it’s just perspective. A social conditioning that causes us to view these traits in a woman in a negative way, but it’s still hard to watch myself even now.

You’re a huge hit on fan sites and social media. Do you read anything about yourself or the way you’re perceived?

I’ve taken a back step from social media. I don’t think it’s really healthy. I’d rather not know. And it’s completely self indulgent. Although I did tweet yesterday. I tweeted QVC about an item from my friend’s [Giles Deacon’s] jewellery line. [Laughs] I did say I like to make a difference… I’m dedicated to feminism and changing people’s perspectives about prejudice, and tweeting QVC. But as for comments, I couldn’t really cope with anything negative.

I’m going to quote from a fan site now: “I’m very attracted to this woman right now. Very, very attracted. As in I need her in my bed RIGHT NOW.”

What?! [Laughs] Did you write that? Well, maybe as a little treat I might consider it…

How does it make you feel when you hear that sort of adoration?

It’s not me though, that’s the thing, it’s her. It’s Brienne. But that’s thrilling. It’s challenging what’s attractive and what counts as femininity. It’s completely enlightening.

In the books your character continues to have more prominence, so have you signed up on a seven-year contract with HBO?

I don’t think I can say anything. I can’t for a multitude of reasons but also I wouldn’t want to spoil it for fans. Anything can happen…

Especially in the world of Game Of Thrones. In the first few episodes there were seven beheadings, incest, loads of sex; it’s quite a world that you’ve entered into. Do you enjoy the madness of the script?

Oh yes. It’s got so many elements that I love; not just the violence and sex. It’s a brilliant political thriller. It’s full of really extraordinary characters in situations where the stakes are very high, and they’re desperate to achieve what they want by whatever means possible. Plus I just love the blood and guts of it.

Photography: Rankin. Dress, £17,650, Paco Rabanne (pacorabanne. com); cuffs, £345 (left), £450 (right), both Hervé Van der Straeten

It’s a very physical role. For a start, the armour you wear is real, isn’t it?

God yes, that’s heavy. It’s mostly real. I do all my own stunts and come away with bruises and scratches. After one scene I was absolutely covered in bruises all down one leg and up one arm. But it’s worth it, it’s quite fun. I enjoy knocking around with the boys.

Is it quite liberating knowing how to fight?

It really is. I trained in combat, sword fighting, horse riding… It’s empowering knowing that I can break a man’s nose with my elbow.

You’ve been working very closely in the last series with Nikolaj Coster-Waldau [who plays Jaime Lannister]. What’s that been like?

He is an extraordinary thing. You know, our relationship off-screen is very similar to the on-screen relationship. He is a tormentor and likes to tease. And he likes to treat me completely as his victim.

Are the cast close in general?

Yes. It’s really fun. There are so many brilliant actors. Michelle Fairley [who plays Catelyn Stark] is a superb actress. Some of them have become rather good friends. I haven’t really been able to explore Belfast [where filming takes place] just yet but there seems to be an intense energy about it. We sometimes go to The Spaniard – they do good rum cocktails. I imagine it would be quite like school, if school had ever been a pleasurable experience. You know, you go to your horse riding lesson, or sword fighting lesson and do a bit of rehearsing, and then you all go out at weekends together. I go to Nando’s with the boys from the cast. Joe Dempsie, Finn Jones – who is known as Fun Jones – Alfie ‘Alien’… Lovely Richard Madden and Kit Harington, Natalie Dormer… We go to the cinema or bowling. I’m really, extraordinarily crap at it. There are lots of outbursts of emotions and me thrashing around on the floor.

In your London life, you have a lot of fashion designers as friends; Giles Deacon, Henry Holland…

I’m very lucky that those people are my friends. I’m lucky because they’re all amazing people. They’re brilliantly talented and incredibly smart and working extraordinarily hard in a very, very difficult industry. Pretty much all my friends are creative.

Do you get a lot of attention when you’re out?

Yes [laughs]. But that’s because I’m 6ft 3in and wear heels. People have always come up to me and asked how tall I am. I’ve had it since I was 14. But now they ask if I’m in Game Of Thrones. That’s what I’ve always wanted my whole life, to be recognised as an actress and not just a really tall person.

The third season of Game Of Thrones starts on Sky Atlantic HD on Monday 1 April at 9pm. Seasons 1 and 2 will also be available On Demand.

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