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Interview: Game of Thrones’ Carice van Houten

Anastasia Bernhardt talks to Game Of Thrones' Lady in Red, our July cover girl, ahead of its dramatic final season...

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As Carice van Houten returns to our screens as Melisandre, ‘The Red Woman’, in the final season of Game of Thrones, Anastasia Bernhardt speaks to the Dutch actress about the Iron Throne, fan-girling and becoming a parent for the first time…

Carice Van Houten

Who would you most like to see on the Iron Throne?

Samwell Tarly but there’s no chance in the world he’s going to make it up there. You just want good to conquer evil. Otherwise, Jon Snow wouldn’t be so bad.

Do you share any character traits with Melisandre?

I’ve never played a character that’s so far from myself. It was enjoyable to do something really different but at the same time it was harder to tap into her psyche. In other roles, I’ve been able to draw on my own insecurities, fears, obsessions and doubts. I found it easier to play her as her character developed and the cracks began to show. There’s a moment in the last season when she found out that she was wrong all along and that was one of my favourite scenes to play.

Who was the funniest person on the set of Game of Thrones?

Liam Cunningham [who plays Davos Seaworth]. Most of my scenes were with him. He’s a total goofball and he drives me nuts sometimes, but we’d done a film together before, so I knew him well enough to tell him to shut up. We have a really good relationship, although we hate each other in the show. He has a great sense of humour, which is really uplifting when you’re filming difficult scenes. Filming days are full on but what was amazing was how professional the set was, it was like stepping into a well-oiled machine. When we were shooting it didn’t really feel like we were filming a hit show, you are never really aware of the impact of something will be.

What drew you to the role in the first place?

Firstly that it was made by HBO, so I knew it would be of a really high quality. Secondly that Melisandre was a very strong female character. Unfortunately a lot of roles for women are still quite uninteresting. There are still many characters where you have to play ‘the girlfriend of so-and-so’. Of course we’ve made some steps in the right direction but as much as I feel like we’re progressing I do read some things and feel like we haven’t come very far at all. We shouldn’t give up though.

Carice van Houten

Carice van Houten plays Melisandre in Game of Thrones

Which character would you most like to play? 

The cliché, of course, is to say that I would like to play Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But that is because it’s a great, layered and complex role, I think that’s what serious actors really want. Finding a character like that is unfortunately very rare, especially in film. There’s a lot of great progress in TV shows but it feels a little bit like we’ve gone back in time in the film industry.

What TV series has had you hooked?
I was a super fan of Breaking Bad. I was really obsessed with it. I wanted to know everything about it, I was in love with all the characters. I met some of the cast and took selfies with them, like any other fan would. I feel very embarrassed about it. I haven’t met Bryan Cranston [who played Walter White] but I met Aaron Paul [Jesse Pinkman] briefly at a party in LA. It was really funny because he had a similar reaction to me because he loved Game of Thrones, it was so weird. He had just finished filming Breaking Bad, and I remember him saying he was really sad that it was over and how lucky I was that I was still working on Game of Thrones at that time. I’m really going to miss the people when it’s over. I never dreamed that I would be part of a show like that. I feel so lucky.

Since giving birth to your first child, Monte, last year, has your perspective on life changed at all?

You basically become an open wound when you become a mother. All the clichés are true. News about children dying in war zones makes my stomach turn – not that it didn’t upset me before but now it makes me feel physically sick. I didn’t really anticipate it would make me feel that way. I guess that intensity of feeling was something I was curious about. Not just the anxiety but that unbelievable feeling of love. It feels very similar to falling in love. I’m so aware of the impact that a child’s upbringing has, which is a little scary because you want to do it right, but you also have to have some faith in your child because otherwise you become too precious. Ultimately, I have a newfound respect for my own parents and parents in general. 

Has becoming a parent changed how you approach certain roles?

I’ve played many mothers and although I wouldn’t necessarily change how I portrayed them, it would make it more difficult to film certain scenes. For example, there’s a really horrible part in season five of Game of Thrones where Melisandre sacrifices a little girl with the permission of her parents. Even though at the time I knew how horrific it was, it is only now that I’m a mother that I can really understand the impact that it must have had on the audience.

Is it difficult bringing up a child in the public eye?

Yes, it’s something I feel a bit torn by. On the one hand I honestly do think that I have a really cute baby (I have asked other people to make sure I’m not being too biased!), so I have become one of those mothers that take 25,000 pictures of their baby every day. Like everyone else I feel like posting them all, but at the same time I feel uncomfortable putting up pictures of Monte online when he doesn’t even know what Instagram is. I’ve had a lot of fun putting up photos of his outfits everyday but I don’t photograph him in the clothes. Of course, it’s such a first-world thing to do – he doesn’t care about what he wears, it’s just for me. I don’t think it’s easy for a child to have two parents in the public eye [her partner is the Australian actor Guy Pearce], so anything we can do to make his life as normal as possible is important to us.

Carice Van Houten

Carice wears dress by The Vampire’s Wife and heeled sandals by Christian Louboutin

In addition to acting, you also record music. Who are you influenced by?

That’s really difficult because I have such eclectic taste and music is the biggest love of my life. I was raised with it and for a long time I couldn’t be in a room where music wasn’t playing. My influences range from Kate Bush to the Beach Boys and classical music to Jeff Buckley, Van Morrison, Nina Simone and David Sylvian. I’m a bit of a groupie for this one Irish band, Villagers. They’re really great musicians. I’ve waited in front of their stage doors for them before.

Best live show you’ve seen?

Oh, so many: Tom Waits, Fleetwood Mac, Paul McCartney… I wish I could have seen Queen and I’d love to see Rufus Wainwright live. But lately I’ve been really inspired by dance – not as in the music genre. There’s a company in Holland called NDT – Nederlands Dans Theater – they are one of the best in the world. I’m in awe of their talent and their beauty. I just can’t get enough, I saw them twice in three days a few months ago. I danced a lot growing up – ballroom, Spanish, Latin – though I wouldn’t have said I was particularly good, especially now I’m so stiff and my fitness level is below zero. But when I watch NDT it lifts my soul because they don’t force you to think certain things, you can just let your mind wander.

So you can act, you can sing, you can dance… what can’t you do?

At one time I would have said cooking – in the past people have told me that my food tastes like shit – but I finally learnt to cook when I turned 40. Now I can make a chicken that’s so tasty that even people who are interested in food like it. I’m terrible at maths. In exams in Holland you get scored one out of ten (ten being the highest), I got a 1.2 for my maths exam. Also – as you would say in Dutch­ – I have a bit of a hole in my hands, i.e. I’ve got a bit of a spending habit.

So what has been your most extravagant purchase?

When I was in theatre school in Amsterdam I would sometimes smoke weed. I remember one time I was really stoned and spent my student loan on a huge Kermit the frog that could embrace me with his big, long green arms. I just had to have him… I still have him. Another time, around Christmas, I was on a bus – this was when you could still smoke on board – and we stopped at a petrol station that had really random stuffed animals. There was a bear wearing a Christmas hat that wiggled and sang carols. I felt really bad for him being stuck in that petrol station, so I had to save him. I bought big batteries for him because I thought he would be unhappy if he stopped moving. I remember waking up the next day and thinking, ‘What the fuck did I buy?’. It was at a time when I really had no money to spend.

What should we do on a weekend in Amsterdam?

There are great museums but you should just go for a stroll. I used to like the city centre with all the canals but it’s so touristy now. All the areas that used to be shabby over the canal are coming up now and are more interesting. What I would recommend is that you don’t rent a bike, because it’s really annoying and dangerous if you can’t cycle properly.

What are you working on at the moment?
There are a few things in the pipeline but nothing firm. I want to start working on my own project again, I really want to make a film or a series about Greta Garbo. That’s a work in progress but I’ve wanted to do it for about six years. It’s not a billion-dollar idea, it doesn’t take place in a spaceship and it doesn’t feature a foxy lady in a leather suit and a handsome guy with grey at his temples. But that doesn’t matter. It will come when the time is right.

Carice Van Houten

Carice as Melisandre in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones season seven returns exclusively on Sky Atlantic on 17 July.

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