First Game of Thrones, now Star Wars — Gwendoline Christie swaps shoes and scoffs scrambled eggs with AA Gill
“I want my eggs scrambled!” Gwendoline barked down the phone cosily, with the demanding emphasis on “want” and “scrambled”. The next morning, she’s at my door, towing a pink suitcase big enough to keep a dismembered body in.
God, this is heavy. What have you got in it? “Oh, you really, really don’t want to know,” she says with conspiratorial menace, and stalks into the kitchen. She’s come from Northern Ireland, where they’ve been filming the next season of Game of Thrones. “I’ve been fighting for three whole days, three entire days without ceasing or desisting. Really vicious, vicious, up-close, thuggish fighting.” Who with? “I can’t tell you. I could, but I’d have to maim you.” Who won? “Again, it would be the last thing you ever knew.”
If you’ve seen Gwendoline Christie, 36, as Brienne of Tarty (predictive spelling), the lance lady, the double-handed knight-cracker with the searingly solemn demeanour, then you won’t have seen what is, in fact, her defining characteristic. And if you watch, as you undoubtedly will, her role in the new Star Wars film, in which she plays “I would tell you, but I’d have to lightsaber your gizzards out”, you probably won’t see it, either, because she’s a baddie. Gwendoline’s most expressive mannerism, the act that dwarfs — and I use the word with judgment — all her other accomplishments, is her laugh.
Laugh is too small and commonplace a word for what happens to Gwendoline in the grip of mirth. Everyone has a laugh of some sort, but they are mere snippets and giggles compared with the gurning Tourette’s, the exoplasmic expression of lunatic amusement, the plosive animal opera that is exorcised out of Gwendoline’s maw. People who have met her won’t say, when asked to describe her: “Oh, the etiolated thespian with the looks of a vengeful goddess and the body of a Spartan’s sweaty dream.” No, they’ll say: “The girl with the laugh.”
The laugh appears to have little or no humorous trigger. It can manifest, like Mr Punch’s sausage, at random and surprising junctures. First, her mouth unhinges like a python’s, or a child’s musical jewellery box, or a child’s musical jewellery box made out of a python. The top of her head flips back and the mouth gapes, showing rows and rows of perfectly white teeth. The tongue flickers, like a small, hairless, blind creature, suddenly surprised in some unseemly practice. And from the shining depths of her gullet comes a noise: a stammering, hammering, cackling of hilarity, a chattering, grating, mechanical, stuttering bullhorn that surfaces and flickers up and down the tonic scale like the steam organ of some macabre funfair. At the same time, her eyes, now peering out from behind her ears, whiten and glare with a gimlet psychopathy, a ferocity that is a challenge and an accusation. And as soon as the laugh has escaped, it rushes out of the room like a tormented soul and ceases. And then the only thing in the whole world that you want is to hear it again.
Suave men become capering fools trying to make Gwendoline laugh. If someone wants to make a megamovie, all they have to do is cast Gwendoline as a comic character and get her to laugh a lot. It’s an Oscar-worthy guffaw, a billion-dollar tintinnabulation. My twins come in to join us for scrambled eggs. Gwendoline laughs at them and they stand and gaze, agape with wonder.
I mention this hilarity at such length because it is a character tell, a defensive laugh, the laugh of someone who has not had a lot to laugh at, but has needed the confidence-building deflection of unkindness that laughter can give you. What was childhood like? She gets quiet and serious. “I don’t talk about it, not specifically. Game of Thrones has such a lot of marvellous, marvellous fans, but they can get quite obsessive and I do like to keep things private. Let me just say: boarding school and Sussex, and it was pretty dreadful.” And all of a sudden she wells up and tears fall down her cheeks. “Oh dear. It’s all the fighting, sorry. But it was tough.”
She started off dancing and trained in rhythmic gymnastics. “I loved it, loved the physicality of it. But then I started to grow. I was 5ft 11in at 16, and then they said I couldn’t dance any more because I was too big. It was all I wanted to do. I still love the physicality of acting. I adore the fighting, the rhythm and the movement.” What made you start acting? “I just saw people do it and I knew.” So she went to drama school. What was that like? “Well, of course they kept telling me I would find it very hard and that I would never find work.” How was that for the confidence?” The head opens like a manic clown and the ninja laugh jumps out to stab the thought.
Her break came when Declan Donnellan cast her as a Shakespearean queen. “What size are your feet?” she asks. I’m a 42. “Ooh, same as mine. Swap shoes.” The rest of the interview is done with Gwendoline wearing my desert boots and me wearing her navy and white kitten heels with a little ankle strap. Actually, they rather suit me. She puts up a photo on Instagram and chuckles.
Acting as a profession is relentlessly sexist and unfair. It barely needs saying. It simply doesn’t care that leading men can be tiny, pocket-sized lotharios with carnival heads, but that a tall woman is a terrible threat, an awful problem: oh, that’s too difficult, we can’t get around her, she’ll make the precious, delicate, vain little men look, well, short. “When I read the books of Game of Thrones, I thought they were fabulous because there were so many women in leading roles. All sorts of women, not just whores or princesses, but princesses who were whores. Evil women. Brilliant, clever, strong women. Women who could be mothers and murderers. And I thought, ‘Well, obviously they’ll cut all that out when they make it for telly.’ But they didn’t, and it is the one action drama that is led by women. There is a lot of sex, but they also get to kill people and make decisions, and be dictators and pick flowers, and have dragons and get their tits out.”
Is there a boyfriend? “That’s one of those things I don’t talk about. It’s my private part.” It’s actually Giles Deacon, the designer. It’s all over the internet. She wears his frocks. He’s also tall and perhaps he wears her armour.
How do you feel about clothes? “Well, when the show got very popular, I had a moment of wanting to dress down, to drab it up and to be less noticeable” — and she lets the laugh out for a spin about the room — “but actually I love dressing up. I’m a bit of an exhibitionist. I used to get stuff from charity shops, going around asking if any giants had died. But now I can get things that fit. I like dramatic things. I want to look a part. Now, can I go and watch TV with the kids?”
An hour later I find them wrapped in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. Reluctantly, I give her her shoes back. There’s a wall in my study where the children measure themselves. Naturally, being twins, it’s quite competitive. There, high above my height, is a new mark, something that says, “Gwendoline, 6ft 3in: someone to look up to.”
Thanks to Virgin Who Cannot Drive for these additional photos! I hope to get more in HQ if there are any available.