On fighting with bears, bathing with Jaime and being the best swordswoman in Westeros
By Alan Sepinwall Wednesday, Apr 2, 2014
Gwendoline Christie as Brienne of Tarth in “Game of Thrones.”
There are certain characters on “Game of Thrones” who could probably have been played equally well by a few dozen actors across the UK and Europe. Then there are the ones who, because of certain traits given to them by author George R.R. Martin, needed a very specific combination of talent and physical appearance. Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister is obviously one of those, and Gwendoline Christie as Brienne of Tarth is another. At an imposing 6’4”(*) with icy blonde hair and large blue eyes, Christie makes an impression, and is absolutely convincing as the stoic warrior who keeps beating up all the men who underestimate her.
(*) Tall actresses often wear flats to downplay their height, but when I interviewed Christie, she was wearing heels, making her even taller, and one of the few actors of either gender I’ve ever had to look up at.
Christie and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau had some of the best material of “GoT” season 3, as Brienne and Jaime Lannister endured hardships, torture, attempted rape and a very nasty scrape with a giant bear on their way to Kings Landing. A few weeks ago, I spoke with Christie about the challenges and joys of playing Brienne.
I have to ask, first of all, about working with the bear. How did you get along with Bart?
Gwendoline Christie: Bart the bear was so professional. What’s interesting is that you see this huge really cuddly looking bear and you almost forget that it’s a live animal that could kill you. It could kill you in a moment. But he was so professional. He was there in his trailer. He had been there for a week beforehand so he could be adjusted to the temperature and where he was and we shot it in L.A., ’cause that’s one of the places where we could get close enough to the bear. And he had to have country and western music playing at all times to keep him calm. And when he stepped out of his trailer everyone had to give him a round of applause. Whenever he did anything right or wrong you had to give him a round of applause and say, “Good boy!” When he got a little bit testy, or if he did something particularly well they’d give him spray cream in a frying pan. I asked David and Dan, “When can I start getting that kind of treatment?”
And how did they respond?
Gwendoline Christie: Yeah, that’s what happens all the time on set now from there on in. Country and western music, rounds of applause, cream in a frying pan. But he was absolutely extraordinary. They’d worked for months to work out exactly what the routine should be and what was possible and they’d worked for months on these movements.You’re not easy to double, I imagine, so was that you down there with the bear?
Gwendoline Christie: Well, there was one moment where it wasn’t me. I had wanted to do that bear scene for such a long time. At the end of filming season 2, I went up to David Benioff and said, “Please do you think you’ll do that scene with the bear?” And he just started laughing and said, “Oh, the thought of asking Bernie, our producer, to get us a live bear.” And I said, “Will we do it?” And he didn’t say anything. But when I was reading the books prior to even getting the part, when I got to the bit, I thought, “What, she’s fighting a bear? Could it get any better than that?” So I was very excited to do it. I really wanted to do it and as ever HBO facilitated that moment. And to make it as real as we possibly could do as safely as possible. I was entertaining the prospect of training with the bear but they wanted to keep me safe. So there is a moment, and it’s a very powerful one, where the bear hits Brienne, which results in these claw marks on Brienne’s neck and she really hits the deck. She really goes down. And that is Bart’s trainer Smitty, and the poor chap had to be placed in a blond wig and a pink dress. And when I first got onto set, it’s a very strange experience, because I look at, “Is that me?” or “No, I’m me, that’s someone else.” And obviously Nikolaj enjoyed that a lot. But he had worked for a long time in the dress as well so that Bart wasn’t shocked by the texture of him in the dress, et cetera. So that was very funny. But I recall Bart that day may have been a little bit tired. And obviously he’s being prodded all day and being made to do things and he’s just a big bear. So there were three hits and after the third hit Smitty said, “That’s it now. That’s it now,” because it was hard. And I saw it and I really gasped because it was hard and painful. It was real in that moment. But to be lucky enough to be involved with something like that, to be involved with shooting with a live bear and being facilitated to make it as real as possible was a highlight of my career to date.
After season 3, Nikolaj talked to me about the dynamic that the two of you had, because you had to work so closely together for such an extended period, and how you sort of developed this interesting sense of humor. I asked him to give me an example, and he paused for a long time, then said that I should ask you about that.
(Christie does as close to a spit-take as you can without having drunk anything.)
What is the sort of joke that the two of you tell to each other on the set?
Gwendoline Christie: That. What he did is a prime example. That’s the best example he could have given. He’s hilarious and he’s a lot of fun to work with. And he loves to tease me. And he is also very dedicated to the work and very invested in making it as good as it possibly can be. And I’m very privileged to work with someone that has such integrity and such ability. And I’ve learned an awful lot. Nikolaj is fantastic. He’s highly intelligent and enjoys doing what’s necessary to make the scene as dynamic as possible. So if he feels that requires pushing the other person in the scene’s buttons on set and off, then that’s what happens, but it’s always hilarious. I love that he just tossed that over to me. When will you speak to him again?
I don’t know.
Gwendoline Christie: Yes. Okay. Throughout this interview I’ll simultaneously be running (through my mind) what you could possibly ask him in the next interview.
Have you read all of the books that are out now?
Gwendoline Christie: I haven’t read “A Dance with Dragons.” It’s not a choice not to, because in preparation for the meeting to potentially get the role, I read everything I could about Brienne and I only had a certain period of time and “Dance with Dragons” hadn’t been out at that point. And then when it came out I was in midst of working and one doesn’t always have the time to pay attention to a big book that requires a lot of attention. And I’ve been lucky enough to be working. I do intend to read all the books, because they are a fantastic resource for me for material and for all of the wealth of detail to bring to the character. There’s a little part of me that I’m so enamored by the television show that I want to be surprised. It’s a child-like element. I’m so excited by the show by watching it. Obviously I devoured the scripts as soon as they arrive and when I got the script of season 4, I waited two days so I had a couple of days totally free so I could just sit and read them all the way through. And when I was reading them, at points I would just gasp and have to put it down and walk around the room and go, “I cannot believe they’ve done that.” It’s such an exciting show as well but I really enjoy that childlike enthusiasm for what will happen. It’s really exciting to see your colleagues’ work, as well. We know you’re all there and sometimes you’re in the same location and you know in terms of script what they’re doing but it can be very different to see the visual because it’s so spectacular.
And when you have a season like the last one where you’re largely working with Nikolaj, are you even seeing most of the cast?
Gwendoline Christie: No, you just don’t. You’re in that working bubble. I like to know what’s happening to see the storyline. So I’m involved in context. But the level of detail is so intense and just on the sets and the work on the script with the directors, the directors are gloriously forensic about the text that you become entirely immersed in your storyline.
But before you filmed a scene this season with Lena Headey, had you ever met her before?
Gwendoline Christie: The first time I met her was at the premiere last year. And I was really excited ’cause I was a fan.
It’s an interesting thing, because the characters are so separate you can be a fan.
Gwendoline Christie: Yes. And I hadn’t met Diana Rigg before, oddly. The first time I met her was at the airport flying in to film that scene. And I saw her and I was really overcome and then she came up to me. Because I thought, “Oh, I’ll give her her privacy,” but she came up to me and she was very sweet and said she was looking forward to filming the scene.
I know you’re not allowed to say too much, but in one of these scenes, Brienne’s a bit more made up than we are used to seeing her. She’s trying because she’s at a formal event, but she doesn’t necessarily seem all that comfortable with it.
Gwendoline Christie: She’s clean. And Brienne is someone — that level of cleanliness is not important to her. The world of Kings Landing is not a world that Brienne is used to. It’s a world of words and of whispers and secrets. And it’s a sort of intellectual fencing that Brienne is not used to, that’s she’s unfamiliar with. So seeing her attempting to navigate that world and some of the treacherous characters that make up its foundations is certainly a little bit heartbreaking.
You’ve read four of the books. I know some of your costars have not read any, some have read even more than you have. Do you ever find yourself in conversation realizing that you are on a different knowledge level than someone else is and you need to rein yourself in? Something they don’t know about the character that they’re playing?
Gwendoline Christie: I’ve never been in that situation because I assume that by the very inquisitive nature of actors and the fact that it’s our living, that everyone probably at least performs a Google search so they might have some idea of divining her future. But the issue with “Game of Thrones” is that anything could happen. And obviously George (R.R. Martin) is very much involved on the television series, so I don’t discount that things can change and people’s fates can change. So I just like to enjoy every day.
As you were reading the book and seeing the description of Brienne, how attached did you feel to her?
Gwendoline Christie: I read those books and I found then addictive. I adored them. And I saw the first one and I thought, “Gosh, that’s a very big book.” And I started reading it and suddenly the book seemed to shrink because I wanted so much more of it. For me reading it as an actor, the idea that such an unusual and unique female character might be represented on a mainstream television show produced by a channel of such integrity as HBO was exciting to me. The idea that a fresh sort of female character might be represented in mainstream media made me so excited about playing that part. Just the journey that she goes on and the choices that she makes, the fact that she’s physically unconventional, those are the kind of parts that are thrilling to actors and the sorts of parts that I’d like to play. The idea of a woman of that sort being thrust into the mainstream, into a current generation’s consciousness, and potentially generations to come that might empower women further, that might empower the future of female characters, so women could be better represented, was really thrilling to me and is something that I am interested in.
Now, I imagine you’re not someone who can disappear into a crowd under normal circumstances, but since you’ve been playing this very high profile role on this high profile show, when you’re out in public, how do people respond?
Gwendoline Christie: The fan reaction is overwhelming. And true fans of the show are just so kind and I am very touched by the reaction that Brienne has prompted. Not just in women, but men as well that seem to have taken her to their hearts. This fantastic character that’s been created by George R.R. Martin and been so effortlessly communicated by David and Dan, so that it isn’t just women, it’s men and women from such a variety of backgrounds that seem to love the uniqueness of this character. And I’m heartened by that, because I just think it shows an expansion of consciousness and a growing of heart and understanding to different aspects of society. An inclusion and broadening of what society represents.
How much more confident do you feel with the sword now than when you started?
Gwendoline Christie: A lot more confident, but still not as confident as I’d like to be. That’s just me. Brienne is brilliant with a sword and one of the best swordspeople in the land, and I would like to be at that level too. But then I haven’t been sword fighting since I was a youngster. But I’ll keep trying to get there.
The last one is getting back to you and Nikolaj. One of the more memorable scenes of the previous season was in the hot tub when you go into the baths and he confesses the origin of the Kingslayer name. That seems like it would have been very both intense and intimate. What was it like filming that?
Gwendoline Christie: I was really excited to film it, because it’s such a phenomenal scene in the books. When I got to that scene it was shocking to me as ever. I had no idea that Jaime Lannister’s character would be turned around and revealed in that way. And (director) Alex Graves — it was so bright to work with him. He’s very dedicated to the text and to illuminating every moment and really delving into the character’s psyche. And he wanted to show in that moment the evolution of those two characters that we see Jamie Lannister confess and be truly intimate with someone — the first person I would say other then his sister — and to reveal that he’s actually a man of honor that has had to bear a burden for the greater good. And I also felt that in that moment when she stands up to him and she reveals herself and stands proud in all of her nakedness that she is comfortable with her femininity in that moment. And by that I don’t mean the traditional concepts of what it is to be a woman; I mean that she embraces who she is, which is a woman and she has total strength just with who she is. She doesn’t have armor, she doesn’t have a sword, she’s not involved in combat. She just stands before him with strength, with confidence and with power and says, “Respect me,” and he does. And then he changes her idea of who he is beyond anything she could’ve imagined.And have you thought of anything for me to bother Nikolaj with should I chat with him again?
Gwendoline Christie: Do you know what? I just going to retain some dignity and take the upper hand at this.
Gwendoline Christie: But you can communicate that to him.