She talks to Paul Flynn about breaking moulds, Star Wars and why she’s happy to be an outsider…
EVENING STANDARD – When she was 15 years old, Gwendoline Christie would frequently skip school to head up to London.
She’d get the train from Worthing, West Sussex — where she lived with her mother, a housewife, and dad, a salesman — and make her way to the stalls in Kensington Market, obsessing over the beguiling selections of nightlife pieces on display at Hyper Hyper. She’d sit and sketch mannequins at the V&A. Hours would be whiled away browsing the rails at Vivienne Westwood. Back home, she’d test herself by covering the credits of fashion magazines to see if she had learned who designed what and why. Discovering Alexander McQueen, she says, was ‘earth-shattering, it just felt like so many of the things I loved coming together and exploding’.
To Christie, from a young age, fashion represented part of a wider life plan. ‘It was a combination of wanting to escape the unpleasant narrative that was being applied to me at school, where I was bullied terribly,’ she says, ‘and loving the transportative nature of the arts. It was about not wanting to live a prescriptive life.’
Christie had heard the word ‘unconventional’ applied to herself so many times, from such a young age, that she adopted a ‘sink or swim’ attitude to fitting in. She developed ideas about beauty every bit as armour-plated as the uniform she’s sported for the past six years as Brienne of Tarth: the character who first turned her into one of the truly iconic faces of the 2010s in Game of Thrones (although at the mention of the word icon, she blurts, ‘Pfffft! Bollocks!’ and mimes ‘Lol’ with two hands shaping the ‘L’s, her mouth forming the ‘O’).
‘You either think I’m unconventional and there’s no place for me and therefore I should disappear,’ she says, ‘or you think good, I’m happy to be on the outside. Because if this is the small-minded, mean, uncompassionate viewpoint of the inside, then I don’t want to be there. I’m happy out here with all the other leftovers, who show love and support for each other. All of the inconsistencies, complexities and ugly parts — whatever that might mean — can exist and beauty can be made out of it. That’s what I want beauty to be.’
Christie says she wept for two hours solid when she took off Brienne’s armour for the last time, filming her final scenes of the last season earlier this year. The battle for Westeros will end in early 2019. ‘It truly was the most incredible thing that happened to me,’ she says.
The triumph of Brienne of Tarth was, she says, both professional and personal. ‘I know how generic it sounds but it just was, in every sense of the word, incredible that that part should come along, made for me in a way that none of my friends would’ve identified for a second. They saw all of the fighting, the physicality, the fact that it was a character who was constantly being described as ugly. None of the people who knew me could understand why I would want to play that part.’ When the book of Christie is finally written, this will be her Damascene moment. ‘I had to cut my hair, change my body, strip off my make-up. This is not the person I have presented to the world at all.’ She graduated, in that moment, to the woman she always wanted to become.
Christie decided on her future very early on as a child: ‘When I discovered film, I couldn’t get close enough to the screen. I wanted to climb in.’ She concedes there is a link between becoming an actress and running away from yourself: ‘Oh, it’s that, 100 per cent. It’s so much easier to be other people. And it’s always in putting on the mask that you reveal yourself. It’s however people find it easiest to breathe. And that’s how I find it easiest.’
What has happened since has astonished her. Just because she ‘always wanted to blow it up from the inside’ doesn’t mean she expected to. She has now been part of two defining franchises of the decade, first as Brienne, then as Captain Phasma in Star Wars. At her first Star Wars Comic-Con, she found herself in a green room beside Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher. ‘I try to be gracious in these moments,’ she nods, ‘but I’m an idiot, so you do just internally scream and dissolve on the floor and can’t really cope and go bright red.’ Of the late Fisher, she says ‘her mind was so fast and so hysterically funny that she would set up a joke, you would laugh, then she would push it further… you would laugh even more and then she’d push it further again and you’d laugh so much that you thought your eyes were going to fall out.’
‘Extraordinary things’ keep happening to Christie. There was the moment Dame Diana Rigg came up to her at an airport lounge and said how excited she was to be working with her. ‘Just being around her was an absolute masterclass. She’s a sensational performer but she’s a sensational person, too. We had dinner, we walked around together, we went shopping, bought hats, went in antique shops and then we had an amazing, juicy, salacious, hilarious dinner together.’ Obviously I want to know every detail. ‘Obviously I can tell you not a single one of them.’
There was also the time when Kate Moss spotted her at a Miu Miu party in 2012, and suggested she give her agent a call. She was a year into her relevatory role on Thrones. The supermodel took Christie over with her when she established her own agency. ‘She told me recently, “I just knew it would work,”’ she notes, still slightly flabbergasted by the turn of events. With pleasing circularity, Christie is currently one of the faces of Miu Miu in its arrestingly Warhol-esque ad campaign. ‘These things are wild to me,’ she says, quietly.
Christie lives in London with Giles Deacon, 49, her partner of five years. Of course she would end up with a couturier. ‘I don’t think I’ll ever stop being in awe of my partner’s colossal talent,’ she says. ‘As a designer and as a human being. I mean it. I don’t ever talk about him. But I really mean that.’ She has been keeping an occasional memoir of the astonishing experiences that have traced her past decade. ‘I don’t [write] every day, because I’m doing my best to be present in so many of the extraordinary things that have happened.’ She’s tried to stop taking photographs, to obsessively document life from one step’s remove, for the benefit of others. ‘It’s too easy to retreat into, “How am I going to frame this? How am I going to capture it?” I’m doing my best just to have those experiences and writing a few things to come back to.’
There are no plans, as yet, to publish. These are for personal use. But she’s picturing the future scene already. ‘I can dress as Barbara Cartland, on a chaise, with my seven Pomeranians — no, Pekingese, like Mrs Pumphrey in All Creatures Great and Small — me, in bri-nylon, lounging with a duchess satin slipper and a warm glass of white wine, Tuesday, 4pm. That sounds perfect to me.’