The Sydney Morning Herald – I arrive early at the LA hotel where I’m meeting Game of Thrones star Gwendoline Christie, and my first impression of the actor is formed in a millisecond when I bump into her in a hallway. Unusually and ethereally beautiful, towering above me, there’s no mistaking the 39-year-old who stars as the indomitable Brienne of Tarth in the must-watch TV series, and who is reprising her role as the villainous Captain Phasma in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. (She first played the kickass stormtrooper in the previous chapter, 2015’s The Force Awakens.)
Wearing a see-though black Fendi top and narrow trousers, her blonde hair is wavy and bobbed. With her porcelain skin and 191-centimetre stature, she could easily look intimidating. But her bright smile makes her approachable, so I tell her, in an embarrassing babble, that I love her work and that my two daughters are huge fans. She seems delighted, as though compliments are not at all commonplace.
Is she enjoying Hollywood stardom? “I don’t think I would ever term myself as a Hollywood star… ever,” she responds with a loud laugh, while admitting that “things seem to be going quite well”. That sounds like an understatement. “Well it’s always great, isn’t it, when you feel a level of creative fulfilment in your work?” says Gwendoline in her lovely melodic voice.
She has every reason to be in good spirits. Her film career is in flight and life post-Westeros looks exciting. She has loved Star Wars since she was six, she tells me later, ushering me into her hotel suite and settling beside me on the sofa, poised, hands clasped. “Everyone wants to be in Star Wars. It is such a huge global phenomenon; I desperately wanted the role.”
The latest installment in the franchise sees Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker in a prominent role with an apparently shocking twist. There will also a strong focus on a new generation of characters, including purple-haired Vice-Admiral Holdo, played by Laura Dern.
Since the release of The Force Awakens, Gwendoline’s “chrome trooper” has become a fan favourite. “Phasma seems to have ignited a lot of curiosity,” she says. “The idea of a woman exhibiting a violent attitude is not something we see a huge amount of in mainstream media.”
There is speculation that Phasma has a much bigger role in the upcoming film, directed by Rian Johnson, but inevitably the actor is giving nothing away beyond referring to her character as “a threatening presence”.
Can she say anything about the plot, which continues the story of the powerful Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega) and resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac)? “Well, no.” A few seconds of dead air are interrupted by a hearty laugh.
She is less restrained about her excitement at working with one of her role models, Carrie Fisher (General Leia Organa), the Hollywood legend who died suddenly at the end of last year. “Princess Leia spoke to me,” says Gwendoline of the original Star Wars. “She felt different, she was smart and she was strong.”
No wonder Gwendoline was “very, very starstruck” when she was introduced to Fisher. “When I meet someone I admire like that, I keep myself as far away as possible from the person, you know, don’t bother them, eyes down at the floor. I am overcome with shyness. But, actually, Carrie was incredibly warm. Everyone around her felt electrified by her wit and humanity. She was so open about her struggles with mental illness. The sheer force of personality is ravishing.”
The same could be said of Gwendoline. It’s no coincidence that the characters that have defined her career so far have been warriors ranging across the moral spectrum, from Brienne of Tarth – all goodness and altruistic selflessness – to the pure evil of Captain Phasma.
She inhabits the kind of roles that are still rare for women. Brienne of Tarth, for example, is considered to be plain looking. “It has been thrilling for me to play her, particularly since she is a woman much maligned by society due to the way she looks,” she says.
As for Captain Phasma, audiences didn’t even get a glimpse of her face in The Force Awakens, the stormtrooper being clad from head to toe in metal.
“I’ve never really placed a huge emphasis on people’s physical being,” she says. “I remember Carrie Fisher referring to her body as her ‘brain bag’.”
It’s a subject that fascinates the actor, who is as intellectually curious as she is warm and funny. “We are so used to seeing images of women who are mostly conventionally attractive, and frequently scantily clad, and I found that a little restrictive,” she says. “We have had a homogenised view not just of women, but really of the world. I think we all want to see ourselves represented [on screen] in some way.”
She has an affinity for playing outsiders, “characters that feel like they aren’t seen and don’t fit in. Most of my life I have felt somewhat outside of the conventions of society – and certainly outside the conventions of the acting community.”
Gwendoline was born and raised in West Sussex, “the only product of my mother and father”. She is deliberate about her choice of words, avoiding the term “only child”.
In fact, she describes her early life as “idyllic – I grew up in the countryside surrounded by fields and forests. I used to play outside all the time. I was generally alone, but I loved to read.”
Away from the sanctuary of her close-knit family, however, life was difficult. “I absolutely hated school because I was bullied quite a lot.” She was bookish and “really enjoyed being in the library, but I didn’t enjoy the other students”.
Was she bullied because of her height? “I don’t think it was just my height.” She pauses. “I don’t know. I’m really not interested in talking about the bullying; what I am interested in is transcending that, because there is too much of an emphasis on suffering. We need to look at how we overcome it.”
She explains her own coping mechanism: “I looked for where the sunshine was – for those who’d be more accepting and stimulating.”
As a child, Gwendoline threw herself into hobbies – dancing and rhythmic gymnastics (she had to stop because of a spine injury at age 11). “Retrospectively, I realise what I loved about gymnastics was the rigour of being disciplined and precise, and then applying the flow of emotion and imagination to that.”
Films provided “escapism”, she says, singling out Orlando (1992), directed by Sally Potter, as “important”. I can’t help mentioning that she has been compared to the film’s star, Tilda Swinton. “Well, that is an incredibly generous comparison,” she exclaims. “I think she is a truly exceptional artist; she is doing her own thing.”
It’s something Gwendoline has always done, too. Her parents were “incredibly supportive” and there’s a story that when she was young her father told her, “You can do anything a boy can do.”
“He didn’t use those exact words,” says Gwendoline. “But he did say, ‘There’s no reason why you can’t achieve anything.’ ”
Intent on acting from an early age, she recalls watching films as a teenager and wondering why the women’s parts were so often boring. “When we studied classical plays at school, I wanted to play the male parts. I didn’t understand why women would be treated in a certain way just because they were women. It didn’t make any sense. A lot of things didn’t make any sense.”
Life began to make more sense when Gwendoline left school and enrolled in art college. “I became friends with artists working in the fashion industry, and musicians. That is really where I found my family – unconventional people who were totally accepting of themselves in all of their colourfulness and extreme personalities.”
She went on to study acting at Drama Centre, London – “a conservatoire with a classical training and method approach” which she describes as life-changing. “It was hard, 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week. It was psychologically rigorous. You were broken down and sometimes criticised. It caused you to have an internal investigation of who you were, and that gave me confidence. They trained us to be artists.”
In her early 20s, Gwendoline also began working for the actor Simon Callow (Outlander, Four Weddings and a Funeral). “He gave me an enormous amount of confidence,” she says. “He also educated me. He had an incredible house filled with music and books, and I looked after his two wonderful dogs. He is one of the closest and most trusted people in my life.”
With Callow’s support, Gwendoline’s career took off via well-reviewed stage performances and supporting roles in films including The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, before being cast as Brienne of Tarth in 2011. In doing so, she defied predictions that she’d find it difficult to work because of her height.
In fact, her stature and dramatic looks played to her advantage. With friends in the world of couture – she was interested in fashion long before art college – Gwendoline was in high demand as a model and became a muse of Vivienne Westwood. These days, she often collaborates with her partner of five years, British fashion designer Giles Deacon.
She won’t discuss her relationship with Deacon, citing her need for a private life that’s just that. “Because of the phantasmagorical nature of being an actor, you have to have your own reality,” she says.
She explains that her “friends, family and partner form such an essential part of that reality that I do everything I can to get home, to see people as much as possible – because it is that life which is going to feed your work”.
Steering the subject back to her career, she happily tells me she is about to work alongside Steve Carell in The Women of Marwen. And she is enthusiastic about her recent role in Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake: China Girl, the sequel to Campion’s award-winning 2013 TV drama. In it, she played Miranda Hilmarson, a Sydney police officer assigned to work with detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) investigating the death of a woman whose body washes up on Bondi Beach.
A confirmed Campion fan, Gwendoline wrote to the New Zealand director pleading to be cast in the series, which also stars Nicole Kidman.
“I love Jane because she is interested in women, in a fairer balance between men and women, and she is very interested in the subject of misogyny.” She adds that Top of the Lake: China Girl “deals with what it is to be a woman and a mother, what it is to deal with feeling marginalised”.
Other than spending time with friends and family, Gwendoline’s current focus is firmly on her career. So, what are her goals? “To create my own material – write it, direct it, design it, produce it. That is what I would love to do – if I wasn’t so idle and lacking in imagination!”
Star Wars: The Last Jedi opens in cinemas on December 14.