From Star Wars to the new Top of the Lake, Gwendoline Christie has become a screen heroine for our times. Lorraine Candy meets the unconventional actress who embraces the joy of being an outsider
SUNDAY TIMES STYLE – Let’s get the tall bit out of the way first, shall we? Gwendoline Christie is a delicate 6ft 3in tall. I say delicate because, personally, I’m always struck by how dainty the Game of Thrones superhero is. She is all fine blonde curls and flawless porcelain skin. Feminine, girly, graceful are the words that come to mind when I think of the Gwendoline I have known for several years. Gosh, we have had some fun together, this elegant outsider and me. “The world is absurd, Lorraine,” she will often observe with characteristic wry humour, “and if you can’t find it absurd, then I don’t know how you’d get through.” Indeed it is — especially when you look at it from Gwendoline Christie’s perspective.
The 38-year-old actress is a composite of opposites, if such a thing exists: an introverted extrovert, a soft strength, the most conventional unconventional person I know. She’s both intellectually intense and wonderfully silly. Time spent with the ever-so-polite and well-brought-up Gwendoline is like going to a spa for your mind: it’s never ordinary, even if it is just having a cup of peppermint tea, as we are for this interview.
For most of her life, mostly because of her height, Gwendoline has been on the margins of what is considered normal. From being bullied at her local village school, to the relentless fruitless auditions she didn’t ever get through, she was continually told, as she puts it, “that your outside can’t come on the inside”. How demoralising, but also, perhaps, how wonderful, because if you can overcome those cruel obstacles, you develop a rare confidence that is unbreakable. Then, one day, you wake up and deliver to the universe the gift that is Brienne of Tarth, the one woman who is everything all women want to be.
I don’t need to tell you how fantastic Brienne is — the defiant medieval knight, protector of kings and queens, slayer of evil men. One scene, her infamous fight with the Hound, took two months of intense stunt training (she is still seeing a physiotherapist twice a week). It is epic, no other word for it, and even if you are not a Throner, you cannot be anything but grateful that a character like Brienne has been imagined, written and brought to life so spectacularly well. She is, to borrow a phrase, a giant step forward for womankind.
“I have loved doing Game of Thrones,” Gwendoline says. Season 7, the penultimate series, has just started on Sky Atlantic. “I’ll be devastated when it finishes. I’m so proud of that part and the way the audience created a connection with the character. Brienne is a different version of what we normally see. She is not just conventionally unattractive, she is unconventionally unattractive. This part was the reason for all my acting training. In a world where we have so much access to these sexy ideals all the time, this was such a subversive role.”
Amen to that. But how do you follow Brienne? Captain Phasma in Star Wars was superb, if predictable, casting, but it is the junior detective, Miranda, in Top of the Lake: China Girl, a woman who is the polar opposite of the one Gwendoline has been playing for six years, that I feel will redefine her.
Ever conscious of the need to test herself as an actress (she is rigorous in her devotion to the craft and has an accomplished theatre career), Gwendoline has created a new character who is physically and mentally fragile.
She has done it with the acclaimed writer and director Jane Campion, with whom she has wanted to work since she was very young. “I asked the universe then — no, I told the universe nicely — to make it come true,” she recalls, after explaining how many buses she had to take across the Sussex countryside after lying to her parents about her whereabouts and sneaking into the cinema to watch Campion’s groundbreaking 1993 film, The Piano.
Miranda is a broken, vulnerable, lonely and actually comic police officer who appears in the second series of Campion’s award-winning BBC2 drama Top of the Lake, on screens now. The role was written specially for Gwendoline, and she lived in Sydney for five months while filming it. I have seen the first two gripping episodes, and you are in for a treat — it’s addictive cinematic TV at its best. Elisabeth Moss reprises her role as the steely Detective Robin Griffin to investigate the death of an Asian girl washed up in a suitcase on Bondi Beach. The Oscar winner Nicole Kidman rounds out the cast.
“It feels like Jane is always subverting form,” Gwendoline says, “and that’s exciting to me. In 2008, a friend of mine offered to introduce me to her because she felt we would get on so well, but even then I couldn’t do it. When I saw she was doing Top of the Lake, I wrote her a letter — I knew I had to be in it. I can’t tell you what I said, but I kept it for 18 months before posting it. I tried to keep it short, didn’t want her to die of boredom reading it, then she emailed me back about four months after I sent it. We spoke on the phone for hours and she told me she would create a lead part for me. I asked for a challenge and Miranda is a challenge. She is constantly destabilised, she fails at everything, she is on the outside and still continues to be on the outside. This is a new story for me to tell.
“It’s great to be a hero, but the reality for many of us is that we feel like we are failing all the time. We’re all trying to find ways to deal with that.”
If you watch one box set this summer, watch Top of The Lake — it will give you goose bumps. Everyone is playing the opposite of the characters you expect them to be, so it’s constantly surprising — just like Gwendoline herself.
I was editing Elle when we first met on the fashion front row. We got on like a house on fire: she is more than a foot taller than me, though we have the same size feet; the physical comedy of us never fails to delight. Her partner is my friend the fashion designer Giles Deacon, and Gwendoline takes getting dressed as seriously as I do. “I have always been fascinated by clothes and their transformative powers,” she says. “I was about 6ft at the age of 14 — I was enjoying the process of youth, wondering what kind of human being I would grow into, what kind of size I would be, what the dimensions would be as I grew more.
“A doctor had told me I would be lucky if I stopped growing at 5ft 11in, but I thought, why stop there? I thought it was brilliant being so tall, and they were quite shocked by that response. I didn’t see what was interesting about conforming to the rule when the rule seemed nonsensical.
“I read a lot of fashion magazines as a child. I was fascinated by who the stylists and photographers were. The images were captivating for me. I used to scour second-hand shops for vintage clothes, and I delighted in the different proportions of my size. It doesn’t make sense to me not to embrace being outside the norm. I don’t want to feel inhibited by anything.
“I like to experiment with scale. I used to dress up a lot. My male friends would wear women’s jackets, and I would wear massively oversized things I’d found in vintage places. I really enjoy wearing men’s clothes, and often still do. I also liked the way Courtney Love dressed at the time, all those 1990s dresses, but worn with a femininity that had a violence to it. It seemed inappropriate at my height to wear such floaty dresses, so I enjoyed wearing them. I am all for drawing attention to the differences between us and not hiding from them — it is good to be spectacularly different.”
When we meet, she is wearing a black Chloé dress, carrying a brown Margiela handbag. She buys mostly designer: Giles, Henry Holland, Roksanda, bits of Marc Jacobs, Miu Miu and more recently Isa Arfen.
Gwendoline is a very private person, and I can see interviews are a form of torture for her. She wants to be known for her work and questions about her home life are playfully batted away with humour. It’s understandable given the level of fandom surrounding her, thanks to Game of Thrones and, of course, Star Wars. Plus, she can never hide, never be anonymous in the street; she is someone you stare at, famous or not.
Last year when I interviewed Giles for a book about London designers, I asked him what kind of women he designed clothes for. Someone smart, confident in who she is, different from everyone else and happy with that, spirited, unpredictable, a woman who is fun “and looks like she would be a bit of trouble on a night out”, he told me. I think he has described Gwendoline perfectly. And, if I had my way, she wouldn’t be the outsider — we all would.
Top of the Lake: China Girl, Thursdays at 9pm on BBC2
Styling: Katie Felstead. Hair: John D at Forward Artists for Tresemmé. Make-up: Stoj at Streeters using Charlotte Tilbury. Nails: Marisa Carmichael
I’ve loaded the beautiful photo shoot in the gallery. Check it out! I should be adding the scans to the gallery later today.
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