The rumble of engine noise and the splatter of fat raindrops fills the back of a large minibus, which rolls through rural Northern Ireland, heading south from the town of Castlerock on the north coast. Lena Headey is sitting at the back, eating pumpkin seeds from Marks & Spencer. She is on her way to Belfast, where she has a wig fitting and evening rehearsals for the fourth season of Game of Thrones, in which her character, the compellingly malevolent queen Cersei Lannister, will — well, more of that in a minute. Tomorrow, Headey will be up at dawn to film her first scene.
She may be a 39-year-old mother, but Headey is basically a back-of-the-bus sort of girl. She vibes mischievous sixth-former, dressed in jeans, boots, a lumberjack shirt and a large beanie, which she periodically yanks off to reveal a shock of dark hair and a little tattoo of a bird behind her right ear. In fact, she is covered in tattoos, from a birds-and-flowers piece covering most of her back, to more delicate etchings on her wrists. ‘I find the process incredibly peaceful,’ she says. Her shapely, expressive mouth spreads easily and often into an infectious smile and her conversation is peppered with jokes, curses and asides delivered in a variety of regional accents. ‘I still think I’m 16,’ she grins.’
Headey has, in fact, been acting since she was a teenager. Born in Bermuda in 1973, where her father, a policeman, was briefly posted, she was raised in Huddersfield and remains a proud, self-proclaiming Northerner, rhyming ‘grass’ with ‘sass’ — although her accent is long buried beneath a Londoner’s dropped con-sonants and the occasional hint of LA drawl, as she has lived in California since 2008.
In past interviews she has been described as having been both a painfully shy child and a bit of a tearaway. ‘What kind of child was I? It’s a weird question. I guess I was rebellious in my teenage years. If you asked my dad, he would say I was really rebellious. If you asked me, I would just say I was… expressive.’
That expressiveness found its outlet in acting. She started working professionally at 17 in the film Waterland, an adaptation of Graham Swift’s novel. She had another decent break playing Lizzie in The Remains of the Day in 1993, and has since starred (among many other roles) in Ripley’sGame, The Brothers Grimm, 300, Dreddand as Sarah Connor in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles on the small screen. Her latest part is in The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, a modern-day fantasy fairy tale. She laughs when I mention it: ‘It’s Lily [Collins] and Jamie’s [Campbell Bower] film really. I’m actually asleep through most of it. Or rather, I’m in a coma.’
The secret to coma acting, it turns out, is ‘being very hungover. It helps to want to lie down. I’m very active; I find it kind of hard being still… It’s quite frustrating, coma acting. Also, people do shit [to you] without asking. You’re like, “I’m not actually in a coma! I can feel that! Don’t expose my bum!”
Headey is now a bona fide superstar of the biggest (or cultiest) TV drama of the times. Cersei is an extraordinary blend of pitiless hauteur and desperate, motherly vulnerability. Towards her enemies she appears a cold and heartless she-wolf. She is fiercely protective of her eldest son, the monstrous King Joffrey. She is engaged in an incestuous affair with one of her brothers, Jaime Lannister, and locked in a poisonous rivalry with the other, Tyrion, a sharp-tongued, sybaritic dwarf played with aplomb by Headey’s great friend Peter Dinklage. It was Dinklage who originally encouraged her to read for the role, and the show’s co-creators, David Benioff and DB Weiss, who cast her. How did you convince them, I ask. ‘I had sex with both of them.’ Together? ‘No, separately; I didn’t think it was fair.’ On whom? ‘On them! Hee hee hee.’
But as quickly as she jokes, Headey slips into serious analysis. She raves about Benioff and Weiss — ‘such smart, lovely men’ — and about giving depth to Cersei’s tragic arc. ‘As the show’s gone on, people are beginning to understand what I’m doing with her. You can’t ever have dark characters without a bit of light — and people are now starting to be like, “Oh, I get it…” It’s layering.’ It helps that she is working with Charles Dance, who plays her father, the merciless disciplinarian Tywin Lannister. What’s he like? ‘Awesome. He’s such a force. He’s so brilliant and he doesn’t miss a f***ing line. He just stares at you and comes out with it, and you’re like — errrgh! And then you have to step up. I love that. He just commands combat.’
Even among the huge, dazzling cast, I imagine that Headey, as Cersei, must be the subject of intense fanboy attention. But she thinks others get it worse. ‘For Pete and Emilia [Clarke, who plays Daenerys Targaryen] it’s crazy, because those are the heroic characters.’ What do people say to her, then? ‘Oh, I’ve had people say, “You’re that f***ing bitch on TV.” But what’s more worrying is when people come up and tell you they think Cersei is really cool.’
Whatever the reaction, there is a passion about Game of Thrones obsessives that Headey appreciates. ‘Their knowledge is often greater than yours — and it’s not that they want to bring you down, they genuinely want to quiz you [on the show]. When you bring something to life that they hold dear, they get really excited about it. I dig that. I like that interchange with people who are really into it.’
In a sense, there is more interaction with fans than the rest of the cast. Given the nature of Game of Thrones’ sprawling story, filmed in six-month blocks in locations from Croatia to Iceland, many of the stars never work together. Some never even meet. This season Headey will work more closely with Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who plays her lover-brother Jaime. ‘The relationship is complicated. There’s love, but I don’t know where it sits any more.’ She checks herself. ‘But I can’t say too much.’
Neither, alas, can she say too much about the rumour that one cast member (generally thought to be Clarke) is fed up with taking her clothes off and doesn’t want to do any more nude scenes. ‘I don’t know who it was, I have no idea. I’ve heard no internal… anything.’ But on Cersei’s nudity — or lack of it, since she is one of the few characters in the show whose clothes have so far refused to fall off — Headey is more forthcoming. In the first series she was pregnant with her son Wylie, now three. As the filming progressed it became increasingly troublesome to squeeze her bump into the tight corset that is a staple of her costume, let alone get her kit off, and she remained fully clothed in the incest scene that kicked off season one. ‘The camera was moving up and up every day, until by the end of the shoot all you saw was my face,’ she says.
In a sense, though, that’s neither here nor there because, says Headey, getting naked has not hitherto been a part of Cersei’s journey. ‘I have this theory about her keeping her clothes on. I think all along there’s a regality to her that is really protected by being clothed. She’s chosen not to disrobe. And when she does, it’ll be beyond her control.’ Those who have read the books will understand what she means.
As the minibus rolls along, the conversation, quick and frequently very funny, rolls with it: skipping between tattoo culture, 1990s music and fashion (‘you feel like it was yesterday… but it really wasn’t’), the early films of Al Pacino (she recommends Scarecrow: ‘beautiful — one of those little gems that has been lost’), and how the merging of comic strips and fantasy trumpeted by Comic-Con has affected mainstream film culture (‘now it’s just really hip to be there’). We touch on fat men who like taking their tops off on hot days, the right age to explain to a child that the barracuda in Finding Nemo actually killed and ate Nemo’s mum, and the correct amount of red wine to drink before sitting down to write. (Her: ‘a glass or so’. Me: ‘none’. We agree to differ.)
She talks with boundless enthusiasm about Wylie, who is coming to stay with her in Northern Ireland for a month, enrolling in a local nursery school for ‘a bit of structure’. She is divorcing her son’s father, the Irish musician Peter Paul Loughran, whom she married in 2007, and is reluctant to discuss it but on parenting she says, ‘I love it. I love it. I loooove it.’
Eventually we pull up at Titanic Studios in Belfast, right on time for her duties on set. She skips off the bus, beanie pulled down and kisses all round. Shortly the long blonde wig will be fitted and the delightful, puckish Lena Headey will become the statuesque Queen Cersei. Quite a transformation. Just before leaving, she whispers the scene that she’s filming tomorrow. Crumbs. I promise not to tell: the first rule of Game of Thrones is ‘no spoilers’. But it will certainly be worth the wait.
The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones hits theaters on August 21st!
The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones hits theaters on August 21st!
Interview and Photos were found at ES MAGAZINE