As the Seven Kingdoms’ least likely knight in Game of Thrones, Gwendoline Christie turned Brienne of Tarth into a beloved cult icon. Now, she’s back as a “total bitch” with In Fabric, an erotic nightmare with a killer fashion twist
Back in 2002, Gwendoline Christie was cleaning this floor in a Sonia Rykiel jumper. We’re in a former Methodist chapel in north London – until 2004 the site of the acting school that the actress attended – and she’s laughing at the ludicrousness of the image. The deep clean took place every Friday afternoon, an egalitarian class bonding exercise fuelled by scant budget.
Founded in 1963 by a breakaway group of teachers and students from the Central School of Speech and Drama, the Drama Centre’s philosophy fused the Russian theatre training of Stanislavski with the movement work of Rudolf Laban and the character typology of Carl Jung. Christie remembers her time here well. The first method acting school in the UK, its stance was anti-elitist, taking students from different kinds of backgrounds: those who couldn’t necessarily afford it; wouldn’t normally be cast; wouldn’t, perhaps, get an arts education. It’s the first time that the notoriously private actress has taken anyone back here, and when she tells her peers in a group chat afterwards where we’ve been, they’re “incredibly jealous”. Why would a place dubbed ‘Trauma Centre’ – not Christie’s words – remain such a draw, even all these years later? Because it was a radical awakening in its students’ young lives, where they played recklessly every day. And revelled in it.
Standing at 6’3”, any drama is inherent. But Christie goes further. Back in February, she modelled an out-of-this-world rainbow confection closing Japanese designer Tomo Koizumi’s New York Fashion Week show, a major fashion moment orchestrated by Katie Grand with the support of Marc Jacobs. (Christie’s partner, Giles Deacon, discovered Koizumi on Instagram.) And today she cuts an exceptional silhouette in a black Yohji Yamamoto jacket and quilted Chanel sunglasses so thick and opaque that, even if she wasn’t a star, she’d look like one. Her sensual, emphasised diction and lipsticked machine-gun laugh are striking; she recalls her sense of humour described by a teacher as “perverse”. (Yes, it really is that good.)
Christie has just finished her first rehearsal for A Midsummer Night’s Dream when we meet, marking her return to London theatre after eight years. Game of Thrones’ Brienne of Tarth, the role shemade into an icon, hasn’t so much as opened doors for her as remodelled them into a series of archways she could wander in and out of as she likes. “As each year moved past, I didn’t dare to hope I might be employed for another year (on the show). So any of it felt like a huge blessing,” she says, waving goodbye to a beloved role that she’s inhabited for the best part of a decade, going from supporting player to fan favourite. During this time, Christie has also taken on the Star Wars franchise’s first female villain – when we pass a car with a Captain Phasma toy on the dashboard, she casually says, “That’s me.”
Now, as Gwen in Peter Strickland’s new film In Fabric, Christie is set to spike sales of tasteful Carpathian stockings. It’s a gorgeous and erotic nightmare about a cursed red dress, with an excellent soundtrack by synth trio Cavern of Anti-Matter. Christie portrays a brazen character who is sleeping with a teenager doing his A-levels under his mum’s roof, despite being old enough to have a financial adviser. She has the wildest, most cutting lines in the film, a cult character in the making. While for Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield, she is part of a stellar cast including Ben Whishaw and Tilda Swinton, picking up a collaboration with the satirist that goes back to 2009.
Investing so much of herself physically, emotionally and psychologically into acting has clearly paid off. Everyone can see how fabulous Christie is, and as we walk out and about they make sure to tell her, over and over.
Over the space of 40 minutes today, there have been five occasions of people coming over to say hello. I’ve never experienced that kind of fandom with anyone I’ve interviewed.
It’s extraordinary. It’s also because the show (Game of Thrones) is on at the moment so there’s a heightened awareness. What is gratifying is that I’m almost embarrassed to admit how much of my heart and soul I’ve put into the character. I am almost embarrassed to admit how hard I’ve worked to make it work and to overcome my own insecurities in playing the part. I couldn’t be more delighted that people have enjoyed it, you know? And, yes, from the beginning I have told myself, ‘This is going to end; don’t let it hurt you too much.’ I adore the character, but the exploration and creation of (Brienne) has taught me so much about examining myself, society, patriarchal constraints – all those unconscious things that many of us are programmed with. It’s been a really invigorating experience, and that’s a gift. I’ve had a gift and now that’s ended. (But) I was lucky to ever have it at all.
Brienne of Tarth has really impacted your life, hasn’t she? Learning to ride a horse, handling swords...
I mean, I had to, but it wasn’t really about that. Ever since I was an adolescent, I’ve been interested in people like Cindy Sherman, Carolee Schneemann, Rebecca Horn, Orlan and Marina Abramović – the idea of using the body as an art piece. Society seemed to be having a dialogue with me about the way that I looked – I mean, society has so much of a dialogue about how so many people look – so it interested me to make deliberate choices in how I presented myself and what I wore to continue that dialogue. To present an extremely feminised image. But I knew in the recesses of my heart that this was about fear (and) wanting to be accepted. I was hiding a lot. (Playing Brienne), I (knew I) would have to embrace myself in an entirely different way than before. It was about enhancing all the things I was ashamed of. Entering into that shame, exploring what it meant and applying it in the best possible way to the story, letting go of my vanity. The vanity, which was covering up the shame. It can be very difficult to play a character that society says is physically ugly because it feels like a rejection, like all of the things you feel insecure about (are) enhanced, telling you that you are no good. But the amazing thing is that people love the character.
Game of Thrones established itself just as social media was becoming entwined with our lives. It seems that’s an important element of the pop history of the show. There is such a conversation around it.
Hugely. It’s a complicated story and I think that’s part of what people really love about it. It has demonstrated that audiences can involve themselves (in a show) very deeply. So we’re going to see more of that.
You bit off Sandor Clegane’s ear and spat it into his face. Is that one of the best things you’ve done on the series?
We were on top of a mountain in Iceland and I was doing that fight for nearly three days. By the end, we were both really feral. I was covered in sweat, my hands completely lacerated and swollen. I was in agony, and completely over-adrenalised. Then they said, and I don’t think we’d even discussed it, ‘We’ve got to put the ear in your mouth now with a cup full of blood while you lie on your back on the floor.’ I was so into it. I loved the madness of it, I loved the pure lunacy. When you’ve got writing as rich as the writing was on Game Of Thrones, for that character and what she represents in terms of overcoming the oppressive patriarchy, to spit the man’s ear back into his face felt like a wild moment of liberation that we’re rarely allowed to see from women. It allowed me to tap into something incredibly primitive. I loved it. (laughs uncontrollably)
You’re becoming known for playing women who are insurmountable in all kinds of ways. Has that always been an ambition and have you had to be bloody-minded to achieve it?
There are so few of those kinds of roles around that it’s not possible (for it) to be a plan – particularly around 14 years ago, when I graduated. I’ve certainly very quietly – and more so over the last five years – felt more confident in realising what it is that I want. I think the arts need that a bit; things have been one way for too long and storytelling becomes boring if it’s one formula, whether it’s films or television or theatre. A character being presented in conceptual terms is really interesting to me. The character I played in Star Wars is conceptually fascinating and really spoke to people. It was a different kind of expression of a triumph of the underdog. I was so fascinated by that and delightfully surprised at the response. So for me and my work – and not always very helpfully – it doesn’t always have to be about having the most lines.
This summer, you’re at London’s Bridge Theatre as Titania and Hippolyta in an ‘immersive production’ of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. What does that entail?
It means that, added to the absolute fear of people watching you act, people can potentially be very close to you watching you act! What’s smart about that is that we have such a degree of intimacy with our entertainment now. (In the past) you’d go to the cinema in a group of people and that was an event, a sensory experience together, en masse. Then it progressed to people having televisions in their home and having a more isolated experience, although it would feel more intimate because it would be in your living room. Now people can watch entertainment on their phones while they use the lavatory, you know. (laughs) You can control it – when it starts, when it stops. It’s incredibly intimate. I think theatre has to develop alongside that. I also think that, because human beings are naturally quite scared of intimacy, the live event has an increasing magic to it. People seem very excited by experiencing something, seeing as so much of life is about communicating from a distance. I’m excited. It means, by God, I have to be on it for this.
In Fabric, your new film, introduces your character modelling on a kitchen worktop, being sketched.
I thought the script was truly brilliant. It was the best thing I had read in ages – and still is.
The film tells the story of a cursed red dress that wreaks gruesome havoc on whoever owns it. It’s brilliant in every way. I thought, ‘Finally, a film about the torturous desire of fashion!’
‘It’s suffocating me, it’s suffocating me!’ I suggested that moment to Peter (Strickland, the film’s director) actually, where the fabric goes into (Gwen’s) mouth (the dress attacks Christie’s character as she enjoys an ‘intimate’ moment with her boyfriend). Part of (the idea) came from a shoot that I did with the phenomenal (fashion photographer) Sølve Sundsbø, when he put fabric over my face. I found that it worked – seamlessly moving from fashion into film!
After the premiere, you said it was delightful to play someone so unashamedly horrid. And got a round of applause.
That was amazing. The idea of playing a character called Gwen, who is a total bitch, who is obsessed with modelling, felt great. (laughs)
Are you a catalyst of mischief between takes?
Not in the slightest. Do you know what may come as a surprise? I am incredibly serious on set, because I am trying to get it right. I don’t think this will ever change, and I don’t think it ever should. I want to do the best job I possibly can.
Tell us about your relationship with fashion.
My mother used to make my clothes and it was (an) escape. It felt like an immediate means of transformation of oneself. Before I went to drama school, I assisted a student on the MA at Saint Martins when Louise Wilson was there. That was a real education, introducing me to Comme des Garçons which blew my mind. It changed everything. I couldn’t have got the most out of (what I have now) or recognised the value of this without it.
Tomo Koizumi’s show was the talk of autumn/ winter 2019 and you walked in it.
We were walking on Hampstead Heath when Katie (Grand) asked if I wanted to model. I said, ‘Yes, do you want me to fly myself in?’ (laughs) I couldn’t believe I was going to work with Pat (McGrath, make-up artist) and Guido (Palau, hair stylist) again. (Christie worked with the pair when she walked for Miu Miu in 2018.) She asked what I’d like to wear, then told me (the piece) was called The Queen and it was closing the show! I was given platforms because I didn’t want flat shoes – you want a bit of height, don’t you? Tomo was so sweet. He took a picture of us together and said, ‘I kind of wanted you to wear this.’ I thought, ‘Maybe I’m not doing myself any favours, maybe I should try and look more normal, it might help me to get more work and better parts’ – but I can’t deny who I am. I loved every second of it. I have never felt more alive! (laughs ferociously)
What’s the best rumour you’ve heard about yourself?
I made a throwaway joke about not knowing how old I was. A sort of self- perpetuated rumour! (I also said) that I wanted to be a nun – which I did when I was four. I thought the highest calling would be to be in the service of God. Might do it again!
You’re playing Jane Murdstone in The Personal History of David Copperfield, co-written and directed by Armando Iannucci. What was that like? It was about improvisation and it was the most gratifying experience. I felt so safe and able to experiment. (Armando) pushes you; he’s so intellectually fascinating. I’d worked with him in 2009, on an opera called Skin Deep with the brilliant director Richard Jones. It was about plastic surgery and I narrated the action as an American undercover reporter. I was lucky enough to bump into Armando over the years, normally when he was winning armfuls of awards. I thought that The Death of Stalin was brilliant, and I used to watch The Day Today, all those things.
His satire has become part of the fabric of contemporary Britain.
Yes, exactly. In terms of the absurd, also. So that was just magical.
What would you do if you were invisible for a day?
I would quite like to be in the House of Commons, moving things around, causing some different responses and reactions and maybe keeping some mouths shut.
Tell us something we wouldn’t expect of you.
Later in life, probably around the age of 36, I started to desire cheese. (laughs)
PHOTOGRAPHY MARTON PERLAKI
STYLING CHLOE GRACE PRESS
TEXT DEAN MAYO DAVIES
DAZED, SUMMER 2019