For someone who is supposed to embody a 300-year-old woman, it has to be said that Carice van Houten looks pretty good.
In Game of Thrones, Van Houten plays the mysterious Melisandre, a priestess who has weathered several centuries. In season six, her age was revealed in a memorable scene in which she removed a magical necklace and became a wrinkled crone in front of our eyes.
I don’t want to give in to that whole thing and do something to my face just to keep working, but at the same time, this is what the industry has become.
Van Houten says the most frequent thing Game of Thrones fans say to her now when they meet her is, “You’re really pretty in real life.”
“I’m always like, ‘Thank you. I guess,’ ” she adds.
Van Houten arrives for our interview at a London hotel looking much younger than her 40 years, wearing black jeans and a beanie with thick-framed glasses that seem slightly too large for her elfin face. She moves with an adolescent mixture of gawkiness and elegance.
She has lost weight recently because she’s breastfeeding her year-old son Monte, her first child with Australian actor Guy Pearce, whom she met in 2015. “It’s literally taking all my good stuff, which is great, I want that for him,” she says. “But there’s nothing left of my legs.”
It has been a gruelling time for Van Houten, who gave birth just six weeks before shooting began on the current series of Game of Thrones, the seventh and penultimate. “Yeah, it was not great timing,” she says.
In between takes, she expressed her milk while still in costume. Everyone on set was trying to make it as easy as possible, but she was aware that she was holding up filming.
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It doesn’t really work when you have pressure and you don’t have the baby with you… So I had a little bit of a breakdown one day when I was with Emilia [Clarke, who plays Daenerys Targaryen]. I burst out crying and said, ‘I want to go home to my baby.’ You’re just completely full of hormones.”
Based on the books by George R.R. Martin, what should have been a nerdy fantasy tale with dragons and giants has snowballed into a broadcasting phenomenon that has made stars of many of its cast: Emilia Clarke, Kit Harington, Sophie Turner, Maisie Williams, Peter Dinklage…
There are many theories about why Game of Thrones seems to have struck such a chord. My own is that, once you get past the silly bits, the show is exceptional storytelling, bringing together a hotchpotch of characters, gripping plot lines and, importantly, a bunch of unapologetically kickarse female roles. Sure, there’s a fair amount of nudity and sex, but there are also bigger themes exploring corruption, power and family dysfunction.
The show has also created a legion of devoted fans. When Melisandre orchestrated the burning at the stake of a young girl in season five, Van Houten received death threats on Twitter. “There are people who take it a little bit too seriously,” she acknowledges.
Later, Melisandre was shown resurrecting the show’s hero, Jon Snow (played by Kit Harington), and suddenly people were sending her marriage proposals instead. Even mother Margje was pleased. “Yeah, my mum had a little bit of a crush,” Van Houten laughs.
But for all her success in the role, when Van Houten was initially sent the scripts for the second series of GoT, she had her reservations. She is a well-known actress in her native Netherlands, where she has won five Golden Calf awards (the Dutch equivalent of the Baftas) for her work in film and television. And she’d already starred in several English-language films, including Valkyrie with Tom Cruise.
Van Houten has something of an independent spirit, so a sprawling fantasy franchise, which would require her to learn an entirely fictional language (Valyrian) and portray a priestess several hundred years old, did not immediately seem like a natural fit. “It’s not very appealing to me, the whole magic thing,” she admits.
That attitude changed when she spoke to American comedian and chat-show host Seth Meyers, with whom she’s been friends since he lived in Amsterdam in the 1990s.
“He loves that kind of stuff, and when I asked, ‘Do you think this is something for me?’, he said, ‘You’re crazy! That’s one of the greatest shows and you should totally do that.’ “
She grins. The role of Melisandre has catapulted Van Houten to a different level of fame – she is working on Domino, a suspense thriller directed by Brian de Palma and starring another GoT star, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jaime Lannister).
Yet she guards her privacy fiercely and refuses to post any pictures of her son on social media “because I cannot ask him if he’s all right with that. But there are so many moments in the day when I feel, ‘Ah, if only people knew how cute he is!'”
When she goes out in Amsterdam, where she and Pearce live, Van Houten wears tracksuit bottoms and glasses – “a really good way of hiding myself “. And when I ask her about her relationship with Pearce, she’s polite but noncommittal: she says she wants to talk about how great he is, but gets “carried away”.
One of Van Houten’s heroines is the Swedish actress Greta Garbo, who famously retired from public life at 35, declaring she wanted to be left alone.
Describing fame as a “mind-f…”, she adds, “As much as it has great sides to it – you know, free stuff, and if you call a restaurant they’ll make sure you have a table – it also makes you insecure, funnily enough. You’re like, ‘But if I wasn’t famous you wouldn’t have done that for me, so it’s nothing to do with who I am.’ That can kind of separate you from yourself.”
The love of Garbo comes from a wider interest in black-and-white films. Her father Theodore, a writer and broadcaster, was a silent-film connoisseur, and Van Houten and her younger sister Jelka were raised watching silent films.
This has left her with an abiding love of what she describes as “non-verbal art”, particularly Laurel and Hardy.
It was what made her want to be an actress, and she ended up attending the Kleinkunstacademie Theaterschool in Amsterdam before landing her first professional role. To this day, she prefers scenes with no dialogue, which partly explains why her performance as Melisandre is so hypnotic, even when she’s not speaking.
Her father, with whom she was very close, died last year of cancer. “I was almost five months pregnant when he died,” she says. “I think he knew he was not going to live to see Monte, so I feel like he couldn’t really connect too much [with my pregnancy] because I think it was too painful for him.”
He watched a bit of Game of Thrones but, as a student of film history, preferred his daughter in movies. “He always thought that I needed to be in a better film,” she says, smiling. “But yeah, he was very proud.”
Still, the nudity in the show would be fairly confronting for any parent, and Van Houten’s character has had her fair share of energetic sex scenes. Did she ever feel uncomfortable with that?
“In Melisandre’s case, I think I can justify it because she uses sexuality as a weapon … she’s trying to manipulate. I find it hypocritical that we can show people with their heads blown off, then there’s one nipple and viewers get upset. That’s the thing that I struggle with. You don’t have sex with a bra on!
“I would struggle more with my own vanity at this point to undress,” she adds, “because I feel way less secure about my body, especially after giving birth and having turned 40.”
Does she worry about ageing in an industry that is so guided by looks? She nods. “With auditions, I find sometimes that if I don’t get a role, then I do think, ‘Am I just too old?’ And it’s unfair because men don’t have that problem.”
She pauses, then adds, “I don’t want to give in to that whole thing and do something to my face just to keep working, but at the same time, this is what the industry has become. It’s tricky. And I really don’t know yet what I’m going to do about it. I wish I could say I love every line on my face.”
I don’t think I’ve heard such an honest answer from an actress about the ageing process. But then, as someone who plays a 300-year-old priestess, I suppose Van Houten has had more time to think about it than most.
The Game of Thrones finale is on Foxtel Showcase on Monday, 11am and 8.30pm.