The ever-naked prostitute Ros is at the heart of the mini-controversy over Game of Thrones' “sexposition.” Jace Lacob talks to actress Esmé Bianco about her character’s grim trajectory.
Fans of HBO’s Game of Thrones who have read the voluminous novels in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series upon which the show is based often have an edge over nonreaders, given that they’re only too aware of what’s to come.
But, in adapting Game of Thrones from Martin’s work, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss at times shift away from the texts to explore off-camera sequences, insert new twists and turns, and create new scenarios for the characters to face. In season one, Benioff and Weiss went so far to create an original character just for the show: prostitute Ros, who quickly fell into bed with several of the major players and continues to turn up throughout the show’s second season.
A fiery redhead who has clawed her way to a position of relative power within a King’s Landing brothel owned by Aidan Gillen’s Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish, Ros is played by 29-year-old English actress Esmé Bianco, a former burlesque performer, singer, and Agent Provocateur and Modern Courtesan lingerie model. Originally intended to appear in just the pilot, Bianco—who said her character was created initially as a “plot device”—has continued to add a level of unpredictability to the proceedings. Because she was created for the television show, viewers never know what to expect from Ros … or what her role in the overall story will become.
When we last saw Bianco’s Ros, who returns to Game of Thrones in Sunday’s episode, she was forced to brutally beat a fellow prostitute, Daisy (Maisie Dee), by the sociopathic child king Joffrey (Jack Gleeson). It was a savage, disturbing scene of escalation and punishment and served as a reminder that Ros is a pawn in a larger game of power.
“Things don’t become much sunnier for Ros,” Bianco told The Daily Beast, over cocktails at a West Hollywood hideaway. “I was trying to think of one character who is having a good time at the moment … and there’s no one. She’s having as much of a tough time as everyone else.”
The scene in question lead to a critics’ debate on Twitter about whether Joffrey had, in fact, forced Ros to rape or sodomize Daisy with a stag’s head scepter, which Bianco quickly denied. “Wow, no,” she said. “What got cut from the edit was that I was beating her and you see the scepter coming down [with] blood on the end of it … I’m [actually] hitting a pillow. I had to hit it with all my force, and I broke the scepter. People were gluing it back together because antlers were coming off.”
Mini-debate aside, the shocking scene underpinned the show’s exploration of the constantly shifting landscape of power. Here Ros is given a choice: beat this girl almost to death or die yourself.
“No matter where any of the characters think they’ve gotten to in terms of power, there’s always somebody that’s willing to beat them down,” she said. “It’s the one time that we see Ros where her sex appeal does nothing for her and doesn’t get her out of that situation. It’s not about her being a prostitute; it’s about her being just another person that Joffrey is going to stomp on.”
In person, Bianco is striking: graceful and porcelain-skinned, a soigné swan. She left behind a burlesque career when she relocated to America to focus on acting. Known for her neo-burlesque routines—fast, dark, and humorous affairs (“Nobody has the attention span to watch a girl take her stockings off for 15 minutes,” she said)—such as her signature show, “White Wedding,” in which she played a bride who gets jilted at the altar, Bianco performed at clubs and gave a well-reviewed show at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, where from atop a piano she sang “Put the Blame on Mame,” a song made famous by another iconic redhead, Rita Hayworth.
“Being new in town, it was really important to focus and knuckle down,” she said of her decision to focus on acting. “I didn’t want the fact that I was doing burlesque shows and also taking my clothes off on Game of Thrones to suddenly be seen as ‘that naked girl.’”
Much discussed has been Ros’s near-constant nudity in the series and what academic Myles McNutt deemed “sexposition,” the show’s usage of sex and nudity in order to service backstory or large swaths of monologue or exposition. Bianco has typically been at the center of this controversy, appearing in a season-one scene in which Ros and another female prostitute “practiced” on each other while Gillen’s Littlefinger indulged in a monologue. Bianco was only too aware of the criticism that the scene and its ilk engendered, and expected it.
“There was no way that the scene with Littlefinger in the brothel wasn’t going to ruffle a couple of feathers,” she said. “The books are not an easy read. They are brutal and have their fair share of sex in them. It would be naïve to think that HBO would take a story in that genre and just do the safe … version of it. That scene is beautifully shot and shows quite clearly the kind of world that the characters are living in.”
It also says something about Littlefinger as a character. “It’s very telling about his relationship with Catelyn (Michelle Fairley),” said Bianco. “He is watching these two girls get down, and he cares nothing about it. All he’s interested in is the game of power and this woman who he never managed to marry.”
Which might be missed upon first glance due to two naked women in the background. Still, Bianco maintained that both this scene and an earlier one between Ros and Alfie Allen’s Theon Greyjoy revealed details about their characters that perhaps wouldn’t have come out had they been more guarded. But the presence of naked bodies has proven difficult for some to see past.
“When there’s a naked woman on the screen, people start making judgments about it,” Bianco said. “I’ve been over here [in Los Angeles] since Game of Thrones came out, so I don’t know how different the reaction has been in Europe, where people are a lot more tolerant of nudity on screen. People [here] see a pair of breasts, and they forget that there’s a story going on.”
Yet Bianco thinks that the objectification of women in situations like these is not really relevant anymore. “Objectivity is almost a choice you make,” she said. “As a burlesque performer, I didn’t choose to be objectified. I’m entertaining people, and people can choose to see me as an object because I’m naked, but I don’t choose to see myself like that … I hold the power.”
“It’s almost an outdated argument to a greater or lesser extent, because nobody is forcing anybody to be in that situation. I don’t think the very fact that I’m a woman makes me suddenly more vulnerable or more inherently used and abused.”
Bianco’s Ros has slowly become a literal connector between many of the main characters, building up an arsenal of secrets as she crosses paths with Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), Theon, Littlefinger, Joffrey, Grand Maester Pycelle (Julian Glover), and others. And, while we never see them meet, Jon Snow (Kit Harington) revealed that he almost lost his virginity to Ros.
“There’s definitely something to be said for the fact that she’s a common thread between all of these people, which I don’t think any of them realize,” Bianco said. “People are unguarded around her, which will prove to be interesting.”
Bianco sees Ros as having undergone a big transformation. “There’s a person beyond the plot device,” she said, and Ros is more than mere window-dressing. “She’s a cocky girl, and there’s no denying that,” said Bianco. “She knows how far she can push it, but she knows at what point society is not going to ever accept her … The problems that she faces are very representative of the problems that women face today, but you hope that not too many women are forced to beat their coworkers with a large stag-headed scepter.”
Bianco is in the dark about where Ros is headed, however. “Anything is possible if your head’s not been lopped off,” she said, laughing. “As far as I’m concerned, if you’re not dead in the books, then you’ve got a fighting chance.”