Valar Morghulis

06.15.14

Game of Thrones’ Gwendoline Christie on Brienne of Tarth’s Epic S4 Finale Showdown with The Hound

The towering British actress discusses her strenuous mountaintop battle sequence, her love of Oathkeeper, and embracing ‘my androgyny.’ [WARNING: Spoilers]

Valar morghulis.

The High Valyrian saying translates to “All men must die,” which served as the tagline for the fourth season of HBO’s sweeping fantasy epic Game of Thrones. “All Men Must Die” was also the title to the series’ second season finale—one that saw Lady Catelyn Stark’s sworn protector, Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie), happen upon the desecrated corpses of three women lynched by House Stark henchmen while transporting the Kingslayer, Jaime Lannister, to King’s Landing to swap for Sansa and Arya Stark. When the warrior runs into the Stark soldiers, she disposes of them with extreme prejudice, silencing the chatty Jaime.

One of the standout sequences of the fourth season finale, entitled “The Children,” sees Brienne clash with The Hound, played by Rory McCann. Sporting Jaime’s armor and Valyrian steel, “Oathkeeper,” the towering blonde had been on the road most of this season searching for the two Stark girls, when she happens upon The Hound and Arya. Brienne demands the deformed, less savage Clegane brother fork her over, but he refuses, hell-bent on receiving his bounty. And what transpires is one of the most gripping showdowns all season—a duel to the death atop a mountain that sees “I’m no lady” Brienne emerge victorious. It’s a scene that, like many this season, deviated considerably from George R.R. Martin’s books.

In addition to Game of Thrones, Christie was recently cast in an unspecified role in J.J. Abrams’s highly anticipated Star Wars: Episode VII, as well as the part of Commander Lyme in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2—arguably the two biggest films of 2015. 

The British actress spoke to The Daily Beast about the spellbinding Thrones finale, femininity, how online fan forums inspired her to play Brienne, and much more.

Are you in London… in a galaxy far, far away?

[Laughs] I am indeed in London and I believe I’m allowed to say, now, that I’m heavily ensconced in that. I can’t say anything about Star Wars whatsoever!

Let’s talk about your massive Game of Thrones finale. What was it like shooting this epic showdown with Rory McCann’s The Hound?

It’s so entertaining to be involved with so many projects that are so enshrouded in secrecy. It was absolutely mammoth—a mammoth task—and one that took an awful lot of preparation. Rory and I trained for two months for it, and we’ve seen Brienne sword fighting before like on the bridge with Jaime Lannister, which took two weeks of training, but this was something else entirely. The brilliant C.C. Smiff [GoT swordmaster], who taught me to sword fight, also taught me to fight. I’d done boxing before in preparation for playing Brienne at the Trinity Boxing Club in L.A., but this was something that was entirely out of my comfort zone. I went through several periods wondering if I’d be able to do this incredible fight justice since it wasn’t an organized form of fighting—it was a scrappy, rough-and-tumble form of fighting. But Brienne believes she’s serving a moral cause; that she’s still working to serve her oath to Catelyn Stark.

“I felt it would be a useful challenge to let go of those things and embrace something else—to embrace my androgyny.”

How intense did it get? Did you get injured at all?  

I got really badly beaten up. They protect you and put the stunt pads on you, but you’re having a fight. It happened on the top of a mountain in Iceland in blisteringly hot sunshine and I had my armor on and Rory had his armor on, and Rory McCann is a phenomenally talented and committed actor—and I’m very committed also—so we put a lot of dedication into the fight. It was absolutely mind-blowing and one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. We spent three days shooting the fight and I came away from the first day with my hands so swollen just from holding the sword and the work. I fell over constantly and you end up with nicks and things. After the final day of shooting the fight, we sat together in the car ride home and he turns around and looks at me, and I looked at him, and we couldn’t believe what we’d gone through. It’s acting, but there was something primal that was awakened in both of us.

You said your hand was swollen from holding “Oathkeeper.” How heavy is it?

It’s the most beautiful sword I’ve ever seen in my life. I was offered by the stunt department to use a rubber sword and I refused because it’s such a magnificent piece of design. It is heavy, but what I love about Game of Thrones is the intricacy of design and the integrity of how everything is carried out, so it’s an absolutely pleasure to carry and use. I asked Dan and David, “Could I please have an Oathkeeper sword?” and they smiled and told me, “When you’re dead.”

Did you have a favorite moment in the fight?

The sword fighting was some of the hardest I ever had to do because the mountaintop was incredibly uneven, and I had to do a lot of running backwards while sword fighting, which wasn’t easy. The scene at the end is my favorite where the swords are lost and it becomes physical combat, and you really feel it’s very likely that Brienne could die—but then she gets one last burst of energy and powers through. That was true of the character, and on that day, it was true of the actress, too. [Laughs]

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Helen Sloan/HBO

Brienne resorted to the same technique—or lack thereof—with Jaime on the bridge. She realized he was the better swordsman, so she started showering him with body blows.

I don’t think Brienne ever enjoys it—she doesn’t want to fight—but she has such a moral sensibility that she’s utterly focused in the execution of that, and she will do whatever she has to do to serve justice. Brienne has an incredible will that drives her, and that is that she wants to do good; to do the best that she possibly can.

Speaking of Brienne and Jaime, I’m a big fan of their sexual chemistry. It even makes Cersei jealous to the point where she calls her out on it at the Purple Wedding.

Well, I believe that relationship is unique because it’s based on a begrudging respect for one another. It’s not based on sexual allure, but on two people who go through extraordinary experiences together, and who have revealed things to one another that they’ve probably never revealed to anyone before, and that closeness has resulted in their bond. On the surface, they appear as entirely different people, but they find a kinship and we’ll see if that can be maintained.

I want to see them make out.

[Laughs] Oh my goodness!

Back to Brienne, and the big fight. Brienne is really undefeated so far when it comes to fighting—with the exception of Melisandre’s smoke monster, although there wasn’t really anything she could do about that.

Can you give me any tips on how to deal with the smoke monster? Because it still keeps me awake at night. What about the way in which it was born! [Laughs]

Video screenshot

How were you initially cast as Brienne? George R.R. Martin’s said that you came in dressed in character and landed it on the spot.

I love that story. I wish it were real. So many people have asked me if I walked into the audition in armor, or that I walked into the audition on a horse, but I’m afraid neither of those things are true. I heard about the part of Brienne because there was something on the Internet about me being cast in an HBO series, so I Googled this and found amazing forums filled with hundreds of passionate people brought together over their love for this series of books. I then had a look at the character of Brienne, started reading the books, totally fell in love with her, and wanted to play her really, really badly.

I knew it would be a very physical role and hadn’t done any sword fighting before, so I lost about a stone-and-a-half in weight, and trained with a friend in kickboxing, yoga, and did all that I could to get into the right kind of shape. Also, prior to the part I had long, blonde hair, and was dressed in a consciously feminized manner. Without makeup, I’m very, very fair—I have incredibly blonde, pale eyebrows and eyelashes—and Brienne was an outsider who was considered to be ugly, so I thought about what that meant, and I thought about the ways in which women are conceived in society and about the constrictions of conventions of attractiveness, and I felt that if I stripped all those things away in myself, that would give me a better chance of being cast in this role, because that’s where I felt Brienne and I could meet. So, I stopped wearing makeup and stopped wearing very feminized clothing, and I paid attention to the way I walked, held my body, and spoke, and tried to direct that to a more neutralized state. I was prepared to have my hair cut off for the role, and a lot of women’s notions of femininity and their identity is tied up with their hair, so I felt that it was important that Brienne have short hair because she’s practical. I felt it would be a useful challenge to let go of those things and embrace something else—to embrace my androgyny.

What was your favorite scene to shoot this season?

I so enjoyed shooting the Purple Wedding over five days in Croatia. I’m lucky enough to be in the show but I’m also a fan of the show, so being around all of these actors that you admire was really fantastic and so glorious to all be together, because normally we’re spread out all over the place, so often you don’t get to see people from one season to the next. 

We’re going to see more of you in the upcoming seasons, right?

Oh, I hope so. But I don’t know anything!