Game of Thrones’ Queen of Thorns: Diana Rigg on Feminism, Sansa’s Rape, and Paul McCartney

The legendary screen actress Diana Rigg opens up about all things Olenna Tyrell, swingin’ ’60s London, and what feminism means to her.

06.01.15 9:15 AM ET

A recent episode of Game of Thrones featured a sight to behold: Olenna Tyrell, Westeros’s saltiest septuagenarian—dubbed the Queen of Thorns for her biting barbs and worldly insouciance—standing in the middle of a blood-splattered bordello, surrounded by medieval sex toys. That she’s played by the one and only Dame Diana Rigg made it all the more perfect.

“I loved that!” exclaims an animated Rigg. “I thought I’d have a photograph taken and use it as a birthday card. There were broken dildos all over the floor—ceramic dildos.”

Of course, none of this fazed her in the slightest. “At my age, shock was a long way off,” she says.

Olenna truly gives zero fucks. In her more youthful days, she found herself engaged to a member of House Targaryen, but was wildly opposed to the union because of his “ludicrous silver hair.” So, she hatched a scheme: seduce her sister Viola’s betrothed, Luthor Tyrell, on the night before he was meant to propose, shag him so well it’d leave him “unable to walk downstairs,” and shatter the relationship. Et voila, Targaryen became Tyrell.

And who better to play this brassy broad than Rigg? After all, it was her catsuited chemistry genius/ass-kicking super agent Emma Peel on TV’s The Avengers that not only served as a forerunner to Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, but also was a feminist icon and sex symbol.

Fifty years since debuting as Peel, Rigg is still showing the men how it’s done. Her Olenna is, with the exception of perhaps a mid-bender Tyrion, the most humorous figure in Westeros, cracking wise about everything from her bowel movements to sex; a bawdy breath of fresh air amid all the chaos, sex, and carnage. She’s also one of the most devious—orchestrating the murder of Joffrey Baratheon, pimping her granddaughter Margaery out to tween Tommen, and most recently, having Cersei thrown in the slammer after exposing (via Littlefinger) her incestuous relationship with Lancel.

The HBO series’ showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss added Rigg to the cast in Season 3, and she says the role “just sort of happened.” They asked, and she obliged. Even though she was entirely unfamiliar with the show, she felt it was a “wonderful part.” And it’s only gotten juicier in Season 5, as Olenna’s returned to King’s Landing to side with Margaery against the vengeful Cersei, earning her nickname with the mother of all burns: “Well, if it isn’t the famous tart, Queen Cersei.”

She says it’s one of her favorite disses she’s delivered on the show, and had a blast shooting the shade-throwing sequence.

“It’s great fun to have a scene like that where you’re sparring across the desk together. We’re both very strong women, but we’re vying for the top position, as it were—both of us wanting to control the other,” Rigg says. 

“They’re both very determined women and don’t let anything get in the way of their goals, so they have that in common,” she continues. “Olenna has a bit more humor—I think Cersei is quite serious, and doesn’t see the funny side, which Olenna does quite often. And for the sake of their family, they would do anything.”

Diana Rigg as Olenna Tyrell on 'Game of Thrones.', Diana Rigg as Olenna Tyrell on 'Game of Thrones.', Diana Rigg as Olenna Tyrell on 'Game of Thrones.'

That same episode ended with one of the more controversial scenes in Thrones history: the rape of Sansa Stark at the hands of Ramsay Bolton. But Rigg doesn’t see what all the fuss was about.

“I think people just don’t like to be confronted with that sort of reality, and obviously react,” she says. “But the fact of the matter is it does go on—not least of which in Africa and places of war. Wherever there’s a war, there’s rape.”

She goes on to say that the depiction of numerous “strong” women on Thrones is something to be celebrated. “I think it’s absolutely terrific. I’ve always been on the side of fully emancipated women with independent minds,” says Rigg.

And she gets on with the other actresses on Thrones like gangbusters, with many of the younger female stars, including Sophie Turner and Natalie Dormer, referring to her on set as “Dame.”

“That’s their tease, actually,” says Rigg with a chuckle. “It’s sweet. It’s a sort of tease, because we’re very friendly and they’re sending me up, really!”

Rigg has made a rare trip to New York to present an award to a friend, and took time out of her whirlwind schedule to chat with me by phone from her hotel room.

Like Olenna, Rigg has seen it all.

During the first season of The Avengers, Rigg famously called out the show’s producers after discovering she made less (£150 a week) than a cameraman on the show, resulting in her salary being tripled.

“They painted me as a mercenary person, which I wasn’t being at all, I just wanted parity,” she recalls. “I thought it was ridiculous that I was being paid less than a cameraman, and I wanted to shame them. And I did.”

In the ’70s, years after her tenure (’65-’68) ended on Avengers, Rigg was approached by Second Wave feminists to be a face of the movement, but she famously declined.

Diana Rigg as Emma Peel in 'The Avengers.', Diana Rigg as Emma Peel in 'The Avengers.', Diana Rigg as Emma Peel in 'The Avengers.'

“They approached me, and by that time they were very, very politicized, and quite honestly, I’ve always thought it was a question of money, largely,” Rigg says of feminism. “You can’t actually legislate what goes on in people’s minds and their attitudes, but you certainly can legislate for parity where pay and salaries are concerned. In the tennis world, for example, Billie Jean King did the most wonderful battle against the inequalities that were happening there, and got a lot of respect for it. If you’re earning equal pay to a man you get respect. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is.”

“Everything else follows,” she adds. “And if a woman has her own money and is in a relationship, she’s free to do exactly what she wants, and doesn’t have to answer to the man.”

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The height of Rigg’s popularity came during a pivotal time in popular culture—swingin’ ’60s London. And the stunning Rigg was, let’s say, in very high demand.

When asked how ’60s London was, she perks up. “FUN with a capital F-U-N,” she says. “There were quite a few wild times. I remember Paul McCartney arriving on my doorstep quite out of the blue. He had their latest record, Sgt. Pepper’s. He just arrived, said he wanted to meet me, and gave me this record and it was absolutely charming… and that was it!”

Rigg, at 76, still radiates cool, refusing to utter any more words than she has to. How many suitors did she have chasing her in the ’60s? “Oh, a certain number, yes.” Did she have any legendary conquests? “Oh, I don’t dare talk about those.” Does she still have the Avengers catsuit somewhere? “There were several, but no—it was deeply uncomfortable and very hot!” Will she be back next season on Thrones? “Oh, you do know my lips are sealed about that.”

She also had a ball filming a hilarious cameo on Ricky Gervais' HBO series Extras as herself—getting an unwrapped condom accidentally flung onto her face by a particularly horny version of Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe (played by Radcliffe), sporting a Boy Scout uniform.

“I absolutely loved the idea!” says Rigg. “And I went for it because it was such fun—and funny! And it was lovely working with Daniel because he’s an adorable young man. We were just a couple of actors getting on with it, and it took us a long time to film it because we were dying with laughter.”

But Rigg says, with The Avengers and Game of Thrones, she feels blessed to star on a pair of zeitgeisty TV series 50 years apart: “I’m very lucky, and I know it. I’m enjoying every minute of it.”

When asked if she has any non-Thrones projects in the pipeline, she laughs. “Oh, goodness, no. No, no, no,” Rigg says. “I have a chateau in France that I go to from time to time. Armagnac and—I hate to say it, because it’s about to be banned—but foie gras is delicious. Animal-rights people, please don’t send me bombs!”