Gwendoline Christie’s character in Top of the Lake: China Girl might be one of the most relatable on screen this year: someone who is obsessed with the work of Elisabeth Moss.
Christie is best known for playing the towering figures, both of stature and spirit, Brienne of Tarth in Game of Thrones and Captain Phasma in the new Star Wars films. “Tiny little indies,” she jokes.
For Top of the Lake, however, creator-director-writer Jane Campion casts Christie in a different light. She plays Miranda, a hapless, pregnant police officer in Sydney with a puppy-dog keenness to work alongside someone she’s idolized through lore: Moss’ Detective Robin Griffin, who in the first season of Top of the Lake, exposed a child sexual abuse scandal in a New Zealand police force while investigating the statutory rape and disappearance of a pregnant 12-year-old.
“That was easy to play,” Christie laughs, over a breakfast chat in Los Angeles a few weeks before Game of Thrones wrapped its most recent season and China Girl’s premiere this Sunday on Sundance. “It’s no secret that I’m equally as obsessed with Lizzie [Moss] in real life as my character is in Top of the Lake. She’s an absolute exquisite delight, who I adored working with.”
It’s as jarring a meet-cute for Moss’ Robin and Christie’s Miranda when Robin is begrudgingly assigned to mentor the junior officer as it is for the audience to encounter Christie in Top of the Lake’s salt-of-earth, moody Australian context.
Gone are the suits of armor, the regal steeliness, and the feats of strength. In its place is a woman who, unlike Brienne or Phasma, hasn’t quite translated the things that ostracize her—her height, her paleness, her quirky personality—into ferocious power. Instead we find a lonely police officer whose eagerness is married to defeatism, and who often finds herself uncomfortable in her own world.
When she’s assigned to help Robin investigate the murder of a young girl whose body is found in a suitcase that washes up on shore, it’s all the more dejecting, then, when the detective she lionized because of her victory in New Zealand has no appetite for living up to the hype.
“Miranda spent a lot of time thinking about who this person could be instead of looking at the person in front of her,” Christie says. “I think she’s ultimately disappointed that this person is not openhearted and forthcoming, but instead is very closed.”
Whether making the misguided volley of welcoming Robin to her new apartment while wearing a goofy space helmet, or bearing the sight-joke indignity of trailing behind her uninterested superior while an imposing full foot taller than her, Christie transforms what might have been a one-note character defined by silliness and sadness into one brimming with a stirring brio.
“Jane was very focused on this idea of fans, and what it is to be a fan,” Christie says. “And Jane felt that it was important that Miranda should come across as being annoying, which I found amusing to play.”
The idea of fandom and working alongside a professional hero is a bit of art imitating life for Christie when it comes to Top of the Lake. Like many aspiring actresses, Christie has been a fan of Campion’s work since she first saw An Angel at My Table at age 11. When she was in drama school, she watched The Piano so many times that, eschewing, say, the 11 o’clock news, she’d turn it on to fall asleep to each night.
Then there’s this: When I ask Christie what turn of events led to Campion penning the role of Miranda explicitly for her—an honor not many actresses can claim—she can barely get out her response before immediately blushing. “I wrote her a letter.”
Back in 2008, after being too nervous to accept a mutual friend’s offer to introduce her to her childhood hero, Christie wrote Campion a letter, but, again getting cold feet, waited 18 months to send it. Four months after finally putting the correspondence—tantamount to a love letter—in the mail, Campion rang her on the phone. “She said I’ve been dreaming about you and I wrote a part for you in my new series and I hope you can do it.”
Sweetening the already improbable offer was that Campion worked with Christie to ensure that the role would be a stretch from anything she’s played before.
There’s a certain intensity one might associate with a 6-foot-3 actress slaying bloody sword fights in the most popular series on television. While we chat, the 38-year-old actress reads more like your favorite aunt, with the bubbling personality of an Emma Thompson and an irreverence that would be met with nothing short of a scowl from Brienne of Tarth.
Pouring a bottle of still water into my glass instead of the sparkling—“I’m full service”—she mockingly assures me with a hearty laugh, “So you’ll have less bloating.” She’s been enjoying her summer in Los Angeles doing press for Thrones and Top of the Lake, though she embodies her inner Brit for a cheesy jibe: “I don’t understand this fiery orb. I’ve never seen one before.”
Understandably, she fawns over the opportunity to play a character so different from Brienne of Tarth or Phasma with the frantic passion of a child raving about their favorite Christmas toy. But she’s also quick to walk back any sense of being ungrateful for those opportunities, which are revolutionary in their own right.
“By the way, I’m extremely proud to play those parts because I think it’s a magnificent thing that’s starting to happen in mainstream culture, whereby we are seeing representations of unconventional characters who overcome the obstacle,” she says. “What I love about Brienne of Tarth, is that it’s her character—literally her moral upstanding, her character—that we’ve fallen in love with, rather than anything to do with the way she’s been made flesh.”
For all the strength, fortitude, and brawn that she’s been able to flaunt in those roles, it’s Miranda that flexes Christie’s acting muscle, stretching her further than we’ve been able to see from her on screen thus far.
“It’s difficult to play the outsider who continues to be quashed, who continues to fail, who is never successful, who is always marginalized,” she says. “But it’s probably actually quite a realistic portrayal of how most of us feel in life. It was interesting to me to play someone deeply vulnerable, who was so sad and lost and crumbling, who has no strength, no skill, and not really a lot going for them.”
But there was also the opportunity to be funny, which Miranda often is. Very much so.
“I felt it was a saving grace of the character, too,” Christie says. “I think Miranda’s able to laugh at herself and does these things to entertain herself. That was interesting to me, that someone who was crumbling, who was lost and sad, does that. It’s always the tears of a clown, isn’t it?”
It’s a new shade of female character in a series that is bluntly feminist without being didactic or preaching. It’s all the more interesting that Christie co-stars with Elisabeth Moss and Nicole Kidman in China Girl, as those actresses’ respective series, The Handmaid’s Tale and Big Little Lies, have been the subject of countless think pieces and cheering over how women are changing television, both on screen and behind the camera.
Christie is quick to praise them, but also her own hit television series. “Back in 2011 when I read the books for Game of Thrones, I thought surely they’ll cut all the female parts down because that’s what traditionally happens,” she says. “But the women remained at the forefront. I’m intensely proud to be part of a show that at the time, when other programs weren’t doing that, was doing that in a way that wasn’t thought about, wasn’t formulaic, wasn’t strategic.”
That said, she’s over the moon to now add her involvement in Top of the Lake: China Girl alongside all three of those series as soldiers in a sort of TV revolution.
“It’s no secret that we’ve lived in a patriarchal society, and as a consequence, there is a whole mine of stories about women being something other than the mother or the girlfriend,” she says. “Put them in a frontal position for audiences to enjoy. As we’re seeing with the amazing success of Wonder Woman, it makes money. So in terms of art, humanity, and the unfortunate but necessary element of commerce, it makes sense. I am delighted to see more and I am hoping for more and there needs to be more.”