“I am feeling a little sick, so if I’m throwing up during the interview, don’t take it personally,” says a chuckling Carice van Houten.
She has reason to feel ill. It’s the day after the fetching Dutch actress’s diabolical character, Melisandre, has carried out one of the most horrifying acts ever on HBO’s ultraviolent fantasy epic Game of Thrones.Yes, plenty of messed-up shit has happened in Wild Wild Westeros, from twincest (and twincest rape) to slaughtering a newborn baby in a brothel to depicting the impaled head of George W. Bush. But what happened during Season 5’s penultimate episode, “The Dance of Dragons,” was a horse of a different color.
After Ramsay Bolton pulls off a successful raid on the military encampment of Stannis Baratheon, killing 20 soldiers and burning loads of food, his fiery consiglière and occasional F-buddy, the Red Priestess of the Lord of Light Melisandre, is visibly shaken. She watches as a burning horse gallops past her and, for the first time since she and Stannis glanced into the flames, feels like she’s losing control.
“I think the event is pretty shocking to her, and she didn’t see it coming at all—that’s troubling to her, because she’s foreseen most things,” says van Houten. “But sometimes, I think her visions are a little blurry.”
Two episodes prior, Melisandre had tried to convince Stannis that the only way to survive the pending invasion of Winterfell is to sacrifice his cute little daughter, Princess Shireen, to the Lord of Light (translation: burn her at the stake). King’s Blood is the ultimate offering to the Lord of Light and has proven quite effective in the past (see: Robb Stark, Joffrey Baratheon).
“She has proven that King’s Blood works,” says van Houten. “She is, first and foremost, a religious person—a priestess—and follows exactly what the Lord of Light wants her to do. She’s not just superhuman, but sees her missions in the flames and follows the visions. Melisandre is a total believer.”
But Stannis rubbished the thought. After all, this season he had confessed his undying affection for his daughter, stating how proud he was of her and how he went to great lengths to protect her greyscale-afflicted neck.
Following the Bolton mini-raid, he has a change of heart. Stannis and his wife look on—he stoic, she in screaming horror—as Melisandre burns poor Shireen alive.
“It’s a very weird scene to play. I had to close certain parts of my soul,” says a disturbed van Houten. “It’s appalling. And the only way I tried to play it, which comes across as purely evil, is to be content with the fact that we were doing this because in Melisandre’s head, it’s the only way to save us all. She can’t show any emotion. She wants Stannis on the throne because she thinks he’s the rightful king she saw in the flames, so she sees the bigger picture—them or us. Melisandre thinks, ‘If we let the girl live, we’re going to die anyway, so we need to make this big sacrifice.’”
Van Houten also feels that the brutal killing of Shireen was narratively justified.
When Stannis lost the Battle of Blackwater, Melisandre calmed him and the two looked deep into the flames, where they saw a dark vision of the future: an epic battle in the snow. “You will betray your family,” she told him. “You will betray everything you hold dear.” And it was Melisandre who’d convinced Stannis to bring Shireen to the Wall—even though it was clearly no place for a little girl. It seems as if she’s been plotting this all along. “She wanted to have the card up her sleeve,” van Houten says.
Before shooting the troubling scene—don’t worry, they burned a dummy—van Houten and Kerry Ingram, the 16-year-old who plays Shireen, shared a touching moment.
“We had a lot of fun in the tent before, and she is the sweetest girl,” recalls van Houten. “She gave me a little present—and she was dying! I felt bad and thought I should have brought her something. She got me an eternal flame, one of those candles with a fake flame on it. Really cute.”
Shireen’s death didn’t receive close to the amount of criticism that the recent rape of Sansa Stark did—presumably because that incident seemed like narrative overkill. But the Sansa rape and the backlash it generated shined a spotlight on Thrones’ general attitude toward violence against women, and even provoked author George R.R. Martin to spring to the show’s defense, writing, “Rape, unfortunately, is still a part of war today.” The show (and his books), he wrote, reflect “a patriarchal society based on the Middle Ages” that was not a time of “sexual egalitarianism.”
Van Houten seems to be in agreement with Martin. “It’s tricky,” she says. “I tend to think we’re doing the right thing because we have a lot of strong female characters, and it’s true what George R.R. Martin says—it’s a mirror of what happens in reality. It’s confrontational. If you made a truly historical series, you’d see even worse things—especially with women. That being said, I can imagine people find a lot of it hard to watch.”
She also admits that the sacrifice of Shireen is the worst thing Melisandre’s done on the show—worse than the shadow baby assassin and that time she put all those leeches on Gendry’s penis.
“I get good stuff, man: births with shadow babies, leeches, and this. But this is the worst because it’s a child,” says van Houten. “You have to always defend your own character, you know? But in this case, it’s not easy. How far do people go for power? It can’t get worse than that.”