A strange thing happens when you tell the same lie over and over again enough times: You start to believe it.
So it went for Carice van Houten, who plays Game of Thrones’ mysterious Red Priestess Melisandre. For close to 10 months, she was entrusted with TV’s most talked-about secret: the fate of Jon Snow, the heroic Lord Commander who was betrayed by his fellow Night’s Watchmen and murdered in the final scene of the HBO drama’s fifth season.
Sunday night’s episode, “Home,” finally confirmed what fans had hoped for all along: the Bastard of Winterfell rose from the dead thanks to the restorative power of R’hllor, the Lord of Light, as channeled by Melisandre. It was a redemptive moment for fans, many of whom suspected the outcome all along, for Snow, whose biggest moments are now yet to come, and for the priestess herself, whose faith in her life’s purpose had been shaken to its core.
Most of all, van Houten says, it was a bloody relief. For nearly a year, she was forced to lie to family, friends, and fans (“it was necessary,” she says) in order to preserve the mystery of the Lord Commander’s return. After a while, even after shooting the scene, she says, that lying started playing tricks on her mind.
“At some point, I really believed myself,” the 39-year-old Dutch singer and actress says. “I had to lie so, so much, you know, you sort of believe in your own lie. You can’t keep up with it. So at a certain point, I was like, ‘Of course he’s dead. No, he’s not gonna come back.’ I almost forgot that we shot that scene.”
Her memories of the long, tense shoot (the episode’s director Jeremy Podeswa was exacting: “We were shooting it from, like, 50,000 angles,” van Houten remembers) are bittersweet. When the scene was shot last summer, she says, “I was going through a really rough period myself. So when I look back at it…” A pause to audibly shudder. “It all comes back to me. There was tension in that room, definitely.”
Jon Snow’s resurrection, however, is only the latest indication that Melisandre’s magic—heretofore assumed to be mostly smoke and mirrors—is real and more powerful than previously imagined. Van Houten hopped on the phone from Amsterdam to discuss the latest twists in Melisandre’s story, viewers’ uncomfortable reactions to seeing a nude and wrinkled female body onscreen, and what she hopes to see as Game of Thrones nears the beginning of the end.
Sunday night was obviously huge for Jon Snow truthers, but I can’t get over what this might mean for Melisandre.
Yeah, it was a pretty big moment for me. (Laughs.)
The resurrection scene itself is so muted and understated, mournful and quiet. Not at all like the flames and the blood theatrics that we’ve seen from some of her other spells. What did that quality of it mean to you?
I think that’s great. The atmosphere on set was the same way. It was all up to me, I really felt the big pressure. This was the scene that everyone was waiting for and we were shooting it from like 50,000 angles and we’re doing it the whole day and here I am cleaning Kit’s body and trying not to tickle him and wake him up. So there was a lot of pressure in that room. And I was going through a really rough period myself. So when I look back at it, it all comes back to me. There was tension in that room, definitely.
How far back was the scene shot?
Oh, this was shot in July or August.
That is a very long time to be tasked with keeping such a huge secret.
Yes, but I had to keep up that lie with [Kit]. We had fun doing that. It was way tougher for him than for me but I got a few tricky questions from people.
Keeping it hidden from the rest of the cast for a time must have been especially difficult.
Yes. It was difficult. From them, from family and god knows how many people at conventions that have asked us. (Laughs.) We had to keep with a straight lie. And I don’t like lying, but it was definitely necessary. At some point, I even believed myself. You know, I had to lie so, so much you sort of believe in your own lie. You can’t keep up with it. So at a certain point, I was like, “Of course he’s dead. No, he’s not gonna come back.” I almost forgot that we shot that scene.
What did you make of people’s reactions to the scene?
I tweeted this tweet that said, “Happy now?” And I never had more retweets in my life. The people were just insanely happy about it. I’m sure they would have hated us more if we would have told them earlier. “Yes, it’s true, we’re gonna resurrect him.” I’m pretty sure they would have hated that much more.
Melisandre resurrecting Jon comes just one episode after another huge reveal: that she is actually ancient, maybe hundreds of years old, and her magic is real, not just smoke and mirrors like she led us to believe before.
I loved that, oh I couldn’t wait for that episode. I don't think anyone saw that coming. At all.
It was such a satisfying twist too, since Melisandre is one of the characters who’s depicted naked most often. Having that immaculate, powerful body turn out to be a ruse hiding extreme age and fragility feels almost subversive.
Yeah, and it’s funny to see how people react to that physical part. Apart from the shock, but also how uncomfortable people get with older nudity. A natural, older person’s body. Because of course in our society, in our world, everything that has to do with aging is a taboo. It’s something that we wanna stay away from. It’s a little sad. And here we see this woman, who we think is just going to disrobe, actually show [something else]. I really loved that moment.
I did too. It was hugely powerful.
And of course I understand the reaction of “keep the necklace on!” But mostly, I enjoyed the comments of how fragile that [makes her] look. How sympathetic that immediately makes someone if they are that fragile.
Another important, albeit more indirect moment for Melisandre came in Balon Greyjoy’s death, which means the spell she cast to strike down Stannis’s rival kings has finally been fulfilled. Or at least, so it seems. There’s always the chance it was just a crazy string of coincidences.
I like your thinking. That’s the great part of the show, the amount of theories you hear about any little detail is just great to me. Even my mother has a whole theory that she brings to me and I’m like, “She’s talking nonsense!” She has this all figured out for herself.
Your mom has a fan theory? What is it?
It’s all about how the dead are actually closer to the living than we think and Jon Snow this and that—I don’t even know, it’s baffling to me. But she has it all figured out, like many, many others. I’m not sure who’s right at this point anymore and that’s the fun as well for us, I think. Apart from the fact that it can be frustrating sometimes that there’s so much secrecy, it’s also fun. It’s just a great game.
Up until now, Melisandre has been one of the series’ most disliked (though misunderstood) characters. But after losing Stannis, questioning her faith and switching to Team Davos, it really feels like people are rooting for her for the first time. What should we look forward to seeing from her in the rest of the season?
Well, I can’t really tell you much more about this season, as you must understand. But I would like to sort of flow with these wings of sympathy that I got for a little bit longer. I’d like to be one of the cool guys for a change.
I think most people who watch are especially inclined now to think of Melisandre as one of the cool guys. It must be a nice change of pace.
Yeah, I mean in a good way. I got great, great comments from people saying how much they enjoyed hating me. And now it’s great to see all of a sudden “Melisandre for President” and “Do you want to marry me?” and all that stuff. It’s really funny to me. I’d like to ride that a little bit longer. It’s actually quite enjoyable, to be honest.
Even Davos is Team Mel now. It’s really like she’s fighting for the good guys.
(Laughs.) But for how long? You never know.
We’re entering the beginning of the end of the series now. Do you have hopes for what you want to see play out?
I just personally want this to end [in a way] where you feel like, you just don’t want it to end. It has to end with a big bang. The way the series is—it’s a big, epic thing. That’s the way we have to go. And therefore I think it’s good that we’re not making like 15 seasons. I just want to be left hungry. And I’ll deal with the fact that I’ll be left hungry forever.