Lena Headey on Saying Goodbye to ‘Game of Thrones’ and Cersei Lannister
The British actress dishes to Marlow Stern about her new film, ‘Fighting With My Family,’ and playing the iconic villainess Cersei on one of the greatest TV shows ever.
Lena Headey says fuck a lot. She is covered in tattoos—over a dozen—and possessed of an insouciance and flair for badinage that comes with being the Yorkshire-bred tomboy daughter of a mustachioed cop who could seriously take the piss out of himself. The British actress is, in short, mega cool, so it’s little surprise she’s brought a character like Cersei Lannister, one of the most deliciously sinister to ever grace the screen, to thrilling life.
“This is not my own work,” offers Headey, drawing attention to her makeup with a leisurely wave. “Yes, I lived in a tomboy phase. I still do… They asked me to leave ballet when I was 5 or 6. They just said to my mom, ‘It’s a waste of my time and your cash. Take her out.’”
She was naturally drawn to the tale of the Knights, a rowdy family of professional wrestlers in Norwich and the subjects of the 2012 documentary The Wrestlers: Fighting With My Family (it didn’t hurt that Headey is also “a documentary monster… I just eat them up”). And when she got word that Stephen Merchant (of The Office fame) and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson were developing a feature film based on the Knights, she leapt at the chance to star as the clan’s no-nonsense matriarch, Sweet Saraya, and flex her comedy muscles.
Those were put to the test early on, when Headey was tasked with helping to anchor a wild dinner-table sequence alongside seasoned comedy pros Merchant, Julia Davis, and Nick Frost, who plays her hubby, Rowdy Ricky Knight. “I thought, right, I just have to fucking go for it, otherwise I’ll be so intimidated I won’t be able to speak,” she recalls.
Directed by Merchant and produced by Johnson, Fighting With My Family tells the story of Paige (Florence Pugh), who at the age of 18 was given the chance to audition to be the next WWE superstar—much to the chagrin of her older brother, Zak Zodiac. It’s the chance of a lifetime for Paige, the daughter of a former gangster and a mother who’d attempted to take her own life, and her working-class family, who run the amateur World Association of Wrestling, touring the countryside performing DIY gigs for local fans. “This is our ticket out,” Ricky says, and he’s not wrong.
Though Headey was “in my too-cool-for-school teenager phase, walking in and out of the house” and not a fan of wrestling herself, she found immense pleasure in throwing haymakers and bodyslams during filming. “I loved every minute of getting to punch Florence,” she says with a laugh. “She was great, like, ‘Just go for it!””
“It’s really tough, because you don’t want to fuck anyone up!” she adds. “If you just move a little bit wrong or mistime something, it’s not good for anybody.”
Fighting with My Family, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, is the opening salvo in what will surely be a very big year for Headey, who will reprise her role as Cersei Lannister, the baddest bitch in Westeros, in the eighth and final season of HBO’s Game of Thrones, premiering April 14.
When we last left Cersei, she’d been abandoned by her brother-lover Jaime for double-crossing Jon, Dany, and Tyrion in their pending war against the White Walkers despite being pregnant with his child (or so she claims). She now has no one to temper her anger, so everyone is on notice.
As for how she channels the ruthless Cersei, well, a lot of it has to do with that cropped blonde wig: “That makes me very angry, so that helps when they put [the wig] on at 6 a.m. and I’m like, fuck.” She snickers. “I do this thing before a take where I just have to have a little minute of getting to the place where I’m immersed in it myself, and I believe everything I’m about to say, because there’s nothing I find more uncomfortable as an audience than I don’t believe you. I have to buy into who she is, and that takes a little minute of reassessing everything and blocking out everything else.”
“I’m also a total twat as well,” she continues, cracking a wry smile. “We fuck around more than anyone will ever know. I’m always saying, ‘Can we not do one comedy take?’ And David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss] are just like, ‘No! We don’t have the time!’ If we did a comedy version of Thrones we’d have enough for two series. We’re such a bunch of eejits, it’s the funniest thing.”
Over its eight years on television, Game of Thrones has emerged as HBO’s crown jewel—not just their most popular program (by a mile), but one that’s inspired legions of fiercely dedicated fans who’ve memorized its labyrinthine plot, live-tweet its episodes, and cosplay at conventions. When filming wrapped in June, the cast and crew partook in a huge wrap party in Belfast, one of the show’s central shooting locations.
“There was a massive wrap party, and I’m not really good with wrap parties, but this one was massive—like 2,500 people—and it was in Belfast. There were many themes happening and many drinks, but I’m sort of like, ‘Peace out! See ya later!’” remembers Headey, who shares that even many of the killed-off actors showed up for the revelry, including Sean Bean (Ned Stark) and Jason Momoa (Khal Drogo), the latter of whom won her personal award for the night’s biggest party animal. “Momoa was there and he’s incredible. He’s a lot of fun. Everyone was there—the dead awakened and drank a lot of booze.”
Headey pauses, appearing to reflect on her long journey with Cersei. “We’ve seen them over such a long period of time, and with the subtleties of men’s weaknesses being exposed throughout, these women have risen over the course of this series. I really, genuinely love Cersei and think she’s quite funny, so I try to bring humor wherever it’s not going to dampen everything else. But you just have to admire a survivor like that. She absolutely refuses to let go.”
A bit more ready to let go is Headey, who, while endlessly grateful for the opportunity to play such an iconic character and the fanfare it’s brought, is eager to further prove herself in roles outside the chaotic realm of Westeros.
“With Cersei, it’s been eight years, so that character is big in people’s minds, and now it’s over. That tiny TV show. People sort of forget the work previous, which is a very different thing,” she says. “It’s part of the next life. I appreciate all that success, and if it brings with it the fact that people think that’s it, I’m very happy to show them differently.”
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