It’s really strange to see Melisandre so cold. But there she is, the Game of Thrones sorceress sitting across the table at lunch, her blue eyes piercing—noting she’s downright freezing.
Thankfully, we’re actually lunching with actress Carice van Houten—not her temperature-impervious, heretic-torching character—as she prepares to attend a Thrones event in San Francisco.
“I’m cold in summer,” she says. “I’m the coldest person ever! It’s very ironic I’m never cold in the scripts. Every time I’m shooting, if you don’t see a part of me, there are hot water bottles there.”
Below, we tried our best to get the Dutch actress and singer—who has a great scene in tonight’s episode—to tell us more about her ultra-mysterious character, while also discussing Melisandre’s fixation on Jon Snow, doing nude scenes, and more:
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So in a huge cast of mysterious characters, you probably play the most mysterious of them all.
CARICE VAN HOUTEN: Yes. I’ve never played a character like this before. In my own country, I play light comedies and funny parts. This is so serious and religious and she’s so sure of herself—most of the time. In another job you can use your own issues [for the performance], but Melisandre is so in control.
In some ways, it’s a very unnatural character to play. She’s otherworldly.
Yeah, you have to be careful with that. But gradually she’s becoming more human. There’s some emotions that we will see this year that I really like.
And she’s interested in Jon.
That’s something I like about this season. It’s probably my favorite season for my character. She’s slightly shifting from Stannis to Jon. And it’s not clear it’s just because she’s a woman attracted to a younger, beautiful guy. Or if there’s more to it. And it might be a mixture of both.
Have the showrunners told you more about your character — the extent of her abilities and her intentions —than what we’ve seen? Or are you just as in the dark as the rest of us?
I know very little, to be honest. For awhile I think they didn’t know themselves where it was going. Which is the fun of it, and a strange thing, as well. Normally if you do a movie you know the arc of the character. I know a little more.
I love that it’s unclear how much power she really has. Like, she used the leeches to curse Robb Stark, Joffrey Baratheon and Balon Greyjoy—and Greyjoy is still alive at this point on the show. So it’s not clear if she caused those other two deaths somehow, or if she saw they were going to die “in the flames” and then made Stannis believe she caused it, or if she just totally lucked out.
That’s great. I think sometimes she misreads some things.
She’s clearly wickedly burning people alive, yet also convincing at selling this idea that she serves a higher power and that there’s a more important war coming—because as viewers, we know she’s right that there is this threat coming from the White Walkers.
That’s the thing I’ve been trying to play. I don’t know how to play evil. The only thing I can do is play that this is for the greater good and my methods are not … friendly. The only way I can play it is to think there’s something even worse out there and that I’m actually doing people a favor [laughs]. And there is something that I know that I cannot tell you. But it makes sense…
All the Thrones actors are tricky to interview, but you might be the most tricky because of how mysterious your character is.
And also I don’t have a personal life to talk about. I can’t say I’m having trouble with my husband or that I have a stubborn child.
All you do is work?
Yeah. I’m a workaholic. But this is a strong character, which I love. As a lot of [female actors] have been complaining about, including myself, good female parts are under-represented. It’s a shame. It’s great to play somebody’s wife, but not all the time. There’s so many other stories to tell.
Thrones gets hit with the label of being sexist—both the books and the show—though to me it’s the story of a patriarchal war-like society that’s based on our own history.
Exactly, and it’s not our own world, either. It’s a mirror, as it should be. With my character, I use sexuality as a weapon. I feel very strong about the nudity. I feel very strongly about how you can show machine guns, and you can show horrible things, but you see a nipple and it’s, ‘Oh my God! A nipple has been displayed!’ It’s so strange. Especially as a Dutch person, we’re so used to that. And we’re not like a very sexual people, per se. It’s just that we deal with that another way.
America was colonized by very religious people, and that core sensibility still echoes in our culture.
It’s so old fashioned! So many taboos. But if anything is written in a script that says, “Take off your clothes, we just want to see tits,” I’ll be asking, “Why?” [Nudity is] not something I like to do, per se. Having worked with [director] Paul Verhoeven, who is the master of using sex and violence, there’s an element to this story, and in Paul’s work, that wants to shock a bit.
The shadow-baby scene remains one of the most shocking things in the series. It’s still surprising that it actually happened. It’s probably the most fantasy-ish moment.
I read the script, and of course I was like, “What!?” But I’ve gotten used to it. I wonder how it would be for me if i didn’t know anything about it and just saw that scene…
Maisie Williams (Arya) told me if she could cross one person off her list, it would be The Red Woman, because she thinks your character is the most dangerous.
Does she. I’d kill her off as well! … No, when people ask who I’d want on the Iron Throne, I think Arya. I love her character.
She wasn’t, like, rooting for your character to be killed off. It wasn’t like that. She was speaking as a fan watching the show.
Oh, I know. I think it’s cool people love to hate me. [Melisandre’s] unpredictable. And the magical powers are something to be scared of.
Who would you like to have your character paired up with?
Tyrion. That would be interesting. And the queen as well, Cersei.
How do fans react to you nowadays?
In the streets they’re very nice. On Twitter, there are people who love to hate me. Sometimes people get mean. I tend to answer like, “Careful now, know who you’re dealing with…” They’re like, “I’m sorry! Don’t send the Lord of Light after me!” It’s fun to play with that.
More Game of Thrones coverage coming later tonight: Our deep-dive recap plus an interview with the actor whose character was killed off at the end of Sunday’s episode. Follow @jameshibberd to be first to know when the posts go live.