'It was more intense on set than it will be on screen,' says Jessica Henwick
The following piece contains spoilers about episode 2 of Game of Thrones‘ seventh season, “Stormborn”
Game of Thrones lost two Sand Snakes at the hands of the murderous Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbæk) during Sunday night’s eventful second episode of season 7 — but the staging of the battle behind the scenes was nearly as dramatic. Below, ultra-busy Iron Fist star Jessica Henwick (the bullwhip-slinging Nymeria Sand) gives fans some insight about shooting those punishing final scenes, discusses how she almost didn’t return to Thrones, talks about fandom’s mixed reaction to the Sand Snakes, and more. (Note: Some spoiler-free quotes from this interview were previously published.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So you got the infamous call…
JESSICA HENWICK: I was in New York filming Iron Fist and I got a call from [showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss], the double Ds. As soon as you hear that more than one of them is on the call you know what that means. If it’s just one they’re probably talking about the story. But if it’s both of them then you know. They told me what’s going to happen and said, “We’d really love for you to come back.” But at that point and time, I wasn’t able to do it. My schedule clashed. I was filming Iron Fist for six-to-seven months and they wouldn’t give me the time off. The Ds pitched me the story and said, “It’s really important that you come back otherwise your character will just disappear and fans will never get a resolution.” The show was so massive for me in terms of my career and building my profile and as an experience in itself, I wanted to see it through to the end. I went and spoke to Marvel and I managed to get a release on two weekends. So I literally flew back and forth while I was doing Iron Fist in New York to Belfast, and over the Christmas break, I was filming as well.
Wow, the Thrones team actually had to work around your schedule instead of vice-versa?
I’ve literally not had a break since March of last year, when I found out I got Iron Fist and it’s been solid ever since. I did Iron Fist, Game of Thrones, went back to Iron Fist, did an independent film in L.A. and then went into The Defenders, then went straight to New Orleans, where I’m doing Underwater with Fox.
I’ve done exit interviews with many actors on this show, and I’m trying to think of another one — maybe Natalie Dormer — where somebody was so busy they actually wanted to leave. Normally they’re so disappointed, while you were all, “Well, I guess I could fit Game of Thrones in for a couple weekends…”
Yeah, it was funny. I’m not going to lie, a part of me was like, “Maybe I shouldn’t do it. Maybe she just does disappear!” And then the fans will never know what happened to her. Like Joe Dempsie. It would be like: What happened? No one knows…
But then 30 years from now people would still ask you what happened to Nymeria.
They would, but I decided to do it. The big draw for me every season going back is that getting to work with my sisters, [fellow Sand Snake actors Keisha Castle-Hughes and Rosabell Laurenti Sellers]. I’m such good friends with Keisha that any chance I get to be with her I gladly take it.
What was your reaction to reading Nymeria’s fate?
The plan was for it to be a more of a drawn out storyline. But because of my limited schedule [the story changed]. The first thing I thought was that it’s brutal. It’s hard reading these scenes where characters you love are getting absolutely demolished. And in our case, it’s by a crazy madman. I knew it was going to be very intense and very physical. I was excited because on the page you could feel the scope of it. And there is something fulfilling about finishing it.
RELATED: EW’s Game of Thrones Weekly podcast dissects ‘Stormborn’
How was shooting her fight scene?
It was grueling. It was one of the few occasions where it was more intense on set than it will be on screen. Normally there’s a lot of CG [when filming action scenes] and you watch it on screen and you see a massive epic battle, but when you’re filming it’s all quite tame by comparison. For this, the audience can’t feel the heat on their face from the pyrotechnics going off or feel the wave machine trying to knock us off our feet, or the sweat dripping off our faces. They were blowing burning embers onto us. One of the stunt double’s wigs caught fire. And some of the stunt doubles fell through the balsa wood floor of the ship. It was hard, night shoots, we were really battling the elements they had created. I’m sure it’s going to look great but it was bigger in real life than on screen.
What was your last day on set like? Please tell me you got to keep her whip.
Well, I have a whip that I took from season 5, my first season. It’s not one with the special head on it. It’s a training whip, but I kept it. On my last day on set, it was freezing in Belfast, and they were shoving me onto a fork lift and hoisting me up there for that final shot. It was cold, windy and I don’t do well with heights. Earlier we had had an accident on set where I almost got choked out by the whip. So for that final scene, they wanted to tie one there and put pressure around my neck. As soon as they put it on I was like, “Get it off, get it off, get it off!” Even just the slightest pressure around my neck was really awful. That was emotionally difficult, and my sisters weren’t there either, so I was on my own.
The Sand Snakes have had a mixed reaction from fans. Looking back, was there anything that could have been done differently?
I think that it was hard for [the producers] from a production point of view. In the books, there are seven Sand Snakes and there was a lot of discussions about how many were going to be introduced [in the show]. Originally it was going to be Obara, Tyene and then they couldn’t decide on Sarella or Nymeria. Obviously, I’m very lucky Nymeria ended up being the one they chose. It was always acknowledged that it was going to be very hard to give each of us a storyline. They had to introduce three characters all at once and differentiate them. When you’re limited to an introduction of two lines per character and there are four characters in the scene — during our introduction scene in season 5 — it’s hard to create a lasting impression. You kind of have to shove a character down the audience’s throat and Game of Thrones’ success is in its multifaceted characters. At the time it was definitely frustrating feeling like there’s so much potential here, and a lot of the stuff that we shot didn’t make the final cut. It was hard. But overall, given the size of the character, I’ve been very happy with how it’s come out. It is what it is. There’s nothing I can say, really.
What’s your best memory of working on the show?
I loved my scene with Rosabell where Nymeria and Tyene were playing the slapping game. That was a highlight. We slapped each other so many times our hands were really swollen at end of the day. It was quite funny. In season 6, getting to do that scene with Olenna Tyrell and she’s just amazing. Those are my picks.
Any final thoughts?
I just hope the fans enjoy it. The love I’ve received over the years from them has been wonderful. I have so many good memories, and to be a part of something so massive has been truly amazing.
Can you give us some Defenders tease to take us out?
We pick up with Colleen, not in New York — which is crazy as all the shows have been predominantly in New York. We find her a month after we left her. It’s really interesting she hasn’t been able to deal with the emotional trauma she dealt with in Iron Fist. So it builds to a head and she explodes in Defenders. It’s good, it’s really good. I think people are going to love seeing characters interact with each other, they’re going to see Colleen and Misty, they’re going to love seeing Luke Cage and the Iron Fist, Danny Rand. I think fans are going to freak out.
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Game of Thrones airs Sundays on HBO.