Game of Thrones: Gemma Whelan discusses Yara's humiliating walk
After being dragged through the streets of King's Landing by a mad pirate king in Sunday's night's Game of Thrones, we decided to check in on Gemma Whelan and see how she's doing. The actress has played Yara Greyjoy across five seasons on the HBO hit, and her Ironborn warrior currently finds herself in rather dire straits — captured by Cersei and seemingly abandoned by her brother Theon (Alfie Allen). Below, Whelan took our questions about her recent episodes (the answers to some of which have appeared on EW.com previously).
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Most Game of Thrones fans probably wouldn't have guessed you have a stand-up comedy and comedic acting background. Is it a fun to shift into a serious character?
GEMMA WHELAN: I was doing a lot of comedy but I always wanted to do serious drama as well and it's quite hard when you're working in comedy and have a comedy agent to even be invited into the drama room. The casting for GoT came about because I was at a comedy casting and the casting director was also on Thrones, Robert Sterne along with Nina Gold, and he said, "I have something that you might be perfect for that I'm casting next week" — and that was Game of Thrones. I was literally in the right place at the right time even though it was a comedy casting. And of course, when I heard it was this huge HBO drama, I thought, "This is never going to be my first drama, I have no chance, I'll never get this, but I'm delighted to be invited into the room." So I was quite relaxed because I thought I never had a chance. So I was very lucky. And from there on, I was considered for other dramas and have continued in comedy as well.
I feel like your character is one that fans always want to have at least a little more of each season than they typically get.
Me too! [Laughs.] I think I did really well in season 6 though. I was thrilled that I had loads to do last year. Maybe less is more? I'm really lucky to get what I'm given in such a packed show. To be a part of these story lines is a huge honor — even if it's just one line while I'm looking scared in the background. [Showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss] told me when I was cast that Yara becomes a greater part of the show in the later story lines but not so much in the beginning. They're really men of their word, what they said was going to happen has happened.
How do fans tend to react when they recognize you?
It's so, so rare that I'm recognized! But when I do, it's really nice. First, they have to check because they never know for sure it's me. Then they ask for a picture, but they're really nice. Maybe they ask for a spoiler. It's very exciting when it happens. They say I've made their day, but I think they've made my day! It actually works both ways.
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Let's talk about "Stormborn" and "The Queen's Justice." First the former: What was it like shooting that cabin scene with Indira Varma?
I loved it! Indira is one of the sexiest people, we had a lovely time. Indira and I were quite fearless, we just went for it. Actually, initially, in that scene, it was meant to be her kissing Alfie. Then it [changed]. It wasn't directed that we would kiss. It just seemed like something we should do. We led it, very much so. It was meant to be a suggestion [of flirting] and then it became more sexual than we expected because it seemed right. There was only a skeleton crew working because the rig could only take so much weight, so we were left very much on our own. And who wouldn't want to kiss Indira? I mean, come on!
And the crew is like, "Um, should we just go?"
It was filmed on a rig at Titanic Studios. It can only take so much weight so only a few people were let on board. So we were very much on our own on the ship, the three of us. The magic of TV. I think it's a wonderful scene and amusing as well — like that look from Yara to Theon that says a girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do. And then things go t–s up, to use an appropriate expression.
And what was it like shooting the battle scene?
It was extraordinary to film, with Mark Mylod directing it. They can storyboard in it in live animation and can show you what they're planning, and it's all really precisely planned in full 3D action animation and he talks you through the whole sequence, then we pick it up shot by shot, moment by moment. We rehearse our fight sequences very slowly in a clean tidy environment with no costumes. It's very easy. But on set, there's fire flying everywhere, the deck is really wet, there are these incredible stuntmen running around. Pilou and I worked together carefully to make sure we didn't hurt one another. I also had a fantastic stunt double to do a couple of the bits that weren't convincing for me to do.
How did you feel about Theon abandoning Yara to their uncle?
It's such a shame, but it's such a beautiful, heart-wrenching twist! We think Yara has managed to get Theon back, they had all these scenes of solidarity and comradery in season 6. It seems like he's back, then there's that wavering, faltering moment that Alfie plays so beautifully. Yara's just willing him, "No, no, stay with me." It's just so heartbreaking!
Moving onto "The Queen's Justice," where you do a variation on Cersei's Walk of Shame, only not nude–
— and being dragged through the streets on a leash by Euron.
Yeah, she's just being humiliated. My reaction to that was he could have done something far sicker to her. It's quite tame to just drag her through the streets for a man of Euron's psychopathy. I didn't really overthink it, it just seemed like an appropriate thing for him to do. Euron's gotta get his comeuppance.
We're never going to see Indira Varma's character Ellaria Sand again now that she's been thrown in the Black Cells. Is it possible we'll never see Yara again either?
I hope Theon will come and rescue her. But who knows?
More "The Queen's Justice" coverage:
— Game of Thrones showrunners on losing that fan favorite
— Emilia Clarke and Kit Harington discuss their first on-screen meeting
— Game of Thrones actress on that brutal ‘worst nightmare' Cersei scene
— Our deep-dive recap
— Game of Thrones actor on surprise reunion
Subscribe to EW's Game of Thrones Weekly podcast – on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts – to hear expert analysis and tales from the set in Entertainment Weekly's after-show recap every Monday during Season 7.
Game of Thrones airs Sundays on HBO.
HBO's epic fantasy drama based on George R.R. Martin's novel series A Song of Ice and Fire.