Melisandre actress Carice van Houten on that Game of Thrones Winterfell battle
Sorcerous. Fanatic. Seductress. Murderer. Hero.
Melisandre was arguably Game of Thrones’ most morally complicated character. The Red Woman arguably committed the most horrifying and unforgivable act in the show’s ultra-violent history — burning an innocent child alive in a misguided attempt to try and magically help Stannis Baratheon win his war against Ramsay Bolton. Yet she also used her powers to resurrect Jon Snow and, in Sunday’s Battle of Winterfell, saved humanity by guiding Arya Stark to fulfill her destiny of killing the Night King. In the episode’s final moments, the 800-year-old sorceress, having completed her mission to defeat the forces of the dead, removed that mysterious necklace which maintains her youth and walked into the morning sun. The act somehow broke the spell that preserved her long life. Melisandre’s final sacrifice was herself.
During EW’s GoT set visit last spring, we got to see actress Carice van Houten perform her final walk, stumbling and staggering until she turned to dust (the aging effect was added later). As usual, Houten was in Melisandre’s signature blood-red dress, an outfit she wore since the character was introduced in season 2. Playing Melisandre was always challenging for Houten, as she candidly discusses below, both physically (she often worked in freezing temperatures wearing only her thin outfit) and emotionally (it’s tough to connect to an audience when playing an inhuman character).
EW interviewed Houten on the eve of her final day on set in a Belfast hotel lobby by a warm fire — perfect ambiance for The Red Woman. The actress often amusingly switched into using fruit-centric code language when tourists lingered nearby to protect spoilers from being overheard (Example: “Strawberry [Melisandre] is definitely on a mission. The Banana [Davos] that the Strawberry fought with is there when the jam is being made [the battle]…”). So some of this conversation has been translated from fruit-speak for clarity.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was your reaction to Melisandre’s storyline this season?
CARICE VAN HOUTEN: I haven’t read the whole season. Why read it when I can see it? But I had a bit of a feeling it was not going to end well for me. I was a bit emotional. I really like that we finally know what she came for, and it’s the end of her journey. “I can go now, my work is done” — without it being really dramatic. It’s a life that’s been hundreds of years that’s come to an end now.
Did you have different predictions about what she might do in her final episodes?
I knew I’d have something to do with Arya. I thought probably something with fire. I did know I was going to come back one more time as an old lady. I expected to live a little bit longer. But I really liked the way they ended my character. She actually saves the day, so she’s a bit of a hero in the end, which is cool. For a long time she was hated — and fair enough. I got some points when I brought back Jon.
Can you talk about that scene with Arya?
It was good. Your character’s going to kick some ass. I felt like that guy in the movie who gives the main character one last push to do it, like in a football game. I thought it was a cool moment.
You also have that run in with Davos, who wants to kill Melisandre of course. And you’re like, “Wait, hold that thought…”
That was a good moment. He’s sort of stunned by what I say. Because all of a sudden we’re all in this together. So yeah. Small enemies, small things don’t matter anymore because we have to fight this one enemy.
I watched the moment being shot where she walked down the trench and joined the body pile. I don’t know if you’re a person who looks at your scenes on the monitor after a shot, but it looked amazing.
You saw that? Yeah. I don’t normally look, but I did that time. It does look amazing.
In the end she was just done with it all?
It was kind of relief. I tried to play it with tiredness but also with relief. I can go now. It’s done.
What do you wish you got to do with your character?
I would have loved to have more interaction with other actors. She and Cersei would be a good combination.
Oh yes, that would have been great.
I would have liked to know a bit more about her past. Because she was a slave. It would have been a nice moment to show she is human and connect her to to others. As an actor it’s more interesting to play doubts and secrets. And it’s nice to tap from your own s—. I wish we knew a bit more about her s—.
What moment are you most proud of?
The moment I liked most to play was when we had just burned Shireen and I think, “This is going to help us, this is going to save us, and the snow is melting.” She thinks [the human sacrifice] worked. And then someone comes up to us and says that it’s all gone to hell. I just remembered really loved the silent acting of thinking, “Oh f—!” To show that with one look. That’s what I mean by it’s interesting for an actor to play secrets. [Melisandre’s] whole world went upside down in that moment. I really like that kind of stuff. Another scene I liked to play was the scene in a bathtub where she’s mocking Stannis’ wife and being cheeky. I like that hint of humor. And the scene at the table with Stannis and his wife. It felt like — you know that scene with Jessie Pinkman at dinner table with Walter White and his wife?
In Breaking Bad, when Walt insists on Jessie staying for dinner…
They’re having this awkward dinner. That’s a fun moment for me. I cannot complain because that’s not the character, but those few human moments I think is what I’m better at. This wasn’t an easy part for me at all. It’s not like me to be so sure of myself. The first shooting day I had to do the burning of the gods [on the beach at Dragonstone; season 2, episode 1]. I had to do that speech for all the soldiers. So many great actors were there and I had never been so cold in my life — and my character is never supposed to be cold. I got unlucky there because I get cold in the summer. That dress was so fitted I couldn’t wear anything underneath. I was so nervous and shy and insecure about what I was going to do and how I was going to do it and I couldn’t use [those feelings] because I had to be all about the Lord of Light. A lot of people bought [the performance], which is fun.
HBO is doing a prequel series. Any thoughts on that?
Story-wise, there’s loads to tell. You can get so much more out of this world. But it’s also [showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss] and a combination of a lot of factors when something works. I don’t want to be cynical, but I believe in the right moment. Maybe they can CGI me into a young girl. At the same time, all good things come to an end. [Tormund Giantsbane actor Kristofer Hivju] says you’re actually another person now than when you started.
Because every seven years every cell in your body has been replaced.
Right. So this is a new start I guess. Funny enough, I’ve had some emotional moments today. My last day [on Game of Thrones] is tomorrow. It’s that cliche of you don’t know what you have until you don’t have it anymore. I do love Belfast. I’m not going to see these people anymore. I’m not going to wear this dress anymore. I’ve cursed this dress sometimes. I’ve been in weird situations in my personal life in that dress because I’ve always worn the same thing. So that dress is connected to seven years of my life.
I assume you can’t keep one because GoT costumes are so valuable at this point. They’re wanted for exhibits and museums.
Yeah. As they should be. They’re beautiful but impractical.
How do you think fans will react to the end of this series?
I don’t know. People have had so much time to make up their own story. I guess they become attached to something they wish or fear for. Some will be surprised. Above all, they’ll say that it’s over. It’s a pretty f—ing unique show, let’s face it. This is freeing in a way. You need to jam in life a bit. Now I’m going to try another instrument.
You’re ready to move on too, it sounds like.
I’m curious, tomorrow, if I’m going to cry. It wouldn’t surprise me if I cry.
Read more “The Long Night” coverage:
— Maisie Williams, Kit Harington on the battle’s big Night King twist: ‘I thought it was going to be me!’
— Lyanna Mormont actress Bella Ramsey discusses her Winterfell battle fate
— Game of Thrones releases trailer for season 8’s mysterious episode 4
— ‘Game of Thrones’ showrunners: Why Winterfell battle didn’t have ice spiders
— Our deep-dive recap for “The Long Night”
— Ser Jorah actor Iain Glen breaks silence on that heartbreaking battle
More “The Long Night” coverage to come Monday and Tuesday…
HBO's epic fantasy drama based on George R.R. Martin's novel series A Song of Ice and Fire.