Gwendoline Christie’s portrayal of Brienne of Tarth on Game of Thrones has become so indelible, it’s now difficult to imagine the towering British actor without full armor and a sword in her hand. Here, she opens up about getting in touch with her strength, embracing the magic of television, and the “phantasmagorical quality” of being an actor
It’s a dark and stormy night, at least it is in London where Gwendoline Christie is at home, calling me in L.A. Whipping winds and rain create just the kind of dramatic setting our chat deserves, as we’re going to be talking about the insanely anticipated ending of a bona fide TV phenomenon, Game of Thrones, a show in which Christie plays a major role. This final season, which just premiered April 14 on HBO, is set to culminate in one of the most epic battle scenes ever created for television, filmed over 11 weeks of night shoots in Northern Ireland’s wet weather and freezing temperatures. While airing in 170 countries, GoT has scored more Emmys than any other scripted series ever (38!), and has made international celebrities of its ensemble cast. The final Season 8 trailer alone was viewed 81 million times within 24 hours of its release. Based on medieval-fantasy books by George R.R. Martin, this show is one I’m not only lowkey obsessed with, but also feel personally connected to: I was very pregnant when Season 7 was airing in 2017, and it was during the incredibly stressful penultimate episode, when the show’s humble hero Jon Snow (played by Kit Harington) nearly met his fate beyond the Wall, that I went into labor, 10 days before my due date. I share this story with the British-born Christie, my version of an icebreaker. “But Lisa,” she says after a long pause. “I don’t think I’m in that episode. I thought that was where this was going. That it was the moment you saw Brienne of Tarth that really triggered the birth!”
If only it had been! The 40-year-old actor has played Brienne of Tarth since Season 2, when her introduction was one of the series’ great reveals: after a revered swordsman surrenders to a formidable, anonymous, fully armored opponent at the end of a masterful tournament fight, the victorious warrior lifts their helmet. Rather than the rugged male brute we expect to see, it’s a rugged female brute—our first glimpse of Christie as Brienne—chin up with a resolute stare. This is not a glamorous role for Christie; Brienne is a fierce warrior, and looks like one. Her face is frequently covered in grime, her chopped hair is limp and greasy. She’s also a fervent fan favorite, not to mention a feminist pop-culture icon. In a world where women only come to power if their husband/father/brother dies (which, TBH, happens regularly), Brienne is a total badass—a skilled swordfighter, an empowered warrior—but also a sweet and nurturing protector, loyal subject, and friend. And though she did not trigger the delivery of my son, she did birth an exciting new way to see a female character on TV. She’s a woman battling gender and beauty standards while also embracing the sacred feminine. It’s a role Christie felt was meant for her from the jump. “When I read the character, it spoke to me so loudly,” she says. “I remember being told at drama school: ‘If you are lucky, once in your life you come across a part that speaks to you, and it feels as though you don’t need to do any work.’ And that’s what happened with this part.”
Of course, playing Brienne was a lot of work, both physically and emotionally. The armor Christie wears on the show weighs 30 pounds, and the sword fights required months of training. She changed her whole body, becoming a mass of muscle in order to play a woman who fiercely defeats master warriors, vengefully slays a trio of rapists, and fights off a colossal bear long enough to escape with her life. It was an on-screen transformation that changed her off-screen as well.
“Brienne of Tarth was more than a character in a TV show to me. It was about my own development as an actor, artist, and human being, in terms of exploring elements of myself that I didn’t feel comfortable getting in contact with. Because society was dictating that these parts of me weren’t attractive or good enough,” Christie says. “I was afforded an amazing opportunity to confront and inhabit those elements.” She mentions her “extraordinarily pale features,” and the physical strength she’d always embodied but had never truly leaned into. And though she doesn’t specifically bring up her stature, she clearly alludes to it. “What’s amusing is that the thing that has—touch wood—given me a career, is the thing that I was told at the beginning would prevent me from being cast in a lot of roles,” she says.
“This part came along that required me to get in touch with my strength, to fully acknowledge my height, to acknowledge my androgyny.”
At 6’3″ her height is a characteristic that never goes unmentioned. It’s also put her firmly outside the typically accepted “norm” for women (petite, feminine, approved by the male gaze) not only in Hollywood, but also out in the world—a norm that Christie is helping to topple. “There are obviously beauty standards in society; a patriarchal perspective in terms of women presenting themselves in a sexually attractive way for heterosexual males,” she says. “And that narrative’s changing, thank God.” It was a narrative that playing Brienne of Tarth brought front and center for Christie, though. On Game of Thrones, we almost always see Brienne in either armor or fur-lined cloaks. She is not outwardly feminine, something other characters often deride her for (until she kicks their ass). This image is so ingrained in viewers, that seeing images of Christie at awards shows in full red-carpet glamour can be a surprise. But pre-Brienne, a highly “feminine” look was Christie’s comfort zone. “For a long time I’ve hidden behind what I am. I’ve always had very long hair and I felt that it helped to cloak me in a way. And I knew that would have to be cut [to play Brienne], and I knew my face would have to be exposed, and that wasn’t something I felt comfortable doing,” she says. “I used to present myself in a heightened, feminized way, that was really my way of saying, ‘I embrace my womanness,’ and in a way, as loony as it sounds, it was part of a dialogue I was having within, and with society, about the way in which women are presented in terms of size or power,” she says. But to play Brienne, Christie had to forego this heightened feminization. “This part came along that required me to get in touch with my strength, to fully acknowledge my height, to acknowledge my androgyny.”
Beyond forcing Christie to examine her own relationship to the presentation of gender and the relationship between beauty and strength, the character afforded an audience of millions the opportunity to do so as well. Brienne might live in a fictional world, but she pushes the conversation of what a woman can be, and how women are perceived, in a show whose reach crosses continents and cultures. “I saw it as being symbolic of femininity in society, what femininity means about our ownership of our femaleness, and what it means to be a woman,” she says. “That’s why I’ve been so in love with the part. It came about at a time when the world is changing.” It’s also why, after eight years of playing Brienne, she “cried for two hours” when she hung up her armor for the last time. “But I’ve told myself that [Brienne] will—I feel incredibly emotional so I’m controlling it…” she says, a slight wobble in her voice. “She will live on with me. I was damn lucky to play that part. And this is about a viewpoint, and, hopefully, a life’s work.”
Game of Thrones might be the show that thrust Christie into the eye of a pop-culture storm, but Brienne of Tarth isn’t the only powerful character she’s known for. In 2015 she played dystopian badass Commander Lyme in Mockingjay, the final installment in the Hunger Games series; and sci-fi badass Captain Phasma, a stormtrooper commander in the Star Wars sequels—2015’s The Force Awakens, and 2017’s The Last Jedi. It’s no coincidence that Christie’s roster is feminist AF. It’s simply a matter of art imitating life. “One hundred percent,” she says, when asked if she considers herself a feminist. “Because being a feminist means believing in equality. You know, it’s no secret that the boys have had it all their own way for a long time, to quote [director] Jane Campion. Being a feminist is no longer a dirty word in society. And it shouldn’t be. I see women now being proud to call themselves feminists. Taking that power and stepping forward with it.”
Part of that comes from playing a beloved character like Brienne, and the attention that it garners when she’s out in public. “People are often extremely nice and say, ‘I love the character! I believe in feminism! Go women!’ And men say that, too,” she says. “That is the kind of message I’m receiving, and this movement seems to ignite in people a breath of relief, actually, rather than resentment. But I don’t know. Maybe I’m so fervent in my views that people wouldn’t air their opposing views so closely around me.” She lets out a loud guffaw, the kind of laugh that comes from deep in the belly, and I get the sense that Christie is a much bigger goofball IRL than any of her roles would lead you to believe. But those are just the kinds of transformations that drove Christie to be an actor in the first place—even as a child she was fascinated by the way one could use their body to metamorphosize. When Christie was a girl she wanted to be a dancer. Then she trained as a gymnast.
She also wanted to be an artist before she settled on acting. When we speak, she says she’s just heard the news that Carolee Schneemann has died. Schneemann was a multidisciplinary artist known for reading a scroll that she pulled out of her vagina (“Interior Scroll,” 1975), cavorting erotically with men, women, and piles of raw meat (“Meat Joy,” 1964), and basically celebrating the female body in all its carnal wonder. “She was someone who deeply inspired me,” says Christie. “She somehow pricked in me a real interest in terms of exploring the body in art—the idea of being visceral and confronting as a woman.”
“I wanted to taste life and see this shining, sparkling metropolis. That’s what I wanted!”
Christie grew up in Worthing West Sussex, in the English countryside, where it might seem surprising that she was even exposed to Carolee Schneemann, especially pre-internet. But these were the kinds of figures she sought out. “I was an incredibly shy child but quite precocious,” Christie says, laughing. “I loved being in nature. I still do. But when you’re surrounded by nature you always crave the opposite,” she says. For her, that opposite came in the form of pop culture and the arts. “Books! I remember falling in love with books. I read voraciously from about the age of eight. I could be taken to India, I could be taken into the brain of a man, I could be taken anywhere through history or into space,” she says. Her parents, a stay-at-home mom and salesman dad, were always very supportive, even indulging her love of expensive, imported magazines (“the most exotic thing was a copy of U.S. Harper’s Bazaar when it was edited by Liz Tilberis—you know, wow”). And, of course, television played a major role, too. “I remember saying to my mother, ‘Isn’t it amazing that the television exists?’ I couldn’t believe that there was this box that you could switch on and it would transport you into different worlds,” she says. “I didn’t enjoy going to school. I enjoyed reading at home, watching films, listening to music, and staying up late listening to the radio and writing down the band names. I wanted to taste life and see this shining, sparkling metropolis. That’s what I wanted!“ And then she’s gone. The line is dead; I’ve totally lost her. “I’m so sorry,” she says when we’re reconnected. “I leaned back in my chair and lost the signal because I got over excited!” She lets out that voracious laugh again, this time punctuated by a delightful snort.
Christie’s certainly gotten more than a taste of that shining, sparkling metropolis. She’s lived in London for 15 years since enrolling in the Drama Centre London, where she was classically trained with a method approach (she worked mostly in theater before landing on GoT). And that exotic Harper’s Bazaar is basically her regular ol’ life now. She’s just returned from Paris Fashion Week, where she sat front row at the Miu Miu show, and she walked the runway at designer Tomo Koizumi’s debut New York Fashion Week show on the same day as our BUST cover shoot. Piles of rainbow tulle ruffles enveloped Christie as she descended a staircase at the Marc Jacobs Madison Avenue store, a cloud-like train of blue and red trailing behind her. It was the talked about moment of Fashion Week, revered on sites from Vogue.com to The Cut, and reposted ad infinitum on the social media feeds of the style-minded. If people hadn’t been aware of Christie’s couture proclivities—Kate Moss personally brought Christie on as a model when she launched her talent agency in 2016, and she was the face of a Vivienne Westwood campaign—they are now. She’s also been dating Giles Deacon, a U.K. designer, since 2013.
When I ask if it was their mutual love of fashion that originally connected them, she pauses. “Do you know what, Lisa? I don’t ever really talk about my relationship and the reason for that is because being an actor has a really phantasmagorical quality to it,” she says. “So the things you love and hang on to, you know, they’re just for me.” It’s the most gentle, eloquent way I’ve ever been rebuffed after asking a celebrity a personal question. But at this point in our conversation, I would expect nothing less. I change the subject to her next project, and Christie uses an expletive when she mentions not wanting to mess it up. “Don’t put that in,” she says laughing. “It’s not like me to swear.” The role she’s worried about messing up is a lead in London’s Bridge Theater production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream this summer. “Yes, it is terrifying, but as corny as it may sound, I’m going to have to really step into my own power every single night to help bring the story to life,” she says. “Also, they switched the parts. So I am Titania, but I’m playing Oberon. So she [Titania] is in charge of the forest.” Classic Shakespeare, but literally flipping the script, so the female character is in power. That seems just like her.
By Lisa Butterworth // Photographed by Heather Hazzan // Styling by Rachel Gilman // Makeup by Gianpaolo Ceciliato @ Tracey Mattingly // Nails by Riwako Kobayashi using Chanel Le Vernis // Hair by Seiji @ The Wall Group // Stylist’s Assistants: Juan Zenon and Caitlyn Amundson // Location: Drift Studio N.Y.C.
Top photo: Yves Saint Laurent Blouse c/o Albright Fashion Library
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2019 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
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