Meet the rightful queen of the Iron Islands!
Gemma Whelan is best known for her role as Yara Greyjoy – daughter of the Iron Islands and sister to out-of-luck heir Theon Greyjoy (played by Alfie Allen) – in HBO’s mega-hit fantasy series Game Of Thrones. We talked to her about all things Westeros and that awkward moment when her horses decided to fart during filming.
THE RED BULLETIN: As a member of House Greyjoy, there’s one thing, it seems, you can’t change – you’re always filming in Northern Ireland.
GEMMA WHELAN: That’s very true.
Does that bring you down? A lot of other people on the show get to visit different locations – from Iceland to sunny Spain.
Yes, they get to go all around. I’d love to go to these places, but for me it’s just Belfast. That’s OK, though. I really love Belfast. It’s such a nice city, and even if it sounds really nice to go far away – it’s easier just to hop to Belfast and back.
Let’s talk about the way women are portrayed in Game Of Thrones. Are you happy with the development of your character over the seasons?
I absolutely am. There’s a lot of talk about this. I’m happy with the way my character is portrayed and written, certainly. I enjoy it, I love playing her. Yara is strong. She’s bold. She’s fierce. She’s sensitive.
And she’s bisexual.
I think so. I don’t know if she is in the books. I haven’t read the books.
Did it come as a surprise for you?
Not really, no. It made sense. I don’t think that she’s particularly one way or another. I think she definitely is up for anything, as she says. So no, she’s very open-minded and a very positive and accepting character.
Who’s your favourite Game Of Thrones character?
Jaqen H’ghar. I love the way Tom [Wlaschiha] plays him. He’s so interesting and has many many different sides. I don’t know, I find him intriguing and I just love what he does. And it’s better than saying Tyrion, because everyone says Tyrion. He’s also one of my favourites. It’s hard to pick, because they all have such different things to offer.
Who’s your closest pal on set?
Alfie [Allen] and me are really, really close. I think he feels like my brother in real life.
If you could hang out in a pub with a Game Of Thrones character to have a drink and chat, which one would it be? Let me guess: Theon?
Is he a good drinker?
Theon is a good drinker. I would go to a pub with him. Yara and Theon – have a good brother-and-sister catch-up.
What’s this funny story going around about a farting horse on set?
That was an incident. Alfie and me were both on the horse and it was farting, and I laughed. I just couldn’t stop laughing and Alfie told me off in a really nice way. He said: ‘You have to take this seriously. This is very, very expensive and this is very time consuming. You have to be professional.’ He just helped me put it together and that taught me a lesson. I realised that this was a different level now. I’d been doing lots of comedy and fun TV, but this is a different beast. He taught me respect very early on. Not that I wasn’t being respectful, but he just said ‘careful’ and I listened to him. He was a good friend.
Who should sit on the Iron Throne at the end?
You are still in the race.
Yes, I should sit on the Iron Throne. But obviously I don’t think I should because that wouldn’t be very satisfying for anyone as a viewer. I don’t know, maybe they form a coalition and there would be five people on the throne.
Who’d be in your coalition?
Let’s have Arya, Tyrion, Daenerys, I’ll be in our coalition, and Jon Snow. Bran can be our adviser and Cersei can be our jester.
You’re also known for your comedy work. When did you discover that there was a funny side to you?
Well, I was always the class clown. Attention-seeking really, but making people laugh. I think my friend Samantha actually said years ago, when I was about 12, ‘You should be a stand-up comedian.’ Something resonated with me when she said it. Years later, when I was at university, there were four modules: musical, theatre, cabaret and stand-up comedy, and I had to choose. I remember being in the musical theatre room, thinking, ‘This is not where I want to be. I really want to be in the comedy room, but I’m too scared.’ I don’t know, it just changed, I left the musical theatre room and I registered with the stand-up room, and that was it. I did the course and I did my first gig.
Were you nervous?
Oh my God, I was terrified. It’s the most frightening thing to expose yourself like that. I wasn’t naked, but it was terrifying because only you’re responsible for the material.
How long did it take you to write your material?
It was probably about a 12-week course, and the routine was just five minutes. But I think I did it in three because I spoke so fast. [Laughs.]
How can we see you doing stand-up comedy?
I’m not doing stand-up so much now. My character is becoming a chat show host. It’s the Chastity Butterworth Chat Show and my GOT buddy Charles Dance actually was my first guest. It’s very early stages. We’re on BBC Radio 4. Hopefully we will get it to TV as well.