“Every time you get a script you always look for your character’s name and the word ‘dead’.” Game of Thrones’ Gemma Whelan on the fate of Yara Greyjoy

This week Game of Thrones finally gave the Greyjoy plotline the injection of life it has been desperately looking for. The Ironborn have always been strangely tangential to the major plots, and when Yara and Theon allied with Daenerys at the end of season 6, it felt like they were finally becoming drivers of the story, rather than enablers. With the fate of her character thrillingly in the balance, I spoke to Gemma Whelan, who plays Yara Greyjoy. She’s currently part of a very special club among Game of Thrones actors: her character is actually still alive (just), and has been for almost six seasons, so she has an excellent perspective on what it’s like to be at the centre of HBO’s most epic of shows. 

While Game of Thrones is now a television giant, it wasn’t always so. The pilot was shaky, and the first season received mixed reviews from critics, some of whom were unable to cope with the complexities of the narrative. Despite the popularity of the books, the TV version was a relatively slow starter, far from the behemoth it is now. But according to Gemma, actual filming hasn’t changed all that much since she started. “It’s always been hugely high quality production values from day one. That’s been my experience,” she says. “There’s never any corners cut. In scenes where something has to be imagined or pretended or thought about (for example, in some battles we’ve done) if a blast has been thrown across the screen they give you pyrotechnics to focus your eyeline on. There’s so much stuff like that [in Game of Thrones] that other shows just don’t have the budget for”.

“I would never watch something with dragons in it before Game of Thrones"

Gemma Whelan

While the method of filming is largely uncharged, budgets on the show have undoubtedly increased, in line with viewership figures and media attention. This means better cameras, better sound equipment, more scope for grand action sequences and special effects etc. But the core of the piece - the actors at its heart - all remain wonderfully humble and grounded. Gemma is very much an embodiment of this, and appears simultaneously honoured, and a little deferring, about why Game of Thrones is such a global success story.

“I think everyone in it has just kept their feet on the ground really, and we all understand and appreciate how lucky we are,” she explains. “I would never watch something with dragons in it before this. A lot of people said that to me; they said ‘Oh god, a medieval drama with dragons? Good luck!’ I certainly never would have thought I’d engage with it, ever, yet I devoured it when I was doing research for my audition. Now I go back and watch it all again to prepare for upcoming seasons. I think it really captured something by going to another level in terms of script-writing and production.”

There's no 'I' in Thrones

The cohesion between the actors and their shared love for Game of Thrones is one of the secret ingredients that make the show as successful as it is. For all the talk of production values and tight scripts (which are great, by the way), it’s far more difficult to fake chemistry between those in the lead roles, and the passion they have for portraying their on-screen personas. Many of the now famous faces have known each other for years, long before they started working on this project, and while they may not have scenes together (yet), they bring a closeness to the entire cast. Gemma tells me: “It’s funny, you know, with someone like Kit [Harington] for example - I’ve known Kit for years, and we used to go to yoga together before Game of Thrones - and he hasn’t changed a jot. Yet he’s now a global superstar. And Emilia [Clarke] as well - they’re just good, grounded people. I think David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss] - our showrunners right at the top - they’re such grounded people, and you know that in every big organisation the vibe and philosophy really trickles down from the top”.

“When I looked at the script for season 6, where Yara comes into her own, and meets Daenerys and all that… I was overwhelmed”

Gemma Whelan

It must hurt, then, when you lose someone. When their character dies at the cruel hands of the scriptwriters, who may - or may not - be taking their cues from the ruthless author of the novels. “Every time you get a script you always look for your character’s name and the word ‘dead’. And you hope it’s not there,” she laughs. That seems especially prescient right now, after the explosive end to Game of Thrones season 7 episode 2.

Now that Game of Thrones has thoroughly outpaced the books, the future of the show is anyone’s guess, and even the actors are aware that their character may not be present for the final shake-up. Equally, it could mean that you’re suddenly thrust into the thick of the narrative, having skirted around the edges for several seasons. Yara Greyjoy - while a core player - rarely left an imprint on the central plotlines until season 6, when she and her brother Theon suddenly become key pieces in Daenerys’ strategic conquest of Westeros.

“When I looked at the script for season 6, where Yara comes into her own, and meets Daenerys and all that… I was overwhelmed,” Gemma admits. “I was honoured to be thought of as being capable of carrying that plotline, along with these incredible people - it’s Daenerys and Tyrion! I am very surprised to find Yara in the position she’s in now.”

Salt and smoke

Yara Greyjoy is an excellent example of how quickly fortunes can change for the characters in Game of Thrones. Defeated in her battle of hearts and minds at the Kingsmoot, Yara is forced to flee her home for fear of execution by the new Ironborn King, Euron. Hardly the act of a good uncle, nor is the butchery at the climax of episode 2. I ask Gemma if she’d have preferred a different outcome from the Kingsmoot, with an eye to Game of Thrones showing a more progressive narrative (see: the Ironborn could and should have their first Queen), but she’s happy with the way things have worked out for her character... despite finding herself at Euron's mercy, abandoned by her brother.

“I actually think that’s one of the parts of the show that read quite true to the books, actually. In that chapter it really does seem like Yara (or Asha in the books) is going to win it. She’s got a really strong manifesto, she runs a good campaign, she’s got a great speech - it really feels like they’re being swayed towards her… then of course Euron walks in. So I think it was very true to the books - that whole scene - and I’m really pleased that she didn’t get elected, because now there’s a whole other world of opportunities for her. She’s not going to give up on what she wants, but when she meets Daenerys and Tyrion she’s forced to change and essentially give up her way of life. I’m often asked: doesn’t Yara make quite a quick decision, giving up her whole Ironborn way of life in a split second? But actually when they get there, when she and Theon discuss the terms with Tyrion, they don’t actually have a Plan B. They’ve got one plan, and they have to go with whatever they manage to negotiate. The alternative is what? Death?” 

As hinted at by the Kingsmoot, Game of Thrones raises serious questions about the validity of male succession - the passing down of House rule to the oldest male heir, regardless of suitability. While it’s a story rooted firmly in a time and place, with appropriate values to the setting, there’s an obvious undercurrent of saying ‘the best people will end up on top… even if they don’t always appear to win’. Daenerys, for example, has risen to power because of the avarice and impatience of her weaker brother Viserys, and the overly masculine arrogance of the Dothraki Khals. Dorne’s history dictates that the first-born inherits, regardless of gender. Cersei herself spends six seasons fighting to become Queen, whether it’s overtly or as the power behind her ill-fated offspring, who are all presented as flawed and unsuitable in some way. Yara very much falls into the category of ‘would be in charge if she had a penis’.

“I think that the ‘right’ thing happens on the day [of the Kingsmoot], and we understand why,” Gemma says. “Because Euron comes in swinging his big dick around, and unfortunately that is somehow respected above a solid manifesto and a plan. So yes, Game of Thrones definitely highlights that, where a bloke can just swing in and take it from the woman. But I think watching it you can see how strong Yara is, and if we know anything about her at this point it’s that this is a long game for her, and she’ll get what she wants. I hope - I’ve no idea!” It's very much said with a nod and a wink.

Keeper of secrets

Playing the long game in this show is fraught with perils. While the books used to give a steer on how long you could expect to be around, the departure from them has essentially put everyone’s future in jeopardy. Yara's currently hangs very much in the balance. While the concept of spoilers is nothing new, Game of Thrones has been forced into the vanguard of the battle to keep secrets secret. During the filming of season 7 the show suffered social media feeding frenzies, an attack of the drones, and at one point an early version of the entire season script was leaked. While it’s up to the showrunners to stay ahead of the leakers, there’s a certain level of responsibility assumed by the cast too.

“Game of Thrones goes all over the world in terms of the shooting and getting sound edits done and post production and all sorts of things, so it only takes one unhappy chink in the armour to leak something,” says Gemma. She’s right, but keeping everything entirely secret feels like an impossible task. I’d be surprised if the cast and crew haven’t thrown a few red herrings our way too, either via cheeky social media posts on personal accounts, or little white lies to probing interview questions. That’s the fun of it, though - as keen as fans are to know about what happens in Game of Thrones, we really want those revelations in the proper time and place. Speculating on ‘what happens next’ and sifting fact from wild rumour has become an inseparable, and rather enjoyable, part of the TV-watching experience.

"I do try not to find out too much about it because I like to watch Game of Thrones when everyone else watches it."

Gemma Whelan

With that in mind, I ask Gemma how much the cast know ahead of each episode’s air date. Does everyone just know, or are there surprises for them too? “I don’t get all the scripts - I just get the relevant ones to my episodes,” Gemma explains. “I try not to ask other people what happens in their scenes if we’re discussing things on set. I do try not to find out too much about it because I like to watch Game of Thrones when everyone else watches it. I actually did some DVD commentary for the The Door episode last year [where Hodor dies]. I hadn’t seen it before and I watched it with Ellie Kendrick (Meera Reed), and Pilou Asbaeck (Euron Greyjoy) who was in New Zealand, and Kristian Nairn - who obviously plays Hodor - in Northern Ireland.

“Out of the four of us only Kristian had seen the episode, but we all knew what was going to happen. Just not how,” she says. “We knew about ‘hold the door’ but not how it’d play out. And the DVD commentary is quite erudite - amusing and interesting, and we’re actually making human words at that stage - until right at the end and the process of Hodor leaving us begins. And then all the DVD commentary becomes us shouting “Oh no!” and crying and exclaiming over the episode for the last five minutes or so. I was very grateful not to have read that script or know anything about it, so that I could watch it with my colleagues just as the general public would see it. So I try not to get ahead and spoil things for myself, although some things are impossible to avoid.”

I confess that the ending of The Door in season 6 genuinely left me in tears (a feat only previously achieved by the movie version of The Green Mile), and Gemma confirms that my reaction was far from unique: “Kristian’s phone needed charging four times that day because it just went nuts. It was off the hook in terms of how many messages, and tweets, and phone calls he got.”

"In years to come, I suspect many of us will sit and say ‘Wow, I was part of the most successful show ever’."

Gemma Whelan

So, in an age of spoilers and being able to know ‘everything, anywhere’ it’s refreshing to see a show like Game of Thrones retaining its ability to surprise and delight, even with its own cast. While the passion of its creators is one of the main reasons this show triumphs, it’s the quality of its storytelling and the way it understands what audiences want that truly sets it apart among audiences. More than that, Game of Thrones has so many layers that it serves a wide variety of people, from the ultra-hardcore fans of the novels, right through to the dragon-curious.

“I think there’s something for everyone in the show,” suggest Gemma. “There is so much family politics, different dynamics, and strategies, and questions about who is on who’s side, no-one is really good or bad, but they just have their own objectives and what they think is right… it’s so complex. And if you watch it from the beginning again you see so many more intricacies and things been planted - it’s all so beautifully thought through. The characters are so brilliantly drawn and different from each other, and yet in every single one there’s something we can all relate to, I think.” She pauses and laughs: “Maybe Littlefinger is the only one I can’t relate to”.

Whether or not Yara survives season 7 is still in the balance. When you play the Game of Thrones you win or you die, so the saying goes. Chatting to Gemma it’s obvious that although this is the biggest show in the world right now (and will be for some time) the cast have kept their feet firmly on the ground, even the ones who ride dragons and sail ships, and there’s rarely a moment when anyone gets resentful that their time is up. “We’re tiny cogs in a hugely successful machine,” she reminds me. “But we’re all part of it, and we all make the show what it is. And in years to come, I suspect many of us will sit and say ‘Wow, I was part of the most successful show ever’.” 

Here’s hoping Yara sticks around for a little while longer, or at least gets a death befitting of her increasingly iconic role in the show. Even if you’re lucky enough to be part of the ‘most successful show ever’ we all want to go out with a bang, or at the very least, holding a door.

Game of Thrones Season 7 is available via Digital Download now.

Andy Hartup