‘Game of Thrones’ star Gemma Whelan on the show’s ‘clever’ ending, new drama ‘Gentleman Jack’

Paolo Abad
‘Game of Thrones’ star Gemma Whelan on the show’s ‘clever’ ending, new drama ‘Gentleman Jack’
Known for playing Yara Greyjoy, the English actress talks to Rappler about her long run on the show as it comes to an end.

“I read the last script with an open mouth. Let’s put it that way,” said Game of Thrones star Gemma Whelan, describing the series finale in a phone call from the UK.

With only days left before the final episode, the English actress was cautious and tight-lipped about what she knew about the big ending to Rappler and other reporters from Asia.

In the last time we’ve seen her, the Ironborn warrior queen sauntered off back to her cold and stormy home mid-season – missing the Battle of Winterfell as well as the Fall of King’s Landing. Even about this, Whelan refused to divulge any hints (“Nice try,” she said), so we can only surmise and hope that she gets a proper appearance in the finale.

But after a run that lasted 7 out of 8 seasons as Yara Greyjoy, Queen of the Iron Islands, she could only talk effusively about it.

Since production on the hit fantasy series wrapped, the versatile actress has ventured into other work, including Gentleman Jack, a new period drama co-produced by HBO and BBC.

Set in the 1800s, the eight-part drama is based on the rich and lurid diaries of English landowner and pioneer Anne Lister – often referred to as Britain’s “first modern lesbian.” Whelan plays Marian Lister, the sister of Suranne Jone’s Anne, to whom she acts as a sort of foil.

In a chat that lasted for about half an hour, she talks all things Thrones, as well as about her role in the gripping new show.

Photo courtesy of HBO

What is the most enjoyable and challenging part of shooting Game of Thrones?

I’m sorry to say a boring answer, but it’s all enjoyable. But maybe, if I was being very pressured, it’s just that sometimes, it can be quite cold. 

Otherwise, I think it’s more challenging logistically for production. They have to make sure we can get to these remote locations – everyone, the cameras – whatever else is needed. 

Logistically, I think it’s extremely challenging for production, but for us actors – we’re brought there very safely, kept warm, and looked after – it’s not a challenge, really. The challenge is doing justice to the brilliant writers and making sure you bring your A-game every time.

Photo courtesy of HBO

What was the last day on set like?

It was a real mixture of emotions, really, because it’s inevitable that the show has to come to an end, and it’s right that it comes to an end. 

I think we all knew that our wrap day – whatever our wrap day was – was surprisingly emotional. We were given a gift by the showrunners, and then given a speech. It was done properly. We were all given a proper wrap and send-off. There were a lot of tears. 

It’s been part of our lives for a very, very long time, and to say goodbye was important.

What will you miss the most on set?

The whole thing from start to finish has been such a joy – even when it’s very challenging, when it’s night shoots or whatever. 

It’s just been such a privilege to be a part of it. The people are really what makes any job. I’ll miss the people and the camaraderie. There was a lot of very challenging stuff to shoot, but everyone was entirely dedicated and was very keen to do it with a positive attitude. 

It was really a magic thing to be a part of. I cherish it. It’s a very special thing to be a part of.

Photo courtesy of HBO

While filming Game of Thrones, you would bring your daughter on set. How did that work out considering what it was like on set? How were your co-workers like to you as a new mom?

Oh, it was absolutely fine. It was normal. It was very easy. There was never any problem or question about me doing it. 

I was very organized. I knew what I needed, and I brought my family with me so they could help. 

It never got in the way. It was never a problem, and I was fully supported by production. I think that’s how it should be for everyone.

How different was each new season of Game of Thrones compared to the last?

It wasn’t actually different, really. It’s always [had a] high production value – very well-organized, very well-written – and it’s huge fun to be part of. 

You were part of this huge thing. You just have sort to approach it as if you’re going to work like any other job and do your very best. 

It’s just like every other year. It never took itself too seriously, but always knew how to keep the quality up.

What are the similarities between yourself and Yara Greyjoy?

I think I share most of her qualities as I think most women [do]. She’s independent. She’s free. She knows her mind. She’s very family-oriented. 

Obviously, I don’t murder and steal, but I think it’s really a pleasure to turn up the volume on the qualities that I share with her. I think, she’s – in many ways – every woman because she’s representative of all aspects of our character.

Photo by Helen Sloan/HBO

How would Yara feel about Theon’s death?

She gave him her blessing on the boat to go and fight with the Starks. I think that was a huge risk that he was taking. She was giving him her blessing to go and fight for them, but I think she probably knew there was a large probability that he might not make it. 

But he would’ve died trying to do the valiant thing, which is what she was always encouraging him to do for his whole time that they were reunited. I think that she would understand that it was inevitable but valiant.

What’s it like working with Alfie Allen (Theon Greyjoy)? What was the most memorable moment for you with Alfie on and off the set?

He remains one of my very best friends now. We had such camaraderie and good times on and off the set. We supported one another a great deal.

Alfie had a very difficult thing to go through in his storyline. So we made sure that we worked hard on set and had a nice time off set, and took care of each other. It was truly pleasant to work with him.

Photo by Helen Sloan/HBO

How have you evolved as an actress after playing Yara?

I suppose being part of it can give you some confidence, and I learned a lot being on set with all of those brilliant actors. I was quite inexperienced when I got the role, so I’ve learned a lot about just simply how things work. 

I’ve certainly become more comfortable and more at ease with my job. As with anyone when they do their jobs for a long time, you become more proficient and clear about what you need and what you can bring. I think there’s a natural growth and progression as anyone does in any job they have.

How big of an impact has Game of Thrones made on your career?

It’s very difficult to know how because these things are not direct [because] in terms of casting, the consequences are not direct.

It’s certainly opened doors, and it’s very useful to have on the CV for sure. I’m certain that other doors open directly because I was part of the show, but I still have to get in the room and get the job.

Photo by Helen Sloan/HBO

Game of Thrones has made some progress in terms of its representation of women on TV. Lately, there have been some criticism about how the character arcs of the female characters turned out in this final season. 

What can you say about this in terms of Yara’s journey and what you’ve seen from the other women on the show?

That’s really difficult to answer because I haven’t seen it. We moved house very recently, so I’ve only seen the first episode. I’ve [also] not read any of this, so I can’t answer this question with any authority to form an intelligent answer. 

But all I can say is that it’s a TV show, and I think the men have been treated just as badly in many different ways. We were making a drama, and I think the women have really had a very, very good time on the show. 

It has put writing for female characters on the map. You know, we have to be represented as we are, not as we are thought of to be. I think it’s done wonders for screenwriting in that sense.

Photo by Helen Sloan/HBO

What made you interested to join another HBO production such as Gentleman Jack? Is it the plot or the character?

When I had the auditions for Gentleman Jack, I didn’t know it was HBO. I didn’t go after the production company first. I got the role first. 

What’s interesting is that I don’t really mind who’s producing it. If it’s good, it’s good. So, it’s nice to be part of that family and to know that it’s going to be a high quality production and stuff like that. 

The choice wasn’t made because of HBO. The choice was made because of Sally Wainwright – who I’m a huge fan of. The writing’s brilliant, the characters are interesting, and the whole thing was very intriguing to me. That’s why I went after it, not just because of HBO.

Photo courtesy of HBO

Can you tell us a bit more about your character Marian Lister in Gentleman Jack?

Marian is Anne’s sister, of course. She’s a very well-to-do woman in her own right. She’s politically minded. She’s forward-thinking and independent. She understands her role in the home and how to run a household. 

As she stands, she’s individually quite interesting, but when you obviously put her against her sister, she’s very unremarkable and rather dull. But there’s a lot of comedy to be had in that. 

She and her sister bicker terribly as many siblings do, but there’s a lot of love for each other. Marian understands her sister do in a sort of bone level. So they have a very good relationship, but it’s complicated as many families and their relationships are.

Photo courtesy of HBO

Photo courtesy of HBO

In both series, you play someone’s sister. How are Yara’s and Marian’s characters different?

One of them lives in a fantasy, and one of them lives in the 1800s – so, very different immediately. 

But they share enough qualities that I feel like they’re both family-oriented people, and they both know who they are and what they want. They are free-minded and independent, and they have political views. They’re both struggle with their siblings, so they share enough qualities.

How does playing Yara compare to a role such as Marian’s? What do you have to bring?

I don’t think they compare. I think it’s one job and another job, and they’re very different in that sort of aspect. 

I think you only accept a role – for me, anyway – if I can relate to the character, if I can recognize some of the traits and qualities, weaknesses and foibles, and their humanity within them. If I think that I can bring that, then that’s what I’m able to bring to the role.

Give us three reasons to watch Gentleman Jack.

It’s an extraordinary story. It’s brilliantly acted. It’s fantastically produced. It’s funny. It’s dramatic. It’s moving. There are many, many reasons – more than three. 

Watch it. Just watch it. There we go. That’s three words for you.

Photo courtesy of HBO

You once told The Scotsman that you regret that you’re often asked about what it’s like playing a strong female character “because in real life women are strong and every colour of the emotional spectrum.”

Who are some of these real-life women who inspire you?

I think it would be difficult to find a woman who doesn’t inspire me. I think women are fantastic, and it’s a very difficult question for me because I couldn’t pick one. I don’t know. 

I just think that we all share these qualities and we have each other’s backs. We’re champions of each other as every woman is, and that’s really special.

What can we expect from you in the future? Are there any plans to return to comedy?

I would hope to. If something comedic comes up, I would definitely be happy to play that. I’m going to continue to do both comedy and drama. Hopefully, I continue to have a nice variety of things.

What would you say to your fans now that Game of Thrones is ending?

Thank you so much for watching and supporting the show for so many, many years. Without them, there would be no show. I really hope that they are satisfied with the ending.

Photo by Helen Sloan/HBO

The series finale of Game of Thrones will air on Monday, May 20 at 9 AM in the Philippines, exclusively on HBO and HBO GO, with a primetime encore telecast at 10 PM.

New episodes of Gentleman Jack are exclusively available for streaming on HBO GO every Tuesday at the same time as the US, 10am in Manila. – Rappler.com

This interview has been edited for brevity.

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Paolo Abad

Paolo Abad writes, edits, and shoots for a living. He is one of the founding partners of the online radio platform Manila Community Radio.