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Carice van Houten on the Lighter Side of Her 'Game of Thrones’ Character Melisandre

Indiewire By Melina Gills | Indiewire March 25, 2014 at 4:11PM

Melisandre has been a critical mover -- even birthing a demon to assassinate someone -- from her very first appearance in season two of "Game of Thrones." We sat down with Carice van Houten to discuss the welcome challenge of portraying an “evil” character, nudity in popular culture and her accomplishments beyond television.
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Helen Sloan/HBO Carice van Houten in 'Game of Thrones'

The beautiful and multitalented Carice van Houten will soon be returning to our screens for the upcoming fourth season of HBO's hit "Game of Thrones," in which she plays the Red Priestess Melisandre. A powerful and dangerous woman, Melisandre is a close advisor to aspiring king Stannis Baratheon and a serious threat to all of his enemies, including the beloved Stark family (at least, what remains of them). Melisandre has been a critical presence from her very first appearance in season two’s “The North Remembers,” and Indiewire relished the opportunity to have van Houten sit down with us to discuss the welcome challenge of portraying an “evil” character, nudity in popular culture and her accomplishments beyond television. 

The busy Dutch actress is a household name in her home country of Holland and gained international fame in 2007 with Paul Verhoeven's "Black Book." In addition to maintaining a vibrant career on the screen, she is the coauthor of the book "Antiglamour" and is soon releasing a second pop album. It's no surprise, then, that she hasn't had the time to read the hefty George R.R. Martin novel on which the HBO series is based. Van Houten nevertheless relates to the devotion of "Game of Thrones" geeks, even if she must keep a critical distance to do justice to Melisandre. The savvy, outspoken van Houten proves there is more to an actress’s life than big Hollywood dreams. 

Do you ever have nightmares…

Yeah, all the time.

…inspired by the scenes you shoot for "Game of Thrones"?

I keep seeing planes falling out of the sky. But that’s my recurring nightmare and has nothing to do with the show. No, I don’t have nightmares about the show.

Do you watch yourself?

I love the show. I’m a big fan myself. I’m completely into the show, but when I see a scene that I’m in myself, I’m like “Ugh.” It takes me out of it. It’s not my favorite thing. But the show itself and everyone else are great.

You are one among many powerful women on the show. Was this one of the aspects that drew you to it? 

Yeah. Every moment we have to get women out there is an opportunity. I wanted to do something different. I was not very familiar with this kind of role. Where I come from, I play the light and funny parts. This is so different, and I was very attracted to that. The fact that she has magical powers is an extra. 

Do you ever consider bringing in some comedy elements?

I try to all the time. But every time I try a joke, they don’t think it fits.

"I really enjoy the more human side of Melisandre."

In some of your line deliveries, though, I often pick up irony.

At least I can put that in. I like to approach the heavier scenes in a light way. Any moment I can feel there is irony, I will take it. In this coming season, Melisandre’s telling a joke. I love that. I really enjoy the more human side of Melisandre.

You probably won’t agree with me seeing the first thing I do this season, but there will be scenes where you see her in her natural environment. You see her take a bath, talking, having dinner -- more normal stuff. 

In past interviews you’ve spoken of her more sympathetically. Does that help you to play her?

Yeah. Playing evil is just not interesting. I don’t think anyone who does evil stuff thinks they’re doing evil stuff. That’s the scary part. The people who do things we despise or don’t understand -- they think they’re doing a good thing, which is so scary. I think that is the only way for me to play her, because otherwise I’m fighting with her. Even if you play Hitler… obviously, you shouldn’t agree with him, but you need to find a way into a character like that. And it’s a challenge. It’s nice; it’s a great challenge for an actor. 

A recent article in the Independent addressed your openness to the nudity and sex on the show. You mentioned, however, your support for more male nudity. 

Well, someone asked me, and I was like, “Of course. Why not?” I know sex sells and people watch it because it’s new, but it also makes the show more real. If it becomes sexist, then it’s wrong, but I think so far it hasn’t been. I would never take my clothes off if I didn’t think it was appropriate for the scene.

It’s not something that I would like to do. It’s not my favorite thing in the world, at all. It may have something to do with the fact that I’m from Holland. I did a film eight years ago with Paul Verhoeven. It’s a signature in his work. That’s where I come from, so I have a different approach than most Americans. Who sleeps with their bra on? 

Most of the great films have nudity.

Yeah, there is a scene in "Short Cuts" where Julianne Moore is completely naked.

Have you seen "Before Midnight"? The last scene, in which Julie Delpy is topless?

Oh yeah! Beautiful. Great example. It’s beautiful. It’s so real. It’s great. 

There are certainly many more naked women being seen on "Game of Thrones." Do you think that detracts from the impact of the empowered females? 

We can get away with it, I think, because there are so many great, powerful women on the show. If it were only men, and women were just sitting at home, then it’d be different. But since the strongest characters are women on the show, there’s a better balance. 

I saw that you have not read the books. So where do you go to better understand your character? 

I keep trying to get hints from the writers and directors. I also quite like not to know. There’s a reason I don’t read the books. I don’t find time. I read a book on holiday, but I’m never on holiday. The other reason is that I don’t want it to be spoiled. I’m as big a fan as anybody.

The writers give me hints. The first question is, “Am I going to live?” Next, “Is there going to be nudity?” That’s what I most want to know. The things I need to know, I know. It’s the details that get filled in at the last moment. They have to be secretive for a long time. It’s so sad if details get spoiled, and I understand why.

Does it scare you that your character can be killed off?

Yeah, but it also makes it a thrill. It’s the biggest show we all have, but it’s also just a show. It’s sad if you get killed off, but it’s also the fun part. It’s like roulette. It’s a easier for me to say this because I have magical powers, which makes it harder for the writers to kill me off. But I have a feeling that I won’t get away with everything. 

Your character is a survivor.

She is, but she must have flaws. 

And Arya threatened to kill you, didn’t she?

There’s a tense moment between us. I’m sure we’ll see more of that.

You mostly have scenes with the guys. Will we see you with more women this season?

Yes! One of my favorite scenes is with Stannis’s wife. I also have a scene with Stannis’s daughter. It’s nice to act with different characters, and you see characters interact that haven’t crossed each other’s paths until now. That’s interesting, I think.

In an interview you did with us a couple years ago, you talked about your frustrations with not getting lead roles in Americans films. How much has that changed since starring in such a hit series as "Game of Thrones," which has such a devoted American fan base?

It has definitely done me good because so many people watch the show. Yet, at the same time, people are very often confused when they see me in real life. They expect a very stern older lady. I don’t feel at all like that. The reason I said yes to the show is also that I thought that this might be good for me. I never make any strategic decisions. But in this case, I thought that maybe it would work for me if I did an American TV show.

"I will never become an American movie star."

I guess it has worked for me, but I'm not as keen on playing in the American big leagues. There’s so much more in and to my life than being in a big American movie. I’m a singer and working on my second album. I write and produce. There is so much more that satisfies me. So there’s not just this one ambition to become an American movie star. Because I will never become an American movie star. I’m a European actress that is lucky to be in a show like this.

What do you write?

I just wrote a book with my friend called "Antiglamour." She’s an actress in Holland too. We wanted to show the backside of glamour. It’s a very personal book, but we also talk about men, sex, clothing, makeup, death and spirituality -- all kinds of topics. It’s very colorful, almost like a big magazine. I’ve been writing poems in a magazine. I’m trying to write a script; I just started that. I keep myself busy.

That sounds like a lot.

And I make music -- and that’s my biggest love. And there’s love in my life. Luckily, I’m not too dependent on a movie career.

Will you sing on the show?

I don’t know! They know I do music, so maybe, who knows?

Would you want to?

Hell yeah. I think it would be a little out-of-character... but maybe not. Maybe we could do it in a ritual. I could try to sneak it in. [laughs]

Have all the languages you speak helped you to learn Valyrian for the show?

I have, as they say, a good ear for languages. Because I speak a few, it helps. At the same time, Valyrian has no reference. It reminds me a little of Greek, and then it’s sort of Hebrew and there’s a weird Italian thing going on. I have a good ear for phonetics.

What do you speak?

Dutch, German, English, and a little French. I could probably speak Spanish if I try.

With which character do you most identify?

As a character for myself? That’s hard… I wish I could say Arya, but I’m not that cool or adventurous or tough. [Thinks for a while.] I could tell you whom I really love.

Who?

Charles Dance: Tywin Lannister. I love that character. I love his acting. There is no one acting badly in this show, at all, but he’s one of my favorites. There are just so many... There’s Sam, who’s a sweetheart, of course. [Signals to John Bradley, who is standing nearby and plays Samwell Tarly.] There’s a beautiful new character there. [Signals to Pedro Pascal, who will be playing Oberyn Martell].

If you could cast someone in the show, whom would you choose?

That’s difficult. It’s not possible anymore, but: Philip Seymour Hoffman, who I also love and is one of my favorite actors. Robert Downey Jr. Helen Mirren.

Has the show made you more of fan of the genre?

Yes, it has made me more open to fantasy. It’s so much richer than I thought it would be. You can easily write it off as Disney for grownups, but it’s great that this comes from someone’s brain, and it tickles your imagination. So I grew quite fond of the genre now. I can see now why the geeks have been geeky about it.

Have you met any of those geeks?

Yes. They know more about the show than we do. That’s also a little dangerous. I work with scripts, so I cannot get too attached.

This article is related to: Television, TV Interviews, Interviews, Carice van Houten, Game of Thrones, HBO