'I couldn't be less queenly in real life'
As ruthless Cersei in the ‘Game of Thrones’ TV series and with an upcoming role in ‘Dredd’, Lena Headey seems to have cornered the market in cruel queenly parts
NOT SO VERY long ago, the career path of the successful British actress might as well have been written in stone. She would never go hungry so long as she looked wonderful in whalebone. If not straightened and prim in a corset, she was unfettered and pastoral in a petticoat; cascading curls an optional extra. If she worked hard and wooed Hollywood, Damehood beckoned. Like many of her peers, Lena Headey began her professional life in Merchant Ivory and period prestige, appearing in lavish big screen adaptations of The Remains of the Day (1993), The Jungle Book (1994) and Onegin (1999). A career as an English Rose seemed certain.
But 20 years on from Headey’s film debut, you’ll find her in science-fiction and fantasy, as the star of HBO’s Game of Thrones, 300 and the incoming Dredd. How on earth did she escape the costume-drama corset? Even she doesn’t know.
“Nothing I do is by design,” admits a cheery Headey. “It’s always the result of a happy accident. I didn’t have a career plan. It has just become the way it is. It’s all good fun. It’s learning. I don’t think of the background when I am reading stuff. I don’t think about genre. If I like a character, if it intrigues me, that will be the reason that I jump in.” At 38, in sharp contrast with early roles, Headey has kicked bottoms in the title roles of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Ultra. She’s taken on Marvel’s Avengers as Mystique in The Superhero Squad Show. She is currently squaring up to the eponymous judge of Dredd. A keen boxer and an incidental weaponry expert, she’s fit for frontline duties, surely? “Ha. Oh please don’t send me to the frontline,” she says. “I love being physical but I am extreme either way. I can be superfit. And then I can be really lazy and ignore everything. I am finally getting back into being fit. I love being physical when I am working. There is something visceral about that. I get a kick out of that. Cersei in Game of Thrones is quite solid and stiff. So it’s great to move when you can.”
Kate Winslet has an Oscar and Emily Blunt is the darling of the US independent film sector, but among British performers, only Kate Beckinsale comes close to Headey as a fanboy magnet. Sure enough, when Dredd played at the uber-geek bash that is Comi-Con, the entire convention threatened to spontaneously combust with delight. “I love doing those things because people are so in love with it all,” she says. “There is no malice in it. They are so protective of all these characters they grew up loving. They are very particular and are really honest. They come up and say, ‘I hated that. But I loved the way you did this.’ It’s touching that they are so loyal to the characters they love and that they take it so seriously. It’s an honour that they’re out there.”
What does she hear most often, I wonder? “You’re a great bitch.” Is that a compliment? “Oh, I don’t mind. I think so. There is always that thought that you might get stuck with a character. But there’s always the notion that every character is always evolving. Cersei will go down a completely different path later on. And I can’t wait for that to happen.” Born in Bermuda where her father John, a policeman, was stationed as an advisor, she returned to England with her family when she was five.
At 17, the budding actor was spotted performing in a school production at the Royal National Theatre and snapped up for a role opposite Grant Warnock in the 1992 film Waterland. She has, despite battling occasional bouts of depression, worked steadily ever since.
The Game of Thrones star separated from her Irish husband, the musician Peter Paul Loughran, after five years of marriage late last year. The couple’s son, Wylie Elliot Loughran, was born 2010. Mummy continues to commute between Hollywood and Belfast, where the HBO hit series is shot.
“I’m in Belfast a lot,” she says. “So I guess the next four years of my life I’ll be there for a good four months for each season. My son is in LA. So every second I have, I go home. I fly between the two. Busily.” Does being locked into the show get in the way of other things and other projects? “You do kind of belong to it. They are brilliant though. They understand that you need to go and do other things and that only makes for happier employees.” She had never heard of George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, the source material for Game of Thrones, before she started shooting, though it did not take long for her to realise “there was this huge, genuine fan base”. Dredd, too, required her to brush up on all things 2000 AD.
“I was never one of the cool kids who read 2000 AD,” she admits. “I know it’s disappointing but it’s true. The character that I played was drawn by Alex Garland so I talked to him a lot. He is a giant fan. So I had the oracle there. I loved that it was really a British journey. The budget was relatively small for something on this scale. But that works.
“It seems British. I read it and I just loved Ma-Ma. She’s quite a piece of work.” She does seem to have cornered the market in cruel, queenly parts and “pieces of work”. Is she enough of a method actor to carry these attributes home after the shoot? “Oh God no,” she laughs. “I am very much a seat-of-the-pants actor. I will prepare when I have to. But I like being unprepared. Being too prepared doesn’t work for me. Sometimes it’s fulfilling. There are days you walk away and say, ‘Well, I did everything I could.’ But I am still terrified every time they say action. There is a part of me that lacks self-confidence. I couldn’t be less queenly in real life.” She may be right. Barring the emergence of some errant wild child in Monaco, it’s hard to think of a queen who sports quite so many tattoos.
Headey’s body modifications include a gorgeous lotus design across her back and the actor Jason Flemyng’s name in Thai on her wrist: the pair were together for nine years.
“There is something in the act of having tattoos done that I love. It can be quite addictive. I’ve got a few on my back because my friend is an artist, and a few on my arms. Every time I pass a tattoo parlour, I think ‘maybe just a tiny one’. I can get away with it. There is an inch on my shoulder I could use.” Fortunately, as the only cast member of Game of Thrones who gets to keep their kit on, she has an array of heavy frocks to keep her tattoos under wraps.
“Our designer is amazing,” says Headey. “By the time I put on the wig, the corset and the belt that squeezes out your lungs, I’m already uncomfortable and slightly angry.”
Dredd (3D) opens on Friday