Shelley Marsden catches up with Game of Thrones star Gemma Whelan between shows at the Edinburgh Festival
Gemma Whelan is the sort of person you imagine others calling, without irony, a “force of nature”. Even over the phone, during a break from her hectic schedule at the Edinburgh Festival, the gruelling nature of performing two shows daily and a self-enforced “no-booze” clause don’t seem to have dampened her enthusiasm.
Whelan, an actress and stand-up (she initially trained as a dancer and went into musical theatre, before realising it wasn’t her “bag”), is best known for playing Yara Greyjoy, sister of Theon (Alfie Allen) in Game of Thrones, joining as a guest star in series two (the third series has just been broadcast). Her family the Grayjoys are of sea-going stock, and Yara is something of a female pirate, heading out with her fishing fleet to attack other towns.
Right now she’s not in the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, but the Scottish capital with both her debut stand-up show and a straight one-woman play. Whelan has performed in Edinburgh before with other comedians on sketch-shows, but this is the first time she’s been in the nerve-biting position of performing a solo show here (“a whole fifty minutes of me, argh!”). As for the play, it was “too good an opportunity to pass up”, but to be on top of both, she had to start preparing in early June.
So Whelan enjoys a challenge then; or maybe she’s just plain crazy. “Haha, you’re not the first person to suggest that”, she laughs loudly.”It’s tough, but I’m really enjoying it. And I’ve got five star reviews for both shows so far, the feedback has been very nice.”
Her comedy show has the tidy little title of Chastity Butterworth and the Spanish Hamster. Most of the time Whelan plays Chastity (a character which in 2010 won her the Funny Women Variety Act at the Leicester Square Theatre), who she describes as “odd, incongruous and very silly”, interspersed with other characters that are revealed later in the show, exactly which ones is dependent on who the audience has voted for. “It’s huge, ridiculous, silly fun” she says a little breathlessly. And you believe her.
Philip Ridley’s Dark Vanilla Jungle with its rhythmic intensity and dark subject matter couldn’t be more different, a stark monologue of one hour and fifteen minutes, the playwright’s first one-woman monologue written for an adult audience, about a girl who has been failed by society and ends up in horrific circumstances.
Says Whelan: “She’s the consequence of lack of care really. It’s hard to describe without giving it away, but that’s it in a nutshell. It’s a very harrowing piece to do. The shows are definitely the right way round though. That’s at 3pm (I start preparing at about 1pm), then I become Chastity at 5.45pm. She brings me back on an even keel.”
The 32 year old has imposed a strict ban on alcohol while she’s up in Edinburgh, so there are no drinks to help her wind down after a frenetic day of performance. Instead, she chills out by watching somebody else’s stand-up or hanging out with pals. “I think people have put a lot of time and money into producing these shows, and if I’m falling by the wayside at all it’s a bit rude, really. There have been a couple of evenings when I’ve been tempted, but no, a few more weeks of focus and then I can have that beer!”
Have any Game of Thrones fans stumbled into the Edinburgh theatres to see her, or actually pitched up due to their undying devotion to the TV series? Whelan doesn’t think there’s been much of a crossover, but has seen a few: “Yesterday, for example, a lovely Italian couple were waiting outside after the show, and they’d come specifically because they’re huge Game of Thrones fans. Two Spanish fans came to the play but, bless them, they didn’t understand a word of what I was saying because it’s so fast. They actually walked out. It was all too much.”
And so, the inevitable moment can’t be avoided any longer (when Whelan gets asked about Game of Thrones). That’s what you get for landing a part in one of the most watched shows on the planet, particularly as there are no signs that she’s bowing out for series four. She plays Yara Greyjoy, a tough, natural born leader and fighter to Allen’s weak, insipid Theon. Is she like Yara in some ways?
“I’d never trick my brother into feeling me up. Have you watched that scene? Oh God…I can just see a big massive featured quote in front of me right now! But no, I think I’m like her in that I’m very strong-willed and… a little feisty and quite forward.”
Whelan is referring to the shock scene in series two in which the conniving Yara sneakily deceives her brother, disguising her identity and tricking Theon, who had just returned after nine years away with the Starks, into fondling her on a horse ride to Pike.
Filming the scene was an experience she won’t forget either, mostly because of the horse they were on. She says, in between giggles: “We’re both on this horse, and I trick Alfie’s character into feeling me up, for want of a better word. But we had such a naughty horse, he just wouldn’t stop farting and we were trying to do a deep, very serious lead-in to this incestuous seduction and the horse just would not shut up.
“Also, I couldn’t make it go, they had to give me spurs because it was really stubborn, and eventually they had to get someone just out of shot with a lead-rope, pulling him along. So while you’re watching this sexy scene, the two of us are getting pulled along like we’re on a donkey in Blackpool! Cut to wide shot of the donkey ride…”
They seem to have a lot of laughs on set. Would Whelan have Alfie Allen (sibling of Lilly) as her brother in real life? “He’s so lovely. I would, he’s an angel. It’s very boring but I can’t say enough nice things about him. He’s a pleasure to work with and I hope we get to do more work together, he’s an absolute treat.”
What’s it like working on such an epic series – every episode seems to have the production values of a Hollywood film and most scenes involve upwards of fifty people on the same tiny set. “You know, it is kind of like a film set, the production values are so high. It’s all top quality, I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s made with such love and care, and everyone on set believes in what they’re doing and wants to make it the best they can, which leads to a great atmosphere.
“I think we all realise as well how lucky we are to be part of something like that. My fellow cast members are amazing. Me and Patrick Malahide [Lord Balon Greyjoy] have a lovely time working together. I’ve only really worked with Patrick and Alfie. But I meet the other guys off set. There are two units that work in Belfast, so we often see each other in the hotel after filming and it’s great, no bad eggs in there at all. We go to conventions together as well, which is always a good laugh.”
Are there any nut-jobs at these conventions, you know, the ones that take their fandom to scary limits and turn up as Arya lookalikes? “Noooo, no!” laughs Whelan. “There are some extremely enthusiastic people, but nobody crazy! It’s nice, actually… that people are so behind you.”
It must be incredible to be part of such a long-running series, but does it not prove slightly restrictive for a young actress who wants to dip her toe in other projects? “No, I relish every minute! I’ve been lucky to have time in between to pursue other things. I was able to come away to Edinburgh and do these shows, for one, which were really important to me. And I was able to do One Woman, Two Guvners in the West End last year which was amazing. So far, I’m making it work. I have nothing to complain about!”
Game of Thrones is filmed in Belfast studios and outside locations around the north, and Whelan has enjoyed working in that part of the world: “I love Belfast! What’s that beautiful old bar opposite the Europa… The Crown, I love it in there. Deane’s Restaurant is lovely (bit of a fancy one that!). I went to Belfast Castle and had a good old hike up there once on a day off, with Alfie actually, which is fantastic. And I remember once when Primal Scream were playing Belsonic Festival in Belfast a couple of years ago, Alfie managed to get us a couple of tickets. It was brilliant. I really like it there, can’t wait to go back.”
Does that mean the bold Yara is making a re-appearance in series four then? “Ah… I don’t know how much I’m allowed to say! I guess it can only be assumed that… what happened in season three was setting the scene for season four. I can speculate there’ll be more of her; she’s certainly alive and well in George R.R. Martin’s book!”
Dark Vanilla Jungle is at the Pleasance Courtyard until August 26; Chastity Butterworth and the Spanish Hamster is at the Assembly Roxy until the same date.