The news is dire: The most feared woman in the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros is being held captive by Los Angeles mid-morning traffic. Well, more precisely, Lena Headey, the willowy actress who plays Cersei Lannister on “Game of Thrones,” is half an hour late for an interview at the HBO offices in Santa Monica and, when she does arrive, it’s in a swirl of charismatic chaos.
“Hectic morning, so sorry,” Headey said as she ran her fingers through jet-black hair that is nowhere close to her broadcast blondness. Her aura was more spiky than regal; two fingers were bandaged after home-project mishaps, her off-the-shoulder top revealed a scattering of tattoos and every fourth or fifth sentence was sprinkled with F-words. “I … hate being late. I’ve lived in L.A. for five years but I forget there’s traffic until I’m in it.”
No matter, Headey is right on schedule career-wise with “Game of Thrones,” which returns Sunday with the second-season premiere after establishing itself as newfound royalty with television critics and fantasy fans.
The singular show is like some Norman tapestry — intricate and huge with its memorable threads devoted to carnage and triumph — and the diabolical Cersei is near the center. A recent widow (ahem), she plotted to have the crown land on the head of her sadistic young son Joffrey (Jack Gleeson in Draco Malfoy mode but with a dash of Caligula ) while her brother Tyrion (Peter Dinklage, the newly minted Emmy and Golden Globes winner) now holds the powerful post of Hand of the King.
For fans who watch “Thrones,” Headey’s character is one they love to hate. Her crystalline eyes and imperious glare suggest a woman in total control but much of it is facade hiding her self-loathing. She is haunted by a marriage catastrophic joke as well as the longtime incestuous relationship with her twin, Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), and bitterness about the general powerlessness of women in the kingdom of men.
“I think she is deeply, deeply fearful,” said the 38-year-old actress. “She sleeps with fear in her soul. She is full of terror and paranoia and insecurity. She hides it with stillness. She does not move much and that’s been a real challenge for me. I fidget. She’s like a cobra, she’s a snake just waiting and waiting… the hard thing is it’s freezing where we film [in Belfast] in a shipyard for five months a year and I’m there in a silk dress trying to be totally still.”
Shivers aside, the role of Cersei and the success of “Thrones” are “a joy and a gift,” says the actress, who this year is celebrating the 20th anniversary of a screen career that began in 1992, the year she appeared in “Waterland” with Jeremy Irons.
“I’m 40 next year and I’m very well aware that where I am now, it becomes a bit of a wilderness for actresses,” Headey said. “So where I am now, in this role, it is such a blessing. I’m a parent now, we have a young son, and I lived life and that’s all part of Cersei as I sit in there.”
Costar and good friend Dinklage says that Headey may not even realize how far her talents go.
“All the great actors, they don’t need to do much on screen,” Dinklage said. “They have stillness and they resonate so much power. That’s what Lena can do. A lot of actors would play that role like a bad seed and Lena would never consider it. She approaches Cersei as a damaged person so it comes from a real place not from a twirling-the-mustache kind of place. No matter what things she does, she’s a mother lion protecting her young.”
Born in Bermuda — her father, a British lawman, was there as an advisor — Headey grew up in Yorkshire, England, which she calls “the modern-day Winterfell,” which might explain why she’s wearing a wolf shirt. “I’m a secret Stark,” she yelped, which sends your head spinning if you’re a follower of “Thrones.”
“Thrones” is based on the sword-and-magic books of George R.R. Martin and the show was created by D.B. Weiss and David Benioff. Benioff said that in some ways the role on the pager has tilted toward the actress playing the part.
“We never thought of Cersei as a particularly funny character until Lena read for the part,” Benioff said. “We had seen a number of excellent actresses, but everyone had interpreted the character as an emotionless ice queen. Lena took her in a different, stranger and more interesting direction. In her hands, Cersei embodies endless contradictions. The queen can seem both ruthless and fragile, often in the same scene. She can exhibit extreme cruelty but also utter devotion to her own children. And she’s damn funny, which is no surprise if you know Lena.”
Headey is on a sort of Sigourney Weaver celebrity path — she is specializing in roles in the Comic-Con sector after starring in “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” and appearing in memorable roles in “300,” and “The Brothers Grimm.” Up next, she’ll be seen with Karl Urban in “Dredd,” the adaptation of the ultra-violent British comics about a future-cop called Judge Dredd.
Still, it is the fair-haired queen of House Lannister that may become her signature role.
It was Dinklage that led Headey to the kingdoms of Westeros in the first place. The two became friends back in 2006 when they met on the Toronto set of “Ultra,” a superhero television pilot that never got off the ground. (Headey had the title role, a character who sprung from Image Comics stories that were described by one IGN reviewer as “‘Sex & the City’ with tights.”)
The pair were working on another scruffy project when Dinklage announced that he had discovered two interesting things while reading a script for a planned medieval epic: There was a bawdy oral sex scene for his prospective character as well as a very interesting family, including a sister that might present a perfect role for Headey.
“It was all born out of that moment,” Headey said as she smoothed out the ragged edge of one bandage. “I hadn’t read any of the books and they were mapping out this journey of this queen who… has power and is in control but then, at some point, looks like she might lose pretty much everything. There’s nothing more exciting for an actor than a chance to lose, to be someone who has lost — especially if it’s someone who starts off with a veneer of control. To be broken is wonderful.”
— Geoff Boucher
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