‘Game of Thrones’: Carice van Houten on Melisandre’s (Temporary) Exit

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Carice van Houten as Melisandre and Conleth Hill as Varys in Game of Thrones. (Photo: HBO)

The seven-year game of thrones that’s playing out in Westeros has taken a significant toll on every character, robbing them of life (Jon Snow), limb (Jaime Lannister), and loved ones (House Stark). For the Red Priestess, Melisandre (Carice van Houten), the price has been her faith. Once a fervent disciple of the fiery deity R’hllor, the Lord of Light, she’s seen her various prophecies and predictions go unfulfilled, most notably the one that insisted Stannis Baratheon would sit upon the Iron Throne. That particular belief perished along with Stannis’s young daughter, Shireen, who was sacrificed to R’hllor at Melisandre’s urging — a move she soon regretted.

Bringing Jon Snow back from the dead last season was a redemption of sorts, and now she’s continuing to put the past behind her by helping to orchestrate the first face-to-face encounter between the King in the North and the Mother of Dragons. “I’ve done my part — I’ve brought fire and ice together,” a weary Melisandre told Varys in this week’s episode of Game of Thrones, standing on a cliff overlooking the seas surrounding Daenerys’s current home base at Dragonstone. “My time whispering in the ears of kings has come to an end.”

“She’s going through a lot, man,” van Houten tells Yahoo TV about her alter ego’s resigned state of mind. “I think she’s quite vulnerable: She still is a believer, because she’s regained a little bit of her faith, but not much. She’ll never be the Melisandre we saw in Season 2.” The Dutch actress says that she was in a bit of a vulnerable state herself filming that sequence, having given birth to her first child only six weeks earlier. (She and her partner, L.A. Confidential star Guy Pearce, have a young son, whom they both have jokingly referred to as their “shadowbaby.”) “I had to be helped up that cliff with two people on both sides of me,” she remembers. “I was wearing this big cloak, and Conleth [Hill, who plays Varys] was calling me James Brown because of it. He was like, ‘Ladies and gentlemen: James Brown!’ while I was stumbling up the cliff. We had fun, even though I was sort of out of it, really.”

Melisandre’s true form as revealed last season on Game of Thrones. (Photo: HBO)

Another reason behind Melisandre’s spiritual (and physical) exhaustion is that she’s been at this game for many years — and possibly centuries — beyond what we’ve seen chronicled in the series. As the Season 6 premiere, “The Red Woman,” revealed, the necklace that has a permanent place around her neck hides her true form as an ancient crone. It’s a twist that was a surprise to viewers, but van Houten had known it was coming for a while.

“Someone mentioned it to me in my first season, but we never came back to it, so I forgot about it a little bit. When it came back [last year], I was like, ‘Oh, that’s right!’ I was so glad, because it was going to be another epic scene. A lot of my scenes have been pretty epic,” she says. She certainly had to spend an epic amount of time in the makeup chair to age into Melisandre’s older self. Van Houten estimates that the transformation took between five and six hours, as the crew glued silicon prosthetics all over her body. “I scared the s*** out of myself,” she says of seeing her withered self for the first time.

It’s an experience she hopes to replicate before the series finale or Melisandre’s final episode … whichever comes first. “That’s her true self, and I think it would be a shame if we didn’t go back to that again, to not show who she really is. But I don’t know. We have to get used to that on this show; it can be frustrating, but trying to trick the producers into saying something is also fun. I’m just trying to ride this one out.”

Melisandre with Gendry in Season 3 of Game of Thrones (Photo: HBO)

She also isn’t aware — or simply can’t say — if the series will resolve a plot thread that’s been dangling since Season 3, namely: Where the heck is Gendry? After traveling with Arya, Robert Baratheon’s bastard son (played by Joe Dempsie) fell into Melisandre’s clutches, and she ignited his lust before leeching his royal blood. It was the Priestess’s regular foil, Ser Davos, who eventually sprang Gendry from his cell and sent him off in a rowboat back to Kings Landing.

Four seasons later, that rowboat has yet to dock — a marked contrast to the lightning-fast way that everyone else is able to move around Westeros. (Jon Snow, for instance, seemed to take less than a day to make the trip from Winterfell to Dragonstone for his meeting with Daenerys.) Van Houten suggests that viewers might not want to hold their breath waiting to see Gendry’s current whereabouts. “There’s just very little time to meet all of them. Some think that he and Melisandre might come together again, but I don’t know,” she says. “It wasn’t particularly nice what I did to him!”

Game of Thrones airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.

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