‘Stand up for yourself and say no’: Oona Chaplin on nude scenes, her new Netflix spy drama, and motion-capture acting for Avatar 3
It’s a weird day to interview Oona Chaplin. The most anticipated film of the year, James Cameron’s Avatar sequel The Way of Water, has just been released, and Chaplin is set to take on a key role in the already filmed third instalment. We’re not talking about that, though. We’re chatting about her new Netflix spy thriller series Treason, which she stars in alongside Daredevil’s Charlie Cox and former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko. It’s the kind of bingeable crime caper that has become synonymous with the BBC over the years (see: Bodyguard, Vigil, or literally anything starring James Nesbitt). However, this Boxing Day, as people roll out of bed heavy with yesterday’s indulgences, many will flick through Netflix, not the terrestrial channels, and land on Treason, where they will spend the next four hours.
“I’m admiring your shelves,” Chaplin tells me of my Zoom background, which has been carefully curated to avoid the messiest parts of my flat. “This is the best corner of my place, too,” she laughs as I come clean. Her peripatetic upbringing (spent mostly in Madrid) has left her with a Spanish-American drawl. She has brown eyes, emphatic eyebrows and dark hair – a result of her Mapuche (indigenous Chilean) heritage on the side of her father, the cinematographer Patricio Castilla. The granddaughter of the silent-film star Charlie Chaplin is a far cry from her moustachioed ancestor. Yet Charlie’s humour is evident in her wry smile and occasional cheeky comment.
“Been there done that mate!” she shouts in a mockney accent when I ask if working with Kurylenko has awakened a desire of her own to be a Bond girl. Turns out she’s worked with Kurylenko before – on Quantum of Solace no less. She had a blink-and-you-miss-it part as the receptionist at the Atacama Desert hotel that Bond blows up at the end of the movie. Under the direction of writers like Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who was brought onto No Time to Die to beef up the female characters, a new-era Bond girl is the kind of role in which you can imagine Chaplin thriving. “It doesn’t appeal to me as a concept,” she says, but “I don’t know if I would say no to it, as well.”
Since shooting Quantum of Solace straight out of Rada, Chaplin has quietly become a regular screen presence. She’s perhaps still best known for her role in Game of Thrones as Talisa Stark, wife of Robb Stark, who suffers one of the most brutal deaths in TV history when she’s stabbed in her pregnant belly during the “Red Wedding” massacre. Viewers might also remember her fleeting part in Sherlock as John Watson’s short-lived girlfriend Jeanette, or her role as Tom Hardy’s half-sister Zilpha Geary in his mysterious 2017 series Taboo.
I’m so sick and tired of Russians being the bad guys
In Treason, she’s plunged into a love triangle with her husband Adam Lawrence (Cox), who has mysteriously rushed through the ranks to become deputy head of MI6, and former Russian spy Kara (Kurylenko). A familiar trope of Russian baddies versus British goodies plays out with a more topical theme of political collusion and conspiracy at its heart. Chaplin isn’t exactly elated about this narrative. “I’m so sick and tired of Russians being the bad guys. I can’t even tell you,” she says. “It’s just like, can somebody come up with a better stereotype that we can roll with?” The Russian element was added as they went along, she explains, “maybe because of the given circumstances [alluding to the war in Ukraine]; maybe because it just raised the stakes... It’ll be great when the ideological war that we have with Russia is old news.”
It’s a punchy line against the show she’s supposed to be promoting, but then her grandfather was never one to shy away from political issues, either. We’re not allowed to talk about Charlie, though, sadly. Since the #MeToo movement, the London-born comic actor is among the historic figures whose relationships with women have been re-examined under a new cultural lens. During his lifetime, Charlie had numerous relationships with women as young as 16, the last of which was Oona’s grandmother (Oona O’Neill), whom he married when she was 18 and he was 54. Their marriage spanned 34 years until his death in 1977.
It’s some dynasty Chaplin was born into. O’Neill was herself the daughter of the Nobel Prize-winning writer and dramatist Eugene O’Neill, author of The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Meanwhile, Chaplin’s mother, Geraldine, the first of Charlie and Oona’s eight children, was one of the stars of David Lean’s epic 1965 romance, Doctor Zhivago. Keeping up? Chaplin may cement herself into that showbiz legacy with her role in the Avatar saga. While many actors begrudge performing in motion-capture suits in front of a green screen, Chaplin found it liberating. “I’m a very physical person,” she says, “and I’ve always wanted to physically inhabit a character in much bigger ways than the screen can often afford me. And so it felt really good to finally unleash my inner beast – to jump and fly and fight!”
Happily, one of the people she didn’t have to fight was the director, who has been known in the past for his choleric temper. Kate Winslet herself famously vowed never to work with Cameron again after her experience on Titanic, where the director dubbed her “weighty Katey”. Chaplin assigns Cameron’s anger to his own “genius”. “The truth is that he can do everybody’s job on that set better than them 99 per cent of the time,” she says. “So, there are moments where he loses his patience, or he’s trying to express something to somebody who doesn’t understand and it seems so obvious to him. But he has a lot of integrity, and so he will absolutely make things right, and bring things back into balance.” Read between the lines and it sounds like Cameron has learnt to apologise.
Unlike Winslet, who was just 20 when filming began on Titanic, Chaplin – now 36 – has already experienced life on a set with monumental scale in Game of Thrones. She is also among the actors who spent some time in the series nude. While Emilia Clarke has since suggested that she was not always made to feel totally comfortable in those scenes, Chaplin is clear she had no such issues. “At the time, I was young, and I was very, very willing,” she says – plus, she had “very specific parameters... no nips, no bits”. I ask her, then, what she makes of the popularity nowadays of intimacy coordinators. She’s not entirely convinced. “I mean... great that more people are getting jobs,” she says with a sarcastic chuckle. “It’s great to give people a voice when they feel they might not have one,” she adds, but “at the same time, if you say yes to a script, then you say yes to a script. If you’re put in a situation on set where you’re asked to do things that you’re not comfortable with, then f***ing stand up for yourself and say no.”
It’s a controversial line to take, as of course, there are many actors who don’t feel they are able to stand up for themselves – that’s the problem. But then, confidence doesn’t seem like a quality Chaplin has ever found to be in short supply. At 15, she demanded to be shipped off to boarding school (yes, really) and ended up at King Charles III’s alma mater, Gordonstoun School in the north of Scotland, which he notoriously described as “Colditz with kilts”. The Gordonstoun experience, dramatised in The Crown, revolves around the ethos of making children “meet with triumph and defeat” and in Charles’s day consisted of cold showers every morning and a lot of cross-country running.
While some students, like the future king of England, struggled with the school’s strict regime, Chaplin thrived. “I was in a position within my own life as a teenager where I wanted boundaries,” she says. “I wanted discipline. Even though I wasn’t doing it consciously, I was looking for guidance.” I posit that Gordonstoun sounds like the kind of place that will either make you or break you. “Of course,” she responds. “It’s like anything.” Much like her character in Treason, it’s going to take a lot to break Oona Chaplin.
‘Treason’ is released globally on Netflix on 26 December