The former comedian takes centre stage as Yara Greyjoy in the seventh season of HBO’s Game of Thrones but, she says, it was always on the cards. Gemma Whelan’s time has come. Her Games of Thrones character Yara Greyjoy is to be central to season 7 of the show. At the end of season 6 we saw her with her brother Theon, played by Alfie Allen, join forces with Daenerys as they prepare for war.
But Gemma is keeping mum about revealing what transpires and whether she’ll survive to be in the final eighth season. But it’s not just Game of Thrones where Whelan is moving center stage. She is fulfilling a dream of playing a detective in the forthcoming Channel 4 adaptation of the graphic novel The End of The F**king World. She received widespread acclaim for her turn in drama The Moorside playing Karen Matthews, and as if the busy career wasn’t enough she is several months pregnant.
The first thing I notice when we met at a cafe near her home in South East London is the developing bump. Over the course of the next few months it will be fair to say both mother and baby will have arrived.
When a casting director asked Whelan to go up for a role in the HBO series in 2011 Whelan was best known as a comedian. She had created her scatty posh aristocratic alter-ego Chastity Butterworth while performing on the stand-up comedy circuit, later developing the character for a BBC radio show. Her reputation for stand-out comedy was cemented when she won a gong at the Funny Women Awards in 2010. So to be asked to read for a dramatic, fantasy HBO series was a pleasant surprise for an actress who admired the way that Olivia Colman is able to straddle comedy and drama. Whelan hoped to do the same.
Whelan rushed home to watch first season worried that it would be like Dungeons and Dragons. When she realized it was not, she devoured the first ten episodes over two nights. While watching she got an idea of how to play the character, and whilst not believing she would get the part, as 70 other actresses were also being auditioned, she thought, “I can do this.”
The increased presence of Yara Greyjoy in the series has run in parallel to the burgeoning of Whelan’s career, although in keeping with her mild-manner, she says, “I don’t mind playing a little part in a big series, but to become a main character is great.”
The growth of her character didn’t come as a surprise because, “When the casting breakdown was given out, before I even auditioned, it said I have a much greater role in later seasons. Of course, you never believe what you read, and things change, but everything I was told would happen has happened.”
Not that everything has been a smooth ride. The first day of filming saw Whelan have to morally compromise herself: “I’m a vegetarian. My brother Theon kills two boys and comes back thinking he’s a hero. In the script it says my character is eating meat. I thought I’d just tell them on the day that I don’t eat meat and we could bring in a meat substitute. I didn’t know the calibre of the show at the time and the set guy made a whole vat of chicken, so I ate chicken all day. I just told myself I was going method! The protein hit was quite something.”
Her character is also bi-sexual, and dominates her brother Theon like a bouncer at the door of a nightclub. “You’re not going to flirt your way past her,” says Whelan. “She’s an old-fashioned lady warrior with a mission.”
You will be able to watch Gemma take center stage as Yara on Game of Thrones when season 7 premieres this July 16 on HBO.
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