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Interview with Michelle Fairley

Continuing our series of interviews leading up to the April 1st (or April 2nd, if in the UK) premiere of HBO’s Game of Thrones! At the press junket the day after the episode 1 screening which I attended, I had the opportunity to interview a number of actors, as well as the executive producers, about this season of the show. You’ve already seen our interview with Charles Dance, and now we bring another veteran of the show: Michelle Fairley, Lady Catelyn Stark herself.

To say that this is an opportunity I’ve long been looking forward to is an understatement—Fairley happens to play my favorite character in the novels, after all, and I was eager to learn more about her views on the character, and the series in general. Below you’ll get some hints about what’s in store for Catelyn this season, and maybe what’s in store for House Tully, too… and you’ll learn a bit about what it’s like to suddenly become so recognizable as the show’s burgeoning popularity grows by leaps and bounds.

Interview

What can we expect for Catelyn this season?

“Catelyn’s playing a part in events in the south as a means to an end. She basically wants to get her children back to Winterfell and pretend the rest of the kingdom doesn’t exist, after Ned’s been killed. Robb basically employs her as an envoy to go talk to Renly. And as with most things in these books, it takes a tangent and she ends up going on another journey. Because of the way it happens—if you’ve read the books, you know what I mean—so it’s basically her main goal is to get her family back together, and she’ll do whatever it takes to get them back.”

Is it challenging or fun to play such a strong character?

“I think all the women are strong in Game of Thrones, actually. And they are strong, they have to be, in the time and place where they live. Catelyn’s a very honorable person. Strengths are always good to play, they’re good, basic building blocks. But I think weaknesses are the most telling things, as well. It’s the fact that she can’t control her hatred for Jon Snow—that’s a weakness—and most things she can control, she can put a veneer on most things, but on that point, she can’t.

“He represents a weakness in someone that she loves. In her mind, she would never have done that. So for her to have such high morals, and to be married to somebody who has completely crushed her world while still loving him—that’s a very hard thing.”

Is part of your process to read the books?

“Yes. When I first got the part, I started racing through the books—one, two—and then I realized I was starting to get too far ahead, so now I try to stick to reading per season. I don’t look at the internet and the fan sites, I don’t look at anything else. Just purely what David and Dan and the other writers have done, and the script is really my novel, basically. Because it can change, really, because the guys will take it and adapt it.”

So are you also cut off fan reactions, because you’re not on the internet?

“Yeah. I don’t put myself there at all. It’s interesting when you travel outside of England, you start recognizing the scope of this thing. You get recognized in the weirdest places. You can be anywhere, and you realize someone setting next to you is staring at you so you start wondering, “What’s wrong with me?” and then the next thing they’ll say, “Are you in Game of Thrones?” Recently I was walking down the street in London, and I was so embarrassed—in normal day life, you’re looking around looking like… well, not like this I can tell you that [Elio: She was very well turned out for the junket, as were all the cast, really]—because there were two Korean ladies bowing to me and it was because of Game of Thrones!

“That’s never happened to me before, I’ve done so much theater, and soaps, and things like that, things with a local—or maybe national—kind of audience, rather than an international audience like this. It always takes you by surprise, because when you’ve done the job you think that’s it, done, but this is much bigger than that.”

Why do you think people respond to this show as they do?

“Not only is it because it’s a wonderful story that most people can relate to, but it’s the subject matter as well. You strip away the world George has created for it, and you’re left with characters fighting for things that we fight for: love, honor, family. It’s a big drama that works in a global context. And visually, it’s incredibly beautiful. We saw episodes 1 and 2 last night, and it was epic, honestly.

“Last year, it felt a bit like, “Oh, that’s the nice family that lives in the North” and “That’s the horrible family that lives in the south,” but now you’re really seeing the world. It’s vast, and it looks amazing. It’s a big world, and there are some horrible people in it as well. Its sort of like the insidiousness of it is creeping in very, very slow. The rot is setting in.”

Is it difficult to not know where the character may be going in the future, since you haven’t read all the books?

“No, not at all. That’s one of the joys of it, because you don’t know the way the story goes, what tangent you’ll go on. If you’ve read the books, of course you have the basic blueprint, but they don’t stick to that basic blueprint. They’re creating a drama series and sometimes adaptations from books you’ll see them and think that’s not the work you’ve read. But sometimes you need to do that, to create tension, to keep the audience there—not that George hasn’t done that in the books—but then there’s also pace, condensing things. An episode of Game of Thrones might cover five or six chapters, but they compress it to give it more intensity in a smaller time frame.”

Do you feel a lot of Catelyn’s strength comes from being a mother?

“For season 2, definitely. That’s her main thing—family and loyalty. Particularly in this season, following Ned’s death, the only thing she has left of any value to her is her family and she’ll do anything to get them back even though they’re scattered all over the place. That’s what keeps her going. She doesn’t get a chance to grieve at all, because if she were to indulge that she’d collapse. The sorrow and grief becomes what drives her forward to keep fighting to get her children back.”

Do you as an actress miss working with Sean Bean?

“You miss characters when they go, of course. But what was interesting, though Sean and I played husband and wife, we had very little to do with one another. Ned mostly had scenes with his daughters or with Mark. Ned left Winterfell quite quickly.”

But the impression of their relationship was quite strong.

“I know! That’s the trick of it, I think, because it obviously works and you feel there’s a lot of history there. But you do get to miss actors you worked with, as well. It’s lovely even when you’re not working with them directly, you might see them at the hotel in the evening.”

Can you speak a bit about Brienne?

“She’s a new character this season, and from my point of view Catelyn very much sees Arya in Brienne. She sees determination, and a willfulness—a woman in a man’s world. There’s a scene in this season where Catelyn looks at her, and just sees her daughter in her. Also, Brienne is loyal. Brienne is a loyal character.”

Catelyn also seems to be an exploration of feminine instinct—the way that she senses Theon isn’t trustworthy, for example.

“What’s interesting is that with Ned gone, where he was the person in the position in power, but within the family home Catelyn and he were quite equal. Catelyn is quite an instinctive person, really, but that doesn’t mean she necessarily acts on it, or she might hide it. So with the Greyjoys… she’s able to analyze characters pretty quickly. Of course, in George R.R. Martin’s world, there’s a lot of history between these old families, and that informs them.”

One of my favorite aspects of Catelyn is that so many other characters have some special quality that marks them out, making them somehow above the norm. Catelyn seems really grounded in reality, as a sort of average person. Does that help your performance?

“I think that these characters have to be thought of as real people anyway—whether they’re sorcerers or swordsmen or whatever—but they have to be based off of real people, because they’re interacting with real people. With Catelyn, she’s been raised in a high noble family, and it’s been instilled in her how she should behave. She wasn’t going to marry Ned, after all—she was going to marry his older brother, but then she did the honorable thing after he was killed and married Ned instead.

“It’s interesting that in this season, she maintains all these morals that she has, from the years of conditioning… but she adds an extra layer, she starts to become a fighter herself, a warrior who starts to be [raps her fist against the table in time with her words] “I. Want. My. Goal. And I intend to get it!”

Speaking of Catelyn’s family, this season we know they haven’t cast any of her family—her uncle Brynden, her brother Edmure, her father Hoster—but are there any references to them this season, or are they avoiding bringing them up?

“Oh, what can I tell you… In season 1 of course, you saw her sister Lysa and her nephew… I can’t really say any more! I’m sorry, I’m really sorry. Just watch!

Which character do you feel Catelyn is most connected to this season?

“In this season, it’s definitely Robb, she spends a lot of time with him this season. But generally, it’s all of her children, she thinks about them all the time. She has no idea what’s going on with her children—she thinks they’re at King’s Landing and Winterfell—but she misses them all terribly, and her goal is to get back to them. I don’t think Catelyn is complete without them.”

Which do you prefer?

“Which one do I prefer? Oh, well… I loved working with them all, because they’re all so individual and different. I love working with Richard Madden, who plays Robb, but unfortunately I don’t get to really work with the others anymore. I get to watch them and see them occasionally, but that’s all. But I do love working with Richard.”

 

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