Welcome to Emmy Contenders 2019. SYFY WIRE is speaking to a long list of actors, artists, and artisans whose work earned them Emmy nominations this year. Today we speak Carice van Houten, nominated for her role as Melisandre in HBO's Game of Thrones.
Carice van Houten almost never made it to Westeros — not as Melisandre, anyway.
The Game of Thrones team initially asked the Dutch actress to audition for the role of Queen Cersei. At the time, however, she was shooting a movie with Clive Owen, the 2011 film Intruders, so she had to pass. Then during the planning of Season 2, the Game of Thrones producers asked again — would she audition for the role of the red priestess Melisandre? This time, van Houten understood that the show was a good project — "I knew it the second I read the script, but now we had proof," she said. Still, she wondered — was this something she should do? "Apart from the fact that it was well written, I just thought, 'Is this for me?'"
And so the actress reached out to the biggest fantasy fan she knew — Seth Meyers. Van Houten had dated his brother Josh and spent time with the Meyers family in both the U.S. and Holland, and out of everyone she knew, she figured he would be the person to ask. She sent him a text seeking advice and immediately got a response: "Are you crazy? This is the coolest thing ever!" Remembering the exchange now, years later, she laughs. "I wish I had saved that message!"
The actress auditioned, won the part, and reported to duty on set, but from the very first rehearsal, she still felt that feeling of uncertainty nagging her. Even though she was a five-time winner of the Golden Calf (her country's equivalent of the Oscars and Emmys), she felt out of her depth. How was she supposed to play the mysterious Melisandre? What made the character tick? She peppered showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss with questions, but they only gave her one nugget, albeit a huge spoiler: "Oh, by the way, she's really old, but we'll get to that later." Van Houten was flummoxed — what did that mean? Plus she was on the opposite side of the spectrum she usually felt comfortable playing; more used to flawed, self-loathing, vulnerable human beings, she was being tasked with embodying a nearly immortal, magical being.
"I was thrown into the deep end," van Houten said. "Every year, I tried and tried to get them to tell me more, and only got a minimal amount of information. But that was also good, because it made me create something for myself. And I hoped they would let me know if I was going in the wrong direction."
During her first big scene — Melisandre's burning the effigies of the Seven on a Dragonstone beach — van Houten struggled with the red priestess' level of self-confidence. "I had to be all-confident, religiously stern, sexual, all these things, and I was sh***ing myself, because this was my first day!" van Houten recalled. "I just had to bluff my way through it. Keep my back straight, and keep my head straight."
Van Houten watched how other characters on the show grew and evolved, and she wondered when would it be Melisandre's turn. ("I was like, 'When is my character going to show some flaws?'") She was delighted when the red priestess finally got to exhibit some humor during a few scenes at Dragonstone — the awkward family dinner, a joke during her bath scene – but wished there had been more of that. ("I wanted to make a joke at the end of every f**king scene," she said, laughing.)
Van Houten got to share her flair for comedy — and thank Seth Meyers for his career advice – during a late-night sketch in which Melisandre attends a baby shower. And things became far more interesting for her to play once Melisandre had her first major setback. "My favorite thing was when she hears that the burning of Shireen was all for nothing," van Houten said. The blood sacrifice of Stannis' daughter didn't reverse the king's fortunes — the snow might be melting, but his men and horses have deserted and his wife has killed herself. Melisandre realizes her mistake — with no words, it's all there on her face.
"Her whole world comes tumbling down in that moment," van Houten said. "After Shireen's death, I felt like I was playing a completely different character."
Next came the shocking reveal of Melisandre's true age during her crisis of faith, and this made van Houten even happier. (Well, maybe not the 5.5 hours of makeup that it took for her face, neck, and hands.) Finally, she thought, a chance to add more layers to the character! "To give her that level of wisdom and vulnerability!" She also enjoyed the fact that she hadn't incorporated the character's age into her performance earlier. "I might have made Melisandre too fragile otherwise," she said.
Melisandre's newfound fragility continued in Season 6, when van Houten returned to the show just six weeks after giving birth to her son Monte. Her postpartum state affected the character — being tired contributed to the sense that Melisandre was nearly done with this world. But it wasn't until her final return in Season 7, during the Battle of Winterfell, that she got to complete her mission.
"During the scene lighting the fire in the trenches, you do feel like there's a lot at stake," van Houten said. "It's the first time you can see that she actually cares." And just like Davos observing her, we struggle with how to feel about Melisandre's sacrifice at the battle's end, when she takes off her glamour necklace, turns old again, and dies. "It's all in the walking away, I think," van Houten said. "She's done."
Van Houten attributes the wordless power of her performances to a love of silent films — her late father had been a film historian who raised her on the body language and non-verbal communication of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Laurel and Hardy. "A lot of scripts, I read them and I wonder, 'Why am I saying this? I can do this with a look,'" she said. "So I always tend to take out a lot of lines, for which the writers are probably not grateful!"
Melisandre may have few words, but fans of the show have had plenty. After the burning of Shireen, van Houten received death threats, with people screaming at her on the streets and on Twitter. ("Die, bitch! Die!") Then she resurrected Jon Snow, and the tides turned — she got marriage proposals, and after the Battle of Winterfell, people found even more things to shout at her. ("Melisandre for President!")
"I never saw her as evil," van Houten said. "I didn't want to play her as a Cruella de Vil. But for a few seasons, I was the most hated character, because I burnt a child alive. I don't blame them. But after the Battle of Winterfell, everyone sort of forgot that!"