Carice van Houten just earned her first Emmy nomination for playing the magical Melisandre on “Game of Thrones.” Van Houten has been recurring on the HBO fantasy series since Season 2 and finally reached her destiny in the Season 8 episode, “The Long Night,” for which she is nominated.
Van Houten spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Daniel Montgomery before the Emmy nominations about saying goodbye to Melisandre, the varied fan response to her character and whether she kept her wig. Watch the exclusive video interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: First off, Carice, Melisandre was a morally complicated character, to say the least. She burned an innocent child at the stake on one hand but she also resurrected Jon Snow and she helped the North beat the Night King. Do you think she was ultimately a force for good? What do you think of her morally in the end?
Carice van Houten: I was very confused myself throughout the whole thing sometimes. I always said that I was sort of in it for the greater good but my methods weren’t, per se, very charming always. But I don’t think she was ever out for… it was never about her own personal gain, I think, because in the end, you see that she’s the most important thing, is telling Arya to kill the Night King, to save all of us. It was never about her and I think she was always aware of the fact that it was not her having magical powers. She actually says it at some point to Stannis, “It’s not me, I’m just a vessel. I’m nothing special, really. It’s the Lord of Light. That’s who I work with.”
GD: The big episode where Melisandre finally reaches her destiny, “The Long Night,” this giant battle episode, what was it like to shoot that? How long did it take to shoot? There’s so many things going on in that episode.
CvH: I wasn’t part of most of that. I only had slivers of it and that was already quite intense so I cannot imagine how the rest of the crew and cast must have felt throughout those 11 weeks of night shoots. It was the first time that I really felt like, “This is really bigger than life. It’s almost real. Everything around me looks so real. There’s tons of people and there’s fires.” It felt like we were in a real castle somewhere. It was all just make-believe. I really felt really small. I thought, “I have to remember this even though I’m fucking freezing, I have to remember to do something that I will never, ever experience again in my life, to be on a set of this scale.” It was quite amazing and then, of course, I see that episode as well as a sort of big bombastic symphony that has beautiful dynamic and at the end, the last piano notes is Melisandre walking away. I think that’s the ending of a very exciting episode and I was so grateful and so happy with that elegant ending.
GD: What was the last scene that you shot as Melisandre and what was it like to say goodbye to that character after having played for these years?
CvH: The last scene was burning the trenches and that was with a big green screen so it wasn’t very romantic or anything. Also, because it was such an intense scene for me as Melisandre to make it happen, to do those praises and to ask the Lord of Light to help me. That’s where I felt like the stakes were so high for the characters and for everyone else. It was a very intense scene to do and it was mixed with my own emotions of it being my last scene and saying goodbye has never been my favorite thing in the world. It was quite a loaded day, you could say. A lot of tension had to come out after I’d done that scene and I just started crying like a baby. I didn’t really see that coming. I just was overwhelmed by emotion. I just couldn’t stop crying.
GD: The episode ends with Melisandre walking off and accepting her own death and her own fate at that point. What did you think about that sendoff for the character when you read it? Was it what you expected for this character over the years, having played her?
CvH: Well, I knew I had it coming. I really knew I had it coming just because of my scene with Varys in the season before. I didn’t know how. I remember reading it and I just really had goosebumps. I just really thought they did it so elegantly. It was exactly how I pictured it and even more emotional, in fact. Even when I watched it I got emotional, not my own acting, but the placement of the scene and the whole episode.
GD: How much season by season did you know about where Melisandre’s story was going as you were playing? Obviously, there was much in the books already but by the time we got to these last seasons, there was no more source material from the finished books.
CvH: I’ve tried so many times coming from all sorts of angles to try to get something out of them but they just didn’t wanna. The more seasons we got into the less they said, it felt like. So I just at some point gave up. I was just like, “I’ll see it on TV.” (Laughs.)
GD: What was it like to watch that whole episode in the finished product? As you said, Melisandre is a sliver of so much that’s going on in that episode so what was it like to see the whole finished product?
CvH: It was amazing. You read it on paper and you can imagine that they have the skills to make it work in the budget but then to actually see it coming alive, I just loved it. The fact that the episode before was so quiet and preparing and there was more intellectual episode and then the third one was just so physical and it was really at some point the pedal had to come. Sometimes all you have to do is fight. There’s no time for talk. You just have to survive. I just thought that was really powerful in that episode and then to be the last piano notes in the symphony, it was amazing.
GD: Had you read any of the books before you originally joined the show and if not, does it make you wanna read the books?
CvH: Yes, if I could read a book a day and if I had time. I’m very curious because I’m sure that the base of it all is even so much more layers and rich. I’m usually fascinated by George R. R. Martin so I’m sure there’s so much to find in those books. I just have a small child. That’s my excuse. I can hardly read the newspaper let alone I don’t know how many books that are this big, thick.
GD: When you joined the show it was popular from the beginning but obviously it’s grown season by season to be this incredibly huge phenomenon around the world. When you first joined the cast, did you ever imagine what the show would become in terms of how the fans would respond?
CvH: No way. I really had no idea. Who could’ve known? It’s unheard of the popularity it has. I was aware of the fact that the writing was exceptionally good and the characters were very complex and of course, the fact that Ned Stark dies in Season 1, such a huge event and made it immediately clear what we were gonna watch. It’s like life. You can be a good person, doesn’t mean that you’re gonna survive. It was very strong, I thought, that first season. It just lured you in and then once you’re in it, you can’t stop.
GD: Have you gotten a lot of fan response for your role in the show, for playing Melisandre, who, of course, is someone you love to hate, sometimes does have heroic moments?
CvH: I’ve had death threats towards my character, I’ve had marriage proposals, I’ve had people screaming at me, crying in the streets. Weird (laughs). But I think the thing that’s so amazing about this show in this time where we’re all disconnected I feel sometimes and we’re all so digital, the fact that there’s something that has connected so many different people all over the world, that’s my favorite thing about it all. It’s pretty amazing, I think.
GD: The way the story was told for several years, especially the first six or so seasons, the characters were splintered off doing their own things in their own separate storylines. Was there anyone ever when watching the show you wish you could’ve crossed paths with?
CvH: So many. I would’ve loved to have scenes with Cersei. I’m so curious what those two women would be together, what kind of dynamic that would be, what kind of energy that would bring. Samwell Tarly would’ve been a fun scene, I think. He’s one of my favorite characters. Joffrey, but unfortunately that never happened. I don’t think it will ever happen.
GD: So many characters die on the show before you get a chance, although perhaps Melisandre could’ve resurrected them.
CvH: Yeah, good point. There’s only so much I can do, you know? It takes a lot of energy to resurrect, I’ll tell you that.
GD: Yeah, you probably only have so many of those in you. You mentioned Sam being one of your favorite characters on the show. Did you have an opinion on who would get the Iron Throne? Sam seemed unlikely but Bran ended up getting it. Did you ever think, “Oh, I think this would be a good choice or that would be a good choice” or did you let the writers?
CvH: I sort of gave up on speculating. I just really wanted to be surprised and I was. I never really had my own theory, to be honest. It was a very unexpected ending, which I liked.
GD: So much changed for Melisandre over the course of the series. At first, she’s working with Stannis, played by Stephen Dillane and you shared many of your scenes with him and in that storyline for so long and then what was it like when his storyline ended, when he was killed off, and Melisandre went on this other adventure with Jon Snow?
CvH: Apart from the fact that I was sad that Stephen was leaving, I was very excited to be around other actors again and be sitting in the green room with Samwell Tarly and with Jon Snow and with Kristofer [Hivju], Tormund, and Gwendoline [Christie]. It was very exciting for me because most of my time was with Stephen and Liam [Cunningham] and as much as I love them, I really, really adore that combination as well, it was very refreshing to be around the young kids.
GD: Now that it’s all over, what do you think will be the thing you miss the most about “Game of Thrones” now that it’s all come to an end?
CvH: I guess Liam Cunningham abusing me in a nice way. He teased me to death. He’s such a goofball. Being around my co-actors and being in the makeup truck, all that stuff. It really felt like a bit of a family over the last seven years. It is a bit sad. The hair, I’ll miss the hair. I miss that wig.
GD: You didn’t take it with you when you left?
CvH: No, what am I gonna do with it, really?
GD: I wanna congratulate you on the show, Carice, and thank you for your time. Thank you for joining me.
CvH: Of course. My pleasure.