Dutch actress Carice van Houten first came to the attention of American audiences in Paul Verhoeven’s subtitled, Nazi action movie Black Book (and then as Tom Cruise’s wife in the underperforming Valkyrie). She’s back Stateside with the launch of the second season of the HBO series Game of Thrones, in which she plays the red priestess Melisandre, who’ll be backing Stannis in his bid for the crown. Before that, however, the actress will have two new films in theaters in March: a bit part in the horror movie Intruders, and a starring role as suicidal South African poet (and Nelson Mandela favorite) Ingrid Jonker in Black Butterflies, a film for which she won the best-actress award at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Houten put in a transatlantic call to Vulture the other day, to chat about small-pond superstardom, her need for more colorful projects, and nude scenes.
Love your Twitter feed, especially the note at the top about how you’ve done so many films with black in the title: Black Book, Black Death, and now Black Butterflies.
I don’t know, man. Black is a cliché in titles. I need something white, like a comedy. I have a love-hate relationship with Twitter. There are moments I feel like 99 percent of the people who write stuff are the sweetest people, and then one crazy guy or girl spoils the whole thing. I know I shouldn’t be reading all of it, but when you’re a celebrity in your own country, it’s an easy way to show them you’re made of the same stuff they are. I want them to know I’m one of them, that I’m not on some island, swimming in my money, you know what I mean? [Laughs.] It’s a very Dutch thing to not want to be a diva.
You play Ingrid Jonker in the film, and her daughter Simone was an extra in it. What was that like?
If you blink, you’ll miss her. She was the sweetest woman, and so intense. She basically wanted her mother to really come alive again, and she sort of went into it too far. There was a scene where I had to walk away from her, and she said, “Mommy, don’t go!” It was sort of as a joke, but at the same time, it gave me the shivers. For the first time, I really understood how much she was aching for her mother, just like Ingrid had been aching for her father. Maybe I’m getting too psychological, but I feel like for Ingrid and her daughter, there is so much anger that cannot be expressed. For both of them, their mother died and they were left behind, and in Ingrid’s case, she couldn’t express her anger at being abandoned, so that anger went back into herself, and that’s why she became so self-destructive. That’s my theory, anyway! [Laughs.]
Liam Cunningham plays someone who loves you in this movie. In Game of Thrones, he plays someone who hates you. [Editor’s note: He plays Ser Davos Seaworth.]
It’s so funny to work with him again. And this time, I get to throw him in a prison. But I better not say too much about Game of Thrones, or Mr. HBO will kill me.
Even though what Melisandre does is in the books? Can you really worry about spoilers at this point?
Not everyone has read the books. Including me! And sometimes, the writers will veer slightly off the path.
You haven’t read them yet?
I have them all piled up in my room, so the instant I’m not busy, I can start reading them. They’re all waiting to be read. I probably die in some horrible way, and I just don’t know it yet.
So far, up through A Dance With Dragons, [spoiler alert] Melisandre is still alive and kicking.
Really? Someone told me she died, but maybe that was people just fucking with me. I better read it quick myself, because all the fantasy geeks know more than I do, and I don’t like that. Does she have something up her sleeve?
Good, because she has huge sleeves! I have big sleeves, and a big wig, great red hair. Everybody has a wig, except the girl who plays Arya. She cut her hair. And I have a big ruby, but I don’t think it is glowing. And my eyes aren’t red. I think they’re trying to make Melisandre look a little more human.
The roles of both Ingrid and Melisandre require a fair bit of nudity — unless you’re not naked while doing dark magic scenes after all? How do you feel about sexposition?
It’s weird: We kill everyone in films, we see blood, we see war, we see killing machines, but you cannot see a breast that your mother has. It needs to be in an elegant way, of course. But who has their bra on during sex? It’s so much easier if you just let it all loose. Let it hang. Let people see some flesh. It’s not necessarily my favorite thing to do; it’s not like I’m running around with my bra off on every set, or going, “Hey, when can I take my bra off?” But I’m lucky enough to still be young enough where it’s okay. I could understand not wanting me to do that if I were older. But if you’re making love in a film, you gotta take the bra off. Same if you’re birthing a shadow.
You originally were up for another part in the series. Who?
Cersei. I thought the queen would be a great part, and they asked me to audition, but I couldn’t do it, because I was shooting something else. I think it was Intruders, with Clive Owen, and there was no way. I play somebody’s wife in that.
Do you find it frustrating to play roles in Hollywood films where you’re relegated to being the wife or the girlfriend? Are meatier roles hard to find?
It’s a little frustrating considering the position I have here in my own country, which is like a mini-Hollywood, and I can pick my directors and producers and co-actors. So it’s challenging. It’s great to be in a Hollywood film with Tom Cruise — I did that once [in Valkyrie] — but every time I get close to stuff I’m interested in auditioning for, the part always went to someone with a bigger name. That’s how it works.
What would be your dream part?
I want to work on a project about Greta Garbo — and I’ve even been thinking about writing it, too. I’ve been speaking to producers about it. I could make it in Holland, but it’s not a Dutch film — it’s about a [Hollywood] actress; Garbo was born in Sweden, but she’s an American actress.* But I would be lucky to play her. American actresses have more problems than I do; I’m lucky to be able to play what I want for a smaller audience, because I have my own country to do that in. But I would love to do more American, and it’s not about the Oscars or the money or whatever. It’s about communicating with more people. Don’t get me wrong: I would not say no to an Oscar!
*This post has been updated to clarify the meaning of Van Houten’s statement, which was clear in the unedited transcript.