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Game of Thrones’ Gemma Whelan on Yara’s Sexuality and Freezing on Set

Spoilers ahead for the season-six finale of Game of Thrones.

Game of Thrones season six gave us a lot of the Greyjoys — from Theon’s return to himself after years of being Reek, Balon’s murder at the hands of his brother, and Euron taking the Iron Islands by storm. But Yara made an even bigger splash by stealing Euron’s fleet, making a pivotal alliance with Daenerys Targaryen, and striking a blow against Westeros patriarchy. “She knows who she is, and what she wants,” actress Gemma Whelan said. “She’s very focused, and she takes it all with abundant energy.” Whelan chatted with Vulture about Yara’s sexuality, freezing on set, and what you should drink when watching the show.

Thanks to Yara, we have a new drinking game for Game of Thrones. When she says, “Drink,” you must drink. You must drink it all.
Cool! [Laughs.] Oh, wow. That’s great. A small legacy. I’m delighted. But you have to drink ale. Ale all the way. Strong ale.

Since we’re talking on the Fourth of July, let’s talk about the Ironborn’s Independence Day, the arrangement that Yara makes with Dany to give the Iron Islands their own sovereignty. It comes at a price, though — they have to give up a large part of what has been their culture and their economy.
I think at that point, Yara and Theon realize they don’t have a plan B. This is plan A, and they have to make it work. I think they’re prepared to make sacrifices for a greater good. And why not make a change? By all accounts, Yara doesn’t really agree with the way her father’s been running things, and things are different now, so she makes a decision right there. They have to change something, they can’t go back home, and we need this woman, so we compromise. It’s a very tactical move. It’s a heavy decision, but it’s not too difficult for her, because she’s got to get this deal done so we can get on with things.

It’s tricky, though, because the Ironborn aren’t the only ones who wish to remain independent. Dorne does, too, and the North does, as well. How is Dany going to be able to conquer or unite the Seven Kingdoms if more and more of them are secessionist? 
Oh, gosh! [Laughs.] I don’t know, but it’s a logical problem. I think she should just keep playing it the way she’s playing it. She’s had to make some sacrifices and some decisions that haven’t made her very popular, but she’s playing a good long game, and recruiting the right people. Daenerys always finds a way. I trust her. [Laughs.]

Director Miguel Sapochnik said that shooting the armada scene was tough because of how cold it was.
It was really, really cold! When we were shooting that, we were in a car park on a green screen, being blasted by a wind machine in our face, looking at a garage. Alfie [Allen] and I were trying to look in the same direction at the same time. “Look at the garage door, and hold your stare!” We’re not really surrounded by dragons in the water, so sometimes it’s hard to draw up the majesty, staring at a garage door. The magic of television!

But it wasn’t as cold as the Balon Greyjoy funeral scenes. Oh, my God! There, we were in the water all day, and the tide kept changing, so we had to keep changing what we were shooting. I’m trying to look all tough, but my face is frozen. My mouth is barely moving because my teeth were chattering so much, I couldn’t speak. And I couldn’t move because I was standing on these rocks in the water, and I couldn’t step off them. I think I had a hot water bottle down my back at that point? And my boots, everything was so heavy and waterlogged, I had to drain them out after every take because I couldn’t move my legs. They were like lead legs. So we were complaining about all that, until we saw what Pilou [Asbæk] had to go through for the kingsmoot, and then we were like, “Oh. I guess we’re not that cold after all!” [Laughs.]

Pilou said that after one of his drowning takes, he looked up and saw you and Alfie grinning at him.
[Laughs.] We had our hot tea and our blankets. But he loved it. He endured all that cold stuff, and he really nailed it as well. What a guy! He’s tough. And he’s really game, he wants to do that. As would I. If you get a challenge like that, you want to rise to it and show your mettle. And there are people on standby with towels and hot water bottles. It’s not that bad! I’m not complaining. It’s so much fun to do!

The million-dollar question right now is where this armada should land. In King’s Landing, for an immediate showdown with Cersei? In Dorne, to make the overseas trip easier for the Dothraki and give Team Dany a base of operations? On Dragonstone, because of the symbolism for it being her place of birth?
Oh, God. I don’t know. I think she wants to get the game done. The Dothraki are going to have to get on with their sea sickness! Go straight for King’s Landing. Let’s give her that option. [Laughs.] Everyone has so many opinions, and we’re the last ones to know. We don’t know anything. And that’s the fun of it, isn’t it? Whose theories work out, or not. The biggest geek-out person in the cast that I know is Finn Jones [Loras]. He’s got so many amazing theories about everything. But if I’m perfectly honest, I get a bit confused, sometimes — who’s where, and who’s doing what? Friends of mine, viewers all around the world, too, get a little confused, too. But I love theorizing, as far as my knowledge of the show will let me, and then I geek out with Finn and listen to him and what he has to say, and I go, “Oh, yeah! Of course! That. Oh, I didn’t see that. Yes!” So there’s plenty of speculation amongst us all, to varying degrees.

Were you surprised by Yara’s coming out, so to speak?
I hadn’t anticipated it, but I never anticipate anything when it comes to Game of Thrones. You never know where you stand, right up through the time you’re doing the read-through and shooting. But as far as I’m concerned, I’m very open-minded about what’s offered for my character, so while I didn’t see it coming, I thought, “Yes! Why not?”

Do you think Yara is lesbian or bisexual?
I don’t think she’s bisexual. There’s a new saying going around, “pansexual,” which means if she’s up for it … I think she says, “I’m up for anything.” That’s her ethos. I don’t think she swings any way in particular, other than the way she feels at the time. She’s just open-minded, which fits the character perfectly.

And now she’s open-minded to Daenerys as well. How much of their flirtation was spelled out in the script?
None that I can remember. It just turned out that Emilia [Clarke] and I had some chemistry going on! It was probably intended in the script, but it didn’t need writing down because it was so well-written. I suppose we’re matching each other, we’re testing each other’s mettle with our very sparse dialogue there, and we get the idea, we get the cut of each other’s jib quite quickly, and we like the size of each other — what we have to say, what we both stand for, is appealing. Not necessarily in a sexual way, but in the way that power is attractive, and it’s something we both want to achieve, and we can do it together.

Would you want there to be more between them?
Emilia and I both enjoy the idea. [Laughs.] We get along very well, so we enjoy working with each other quite a lot. So maybe! I don’t know! It’s up to the writers and the machinations of their minds. We like each other, we reflect each other, and whether it’s more than friendship is irrelevant, really.

Given that we’re now at a point where story lines are intersecting, is there any one character you’d like Yara to interact with come season seven?
Jaqen H’ghar is one of my favorite characters because he’s so mysterious. He’s an enigma to me. I cannot work him out. I never really understand exactly what he’s up to, or what he’s all about, or who he really is. I would love it if we could cross over with him! There’s been a rather large culling of characters — I forget exactly who goes where and when — so I’m actually shocked and delighted that I made it this far. I guess I’m alive still, so that’s got to be a good thing, isn’t it? [Laughs.] I’m loath to speculate, though, because hopes are dashed, aren’t they? It’s best to expect nothing, and then see what you get.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Gemma Whelan on Yara’s Sexuality on GOT