It’s been over half a year since Lena Headey shot her series wrap as wicked queen Cersei Lannister on HBO’s culture-straddling phenomenon Game of Thrones. By spring’s end, the series will have concluded and it’ll be out of her life. That’s all fine by her — she’s more than ready to discuss other things.
She’s taking time for Vulture at a midtown Manhattan hotel suite to discuss Fighting With My Family, an adaptation of pro wrestler Paige’s memoir about her unorthodox upbringing in Norwich’s most smashin’-est, bashin’-est clan of brawlers. Headey plays the formidable Sweet Saraya, a source of matronly care and windpipe-crushing clotheslines in equal measure. She leaped from the top rope at the challenge of learning how to playact beatdowns, a characteristic response from a woman interested in sampling everything acting has to offer. She’s done straight-up horror (The Purge), a thriller with timely social subtext (Gossip, which really bears rewatching), and the century’s most well-received swords-and-sandals epic (300). It’s easy to flit between genres and tones when you’ve got a telegenic appearance belying the wit and spontaneity of a character actress.
Interviews are made out of questions, but Headey comes off as an especially inquisitive mind during the brief chat. What was plotted as a survey of her filmography seamlessly pivoted into fart jokes, premeditation for a night of anarchy, musings on incest pornography, and an accent contest that left this interviewer utterly humbled.
So, prior to starting work on Fighting With My Family, did you have much of a familiarity with wrestling?
Not the big, shiny WWE type of wrestling, more of the lowdown British kind, like you see in the earlier part of the film. Early 1980s, unhealthy local gentlemen in tights. When you see the big nights, the WWE events — they kind of own that realm. But we’ve got all these great, colorful characters. I saw a Vice documentary about underground wrestling in America that’s been taking off in bars, and it reminds me of the Knights’ stuff. Just smashing the shit out of each other, someone bleeding by the end.
This was commonplace at home growing up? Actually, you moved around a bit when you were younger — where is home?
Yeah, born in Bermuda, but I was too young to remember any of my time there. Home for me is Yorkshire, very similar to Norwich.
I liked that, that we get a clear and personal impression of Norwich’s character. In films about the U.K. coming from Hollywood, there’s usually this vague, generalized idea of Englishness.
Yeah! Yorkshire was the county, Huddersfield being my actual town. Pubs, loads of pubs. Big mining community that got shut down, all the work fell away. Simple, honest living. Lot of laughter.
You went through plenty of physical training, but if you could just put it into words, what’s the secret to really kicking the wind out of someone?
You have to pull it, that’s the key to all of this, pulling back. You’ve got to move forward at full force, but pull the foot back at the right time, or else you’ll hurt your partner. Unless that’s what you’re asking me? In which case, uh, just don’t pull the foot back?
There’s the great scene where Florence Pugh gives the other girl a “receipt” after taking a hit for real. Did such a situation actually arise during filming?
Not once, because Florence is amazing, superhuman. I’d be worried, like, “Oh, should I …” and before I’m even done with the question, she’s like, “Yeah, yeah, just fuckin’ go for it!” You’ve got to hold back at these certain key moments, but in the bigger sense, you have to throw all of yourself into it.
To be completely upfront, I must confess that I do not watch Game of Thrones —
Oh, thank God!
… Which is why I canvassed some friends for their burning questions.
[Laughing.] You were about to be the only one! You had it!
No. 1: There’s been a steep spike in consumption of incest-themed pornography in the years since Game of Thrones debuted. Has the possibility of a cause-and-effect relationship ever been a topic of discussion among the cast or crew?
Glad we could make an impact. Sorry to say there hasn’t been an awareness, but now there definitely is. Always good to be influential, though. This will be a legacy of great honor. Hey, share the love!
My editor is a great admirer of your hairpiece on the show, and wanted me to ask if you’ve developed any sort of connection to it after your years with this production.
Ah, yes, The Turnip, as I’ve taken to calling her. Fucking hate the Turnip. Can’t wait to be rid of her. End of that. Did not bring that one home with me.
I’ve been watching some of your earlier pictures to get ready for this interview, and I saw Gossip, which is a lot to process today. With all the developments in how we think and talk about sexual harassment and assault, has your estimation of the movie changed at all? How do you think it’s aged?
I hadn’t thought of it until right now, in all sincerity. Mostly, my hope rewatching it would be that I’ve aged well. But I can definitely see the relevance, of course.
I’ve enjoyed the Purge movies, particularly the first one.
Well, the first one is the best one.
I agree. What would you do on Purge night?
Oh, God. Well, I wouldn’t kill anyone.
I don’t think I have that in me.
I couldn’t do it! No, I think I’d just get shitfaced and hide out somewhere, maybe set up in a department store and have my run of the place. Steal everything I could possibly get my hands on. One night, whole new wardrobe. What about you?
I’d want to ride a police horse. Get on one, and just ride it down Sixth Avenue. They don’t even let you touch them.
But then that would involve murdering a police officer to get custody of the horse, I’d assume. Could present a problem. There’s going to be competition for the horse, isn’t there? You think you’re the only person who’d want to ride it? Wherever the horses are, that will be a hot destination on Purge night.
All excellent points. I watched the new Danger Mouse cartoon back when it came out, but only realized that was you doing an American accent as his cousin from the U.S. once I’d looked up your filmography. Do you have different variations on the American accent?
I do. Are you going to test me?
Not much point to that, this is going to be in print.
I see. I can do California. I can do the South — the extreme ones are easier, but what’s really difficult is the regular, unaffected American who doesn’t sound like they’re from anywhere in particular. Tell you what, though, it’s easier to pick up dialects from the States as a Brit than it is for Americans to learn the English accent.
I think the British accent is [enunciating consonants] quite specific, where the American accent has a looser, more relaxed element to it. Though it’s entirely possible I’m only saying all this because I’m from the U.K.
I’m sure your American accent is better than my English accent.
Let’s hear it, then.
Do it like Mary Poppins if you’ve got to. Say something — uh, say, “The phone is ringing!”
[Disastrously] The phone is ringing!
You sound like Julia Child. But that’s great! I love it.
You’ve been part of some hugely successful franchises, but you’ve also done a handful of movies — I’m thinking of Dredd, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and The Mortal Instruments — very clearly positioned for that treatment that couldn’t deliver. During shooting, do you ever get a sense of what will get a second or third installment and what won’t?
Yeah, I think you do know. You can feel it. It’s a smell in the air. It’s not that in the moment, you’re thinking, Oh, wow, this sure is shit. But you feel the absence of this excellent swelling feeling that you get when you know something you’ve done will be great. It’s the not-feeling. You can tell when something’s got legs. Doing The Purge, I thought that clearly they’d have to follow this up and clearly they’d have to elaborate on this world. The simple theme of socially accepted murder, you could go on with that forever.
Well, now they’ve got the TV show, so I guess they are.
Really, a TV show?
You’re not getting a piece of that action?
Weeeeell, I could tell you a story about that, but we’re not talking about that!
Wait, what? Is there something going on there?
[Pantomimes locking a key sealing her mouth.]
Last thing, then: wrestling names. What would yours be?
I’ve been asked this a lot, had plenty of time to perfect my answer. My thing would be that I’m Choo-Choo the Train, and I come in and unleash a fart that just knocks everyone out. No one would expect it!
I’m not sure I see the connection between trains and farting.
You pretend to pull the thing, and you go “whoo whoo!” On a train, then there’d be smoke or steam or something puffing out of the top, but instead it’s a fart! Wouldn’t even have to touch my opponents and they’d already be down.