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Game of Thrones Star Carice van Houten Has a Lot of Melisandre Questions, Too

Carice van Houten. Photo: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

It wasn’t a pale horse that Melisandre, priestess of the Lord of Light, rode in on for her final Game of Thrones appearance, but it was close enough. Death has always followed the Red Woman, who over the course of her six seasons on the show has been willing to sacrifice anyone and anything in her monomaniacal pursuit of victory over the Night King and the darkness he represents.

Yet this time, Melisandre came bearing life. Between timely fire magic and a much-needed pep talk to Arya Stark — who once vowed to kill the Red Woman, but winds up destroying the Night King and his forces instead — this mysterious sorceress helped save the day. And when daybreak came at the end of “The Long Night,” she simply walked toward the sunrise, transformed into the ancient woman she really was, and died.

Carice van Houten is the Dutch actor behind this melancholy moment, and all of Melisandre’s highs and lows before it. In this farewell interview, she discusses the impact of finally watching her own death scene (she caught up a couple of days late), the (uh) stark contrast between her character and herself, and the urgent message beneath all of the fantasy trappings: “We can fucking fight our own little fights, but when it comes down to it in the end, we fucking need each other, you know?”

Congratulations, I guess? Is that what you say when someone dies at the end of a show?
I dunno. Condolences? [Laughs.] It’s a weird one.

What was it like to film your death?
It was gruesome. I was walking through a pile of fake dead bodies, but still, it was like a true battlefield — with a bit of green screen and some carpets where I had to walk. I don’t want to demystify it, but yeah, it was also a bit of a technical thing. It’s the last shot of the episode, and it needed something dramatic but not too dramatic, gentle but strong. Her death wasn’t a decision per se, but that’s it for her. There’s no reason for her to stay alive, being that old, having done what she had to do.

I had no idea that it was going to be as emotional as it was. I really felt it yesterday when I was watching. I was late to the party — I’d been with my son and I didn’t want to watch it on my phone, so I only watched it last night. Afterward, I felt like I’d been in a concert hall and saw this great orchestral piece. When you go to a classical concert, it’s a trip: You hear those last piano notes and it feels like you’ve been running a marathon. This felt like a Shostakovich symphony, where it starts promising, and then it becomes really bombastic, and then it dies down in the end; there’s this cello, and the piano, and that walk. I was really honored that I was the last note of that piece of music that we saw.

I was fascinated by the decision to end the battle on Melisandre. After all the mystery surrounding her and all we’ve seen her do — good and bad — it’s hard to know what to think of her in that moment.
Someone said to me, “It keeps you hungry to know more about her.” We don’t know much about her, really. She’s been a mystery to me as well.

What are the challenges of playing a character who looks young on the outside, but who is old, even ancient, within?
They did mention this to me early on. It was something like, “Oh, by the way, you are actually really old — but we’ll get to that at some point.” That’s as much as I got, but I don’t know if I’d have played it any different [if they’d said more]. If I would’ve played any of that, I don’t know if that shock moment when you see that she’s really old would have worked. I read in a book that in order for a magician to make his tricks look good, you have to make everything look effortless.

And you have to not show too much emotion. The burning of Shireen, as cruel and terrible as that was, [Melisandre] never allowed herself to get to what was happening there on an emotional level. She was so determined that she couldn’t. Not to justify it, because it was a cruel act — and it was all for nothing, really. But that says a lot about her determination. I guess that’s what’s touching even.

I was thinking about it yesterday because people were asking me about the episode when I hadn’t seen it yet. I got so many lovely, great comments on the episode itself but also on the ending of my character. People said they were crying. And I thought, I’m so curious what actually watching it is going to do to me as an actor. I watched it with a friend last night on the couch. When it was over, we were sighing and it was a bit quiet. Then I started cracking jokes, like, “So that’s it! That’s her exit!” I’m just trying to be cool about it, laconic, not trying to let it affect me that much. But it was a delayed reaction. When my friend left, it kicked in. I just got really sad. And again, it’s not because of me; it’s the buildup of the whole thing that really hit me.

The whole show tapped into my personal fear of death. That has always been a big theme in this show. Everyone’s trying to run from it, and as the Hound actually says, nobody can. That primal fear, I have nightmares like that. It felt like I was watching one of my nightmares. Whoever you are, whether you’re a fucking prince or a king or a peasant or whatever, no one can escape. That makes us all the same. It connects us all. Sorry if this sounds a bit sentimental, but that’s really how I experienced this episode. To see someone who tried to save us all from that finally have a rest from that journey, it’s emotional.

That’s why you can’t put this show away as some sort of fantasy. There’s nothing wrong with the word fantasy, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a much more fundamental thing. It’s a message: We can fucking fight our own little fights, but when it comes down to it in the end, we fucking need each other, you know?

As much as Melisandre’s reappearance is about the culmination of her life’s mission, it’s also about her very fraught relationships with Davos Seaworth and Arya Stark.
I really loved the look that Davos has on his face when he sees me walk away. You see him grabbing his sword because he still has this deep-down urge to kill her. But at the same time, she saved the day. He’s all confused and he even looks a bit emotional, which I thought was beautiful.

As for Arya, it’s been fun watching the internet pick apart every word you say to her for clues about the eye color of her next victim.
[Laughs.] Yeah! Someone wrote that I gave a huge spoiler in season three about the blue eyes. Haha! But I love that people speculate about that. It keeps people busy, you know? I might sound a bit sentimental again, but the fact that this show has connected so many people is the best thing.

My colleague Matt Zoller Seitz has questioned if we’ll ever experience that again — a show we all tune in and watch, every week, together.
There’s nothing better than sharing your love of something with someone else. There’s nothing better! No, I don’t think there will be anything like this. But I do hope that it might’ve inspired new writers, young or not, to start where we left off. It’s very ambitious, obviously, but Dan [Weiss] and David [Benioff] came in with this plan that nobody believed in, and here we are. It’s a bit of a success story. [Laughs.]

What’s your verdict on Melisandre, if verdict is the right word? What will you take away from her?
Oof, I’m not sure if I can answer that. Maybe a little bit later. It definitely has given me the opportunity to tap into something in myself that I really didn’t know that I had. It’s really out of character for me to play someone very stern, very sure of herself, very confident, very religious. The things that I love to do and that I’m good at are the opposite: doubts and fears and flaws and humor even. I had to tap into something in myself that’s not really on the surface.

It’s funny when people now cast me as strong women. That’s new to me! And I kind of like it. Obviously I’d love to play different things again. But I do like the fact that she was a mystery to me — and people bought it. [Laughs.]

GOT’s Carice van Houten Has a Lot of Melisandre Questions