Game to play strong women

British actress Gemma Whelan likens her Game Of Thrones' Yara Greyjoy role to the equally strong Marian Lister in Gentleman Jack

Besides Yara Greyjoy (left) on the hit HBO series Game Of Thrones, British actress Gemma Whelan is also starring in another HBO show, Gentleman Jack, where she plays Marian Lister (right).
Besides Yara Greyjoy (left) on the hit HBO series Game Of Thrones, British actress Gemma Whelan is also starring in another HBO show, Gentleman Jack, where she plays Marian Lister (right). PHOTOS: HBO

When the epic fantasy series Game Of Thrones wrapped up filming, British actress Gemma Whelan, who plays Yara Greyjoy, got emotional.

The 38-year-old actress says in a group telephone interview from Surrey: "I tend to be rather sanguine about these things, so it was quite surprising."

Speaking about her last day on the set of the popular HBO series, she says she kept her character's boots - a signature part of her costume - and also received a "beautifully wrapped gift" from show-runners Dan Weiss and David Benioff.

"They gave the actors a framed storyboard of their character and wrote a little dedication to each actor on the back," adds Whelan, who joined the show in its second season.

She also reveals she has yet to catch up on the latest episode, the penultimate of the series' eighth and final season. "I don't have Internet at home right now, so I haven't really been able to catch up," she explains.

The series finale will air in Singapore on Monday at 9am.

When asked to pick a character she wants to be on the Iron Throne, Whelan laughs and says: "If Joffrey comes back to life, I'll pick him - I always liked him."

Joffrey Baratheon (played by Jack Gleeson) is the illegitimate son of Cersei and Jaime Lannister, who was crowned king before he was poisoned at his own wedding.

Whelan's character has not been seen this season except in the first episode, when her brother Theon freed her from her uncle Euron's capture.

Yara was referred to in subsequent episodes - where she is said to be claiming the Iron Islands in the name of Daenerys Targaryen (played by Emilia Clarke), whom she recognises as Queen.

Whelan says cryptically when asked of her character's journey: "Well, I can't say anything, only that it's been fantastic. There's still one more episode to go."

Off screen, the actress has garnered praise from netizens, in particular working mothers, for posting a picture of herself breastfeeding her daughter - who will turn two this year - in full Yara get-up on set. Whelan is married to British comedian Gerry Howell.

"It didn't feel like a big deal, it was just something I had to do. Production was completely onboard and very helpful," she says. "I'm pleased it got such a good reaction because it should be okay to do that, it should be easy to do that."

Whelan, whose other credits include television series such as the 2017 British comedy-drama The End Of The F***ing World (2017), is also starring in HBO's new period drama series Gentleman Jack, which is based on the true story of 19th-century industrialist Anne Lister. She plays Marian, Anne's sister.

Comparing the characters of Yara and Marian, she says: "They both have a strong sense of self and independence and know how to achieve what they want. And they are both frustrated by their siblings."

Whelan says she has forged firm friendships with Alfie Allen, who plays Theon on Game Of Thrones, and Suranne Jones, who plays Anne on Gentleman Jack.

She says: "I've always been fascinated by the alchemy of casting. I met Alfie only at a reading and we instantly hit it off - it was like we're related, it's sort of magic we have that natural rapport and care so much about each other in real life. I think that translated onscreen.

"It's the same with Suranne. We hit it off immediately and she's one of the kindest, most hardworking and brilliant women I've ever worked with. We have a lot of bickering scenes in later episodes and when you get on well as friends, you can really have a good play in such scenes."

While Whelan is moving on with other projects, she will miss Game Of Thrones. She says: "Every year, this was something that was a huge part of our lives. We made lifelong friendships on the show."

• The Game Of Thrones finale airs in Singapore at the same time as the United States on Monday at 9am, with a same-day encore at 10pm, on HBO (StarHub TV Channel 601 and Singtel TV Channel 420), HBO On Demand (StarHub TV Channel 602, yellow button on Singtel TV remote control) and HBO Go (including on Toggle).

• New episodes of Gentleman Jack premieres at the same time as the United States every Tuesday at 10am exclusively on HBO Go.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 18, 2019, with the headline 'Game to play strong women'. Print Edition | Subscribe