HomeGemma Whelan: ‘Sex in Game of Thrones can be a frenzied mess’ | the television

Gemma Whelan: ‘Sex in Game of Thrones can be a frenzied mess’ | the television

DrThe eadlines meant I saw ITV’s twisted police corruption drama The Tower as a rough story, featuring on-screen notes on mastering the final editing, computer-generated backgrounds, extra lines of dialogue – and instructions: “hide the load bump”.

This relates to mounting evidence of Freddy, now four weeks old, sleeping between feedings in the garden of a pub near the home of his mother, Gemma Whelan, who is happy to hear about this prenatal technology. “Wonderful!” Says. “How are they going to do that? Draw it? Or cut the waistline from earlier?”

Despite his high-profile acting credits – including Yara Greyjoy in game of Thrones And Kate on BBC Two’s Upstart Crow – the 40-year-old says she was never recognized on the street: “People sometimes say, ‘Do I know you from the bus station?'” ‘ or ‘Were we at school?’ That’s really it.

Whelan enjoys being able to transform into her characters, whether using Yara’s armor, war paint, and frowning – “it would be almost humiliating to recognize her from Game of Thrones” – or, in BBC One’s The Moorside series, as Karen Matthews, a woman who was imprisoned by Yorkshire for faking her daughter’s kidnapping, and so physically transformed that she cheated on Whelan’s mother. She said, ‘It’s weird that they used so many original shots of her! ‘And I said, ‘That’s all I have, mom. There are no original shots.’

An unforgettable horse ride... as Yara Greyjoy, with Alfie Allen as Theon, in Game of Thrones.
An unforgettable horse… with Alfie Allen in Game of Thrones. Photo: Helen Sloan / Home Box Office

Whelan is taking minimal maternity leave in part because she is self-employed but also because, like most actors, she has endured a year during lockdown because she hasn’t done much. The West End version of Upstart Crow closed after three weeks of operation, after which it spent “a year preparing audiobooks and audio commentary”. She then filmed the second series next year of BBC One’s Gentleman Jack – playing Marianne, Anne Lester’s sister – before the Tower.

Principal photography continued through the second trimester. With actors showing pregnancy when their characters aren’t, the convention was basically shooting them from the neck up. “Yeah. It’s a great way to get a lot of close-ups!” laughs Whelan who, during the final season of Game of Thrones, held Francis, and is now four years old. “But there was also a lot of wide shots in the tower. I guess you’d only notice if you knew I was pregnant, and if you noticed that women had children, who cares? It was refreshing to be able to not worry about that.”

Whelan’s home game contrasts starkly with DS Sarah Collins in The Tower, who has no visible private life. “She is very moral, very black and white. There is very little nuance in her judgment.” Viewers may be reminded of Adrian Dunbar’s Supt Ted Hastings in the line of duty, and Whelan admits the resemblance: “Sure. They swear to keep the law and so they do. She doesn’t care about being pleasing to people, and I think a lot of women write that they are—and in fact, a lot of women – But I like that she’s up front and doesn’t mind offending people.

Adapted from 24 screenwriters Patrick Harbinson, from the series of novels by former dead detective Kate London, the tower comes out at a time, after Killed by a police officer working for Sarah EverardThe power’s reputation is as low as ever. But, like the line of duty, the tower shows good and bad cop actions. “Yes. Exactly,” Whelan says. “Most cops try their best, but some don’t; there is an ‘UN’ error.

As with all current TV productions, The Tower had a Covid-safe set, with mandatory testing and encouraging punches — a tough decision for Whelan at a time when medical evidence for safety during pregnancy is unclear. Emphasizing that she doesn’t tell others what to do but shares her thought processes in a dilemma many face, she says, “I’ve been double sedated, and I’ve had both when I was pregnant. I talked to the midwife and doctors at length, and read all the stories about the sheer number of pregnant women.” American women who have been stabbed without incident. And I knew that if I contracted Covid in the third trimester, it could be very dangerous. It’s not an easy decision but I felt comfortable making it and they’re both fine.”

Uncompromising morals...like DS Sarah Collins in The Tower.
Uncompromising morals…like DS Sarah Collins in The Tower. Photography: Stuart Wood/ITV

Another question about the safety of the film set has arisen since the revelations of Harvey Weinstein and other predators in the film industry. Whelan says she’s never had any threats or attacks, but Bud’s moods have changed significantly. “There’s a very different choice of language now. If anyone gave a hint, everyone would shut down. I think, five or 10 years ago, if there was a double drive, everyone would jump in the bandwagon and see how many laughs it could make. I remember when an actor had a microphone, And sometimes you have to trunk around the waist. And in the past, it was all like, “And while you’re there, hurry up!” But now you don’t have to play with things like that.”

In the past, it was common for actors to greet or say goodbye to colleagues, to exchange hugs at a level that some married couples would not. But first #MeToo and then Covid-19 ended that. “All things squishy and bulky have stopped. But I don’t miss it. You have to be more honest now if you’re saying hi. You can’t hide behind a big hug. And there’s no question mark above it: Do we double kiss? Do we hug? Clasp hand? No, we’re just saying Hello to each other.”

Although DS Collins’ work addiction prevents her from having sex in The Tower, the intimacy director is credited with the couples who do. Presumably, when Whelan was playing the fiercely bisexual Yara on Game of Thrones, the actors had just left?

“Almost literally. They used to just say, ‘When you shout a job, do it!”, and it might be a kind of frenzied mess. But between the actors there was always an instinct to connect with each other. There was a scene in a brothel with a woman and she was very exposed. So much so that we talked together about where the camera was and what she was happy about. The director might say, “A piece of boob, and then you hit her butt and go!”, but I was always talking to the other actor.”

Whelan...
Whelan… “My mom says I’ve always been amazingly stubborn. But he seems to come out more in acting. Photo: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

In the 2012 second season (its first) of Game of Thrones, Yara and Theon (Alfie Allen) had one of the most talked about sex scenes on TV (retrospectively revealed as incest) sharing a ride including comprehensive movement. It would lead to immediate disqualification from the dressage. Alfie was so much, ‘Is that OK?’ How will we do this? With my intimacy directors, it’s the choreography – you move there, you move there, and permission is given and approval is given before you begin. It’s a step in the right direction.”

With Yara, Kate Shakespeare, and now DS Collins, Whelan has repeatedly played amazingly strong women. “It seems that this is what the directors see in me.” Perhaps because there is something sharp and sarcastic in it? “Could. I think I might give off a ‘don’t have sex with me’ vibe. There is definitely a challenge.” Was this always there? “My mom says I’ve always been amazingly stubborn and stubborn. But he seems to come out more in acting. In real life, I’m totally apologetic, ‘I’m so sorry for taking your time, thank you so much for bringing me tea’, etc. But, in My job, I feel like this is where I belong and I have a right to be there.”

You may have inherited your performance genes from parents who met in an amateur drama production of Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms in Birmingham. Living there and in Leeds and London has given her access to a useful set of regional dialects, but she would like to test her American language: “I’d love to do something in America. I went to see a movie there with Frances McDormand, but I didn’t get it. It’s my next ambition.”

She’s about to shoot a small role in another ITV detective drama, DI Ray, starring Parminder Nagra, and hopes that Upstart Crow will return to the West End next year. It’s possible to combine this workload with family life because her husband, Jerry Howell, a stand-up comedian retraining as a therapist, shares childcare, but also because the production is more child-friendly.

“I haven’t seen a nursery on set. But even with my first child, breastfeeding was not a problem at all. People were saying, ‘Go only when you have to go.’ But I think you have to meet them halfway. I don’t think, after they do By setting up a complex shot, you can say, “I’m fine!”