Gemma Whelan was best known as a comedian when she was first asked to audition for Game Of Thrones in 2011.
Since winning the role of Ironborn Yara Greyjoy, the 36-year-old’s stock has soared and earlier this year she left a huge impression on viewers and critics alike for her portrayal of Karen Matthews in The Moorside.
But while it appears Whelan has a number of paths to choose from as both an actress and a comedian, her character in the hit HBO series has been left between a rock and a hard place.
The end of series six saw Yara and brother Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) flee their home and strike a deal with Daenerys Targaryen. As part of the agreement, Yara promises the Ironborn will change their ways.
“She’s got no choice,” Whelan explained at a press preview for the show’s penultimate series which hits screens on July 17.
“She meets Daenerys and Tyrion (Lannister) and agrees to no more reaving, roving, raiding or raping, even though that’s their way of life. But at that point they have no Plan B. They either agree to this
or there’s no alternative … they are running for their lives and time is against them,” she continues.
“If this is what needs to happen and maybe she didn’t respect her father for the way he’d ruled. The Iron Islands were a sort of broken place and Yara can see it’s time for change.”
Whelan believes the character’s open-mindedness to this shift showspolitical prowess.
“She really has an idea of taking care of the bigger picture and not just herself or her own rise to power. Even though she has gone about it in her own unique way, it’s make or break for them at this stage. She makes that decision and it has to be the correct decision because it’s the only option.
“I can’t tell you where she is at the beginning of season seven but we know where she was heading and who with,” she adds.
Her alliance with Daenerys comes as the show’s female leads grow increasingly influential. But after five seasons Whelan has grown weary of questions surrounding strong women characters.
“It’s a shame because it shouldn’t be a thing to be a strong woman anymore,” she says. “Wouldn’t it be more exciting to ask a man what’s it like to play a weak and vulnerable man?”
She continues: “It’s not insulting but we as women are very strong and independent and to be able to reflect that in a role is not difficult because that’s what we are. Yes, you turn the volume up on some aspects of your personality for a certain character. And sometimes it’s a real privilege to play someone broken and vulnerable because there’s still a great strength in that.
“It shouldn’t be a question because women are strong. I just think it’s such a fascinating thing to discuss because it shouldn’t be a questionanymore.”
Fans may recall that Yara and Theon’s decision to flee their home was motivated by the return from exile of her uncle Euron, portrayed by Borgen star Pilou Asbaek, who is looking forward to getting his teeth into the character in the upcoming season.
“The good thing with Mr Greyjoy is he’s not only a problem for the Greyjoys – he’s going to be a problem for everyone,” the Danish actor promises.
And he’s also adamant he’ll be able to show off the character’s nefarious aspects in a series which has forged so many villains.
“With a guy like Euron, who is a psycho, it’s important I show different sides of him because we’ve had Ramsay (Bolton), Joffrey Baratheon and so many other characters,” he says.
“The guys I met in my life who are the most dangerous are the ones I never quite knew where I had them,” he adds.
“In one moment they could be charming and the next they would have this furious anger inside of them. So all these different sides I’ve tried to show.
“Of course there’s a storyline you have to follow and his storyline, he’s a f****** nutcase, but you try to do it differently,” he says, before adding with a cackle: “You don’t want to be a new evil guy, you want to be a new charming guy and then evil.”
Contrary to their anonymity on-screen, Whelan and Asbaek have maintained a fond rapport since first meeting during the making of season six in a small hotel in rural Ireland alongside Allen.
Asbaek picks up the story. “It was one of those things you couldn’t cheat. It was wonderful and like meeting family members.
“I had no idea Gemma had done comedy before, I’d only seen her as this extremely talented and gifted actress. So after five hours of rolling on the floor laughing my ass off she went to the bathroom and Alfie was like ‘She’s also a comedian’. I had no idea because it’s chemistry.”
In terms of what lies ahead for their characters, the pair remain naturally guarded. Aside from his contractual obligations, Asbaek has another reason for keeping his lips sealed.
“In Denmark the slot between two films in a cinema is very short so when people are walking out, you’re walking in. And a few years ago, as I was entering to see this film, a guy came out and said ‘I can’t believe Bruce Willis was dead the whole time’. That film was the Sixth Sense so I’m not going to reveal any spoilers. But I will say I’m happy.”
A cheeky grin accompanies that final sentence but his general point is all the more poignant as the show, for the first time since it premiered, begins to overtake George RR Martin’s novels. Second-guesses, theories and predictions have never been more fun than in a spoiler-free series of Game Of Thrones where the only certainty is to expect the unexpected.
:: Game Of Thrones Season 7 premieres exclusively on July 17 on Sky
Atlantic and NOW TV at 2am, repeated at 9pm on the same day.