From warrior queen to Victorian drama to true crime, the versatile actor credits comedy with getting her into the biggest TV show in the world
Comedy has got serious of late as the boundaries between genres blur and Gemma Whelan for one is laughing with a fistful of roles that being funny has brought her way. With everyone from Olivia Colman playing it straight in Broadchurch then outrageous in the darkly funny Fleabag and totally mixing it up in her Oscar-clinching performance in The Favourite, to Steve Coogan giving us a behind the laughs take on Stan Laurel in Stan and Ollie then bringing back his primetime parody with Alan Partridge, actors are showing they needn’t be pigeonholed.
Whelan is currently riding the wave of the crossover career. She’ll be striding around swashbuckling as warrior queen Yara Greyjoy in Game of Thrones in the much anticipated final series launching on 15 April, won plaudits playing Karen Matthews, mother of missing schoolgirl Shannon in the award-winning true crime drama The Moorside, yet also has time to doll out the droll in Ben Elton’s seriously silly Shakespeare comedy Upstart Crow. She’s also just finished adding light comic touches to the new costume drama from Sally Wainwright (To Walk Invisible, Last Tango In Halifax, Happy Valley), titled Gentleman Jack and based on the true story of the Yorkshire landowner, lesbian and larger than life Anne Lister played by Suranne Jones.
“I started off really in comedy, did lots of stand-up, several sitcoms and I love doing it – I did stand-up at the Edinburgh Festival... but I wanted to do drama too. That’s why Olivia Colman is one of my absolute heroes; she’s straddled both. Sometimes funny people have a darkness so if they are given a chance, it’s nice to do drama as well rather than being overlooked.”
In fact Whelan’s casting as Yara came as the result of another audition for a comedy, which she didn’t get, but the casting team thought she’d be good for another series they were together, Game of Thrones.
“Had I not been up for a nice little role in a comedy, I wouldn’t have got this, because it’s difficult to get a meeting for an HBO drama, those doors aren’t so open to you. I was at the right place at the right time and fortunate that they thought I might be a good fit for Yara.”
Chatty and enthusiastic Whelan radiates a can’t-believe-how lucky-she-is-to-be-doing-this-job vibe. “I’ve loved every single minute I’m on set for any job I do. I just love it!” she says.
As well as stand-up, she’s kept the comedy coming with The Uncle, mockumentary The Agency, Decline and Fall and three series of Upstart Crow, playing Kate, daughter of Shakespeare’s landlord and earnest would-be actor.
“She never gives up, she’s tenacious, maybe THIS time if she dresses up as a boy, she’ll get on stage. She’s relentlessly positive,” she says.
Maybe if she knew that one day a woman like her would get to act in one of the biggest TV shows on earth…
“Exactly! Exactly! Don’t worry about it, you’re gonna get there, you’re gonna do an HBO drama,” says Whelan.
In Gentleman Jack, an eight-part BBC and HBO co-production set in early-19th century Halifax and based on the extensive diaries kept by Anne Lister, Whelan lends levity to the role of her sister Marian. Fast-paced and witty, there’s a contemporary soundtrack and direct-to-camera nods to the audience, much of it from Marian, irritated with her flamboyant sister.
“Yes, Marian will give a yawn to camera as Anne bangs on,” says Whelan, and laughs. “Marian can be… I don’t want to describe her as put-upon but she sort of is because Anne’s so extraordinary, and she can’t help feel she’s living a less colourful life, being devoted to running the family household. Not that she’d want all the travel and situations Anne gets involved in. She has enormous strength, resilience and some wit, is educated and informed, but she’s living a normal existence for a woman of her age at that time. She’s 37 like me, but constrained by the time she lived in and her position in society, though she did bloody well I think.”
Marian’s constricted not just by social mores, but also in terms of dress. Not for Marian the waders, breast plate and weapons of Yara Greyjoy.
“Yes, the corsets speak volumes to me in terms of how restricted women were. Strapped and held in, it’s a real metaphor for how she had to live her life.”
Playing sisters with Suranne Jones, Whelan shared many scenes with the actor on whom she heaps praise. “She is just fantastic, an absolute star. She was in every scene and not once did she complain. Sometimes it’s difficult running through a field caked in mud for the fifth time in the rain, but she just gets on with it. And we all realise how lucky we are to be doing what we’re doing.”
Whelan has experience with battling the elements from filming Game of Thrones, many of her scenes taking place on Northern Ireland’s Antrim coast in winter.
“But we’re the first ones to leave at the end of the day, when everyone’s freezing cold and has worked since before we arrived, so I’d be a fool to complain. The only thing I would say is we got a bit cold sometimes, countered by many a hot water bottle. But it is one of the most BEAUTIFUL coastlines, has a majestic energy. You would look out over a beautiful oceanscape on arguably the biggest TV show in the world and pinch yourself.”
Landing the role of Yara Greyjoy, Whelan has been in the HBO hit since 2011. As aspiring Queen of the Iron Islands she is fighting to restore her people’s status in the world of Westeros, defied her father – “he bloody deserved it, horrible man” – and after evil uncle Euron murdered him, is in alliance with dragon whisperer Daenerys to defeat Jon Snow’s House Stark and the House of Lannister who rule the kingdom from King’s Landing. With brother Theon (Alfie Allen), brutalised, emasculated, and escaping overboard when their ship is attacked, we last saw her being led in chains through King’s Landing, pelted with rotten vegetables.
So what can she tell us about the new Game of Thrones?
“All I can tell you is when I read the final episode I had to pick my jaw up off the floor. Because we’ve all conjectured and wondered and been asked over the years, who, what, how, and it’s not ANYTHING you could have guessed. It’s brilliant, so movingly clever.”
And will Theon come good on his promise to rescue Yara? Again, she’s tight-lipped.
“It would be very nice and circular wouldn’t it? But we all know Game of Thrones doesn’t always give you what you want.”
Whelan knows this only too well, having listened to colleagues going off to Croatia and Spain, “we’re going on a yacht trip blah, blah” she mimics, so she was understandably excited to hear she was going to Spain too.
“But when I did manage to get there, I got cabbages thrown at me!” She laughs.
Yara Greyjoy has been a dream job for Whelan, involving acquiring fighting and horse riding skills, something she’s taken in her stride, being up for the action roles as much as comedy and crime.
“I’m asked a lot what it’s like to play such a strong female character, and I lament that I’m asked because in real life women are strong and every colour of the emotional spectrum. As are men, but Kit [Harington, aka Jon Snow] will never be asked what it’s like to play such a strong male character. That would be ludicrous. I’m sure you and I consider ourselves strong and clever and every bit as resourceful as our male counterparts.”
With her role as Yara coming to an end, might it be time for Whelan to finally get herself a Game of Thrones Official Figurine? “I’d feel a bit of an idiot getting one,” she says. “Although I’ve signed a few at conventions. So if anyone out there would like to send me one… I could give it to my mum.”
Given that Yara is such a courageous character, does Whelan ever stop in real life and think ‘What would Yara do?’
“Oh, that’s a great question,” she says. “No, but I will now! That’s a very good way to live your life, I think.”
Speaking about real life, Whelan has a fascination for real life crime drama, which is why she jumped at the chance to play Karen Matthews in The Moorside in 2017. Also starring Sheridan Smith, it dramatised the 2008 hoax kidnapping of Dewsbury nine-year-old Shannon Matthews, by her mother.
“I was very interested in the case when it happened. I remember sitting on the sofa in my mum’s house when it came on the news they’d found her. We were gobsmacked and both said, “something’s not right”.
“When the audition came through, I was very impressed they thought I might be apt for it, but my mum said I was just right. No-one else was so candid, they said ‘oh, I wouldn’t have seen that’, but she said I’d be perfect. You can always rely on your mum, can’t you? But she was right. Then when she watched it she said it was amazing how the documentary footage fitted with my parts. I said, ‘mum, there isn’t any documentary footage, it’s all me.’ She took so much convincing. Your own mother!”
As for portraying real life events, where those involved may be affected by the programme, Whelan talks of her responsibility, especially towards Shannon.
“I trusted the script and that it was as close to what happened as possible. Actually, a lot of people said after watching it they had some sympathy and empathy for Karen, who she is and why she is. I’m really proud of that piece of work and what we achieved and I hope if Shannon or the family did see it, that they see it was told in as clear and kind a light as possible, without pandering.”
The Moorside director Paul Whittington is also directing Whelan in her next job, another real life crime drama. Due out in the autumn, White House Farm follows Jeremy Bamber’s murder of his family in the 1980s.
“I play his cousin who kept saying you need to look closer. Viewers are going to be shocked and… it’s hard to say enjoy about a desperate murder case like that, but be intrigued. There’s a huge appetite for real life crime and dramatisations of it and I love them too.”
Next on her schedule is a feature film adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma starring Anya Taylor-Joy and Johnny Flynn (Vanity Fair) from Working Title Films, adapted by Man Booker prize winner Eleanor Catton, that requires Whelan and 18-month-old daughter Frances to decamp to the Cotswolds from the London home she shares with writer, comedian and actor, Gerry Howell.
“I play Emma’s former governess and companion and it’s a wonderful mix of etiquette, humour, parties, devastation and everything in between. It’s a fantastic script and not to be reductive, more light-hearted that my recent jobs.” She’s just done Pinter’s A Slight Ache with John Heffernan, that also saw Danny Dyer and Martin Freeman in the one act plays.
Born in Leeds and growing up in Birmingham, Whelan loved performing as a child, doing as many school plays as possible where she landed the lead role in Daisy Pulls it Off.
“That awakened that part of me and I’ve just sort of bumped into the right people at the right time who said come and audition for this. I’m really, really lucky to have found something I enjoy so deeply. I can’t even call it work.”
After school Whelan did a performing arts degree in London, followed by a post-graduate in musical theatre but soon realised it wasn’t her world.
“I’m fine at singing for a character role, let’s put it that way,” she says.
We can’t let Whelan go without one final attempt to find out what’s in Game of Thrones, so will it all end in a gargantuan struggle or GoT bloodbath?
“No, can’t say anything. But it’s Game of Thrones, so there will be some blood shed... I’m sure.”
Wait a minute, she’s in it, doesn’t she know?
“No, I don’t. I deliberately didn’t read all of the scripts, just mine. I like to watch it like a fan and be surprised. So I sit on the sofa watching with my husband,” she says, then reveals that she doesn’t just sit.
“I’ve never watched a TV show more vividly than the way I watch Game of Thrones. I have a physical reaction, get up off the sofa, walk about, slap my arms around. It’s a very physical experience in our house, Game of Thrones!”
“But as for the ending, the writers have always known where they want the story to end, they’ve been working towards this from the beginning. So I do know it’s going to be brilliant – just one of the many brilliant things about Game of Thrones.”
The final series of Game of Thrones begins on 15 April at 2am and 9pm on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV.
Gentleman Jack is on BBC1 next month.