Interview: Carice van Houten

Carice Van Houten

 Picture: Robert Harper
Carice Van Houten Picture: Robert Harper [email protected]

Game of Thrones is back, you can’t have failed to notice, whether you’re a whizz on Westeros and the Seven Kingdoms, or you’ve finally joined the party to see what all the fuss is about and ask annoying questions like, ‘is that her brother she’s sleeping with?’ or, ‘wasn’t he dead?’

Already a broadcasting phenomenon with viewing figures for the last series averaging 25.1 million, the HBO and Sky Atlantic fantasy looks like breaking more records with its penultimate series Dragonstone. The trailer alone attracted 64 million views in 24 hours and the opening episode was watched by more than 10 million viewers.

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Carice van Houten, 40, returns in the role of red priestess Melisandre and she has already ignited a social media storm by hinting at her character’s imminent demise.

Carice van Houten as Melisandre and Kit Harington as Jon Snow

In the real life van Houten household things are a little more muted. At the home she shares with actor Guy Pearce she sounds sleepy, giving her voice a laid-back drawl. She speaks four languages, five if you count Valyrian, and her English is a melted Gouda peppered with the occasional gently expressed expletive. But her tiredness is nothing to do with Melisandre being over 300 years old, it’s a lack of sleep thanks to 11-month old Monte, who has been running a slight temperature.

“It’s the most beautiful day sitting here, with my kid having a fever, therefore changing plans, you know? It’s just one of those mother days, every day’s a mother day, right? He’ll be fine,” she says.

Van Houten is deep into a promotional schedule for series seven and the actor, who has been thrice nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award, is happy to muse on the appeal of the show.

“There’s something in it for everyone. In that sense it’s a bit like Shakespeare I guess, and it’s a very smart soap, near to society, but not just one family, one street, it’s a whole world so you can get lost in it. And with big scenes that are never going to be boring…

Van Houten as Annika, Milhouse's Dutch cousin in The Simpsons

“The themes are the big ones, the search for power and money. Back in the first season I watched the king… what’s his name?” She yawns. “Sorry I’m not in great shape... where he is complaining about being king and saying it’s f***ing s**t, you know, and the irony of everyone else wanting to be in that place. That is funny. And to me, this is just my interpretation, the whole thing about winter is coming and that big, big army of death coming for us, it’s really the thought of death in general. That nobody can escape death whether you’re rich or poor, man or woman. But, you know, I’m not sure… that’s what I get from it. I don’t know what the meaning is supposed to be!”

Van Houten was already a huge deal in the Netherlands before GoT thrust her into the international spotlight. Her Dutch language feature Love Life broke box office records there and her follow up The Happy Housewife won her a record-breaking 5th Golden Calf (the Dutch equivalent of a BAFTA). Voted Best Dutch Actress of All Time in 2008, she has also won fans for her singing, with the album See You On The Ice.

Born in 1976 in Leiderdorp in the western Netherlands to Theodore, a writer, broadcaster and silent film connoisseur and Margje Stasse, who is on the board of Dutch educational TV, Carice and her younger sister, Jelka (also an actor) were immersed in the arts from an early age. She grew up loving Laurel and Hardy and with an appreciation of acting minus dialogue, useful for the quietly intense Melisandre.

“I remember I wanted to be an astronaut for one day, then it was acting,” she says. “I mean I never wanted to be famous, it was just about acting, and I turned out to be successful at it, but that was a sort of side-effect. It was never my goal to be on f***ing red carpets, that’s not why I went to drama school, I don’t believe in that. If it’s just to go with the money, then Jesus…”

Carice van Houten as Melisandre and Kit Harington as Jon Snow

After drama school in Amsterdam, van Houten landed her first leading role in Martin Koolhoven’s TV film Suzy Q, which also saw her win her first Golden Calf, then attracted international attention in Paul Verhoeven’s award-winning wartime thriller Black Book in 2006 for her visceral portrayal of a young Jewish woman.

“It was a bit controversial because a big part of the country would like to believe that we were great and the Germans were evil. It’s still here in the soccer brains, in the horrible competition between Germany and Holland. So to show there were good Germans and bad Dutch people, even in the resistance, a few people couldn’t handle that. It showed that the cruelty of mankind is universal, it’s human nature, no matter where we were born.”

As the Dutch acting accolades piled up van Houten was also cast in several English-language films, including Repo Men, The Fifth Estate and Valkyrie, opposite Tom Cruise. More recent credits include Jesse Owen’s biopic Race and the award-winning Black Butterflies directed by Paula van der Oest. But for van Houten, the role that has eclipsed all others in terms of cool is voicing Annika van Houten in The Simpsons, Milhouse’s Dutch cousin and love interest of Bart, the girl with the blue hair and piercings who turns him on to e-cigarettes.

“It was sort of a big dream of mine. When I was young and went to LA and people asked about my goal, where I wanted to be in ten years, I’d say I want to be a voice on The Simpsons. So when that actually happened, I was like wow! I felt so flattered you cannot believe it. Of all the roles I’ve had, it was probably the coolest.”

Van Houten as Annika, Milhouse's Dutch cousin in The Simpsons

Landing the Game of Thrones gig was career changing but for life changing, Martin Koolhoven’s 2016 gnarly, revisionist western Brimstone takes the award. It was on set for that production that she met Guy Pearce, who starred alongside GoT stablemate Kit Harington and Dakota Fanning. Nominated for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and Best Film at the London Film Festival, the film also saw van Houten and Pearce became a couple, with their son born last year.

“I did Brimstone because it was a really good script and a director I really wanted to work with again on his first international movie. I had a small part, but it was a very interesting story and I enjoyed it.”

Six weeks after giving birth she was back on set for Game of Thrones, playing a pivotal role in scenes with Tyrion and Daenerys this time, before making portentous predictions and disappearing again in a flurry of red drapery.

“Yeah, well it’s not like I do one Oscar film after the other…” She laughs. “It has helped get my name out there and opened doors and you have conversations you otherwise wouldn’t. It’s a good thing to be part of a show that’s so successful. I never could have dreamed that this would happen,” she says.

Melisandre is also a bit of a departure from her previous comedy-drama roles and van Houten sometimes misses the chance to flex her comedy muscles more.

“Yeah, that’s very sad, because most of my roles have had a tongue in cheek element and drama comedy is my favourite genre. I can hardly do anything with that here, so I feel like a lot of people are thinking I’m a very stern, strong woman, where in real life I’m totally the opposite. I’ve had many meetings in LA with producers and casting directors, where I walked in, clumsy as I am and small and insecure, with all my f***ing issues and weird traits, and people would be like ‘is that you?’ so that’s fun. But I’m totally not Melisandre.”

With non-disclosure contracts in force there’s no danger of her giving us a clue of what’s to come but van Houten says she has no idea what’s going on anyway.

“Melisandre remains a mystery to me too – I never have any idea until I get the scripts. There’s not too much we know about her. But the interesting thing is like with any character it’s not just evil or good. Melisandre for a long time just seemed nasty, scary, stern, and very late we discover she’s something else.

“Having been a slave makes the character quite layered, someone who is still working for a boss, her god, and not in it for her own gain. She’s a true religious person who has her world shaken up by events, and is doubting her belief. And that’s interesting to play, that change.”

Yes, what exactly is her boss, R’hllor, the Lord of Light, up to, and where does his fire and light religion fit in to GoT?

“Ahhhh….” she says, and there’s a long pause. “That’s a difficult question... I’m afraid to answer that because I feel that there might be people out there that know that better than me so I don’t want to get into trouble.”

Van Houten has a lot of time for Throne dweebs and fans’ enthusiasm, but is delighted that Melisandre has steered away from infanticide and no longer attracts death threats.

“Yes the big change came from burning a child and then saving Jon Snow, so I went from villain to hero with the fans within two episodes which is really funny. One day I would get tweets that said ‘die, die, die bitch, die’ and the next it would be ‘Melisandre for president’ and ‘glory, glory, glory’.” She laughs.

“I get it, you know. I had the same fan behaviour when I was watching Breaking Bad. I became completely obsessed and wanted to take pictures with the actors and ask for autographs and all that s**t. I did meet a few and yeah, I was just as star-struck as people are when they see us I guess, which is always weird to me, because I always feel, it’s just me, people, it’s just me! I go to the toilet, I have cellulite, you know? But I understand that sort of tendency to just lose yourself in all that stuff. It’s great. Yeah, it’s good drugs.”

Van Houten’s strategy for anonymity when out with Pearce and her son is to don tracky bottoms and glasses. Devoid of Melisandre’s red wig, with her dark hair and pale skin – something she attributes to her Edinburgh granny (“very Scottish, very funny, tough, independent and I’m very proud of that quarter Scottish blood”) – identification is less common, but when it does happen, she’s happy.

“It’s flattering and I don’t mind people coming up to me and saying they enjoy the show, but what I mind is people secretly taking pictures… It doesn’t really happen that much because of the wig. People really need to look twice.”

If van Houten had one of Melisandre’s powers, which include (sometimes fallible) prophecy and reincarnation, what would she choose?

“I guess bringing people back to life... “ she says and laughs. “That would be quite handy.”

Who would she bring back?

“Oh, my dad,” she says, straight away. “Yeah…”

Her father died of cancer last year when she was five months’ pregnant and it’s a regret that he didn’t meet her son.

“It was April last year, when I was pregnant, yeah. So to have him meet my son, you know...”

Her father was always proud of his daughter’s acting, although often rated her performance more than the vehicles in which she appeared.

“My father was really quite critical because he was a film journalist and a silent cinema expert so he was the real artist, it felt to me. So I had to be really good for him to acknowledge and he would always say ‘yeah, well it’s s**t, you’re too good for the films you’re in’, so…” She laughs. “Because he knew what real art was. But my parents were always very encouraging in the sense I never felt I wasn’t doing the right job.”

At this point Monte makes an appearance and the protective mantle van Houten has drawn around her family slips.

“Oh! Excuse me, I just have to say hello because I didn’t see him for a little bit…” She goes off the line and in the background her voice softens and lifts as she greets him. “hello! hello!’” There’s a warm burble of Dutch endearment and giggling, coupled with delighted squawking from the baby. Then she’s back on the line, businesslike. “OK, good,” only to burst out again with “Awwwwww... I am so in love with this kid!”

Next up she is filming Domino, a thriller directed by Brian De Palma and starring another GoT star, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jaime Lannister).

“Yes, it’s very contemporary which I like, with a little bit of drama and a little bit of action. I was interested because it was Brian De Palma, a very iconic filmmaker. I like to work with older people, like Paul Verhoeven. I adore that knowledge and experience, a father figure. I love working with young people too, but there’s something very nostalgic about it, it’s interesting.”

As for Game of Thrones, will Melisandre meet the end she has predicted for herself in this series, or has the red priestess got another one ahead?

“Hmmm… Every year I’m thinking OK, this is going to be my last year, but then every year there’s a new possibility. So who knows? I really, really don’t know.”


Game of Thrones season 7 airs exclusively on Sky Atlantic, Mondays at 9pm