Game of Thrones is one of the best shows on TV right now, not only for its plots and cinematography, but also for its intriguing characters, both main and supporting. Case in point: Tyrion's (Peter Dinklage) lady love Shae, who was introduced at the close of season 1 and has continued to be a regular fixture in the cast despite the fact that, nearly three seasons in, most of her past is still shrouded in mystery.
German actress Sibel Kekilli, who portrays Shae, may be new to American audiences, but in Germany and Europe, she's an accomplished film presence—she's won two Best Actress Lola trophies (the German equivalent to an Oscar) for her performances in Head-On (2004) and When We Leave (2010), and she won a Best Actress award at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival for the latter film. Kekilli is also involved in charity work, and devotes a lot of time to working with the organization Terre des Femmes, which aims to stop domestic violence against women.
With only two episodes left in the third season of Game of Thrones (after this weekend's night off from airing), Complex caught up with Kekilli to get the scoop on what to expect in the coming episodes—and, of course, to find out what Tyrion Lannister is really like.
Interview by Tanya Ghahremani (@tanyaghahremani)
What are you working on now that Game of Thrones is done filming?
I just finished with Tatort. It’s the most famous series in Germany. They've shown it now for 40 years. It’s a crime series, comparable to CSI, and I’m an inspector. Completely different from Game of Thrones.
How's the transition from Game of Thrones to a role like that?
In Game of Thrones, Shae is a girly-girl. Of course, Shae is also a really tough girl. In [Tatort], Sarah Brandt, she’s tougher than Shae. I sometimes feel like a boy.
Why'd you decide to make the jump from German films to an American HBO series?
If I hadn’t done it, everyone would've called me insane. Dan Weiss and David Benioff [ the co-creators of Game of Thrones] called me for an audition three years ago, and of course I thought, "It’s HBO, it would be stupid if I canceled."
Had you read George R. R. Martin's original books?
I haven’t! Have you?
I haven’t read them, but I know what happens. I read the summaries online.
Spoilers! I don’t want to hear it. [Laughs.] You know, I thought if I read it, I would [be] completely affected by the Shae in the books. They told me from the beginning—Dan and David promised me—Shae in the series is getting a bigger role, a bit different than the Shae in the books, so I didn’t want to read it.
One of the greatest things about Game of Thrones is that even though men do technically rule the lands, the women on the show are all extremely strong characters—Shae included. Do you think that there’s a real lack of strong, intelligent female characters in television and film today?
I did the movie Head-On [in 2004], and When We Leave was 2010, it was my second-biggest success in my whole career. In less than ten years, I had two big movies where the girl was really strong. I had a really strong character in both. And in Germany, I always say the girl has to be the cherry on the top of the cream in the movies. The girls have to look good and just beautiful most of the time—not always, but 90%. With those roles, you smile and support the male character.
I think in Europe maybe we are more lucky… I don’t want to insult anyone in Hollywood because I’m not in the business in Hollywood, but it’s harder to be an actress here than in Europe. I have the feeling that you can get older here in Germany, or in Europe, but in Hollywood you have to look perfect all the time. So it’s really hard.
I heard once that the way to figure out if a female character in a Hollywood film is a strong, well-rounded one is to watch the scenes where she's just speaking to another woman, because generally all they’ll speak about will be the male protagonist and nothing else.
Absolutely, yeah. It was again a European movie, but with the American actress Kirsten Dunst— Melancholia. I love that character. It’s getting better, but still, as I said, Head-On and When We Leave, the time difference was six years or something like that. I think it’s so hard to get really, really strong parts where the actress can act. It’s rare.
In both of those films, Head-On and When We Leave, you play a character who’s dealing with heavy issues, like trying to escape strict, oppressive rules set by a conservative family. And in Game of Thrones, Shae is leading a double life in plain sight of people who would kill her. How do you prepare for roles like this? Do you find it emotionally difficult?
I have a coach, but I’m not theater-trained, or a technical actor. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t know if it’s right in English—but I’m a belly actress, you know? I’m acting from my heart. The way how I feel is the way how I act. There are a lot of theater actors, they act really technical—I don’t mean it’s bad or good, but there are two ways of acting, technical and emotional actors. And I think I’m more of an emotional actor, so because I have to feel my part, I have to feel the character. If I cry, I try to cry [for real].
That’s how I prepare myself for a role. I try to write about the character—where she comes from, where she goes, and how was her life, how is her life, just for myself. To have the whole life of the character.
Going back to Game of Thrones, what do you think is going through Shae’s head this season?
She’s in love with Tyrion, but she was always scared about [loving someone or hoping for a better life]. And [with Tyrion], there was a small, short moment where she started to hope to have a new life maybe, to be loved. I’m sure that Tyrion has real feelings for her, but, of course, power is more important to him, and now she understands.
I think it was in the seventh episode where she says to Tyrion, “In the end, I will be the whore again." I think that’s the point where she thinks, OK, I shouldn’t trust anyone, just myself. I shouldn’t love anyone, you can just trust yourself, that there's no place for her because she’s not high-born. She understands now. She was right to be afraid.
The episode that last aired was the one where Tyrion and Sansa got married…
Oh my God! I hate Tyrion!
I think Shae was rightfully really angry with Tyrion for that, because he was choosing power and stature over love. But whenever she went to in to Sansa’s room the morning after the wedding...
Yeah! When she’s pulling back the sheets and she realizes they haven’t done anything, she kind of gives Tyrion this look like she seems less angry with him. What was she thinking at that moment?
I can tell you from how I acted the situation, she had a small smile—she was relieved. But at the same time, after that, she just wanted to walk over to Tyrion to threaten him, like, ‘If you dare do something with Sansa, I will kill you!’ [Laughs.] I think it was that look.
What would you like to see Shae do by the end of this season?
Being the queen, of course! To marry Tyrion and be the queen! I would love if Tyrion would adore Shae until the end of their lives. So, of course, it would be the perfect, happy end. [Laughs.] I just want for Shae, at the end of the day, for her to look at herself in the mirror, and be honest to herself, and go her own way. I wish she could be happy and find someone who loves her and not the power more than her.
That seems to be Tyrion’s problem, which is sad, because I think he really loves her.
I think so, too! But he’s also one part of this power machine, of this whole big family, and [for him], it was always like fighting for more power. And I think the same. I think Tyrion loves Shae very much, but, at the same time, I really feel pity for Tyrion. The father [Tywin Lannister] is putting pressure on him, and he knows that the father hates him. It’s really a pity for him as well, not just for Shae.
If Shae were to rule over the Iron Throne, what do you think her first order of business would be?
[Laughs.] Oh my God, I have to be careful about what I’m going to say now. If I do something wrong, HBO would kill me, or Dan and David, so…I would…I think I would kill...oh my God, sorry, Cersei. I think I would kill Cersei. And the King! I love [actress Lena Headey], don’t get me wrong, I’m just talking about the character. They’re just so mean. So mean. I would kill them. Oh my God, I think Cersei’s going to kill me! [Laughs.]
Cersei definitely does not trust Shae, so I think that would probably be wise.
It would be the right way, right? To kill her? The safer way for Shae.
And Joffrey is just an awful person.
Yeah, but I have to say that Lena is just such a lovely person. And Jack Gleeson [who plays Joffrey], he’s so, so polite and so well-educated. He’s so funny, I love him! And I really feel sorry for him, because I think the fans hate him. But that shows he’s doing his job really very good.
How is it working with Peter Dinklage?
He’s really funny. I love his acting. It’s like tennis, or a ping pong match. When you’re lucky enough to work with a good actor, you’re always trying to act at the same level. Of course, I’m not saying I’m at the same level as Peter, his acting is amazing. It’s really mesmerizing, and I'm not just saying that. I mean that, really honestly, from the bottom of my heart.
He’s really one of the funniest people, and a down-to-earth person. He really deserves the success, and he’s one of the best actors. When you act with him, you forget that it’s acting. Sometimes I’m just staring at him like, oh, it was my turn to act! He’s just acting with his eyes, you know? And you try at the same time to act with your eyes too. I think I can call [my relationship with Peter] a friendship. he’s really, really amazing person. I think Peter is going to pay me money, because I said that.
You can definitely tell from Tyrion and Shae’s scenes together that there’s always a lot of weight placed on what they’re not saying as opposed to what they are saying.
Absolutely, yeah. You can really feel it. I hope you can, when you watch it. I’m Shae, and I love to watch Shae and Tyrion, because it’s a normal couple, and it’s sad. There are so many silent situations when they don’t talk with each other.
I also find it interesting that Shae doesn’t talk a lot about her past. The audience doesn’t know anything about her origins or her family, and she won’t even tell Tyrion. Why is that?
We have to ask Dan and David, and of course George Martin! When I met George Martin, he said with a big smile, but I think he was serious, "Shae in the series is better than my Shae in the books." At this moment, Shae is not that big a part [of the series], and if you knew a lot of her life, and of her, she wouldn’t be that interesting. [Right now] everyone thinks, OK, who’s that girl? Can Tyrion trust her or not? And I think that’s the thing. If you knew about her life, she wouldn’t be that mysterious. And the series is all about families and background about the families, so I think it’s really good that there are some people in the series you don’t know the background of.
Because it makes them more interesting.
Yeah! I think it’s also a little like Russian Roulette. It's like, "OK, who is she?" Or, "Can you trust her? Is she a good one or is she a bad one? Because when Tyrion and Shae met each other, it was like a business relationship. "OK, what can you give me for my life, and what can I give you?" It was like doing business. And now it’s a love relationship.
Did George R. R. Martin tell you anything else about Shae, or what to expect?
[Laughs.] I didn’t want to know it! I said "George, please tell me if I’m right, I think she is gonna be the queen at the end, right?" And he just laughed. So he will do that. We were at a party [in Los Angeles], the whole ensemble, and he said, "Oh my God, I feel bad, I met some people here who I killed, and who I’m going to kill." And I said, "OK, don’t kill them! Stop killing them! It’s so easy!" He’s a really nice guy. He loves what he’s doing. He’s a person with passion.
It’s true, in the books, everyone keeps dying.
But as I said, George feels guilty about that. [Laughs.]
At least there’s some guilt there. I’m still not over Ned Stark’s death.
I was in shock! I was like, "I’m sure it’s just a dream. It’s just a dream… It’s just a bad nightmare of Sansa's, maybe." But it was real!
Tell me a little bit about your non-profit work with the organization Terre de Femmes.
Terre de Femmes is an organization fighting against domestic violence and honor killings, and about [female circumcision]. It was important to me, because most of the people use religious reasons as an excuse for those kinds of things. I’m a public person, so I had the opportunity to talk about that kind of thing and people can listen to me, because most people don’t want to hear it or don’t want to look at those kinds of things. You will not make a lot of friends with that kind of work. When you help children, people are always like, 'Oh, wow, that’s really great," and I really, really appreciate that people do that kind of thing. But I thought, OK, with my Turkish background, I think it’s important to talk about [violence against women] and to show the people, hey, you have to also help here.
It’s not really easy. You have to be careful what you say, that you’re not insulting people. They might say, "Hey, do you want to say that just Muslims are doing honor killings or domestic violence?" So you have to, of course, be careful with your words and what you’re gonna say. But with my Turkish background, I have to [support organizations like this].
What other projects do you have coming up?
In two weeks, I have to do Tatort again, and let’s see if I die this season or not on Game of Thrones. Maybe it’ll continue, maybe not! We’ll have to wait and see.
Interview by Tanya Ghahremani (@tanyaghahremani)