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.