It’s Friday afternoon in London and “Game of Thrones” newcomer Gemma Whelan is just hours away from hitting a West End stage in London for the sixth time this week.
After tonight, the actress still has two more shows to go as Rachel Crabbe in “One Man, Two Guvnors,” before her one day off a week, which she uses – when time allows – to air out her Victorian-era standup comedy character, Chastity.
If the Leeds-born and Midlands-England bred actress sounds busy, it’s because she is. Rehearsals for her current London gig kept Gemma away from getting to enjoy sitting elbow-to-elbow with her “Game of Thrones” cast mates at a recent screening — and watching those who haven’t read all the Season 2 scripts or George R.R. Martin’s books – squirm over her character, Yara Greyjoy’s big reveal.
In episode 2, which aired stateside on Sunday, Cersei and Jaime Lannister got a little competition in the incest department, when Yara allowed brother Theon (who didn’t recognize her) to fondle her on a horse ride to Pyke, while she got insight into who he’s become after nine years away with the Starks.
“Did I find it weird? No, I didn’t really,” Gemma tells AccessHollywood.com of acting the scene out with Alfie Allen (Theon), the latest “GOT” moment to shock viewers. “Without sounding weird, I just relish this kind of really weird story line. This is rarely done and it was so fun to play the character. She’s just completely duplicitous and manipulative. I kind of had a lot of respect for [Yara] and what she was up to.”
Before she was able to churn out her truly punchy debut as the bold and conniving daughter of Balon Greyjoy, Gemma first had to figure out the character, which coming to the audition process late, wasn’t an easy task.
Called to read for the part last year (with only enough time to ingest portions of the novels), Gemma was given script pages that included Esgred, which readers of the books know is the alias Yara gave her brother to disguise her true identity.
“I read the scene with myself and Theon and I was like, ‘Who is Esgred and why am I… Hold on!’ I couldn’t work it out…. So I went into the audition and Robert Sterne, the wonderful casting director — who works with Nina Gold — he explained it all to me… And then, ‘Holy crap! You are kidding! My God, that’s amazing!’” she recounted of her first reaction to Yara’s sneaky deception on her just-returned brother. “I kind of had to take it all in, in the audition and work out what to do.”
Already having made an impact on Season 2 with her startling Sunday night debut, Gemma will be sticking around to bring more of Yara to life, especially since — in Theon’s absence — her seaworthy character became Balon Greyjoy’s favorite child.
“Yeah, he likes me the best for sure. Theon went away and… [Balon] thinks of me as a son,” Gemma said. “After that, we’re just kind of nasty to Theon really.
“We lay some plans out, ‘cause he’s obviously come back to try and convince us that we need to go to war with the Starks… But, we will only do it our way,” Gemma said, looking ahead to the continuing Season 2 drama. “Balon will only do it his way, so he’s made plans of his own.”
While she’s playing a strong and intense woman on screen, on stage, at London’s Theatre Royal Haymarket, Gemma is warming her pipes and feet, singing and doing a bit of dancing in “One Man Two Guvnors,” based on “The Servant of Two Masters” by Carlo Goldoni. But like Yara, her theatre character also has a secret.
“I’m dressing up as my brother — my twin brother… It’s ridiculous, a ridiculous story line. If I tried to explain it, it would not make any sense,” she laughed. “But there’s a happy ending at the end.”
A dream come true to be performing in the world famous West End, the stage role also brought joy to Gemma’s folks.
“My mum and dad, they came to press night and they were very, very proud. It was really nice to have them there,” she said. “We used to talk about it all the time and they were very encouraging and believed in me and then it kind of happened. It’s great. Long may it last.”
In fact, her stage role will last for several more months, before the actress is called back – once HBO gives the go-ahead for Season 3 — to Westeros.
“Yeah, I’m spending the summer on the West End, doing this play and then, I understand I’m going to be in some of Season 3. Fingers crossed they follow Asha’s story, because there’s so many stories to follow, aren’t there?” she said, dropping her character Yara’s original name in the books (producers changed Asha to Yara so it wouldn’t be confused with the wildling character, Osha). “But I’m led to believe I’m going back. We’ll see.”