[Warning: This story contains spoilers for the second episode of HBO's Game of Thrones' seventh season, "Stormborn."]
Although Game of Thrones exists in a time without digital technology, it would appear that Yara Greyjoy (Gemma Whelan) knows a thing or two about one of the internet's greatest images:
It's the expression she gives her younger brother Theon (Alfie Allen) shortly before embarking on an impromptu (and somewhat improvised, according to Whelan) hook-up with the alluring Ellaria Sand (Indira Varma). The shrug soon gives way to what could be any number of sad- and angry-face emoticons in our modern world, but instead translates as furious fighting and action in the realm of Thrones, as Yara's ship comes under attack from her terrifying uncle Euron (Pilou Asbæk) and his war ship Silence.
The end result of the battle: two dead Sand Snakes, an AWOL Theon and three high-value prisoners, including Yara. It's easily the worst defeat we've ever seen the would-be Queen of the Iron Islands suffer through, and it's quite likely that we haven't reached the bottom of the barrel just yet — or the bottom of the ocean, as it were.
Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, Whelan opened up about what was involved in filming the climactic battle, developing the dynamic between Euron and Yara and why her character might not be as furious with her younger brother as some onlookers would expect.
The "Stormborn" sea battle was an impressive, nightmarish sequence. What went through your mind when you first read it?
I was thrilled to be part of such a big battle scene. It seems to be a rite of passage on Game of Thrones, doesn't it? You have to be in a big battle scene. It's a wonderful thing. I was thrilled. I was not so thrilled when I read that Euron captures Yara, but to get a good bit of action was great.
Were you surprised at that aspect, that Yara would be suffering such a decisive defeat this early on in the season?
No. I'm never surprised by anything on Game of Thrones. (Laughs.) Expect nothing, and expect everything. But I was excited. It's a great storyline. Whatever the writers choose for you, it's always a huge privilege. I'm pleased to be part of such a great storyline.
How much training and rehearsal was involved in getting ready for the shoot, and the fight scene with Euron in particular?
I had some stunt training with the amazing people who take care of you and take you through every single beat of the choreography. You go through it and you go through it, and then you go through it on your own with a stuntman and the director, and then Pilou and I went through it, and then we did a dry run on the boat. So we had plenty of practice in. But it's very different when you suddenly have the costume on, and there are burning embers and stuntmen all around you...
It must have been absolute madness.
It was madness! (Laughs.) Complete madness. There's water, wind, pyrotechnics, burning embers and then action — so by the time "action" is called, you can barely hear the word, because there are so many machines throwing wind, fire and water at you. You just have to remember your choreography as well as navigate across the deck where there are loads of other stuntmen. Every single Ironborn on the ship was a stuntman, and they're very well versed in helping actors navigate their way around the battlefield without getting in the way. They were extraordinarily helpful. We did it beat-by-beat, step-by-step, and it was enormous fun. It was a huge challenge for everyone in production, but it was an enormous feat, and I thought everyone did such an amazing job.
I spoke with Pilou this week, and he was very upfront about how much he enjoyed himself in this scene.
Oh, yeah. (Laughs.)
Did you appreciate his enthusiasm or was it ever a bit much?
Oh, I loved it! What came with Pilou's enthusiasm, and I had just the same amount of enthusiasm ... he had to have this extra bit of energy because he's this badass pirate and rock star who's really a psychopath. Even though he has all of the excitement in the world while he's doing it, he also has so much respect and understanding of what we need to do, how we need to do it, and how we can stay safe. At no point did I feel anything other than his great energy. We fed off of each other and we looked after each other.
What was it like on the day, contending with Pilou as Euron, and the intensity that exists between these two characters?
I really retreated into what I was doing, and making sure I maintained eye contact with him, so it reduces down to me and him when we're doing that long [fight] together, and when I had to jump down at him. And then we have that long bit at the end, where he has me pinned. We really retreated into taking care of each other, focusing on each other, remembering the choreography and making it as convincing as we could. That's all we could do. I wasn't intimidated at all. He's an absolute puppy dog and a dream to work with. We would fight, and he would say, "Are you okay? Was that too hard?" And I was like, "No! Go for it! Grab me! Push me! We need to make this realistic!" We had great communication and a great relationship. I was very pleased to be working with him.
This is an agonizing moment for Yara. There's adrenaline involved, but it's also at least somewhat of a nauseating experience for the character, watching her ship covered in flames. What was your interpretation of Yara's mindset during the scene?
I felt like there was a sense of utter defeat. This should not be going this way. She's never really been defeated in such a terrible way before. She really sees at this point, there's no hope. It's game over. It's completely out of her control and there's nothing she can do. He's really got them. Keeping that in my mind was very important, but also to never lose her inner strength and the will that she has. I do think she's feeling rather broken by the time Theon jumps ship. "This is very, very, very serious." That's what's going through her mind.
There's so much happening in the final moment between the three Greyjoys. Yara has a big reaction when Theon jumps ship. How would you characterize her feelings toward her brother as he abandons ship?
I think she understands that he probably couldn't have done anything at this point. Euron is so powerful. He has me. If Theon takes even one step forward, Euron can kill me. I'm not currency to him. I think she probably understands he has no choice. But I also think she's very upset that he's having flashbacks, and she understands there's a lot going on for him. I don't think she feels like he's abandoning her. I think she feels like he's having a terribly traumatic time, there's nothing he can do, and maybe — just maybe — he's jumping ship now so he can come back and do some good. Ultimately, I think she's devastated. She's completely helpless now, and so is Theon. She's in the hands of her psychopath of an uncle, and she has no idea what's going to happen next. She's very fearful, but doesn't want to show that she's defeated.
The Iron Islanders don't typically tolerate weakness, but you feel like Yara sympathizes with what her brother is going through?
Yeah, I do. One thing about Yara that we've seen throughout the seasons is that she really loves her brother. She really stands for family. She's tried and tried to bring him back. She really thought he was back, and she's heartbroken that he's not quite back, but I don't think she blames him for it. Even though they did have that conversation in the brothel last season: "Grow a pair!" I do think she understands. I don't think she's happy about it, but it's beyond her reach now. She now has to get on with the matter at hand.
Things get so bleak for Yara, just after they were looking very up with Ellaria...
They were looking really good, weren't they? (Laughs.) That's Game of Thrones!
Is it true that you and Indira improvised the kiss?
What happens often on Game of Thrones is some stuff is written in the stage directions about what they're up to. I don't remember if the kiss was actually written in. I think we just decided that it would be right if we took it to a kiss. Initially, Ellaria's advances were directed more at Theon, and then it flipped around and became more about her and Yara. On the day, we played with what they would be doing while having this conversation. They were getting closer, and it felt right to maybe engage in some way. It wasn't like we improvised the whole thing; the writing was fully respected and everything we did was as written on paper, but we took it the extra step that day because it felt right for that beat when Theon leaves the room, and there's that moment where Yara shrugs at him.
...which is one of the funniest images the show has produced in a while.
"What's a girl gotta do?" (Laughs.) It wasn't written in the script that her legs are spread-eagle on the table, either. We found that on the day, too. We worked with [director] Mark [Mylod] on the day in terms of how we felt. It was the same with the brothel last year. It wasn't written exactly how I got on with that prostitute. We found out how to do it on the day. There's a little bit of freedom in terms of the action there.
Looking forward, exactly how worried should we be for Yara? How bad are things about to get, on a scale from "very bad" to "exceedingly bad"?
It's not looking good! (Laughs.) But I can't say anything else.
Watch the video below for the Game of Thrones cast's preview of season seven's battles.
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