'Game of Thrones' Star Carice Van Houten on Melisandre's Old and New Tricks

Is Melisandre finished with her crisis of faith? The actress talks with THR about what's to come after the big Jon Snow twist.
Helen Sloan/HBO

[Warning: This story contains spoilers for episode two, season six of HBO's Game of Thrones.]

Even in the immediate aftermath of his death, many viewers felt confident that Jon Snow (Kit Harington) would find his way back to the realm of the living. 

The theories were endless: Ghost contained Jon's spirit, Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) would use his tree powers to rescue his half-brother, Jon's potentially fiery bloodline would get the job done … but the most frequently cited source of restorative power, and ultimately the one who did the trick, was Melisandre (Carice van Houten), the Red Priestess of Asshai. After all, Game of Thrones previously established the Lord of Light's followers can bring people back to life in extraordinary circumstances — and R'hllor's most devout disciple just happened to be close by when Lord Commander Snow died.

Season six's second episode, "Home," finally delivered on the promise of Jon's return at Melisandre's hands, but only after another bombshell: Melisandre, it turns out, is impossibly ancient, maintaining her youthful visage through magical means. The season premiere's big reveal, reserved only for the viewer, came at the height of her crisis of faith, eliciting rare sympathy for the woman who just episodes earlier had burned a little girl alive. Now, with Jon back, she has reason for renewed faith, and viewers have reason to look at her extraordinary lifespan as a tremendous source of power.

The Hollywood Reporter spoke with the red woman herself, Carice van Houten, about Melisandre's major role and reveals over the past two episodes, and what's coming up next.

What was shooting the resurrection scene like?

It was a long day. We did that scene I don't know how many times from I don't know how many angles. But we all knew it was going to be such an important scene, so it was fine. I remember, because I had to clean his body I don't know how many times, that we had some fun. We had to. It's no fun for Kit to lay there forever, you know, and for me not to tickle him with my little cloth of water. I was really surprised at how still he really was and how dead he really looked. But it was hard. The blood sort of clots, and it takes a long time before his body's clean. I'm sure a lot of women are jealous of me. (Laughs.) 

You're probably right.

I had to do that I don't know how many times … 80 times? (Laughs.) I got a lot of comments on that.

Director Jeremy Podeswa described the scene as almost ritualistic in its own right.

Yes. It was sort of in real time. We didn't cut during the cleaning. The cleaning was shot until he was clean. Sometimes that would take a few minutes — five, six or seven minutes before he was really clean. It was very quiet and serene in those moments.

When did you find out about Melisandre's role in bringing Jon back to life?

Probably July, last year. It was very soon that I therefore realized I had to shut up for a long time, and I would have to lie to people. It was a fun lie! Something good was going to come of it, you know? It was a nice lie to have. But it was tricky sometimes. I don't know how many times people have asked me about it in the last year.

Melisandre was intrigued by Jon from the moment she first laid eyes on him, even when she was backing Stannis. What do you think she saw in him?

I think it's not very clear what it is exactly. I keep saying to people that it's almost like looking into the flames are like static radio; it's not always clear. She picks up on stuff. She knows that things are important, but sometimes she doesn't know why yet. She doesn't know why, but she has to keep an eye on him. The Lord of Light will tell her, but she doesn't always get all the information. And she's been wrong before. 

How does Jon's resurrection impact that static? It comes during this extreme crisis of faith for Melisandre. Does her success here crystalize her faith at all?

A little bit, yeah, but she has to come from far. We saw her in a true identity crisis in the beginning [of the season]. She really has to recover from that. The fact that she made Jon Snow [come back from the dead] means there's still some power in the Lord of Light left. I don't think she believes it's her doing it. She's a vessel. I don't think she per se believes she has magical powers. She believes she's a servant, you know? It regained some of her faith in the Lord of Light, definitely, but she's not there yet. She's not yet back to where we met Melisandre in the first episode.

How long have you known about Melisandre's true age, and how has that informed your performance?

It's been mentioned quite a bit since a long time ago, back when I first started conversations with [showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss]. It was always in the back of my mind, but it never really came back. I always felt it would come back at some point, but there was no way I could do anything with that. It was just something I knew. It didn't effect me that much.

When you physically became the old Melisandre, did that give you new appreciation for what she's experienced and seen in her life?

Oh, yes. And that's how people have reacted. It's almost touching to see someone that old, with so much history, with so much in her backpack … it almost makes everything completely different. I really, really loved that part of it. 

It's a rare moment of sympathy, considering just a few episodes earlier she burned a poor little girl alive.

I know! (Laughs.) I quickly went from most hated woman to most loved one, almost. People all of the sudden are like, "I want to marry you! You're my favorite character! Melisandre for president!" It only took me two episodes!

Sure, she has a surge in popularity right now thanks to bringing Jon back, but in terms of the character, can she ever truly atone for what she did to Shireen? And now that we know just how old Melisandre is, has she done even worse in her lifetime?

I don't know. I don't know everything either; there's still so much mystery about this woman. But once you touch a child? It's hard to forgive that. Even though you're bringing some hot guy back to life, the innocence of a child always weighs heavier, I think. But a lot of people have seemed to forget it for now, now that Jon Snow's no longer dead. But they'll hate me again at some point. (Laughs.)

What's the status of Melisandre and Davos at this point?

They're closer to each other, in the sense that they're in the same situation. They both lost their king. They are a little closer. It's easier for Davos to come to me because I'm more open and vulnerable. Conversation is possible now, whereas before, it was always a smirk or a stare. He was just a nuisance to her. But she's let him in now. She's so vulnerable. She's like an open wound. They'll never be best friends, but they can at least go through one door, as they say.

What did you make of Davos being the one who asks Melisandre to resurrect Jon? What does it say about these characters, that this man of science asks this woman of broken faith to do the impossible?

I loved that. I loved that. His acting in that scene was great. You can see … it goes against everything for him. There's this shamefulness in the way he's asking me, where he's almost like a child. "Do you think you could, maybe, try that trick?" It was almost very cute, I think. And of course, it's his last chance. It's the last thing he can think of. And then she says, "Well, I can't do it. I have no power. I'm f—ed." 

In the moment we see Melisandre's true form, one of the first reactions is sympathy for the character. Now that we've seen her bring Jon back to life, should we start considering the other ramifications of the reveal — namely, that with all this age and life experience, Melisandre really is a tremendous source of great power?

Well, I'm not sure. I'm not sure how she did it, to be honest. I'm not sure how powerful she really is yet, myself. It's difficult to say. I'm actually thinking about this. On Twitter, someone asked me, and then a lot of people followed, asking me to resurrect Prince as well. (Laughs.) It was funny to see how far that goes into people's minds, and how much of an imagination that triggers in people's heads.

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