'Game of Thrones' Star Bids Farewell to Winterfell: "It Was a Beautiful Ending"

Carice van Houten speaks with The Hollywood Reporter about filming "The Long Night," and saying goodbye to the HBO drama.
Courtesy of HBO

[This story contains spoilers for season eight, episode three of HBO's Game of Thrones, "The Long Night."]

"What do we say to the God of Death?" It's an iconic Game of Thrones catchphrase, but not one commonly associated with Melisandre (Carice van Houten), the red priestess from Asshai. All the same, it's her final spoken line of dialogue in the series, assuming there's no further trickery with her final moment in director Miguel Sapochnik's "The Long Night," the longest episode of the series and the one in which Melisandre finally found some measure of peace.

It's the first and only episode for Melisandre in the final season, after only appearing in two episodes the prior season. When Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) all but chased the Red Woman out of Winterfell with pitchforks in hand back in season six, the message took hold. Creators David Benioff and Dan Weiss were conservative in the amount of Melisandre littered throughout these final two seasons, saving her return to the North for the ultimate purpose and promise baked into her character from the jump: all-out war against the night.

Melisandre doesn't open "The Long Night," but her appearance is the first major turn. She shows up on horseback out of the cold nothing, enflaming the Dothraki army's blades and filling the forces of the living with some much-needed hope. The hope is quickly extinguished alongside the Dothraki, but the Red Woman brings it roaring back to life when she summons all her power to light the trenches all around Winterfell. Her greater impact on the battle comes later, when she meets Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) in a cold hall, seconds after Beric Dondarrion (Richard Dormer) dies his final death. Here, Melisandre is able to reunite with Arya for the first time since they met on the road in season three — and here, their shared prophecy finally manifests: Arya is meant to kill the Night King, and Melisandre is meant to nudge her onto that path. With the nudge complete and the Night King's resulting defeat, Melisandre walks back out into the world, removes the magical amulet that keeps her young, and falls into a cold, dead heap in the snow.

Ahead, Carice van Houten joins The Hollywood Reporter to say goodbye to Melisandre, discuss the long night shoots involved in filming "The Long Night," and much more.

Congratulations on the end of your run.

Thank you. I'm very pleased. I'm very glad. The reactions I've gotten thus far have been great. It feels like a beautiful farewell. It's really satisfying to me. I'm really happy.

What was your reaction when you found out how Melisandre's story would end?

I knew that I had it coming, obviously. Nobody ever really told me, but it was pretty obvious. When I read it, I was just really happy and satisfied with the way it happened — the elegance of it, the subtlety, and the emotional side of her, which we haven't really seen much of. I got goosebumps when I read it. I thought it was a beautiful ending. I was very, very grateful.

Had you allowed yourself along the way to think about how the story would end for you? How did reality measure up to whatever you imagined?

I would have loved to know way more about her and her past. But that's also made her as mysterious as she was. I sort of like that I come back in and go out in the same episode. I really love that.

With the exception of two quick appearances last season, we haven't seen much of Melisandre since she left Winterfell in season six, under bleak circumstances. When she returns to Winterfell in "The Long Night," she immediately comes back with confidence.

Yes. As much as I didn't really know through all those years that this is what it was going to come down to, I did always know her [work] would be paid off in the end. These scenes, I did play them with a certain sense of … not calm, but yeah, confidence: "This is why I'm here. Once I've done what I have to do, I can go, and I can rest. I'm a few hundred years old, and I am tired." For these scenes, it's a matter of life and death, obviously. It's not calm. There's an intensity where everything has to fall into place and if she were to fail, things would have gone a bit wrong.

The work put into this episode is already legendary, with two months or so of night shoots. What do you recall about filming?

It felt like it was bigger than ever, this season. I felt like a small little puppet. There's always loads of extras and fire and cold and big sets, and this time, I felt like I was in a huge fucking action film.

Well, you were!

I know! (Laughs.) It's almost surreal. I do remember thinking there would be a moment later where I look back and say, "I was on that set. Did I enjoy it enough? Did I actually really live in the moment, and not just think about the cold?" It felt bigger than life. That tension was something we felt, in all of us — the crew, the cast, everyone. The lighting of the trenches, I do remember feeling so intense, and almost crying. It was the very last scene I shot, I think. It was mixed up with everything ending. By playing it so intensely, when the scene was over and my whole character was over, I really had to release. I started crying. The tension had built up so much. I did feel like I had a responsibility to show in that moment how big the stakes actually were. I love that it apparently has translated. As an actor? That's a fucking great feeling. 

"The Long Night" is monumental within the story, not the least of which is because it pays off Melisandre meeting Arya all the way back in season three …

I thought it was great, how they planted those seeds such a long time ago. I really liked the way it was written, showing the girl power moment where she's like a coach [for Arya], and is basically like, "Go get 'em, girl!" It's a girl power moment. It's so satisfying to watch. I can imagine people watching it and saying, "Fuck yes! Fucking get him!" That's the little thing she needs to cross that line. 

Game of Thrones has trained viewers to expect the worst, so it's a surprise when the best happens, and the Night King loses. What are your thoughts on how the victory plays out, and what it expresses — how all these incredible people are able to join together to fight and overcome the impossible?

It's a great wave we've been on with this show. I think it's a very positive note. Fantastical, obviously, but very positive. It's as you say: there's power in the connections between people. The show is not always what you expect it to be. We've surprised [the audience] again. 

So much of your experience on Thrones has been connected to Liam Cunningham as Davos. Were you happy with your final scenes together?

I couldn't have wished for a better or nicer co-star than Liam. He really pulled me through a lot. It was great to be close to him until the end. It makes the relationship very interesting. It turns out we had a lot more in common, fighting for Stannis (Stephen Dillane) in different ways, but in the end, we both wanted the same guy [to pull through]. I got a very lovely message from Liam: "I'm sorry to not have been able to kill you." (Laughs.) "I'm sorry I did not get to kill you," he said. It was great to begin the whole thing with him and to end it with him. It's clever writing.

Game of Thrones ends for everyone soon, but it's now officially over for you. Any parting thoughts as you walk away from Melisandre and from this juggernaut of a series?

Being part of something that was such an epic show in the history of TV is something I'm always going to be really proud of and grateful for. It's opened loads of doors. It's the perfect [calling card]. It's brought me into contact with people who I never would have thought would even look at me, you know? I've been a voice on The Simpsons since then. I've been a Muppet. What the fuck! (Laughs.) I've had loads of opportunities in that sense. Mostly, I'm happy I was part of something that's really so unique in that it really connects all sorts of people. There's a bond that we have with people who have watched this. The simple fact of people talking to each other about this past week's episode … it doesn't even matter where you come from. The way you connect over it? I just fucking love that. In a world where there's less and less connection, I just love it.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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