'Game of Thrones' Actress on an Alliance of Queens: "It's Game On"

Gemma Whelan discusses Yara Greyjoy's new partnership with Daenerys and what the future holds for House Greyjoy.
Courtesy of HBO

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

In "Battle of the Bastards," the Starks finally reclaimed their rightful home of Winterfell. But that wasn't the episode's only major development for one of the great houses of Westeros.

Further east, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) untangled the Meereenese Knot with the combined force of dragon power and fear tactics designed by Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage). Later, with the slavers beaten and their ships taken, Dany transitioned from warlord to peacemaker in the blink of an eye, forging an unlikely alliance with Yara Greyjoy (Gemma Whelan), aspiring Queen of the Iron Islands.

The alliance between these two rulers isn't unlikely because of their personality traits; on paper, Dany and Yara have much in common. But given Yara's relatively low profile through Thrones, her season six resurgence and eventual pact with the Mother of Dragons has been somewhat of a left turn. Suddenly, after spending years in obscurity, House Greyjoy sits right at the heart of the matter, a crucial ally in House Targaryen's attempt to win over the Iron Throne… and on a more personal note, Yara and Theon (Alfie Allen) have their own crucial ally in their fight against Uncle Euron (Pilou Asbaek).

Gemma Whelan, who plays Yara, spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the new alliance with the Breaker of Chains, shooting the scene with Emilia Clarke, Yara's outlook on her fellow Iron Islanders in the face of having to make some systematic changes, and more.

What was your first reaction when you learned Yara and Daenerys were set to forge an alliance with one another?

Oh my goodness, when I first saw it in the script, I was really blindsided by it. "Me and Daenerys? What? That doesn't happen! Wait a minute, that doesn't come about. Go back, re-read, re-read… no, yeah! It's real!" I thought it was a prank, because they've pulled pranks before. But no, it was real. I was delighted. I was absolutely delighted. 

Yara has been on the road, or on the sea as it were, running away from the Iron Islands with her uncle in pursuit. Now she's teamed up with the Mother of Dragons. Safe to say this is a big boost to Yara's cause?

I'd say so. It's game on now, isn't it? I hope it goes somewhere. I hope I'm not killed off immediately. The rise to glory was long, but short-lived. Wouldn't that be disappointing? (Laughs.) But she's in the game now, with her brother. They're back together, with an allegiance reformed between the two of them. It's good.

What do you remember about shooting that scene with Emilia Clarke?

It was one day, and I was really excited. We get on really well. I knew Emilia from before, I had met Peter a few times, and Alfie and I are dear friends in real life. So I was very comfortable with the company. It was like getting a family back together. The shooting is so meticulously put together and storyboarded and even animated, in terms of the shots they want to put together. The trickiest bit was poor Emilia wanting to walk down those stairs with such commanding presence, but her dress is so long. (Laughs.) That took a few gos. And then once we had to shake hands, or arms, it took a long time. We just could not stop laughing. We were laughing and laughing. It's so grave, but really, we're just standing there, holding each other's elbows. We shook too much. It was all a bit too girly and silly. We eventually got it right. The director told us: "Just grab each other's elbows. One firm shake, and that's it. Then wait until I shout cut." Then we just had to stare into each other's eyes… and we just lost it, about a dozen times. She's a giggler, and I'm a giggler, so… and you want to feel on point with it! You don't want to be giving a wet elbow shake, do you? 

No. You don't. 

Definitely not. No clammy elbows, please.

What is Yara thinking when she meets Dany for the first time? What's her assessment of the Mother of Dragons?

I feel like she's met a sister — someone else who has all this power and is using it wisely. Yara is so sure of herself in this scene. This is her Plan A, and there is no Plan B, so she has to land this. She can't pussyfoot around. She likes the cut of Daenerys' jib, and I think the feeling is mutual. There's the two men slightly mistrusting each other, in the middle of us, as we're making this pact. Yara's quite excited and thrilled about meeting a kindred spirit in Dany.

And there's some flirtation in there as well…

Yeah! I didn't expect that. But it's in the script!

There's been a bit of love at first sight this season, what with Tormund toward Brienne. You must be aware that with Yara, especially being a sea captain, there's a lot of shipping going on in the fan community right now.

So much. The Internet exploded. My twitter was quite full of this "shipping," which I had never heard of before. I've certainly been educated now. Everyone's been very nice about it. I was so thrilled to see that in the script and be able to play it quietly together. It was lovely — in amongst the giggling. 

Yara wants independence for the Iron Islands, and in exchange, she'll support Dany's bid for the Iron Throne. Dany accepts, but only if Yara accepts her terms: no more raiding, raping or reaving. Is this a tough condition for Yara to accept? 

It's so hard, and the decision is made so quickly, with just a little glance at Theon. But I think she's come prepared to give everything. They don't have an alternative here. I think she recognizes a woman who won't back down, because she is one herself. I think this is what she has to do to play the longer game to get what she wants. And why not try a different way of life? Why not change?

When characters step into positions of power on Game of Thrones, they often make major decisions that aren't always popular with everybody. Daenerys frees the slaves, then war breaks out in Meereen. Jon lets wildlings through the Wall, and he's killed for it. How will the Iron Islanders react to Yara's choice to outlaw their raiding ways?

Well, I think she's been betrayed by a lot of people. There was a huge amount of turn cloaks at the Kingsmoot, wasn't there? These men had served her for all this time, and then suddenly Euron pops up in a flash and they're like, "Oh, let's support this guy." So I don't think she feels she owes them anything. She's going to come down hard on them, and maybe it'll take a while, but people don't say no to Yara. 

And we saw in this episode that people don't say no to dragons.

That's true, too! (Laughs.) That might sway a few of Yara's people to comply.

Yara's great enemy at the moment is her uncle, Euron. How personal is this grudge, or does she view him as nothing more than an obstacle in the way?

I think it's both. It's definitely personal, because she worked so hard to get to that point where she was about to become Queen of the Iron Islands. For it to be so violently taken from her, and so swiftly, I think she has a lot of anger and vengeance toward him for that. And he killed her father. There's no love lost between her and Balon, but that wasn't Euron's place to do that. I think a lot of this is more personal than perhaps she would like to admit.

Even though there wasn't a lot of love lost between them, how much is Yara's father on her mind these days?

He was a real salty bastard. They had a fractious relationship. She did his bidding and had to bend to his every whim and desire. Enough was enough. I don't think she's particularly broken up about it. Euron did her a favor in a way, maybe. But she's not feeling sentimental about it. Theon's her only family member now.

Which is interesting, because Yara and Theon have not always had the easiest relationship. 

I think it took a long time for her to be able to trust him again. The betrayal she felt from him, that's a way back for him to come, and a way for her to go. But she's learned to trust him. He's been true to his word with everything he's said: "You should rule the Iron Islands," or "let me help you." He's been there, and he's done it. He's stepped up. When she thought he might betray her, he's been there and stepped up again. He's changed from who he was. He made some silly decisions back in the day, but now, they're bonded and they understand what they're both doing. They have equal roles in what they're doing now. She needs him, and he needs her, for what they're doing.

The last time we saw Theon wearing the Iron Islands armor, he was a very different man, overconfident and impulsive. He's back in that garb, but now he's on the other side of Reek. In your scenes with Alfie, does it feel like you're playing opposite a different character at all?

It's a good question. Alfie always brings it. He hits it perfectly, whatever's required of him, and no matter how long he has to stay in the emotional area he needs to be in for the duration of the day. He's such a gifted actor. It's the same as working with good old Alfie, and he just plays it so fantastically. Theon has less of a strut now, but so much more gravity, because he's been through what he's been through. He plays it perfectly. It's quite astounding to watch him and work with him.

Yara was absent for an entire season before returning this year, and now she's at the heart of a prominent story for the Greyjoys. How satisfying was it for you to step into the spotlight this season?

It was wonderful. The Greyjoys have been in the background for a long time. It's been playing the long game. But I always knew there was more to come for my character, just not in the early seasons. When we read the scripts, Alfie and I were so delighted that we were back together. The scripts were so brilliant and pitch perfect for what we were hoping. It was great to have this proper arc to go through.

How would you describe that arc, from where we first met Yara, to where we're seeing her now, standing before the Mother of Dragons?

It's hard. Life has always been the way it's been for Yara. I think she's always had this strong sense of who she was and who she is. The end goal was always to take over for her father. But those ambitions… I don't imagine she had huge ambitions beyond that, like being the Queen of the Iron Islands and continuing that line. But certain things have arisen in her life that forced her to take action. She's stepping up to it. All the foundations she's laid, and all that her father taught her, and what she knows about commanding the men and the ships in the fleet have only served her further, and accidentally armed her with everything she needed to now go meet Dany. She would never have known after season two. She had never even heard of the Dragon Queen then. Her arc has been quite different from what she thought she would end up doing. She didn't expect Theon to come back. She didn't expect circumstances to change so vastly.

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