Of all the lesser-known actors upon whom Game of Thrones has endowed instant celebrity, Michelle Fairley may be the most deserving.
The hit fantasy series has displayed a rare knack for casting stalwarts of the London stage whose names scarcely register beyond the West End, and letting them loose to steal plum scenes of the bloody, blistering saga from under the noses of the mainly American ensemble. On the whole, even the higher profile actors from this side of the Atlantic have been given little more than extended cameos: Ciaran Hinds as Mance Rayder, an unkempt leader of a wild tribe, for example; or David Bradley as a sadistic, ancient lord, Walder Frey. But Fairley, a Northern Ireland-born actress who has been based in London since 1986 — and given standout performances in everything from Oleanna at the Royal Court in 1993 to Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa at the Old Vic in 2009 — got rather freer rein in Westeros.
For three seasons she played Catelyn Stark, first wife, then widow of the leader of the North, Ned Stark. Proud parent to a clan depleted in the cruellest of ways, Catelyn is a towering figure. Fairley played her with light flashing from her eyes, as a maternal Boadicea. Along with Peter Dinklage’s scheming dwarf, hers has arguably been the series’ greatest performance. She was offered the part after the Game of Thrones writers saw her play Iago’s wife Emilia in Othello at the Donmar Warehouse in 2008. Now she’s returning to the same stage in a revival of Abi Morgan’s 2000 play Splendour.
“I think in retrospect [the writers] needed somebody to go on an emotional journey,” she tells me. “Catelyn goes through the loss of her husband, the loss of her children and eventually makes the decision to kill herself because she thinks that there’s nothing left to live for — and they thought, because of the final scenes in Othello, that I could maybe achieve that for them.”
At the end of Othello, Fairley’s Emilia was scrunched on the floor, raw and guttural, as she exposed her husband’s sins.
In her stint on Game of Thrones, culminating in the terrifying scene known as the Red Wedding, Catelyn was also raw but standing tall, slitting the throat of her enemy’s wife, even though she knew that her violent actions would precipitate her own death. Fairley says that the episode’s director David Nutter told her to play the scene “on a level” with her character’s nemesis, Walder Frey. “It was not to be as a woman pleading with him. It was to be commanding in some way. That they are two equals meeting each other.”
The characters of Emilia and Catelyn share both a nobility and a cavalier attitude to the consequences of their actions. “They are very intelligent and strong and they know how to play the game, but they’re mainly operating in men’s worlds,” says Fairley, which links the characters to her role in Splendour. As Genevieve, she’s best friend to the wife of a dictator whose unnamed regime is collapsing around him. The piece, says Fairley, is “a reminder that when the history of these kinds of events is told it’s always from the male point of view”.
Highly strung and birdlike
Morgan, as the screenwriter of TV’s Sex Traffic and The Iron Lady, the intimate biopic of Margaret Thatcher, has form in bucking this trend. Splendour presents us with four women stuck in a room together in the presidential palace as all about them is falling apart. As we get to know them better the playwright digs out themes of identity and memory. Genevieve, bereft of her family, has had to learn how to suck up to the dictator’s wife in recent years in order to survive. “She’s a woman who puts on many fronts,” says Fairley. “She is a quiet, guarded person who has maintained a friendship with this woman out of need. She has made such an effort to become someone else.”
I meet Fairley, 52, during her lunch break from rehearsals, in the Donmar offices, a few blocks from the theatre. She is highly strung and birdlike; she quivers when she talks, as if her voice, several semitones lower than average, is vibrating through her. Her return to the stage follows a spate of American screen roles (also including Suits, 24 and a forthcoming film version of Moby Dick called In the Heart of the Sea). She’s notched up a number of appearances on British television over the years as well, but says that theatre remains her preference. She’s certainly immune to the charms of Hollywood: “I hate the place,” she says. “I hate that world. I hate everything about it.”
Game of Thrones fans have speculated that her character could return as the zombie Lady Stoneheart (as she does in George RR Martin’s source books) but Fairley dismisses the idea, saying curtly, “I am not under contract to Game of Thrones.”
‘Fairley lives on her own in Kensal Rise, west London, having separated from her partner of seven years three years ago. “My decision to be on my own was my decision,” she says. “There are times when you have to face the truth, you have to face reality in your life and you either go in with someone or you go, ‘No, I want a change, I need a change. It’s my life’. It was a voice in your head that you can’t not listen to. Though you ignore it for a long time.”
She doesn’t have children. “I missed the gene. I was never born with that in my psyche, in my body. My sister Simone, from very young, you could tell instantly she did. I have many nieces and nephews and I am godmother to many children but it’s never been in me. Sounds awful, doesn’t it? “I expect people to always go, ‘Oh my God, cold b--’. Why? Why have children just because I’ve got a womb?”
I say it’s interesting since those who first encountered Fairley in Game of Thrones could be forgiven for thinking of her as the ultimate matriarch. “And I’m the antithesis,” she says, laughing deeply. “Do you know, I love people. I have a responsibility thing, though. I’d be terrified of [expletive] someone else up. I’m a coward. I should want to: I’m from one of six.”
Fairley is the second in the pecking order. She grew up in Co Antrim where her father owned a number of pubs and her mother worked as a nurse before giving up to raise her children. None of the rest of the family acts, though they are “big readers and musicians”. What Fairley learnt from her parents, she says, was a “very strong work ethic. A respect for others and to be truthful. To be honest. And to know that you are no better than anybody else.
“My parents, they had a business in the North when the time was not easy,” she says. “But their pub and their premises were always mixed — Catholic and Protestant.” “Born Catholic”, as she puts it, she’s no longer practising though “there are things about that that I carry with me even so. Guilt, mainly. “I was taught by nuns and I could see there were nuns who were unhappy. But that’s life. The whole thing about life is questioning yourself and your value in it, what is important to you, without being narcissistic.”
When the interview ends, Fairley goes off to be shot by our photographer (something she says she “hates and have never gotten used to”), leaving her lunch untouched. Before she leaves, she tells me how nervous she still gets before every performance. She says when she took on Splendour, a tough piece: “I thought, right, this is going to [expletive] kill me but I want to do it.” Make no mistake, Fairley knows what’s important to her. And she’s doing it.