Gwendoline Christie is a striking blonde, in more ways than one. "I've been taught how to break a man's nose with my elbow," says the 6ft 3 actor who plays Brienne, the only female knight in mediaeval fantasy drama Game of Thrones.
Brienne was introduced to the fictional land of Westeros late last season. The character is mocked for her androgyny, thinks nothing of slaughtering three soldiers at a time and refuses to marry a man who can't beat her at sword-fighting.
"What I think is so brilliant about this show is that it takes an outsider and an archetype which isn't often seen - the extremely tall woman who has strength that can match that of her male counterparts - and explores that," says Christie, whose generous smile and clipped British accent belies the brutish knight she has made famous to millions.
Christie's physical transformation for the role was intense. The former gymnast, who grew up "completely obsessed with Marilyn Monroe", quit drinking, stopped wearing heels, took up kickboxing, lost 10 kilos, put it back on in muscle, wore only unisex clothing and sobbed for hours when her flowing locks were cut, all in preparation for her role as the sword-fighting, horse-riding warrior Brienne of Tarth.
"Personally, I feel that Brienne is coming to terms with her own femininity," Christie observes as Game of Thrones enters its third season. "It shows the evolution of one woman's psychology and I think that's incredibly enlightening and brave for a mainstream television show to have that sort of storyline. And I'm incredibly proud to have the opportunity to play that."
Brienne is not the only strong female personality in the show. Although each draw on different skills and motivations, characters such as the conniving Queen Cersei, the stoic mother Catelyn Stark and the dragon-taming Daenerys Targaryen are all fearsome women not to be underestimated.
"Women in Game of Thrones have a harder job because they're existing within a man's world," says Christie, noting how each female uses different techniques to achieve her goals. "[Brienne's] interaction and encounter with Catelyn Stark was enormously illuminating to her because she sees a woman that is full of power and strength, but is also very, very much a mother. And motherhood, certainly to Brienne, encapsulates being a woman."
Michelle Fairley, who plays Catelyn Stark, draws comparisons between the show and the real world. "The issues that a lot of the characters deal with are relevant and prevalent in life today," she says. "Honesty, family, loss, grief, women's role in society, and the way - it certainly seems to me - the world is falling apart at the moment. There are so many parallels.
"There are different strands of female characters within the piece and, depending on what world they're from, they have certain traits," says Fairley. "Some are born into intrigue and are very good politicians, while I think ultimately what most of them have, irrespective of whether they were born with that aspect, they learn quickly. They learn how to become a politician. In many ways they have to be stronger and faster and cleverer than the men in order to survive."
Daenerys, mother of dragons, certainly epitomises this statement. Season three will see her continue to grow into her role as a leader, increasing her flock of believers and letting no one stand in her path to the iron throne.
But it's not just queens and highborn ladies who are showing the men a thing or two. Rose Leslie plays Ygritte, a wildling woman, free-born and independent; a confusing mix for Jon Snow when he finds himself Beyond the Wall and helpless to her charms.
"Men answer to these women in the show," she says. "I think that is absolutely brilliant and it is wonderful to have a role where you can get your teeth into something and not just be two-dimensional."
The 26-year old Scot loves her new role as the fierce and headstrong Ygritte. "Playing all these layers to a character is fabulous ... Everywhere you look you have dominant women taking hold of the situation."
Christie continues to be struck by the response to her character, as she travels the world meeting fans at massive conventions such as London Film and Comic Con. "I was overwhelmed by the number of women who came up and said how much they loved the part and thanked me for playing it. It's very important to me the way in which women are portrayed and it interests me."
"There isn't a slew of parts that are like this that explore notions of femininity and what it is to be a woman, or gender stereotyping, and when it's affected someone, when anything you do has actually touched someone, then you've done your job."
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- Daily Life
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