Belfast Telegraph

Actress Gemma Whelan: 'I'm a vegetarian but on Game of Thrones I had to eat chicken all day for my role'

Comic-turned-actor Gemma Whelan is front and centre in the new Game of Thrones. Kaleem Aftab hears about her journey

Gemma Whelan's time has come. Her Games of Thrones character, Yara Greyjoy, is to be central to season seven of the show. At the end of season six, we saw her and brother, Theon (Alfie Allen), join forces with Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) to prepare for war. But she's keeping mum about what transpires and whether she'll survive to the eighth and final season.

But it's not just Game of Thrones in which Whelan is moving centre stage. She is fulfilling her dream of playing a detective in Channel 4's forthcoming graphic novel adaptation The End of The F*****g World. She received widespread acclaim for her turn as Karen Matthews in drama The Moorside. And on top of the busy career, she is several months' pregnant. The first thing I notice when we meet at a cafe near her home in London is the developing bump.

Over the course of the next few months, it is fair to say both mother and baby will have truly arrived.

When a casting director asked Whelan to go for a role in the HBO series in 2011, which wound up filming in Northern Ireland recently, she was best known as a comedian. She had created her posh and scatty alter-ego, Chastity Butterworth, while performing on the stand-up circuit, later developing the character for a BBC radio show. Her comedy reputation was cemented when she won a gong at the Funny Women Awards in 2010.

So to be asked to read for a dramatic HBO series was a pleasant surprise. She admired the way Olivia Colman was able to straddle comedy and drama, and hoped to do the same. Whelan rushed home to watch the first season, worried that it would all be a bit Dungeons & Dragons. When she realised it was not, she devoured the first 10 episodes over two nights. Watching, she got an idea of how to play the character, and whilst not believing she would get the part, as 70 other actresses were also being auditioned, she thought, 'I can do this'.

The increased presence of Yara Greyjoy in the series has run in parallel to the burgeoning of Whelan's career, although, in keeping with her mild manner, she says: "I don't mind playing a little part in a big series, but to become a main character is great."

Her character's increased prominence didn't come as a surprise because "when the casting breakdown was given out, before I even auditioned, it said I have a much greater role in later seasons. Of course, you never believe what you read, and things change, but everything I was told would happen has happened".

Not that it's all been a smooth ride. The first day of filming saw Whelan have to compromise her principles: "I'm a vegetarian. My brother, Theon, kills two boys and comes back thinking he's a hero. In the script, it says my character is eating meat. I thought I'd just tell them on the day that I don't eat meat and we could bring in a meat substitute. I didn't know the calibre of the show at the time and the set guy made a whole vat of chicken, so I ate chicken all day. I just told myself I was going method. The protein hit was quite something."

Her character is also bisexual and dominates her brother like a bouncer at the door of a nightclub. "You're not going to flirt your way past her," says Whelan. "She's an old-fashioned lady warrior with a mission."

Whelan often tells stories that put her in the position of the little fish in the big ocean. The end of season six of Game of Thrones saw Yara standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Daenerys and Theon, Whelan says. "To even be thought capable to be holding such a storyline was a real honour." But it's getting harder to agree with that analysis as she's developed into one of the UK's best character actors.

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Whelan with Sheridan Smith in BBC's The Moorside

Her turn in The Moorside was a game-changer. Based on the real-life 2008 fake kidnapping of nine-year-old Shannon Matthews, Whelan played the mum of the 'missing' girl, who after a 24 days and a multimillion-pound search, was discovered drugged and hidden in the base of a double bed in West Yorkshire. For her part in the elaborate plot to bag reward money, Karen Matthews was dubbed the most hated mum in Britain.

The actress followed the case as it happened. "I was fascinated by it, and by crime stories in general." Growing up, she was an avid watcher of TV fictions Columbo and Murder She Wrote.

What most pleased Whelan about The Moorside was its depiction of another side to Matthews. "Afterwards, a lot of people said that they had a different take on the story," she says. "What she did, however it happened, was terrible, but how she got there was thrown into a different light. People could decide in a different way what they thought. It was a tough and fascinating job that I managed to do."

From a young age, Whelan had a knack for performing. "I was the class clown, making people laugh and being silly," she says of her time at King's High School for Girls in Warwick, an alma mater she shares with fellow Game of Thrones cast member Sophie Turner. With a twinkle in her eye, Whelan recalls how she was sent to the head's office for busking during a geography trip.

After school, she decided to do a stand-up comedy course that culminated in her performing a "wobbly two-minute routine" in a London pub. It was six years later, heartbroken after a break-up, that she decided to turn comedy into a profession and created the Chastity Butterworth persona. The rest, as they say, is long Victorian skirts and elocution.

Her worst gig came after she was named Variety Award Winner at the Funny Women Awards. She was given a spot at a bigger club and "performed to silence. But because I was nervous, I started to have these tics and that got a laugh, so I died on stage, but learned something about my character".

"At the end, I didn't stay to speak to my friends and left by the back-door with a relatively new boyfriend, who is now my husband," she says.

Whelan's husband works part-time for the NHS, and the actress is quite the campaigner for the beleaguered healthcare system on Twitter.

After feeling knocked out by the Brexit vote, she has been revitalised by the impressive showing of Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party in the recent general election.

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Career success: Gemma enjoying the Game of Thrones season launch

She recalls seeing a first-time voter, someone around her own 36 years, at the polling station for the first time, asking for a pencil because they didn't realise there would be a pencil in the booth. She says her mother was a voice of reason after the Brexit vote, "and mothers are always right".

The star has already lined up a job for after she gives birth. She's inspired by Prevenge director Alice Lowe, who wrote, starred and directed her first feature while seven months' pregnant. Whelan plays a woman who punches the pregnant Lowe in the stomach.

She is a big fan of Raising Films, formed two years ago to put pressure on the film industry to do more to support working parents.

"The job I'm doing at the moment is working around the pregnancy," she says. "Casting director Kharmel Cochrane is a big fan of Raising Film and said to me, 'You're not ill, they'll shoot around your pregnancy if you're right for the part'."

And as with so many directors at the moment, they couldn't resist her versatility.

Game of Thrones season seven begins on Sky Atlantic on Monday (July 17) at 9pm

Comic-turned-actor Gemma Whelan is front and centre in the new Game of Thrones. Kaleem Aftab hears about her journey

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