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'I've seen an extraordinary willingness and bravery to want to contribute to a new life'

Game of Thrones star Lena Headey tells Susannah Butter about working with refugees, fighting for equal pay and a run-in with Weinstein

Straight talk: Lena Headey on the red carpet
Straight talk: Lena Headey on the red carpet
Lena Headey
Lena Headey in a scene from Game of Thrones

Being the most reviled woman on television doesn't faze actress Lena Headey. Her Game of Thrones character, formidable queen Cersei Lannister, is known for taking no prisoners. So is she a straight-up sociopath or part of the current wave of complicated, strong female characters on TV shows including Big Little Lies and The Handmaid's Tale?

"I'll take the second one," says Headey. "I'd rather be friends with her than not. I draw on life, friendship, experience to play Cersei."

With that damning curl of her lip made famous by Lannister, Headey, aged 44, says she has no sympathy for fans "angry" that they have to wait until 2019 for the next (and final) series.

"They're rolling their eyes, complaining," she puts on a petulant child voice and pouts, "about having to wait ages".

Will she miss Game of Thrones when it finishes? Again, she displays Lannister levels of ruthlessness. "No. Nothing is permanent, ever."

Headey arrives at the Union Club in Soho wearing a furry red coat and dungarees, gold bangles up her tattooed arms ("I'm covered in them").

Armed with a pot of yoghurt and a coffee, she smiles, remembering, "I've got drunk in this room. You have to be careful going down the stairs."

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She's just back from Germany, where she was visiting Marwa, a Syrian refugee whom she first met on the Greek island of Lesbos in 2016 on a trip with the charity International Rescue Committee (IRC).

News footage of dead children washing up on the beach made Headey "take more notice" of the plight facing refugees. She says she's not here to preach, just to tell people what she's seen. "Marwa thought she wouldn't see her husband again, she told me she was dead inside and it was only for her three daughters that she was moving forward.

"Now they've been reunited after 15 months and have a flat on the Saxony Coast. It's joyous to see. Marwa's face was very different to the woman I saw in Greece."

Marwa is a housewife; her husband Aiman was a bus driver in Syria and wants to work again, but is struggling to find a job. Starting a new life is daunting.

"They don't speak German, they don't know many people. Marwa says hello to people, but most of the time she is ignored. It's isolating. Their daughters are smart, doing brilliantly at school, but the other kids say, 'You're just a refugee, you're going to be sent home'. To see these children that have lost everything, and are really willing to go to school and learn a whole new language - I tried to learn German at school and I can't remember a word - and they are met with a wall of aggression. It hurts Marwa, but she's a mother, all she can do is be positive."

The war in Syria has been raging for seven years and more than 5.4 million people have fled the country. Can the situation ever feel insurmountable?

"I work with the IRC so I can talk to my children about it," says Headey, fixing me with her grey-blue eyes. "Because the world is different now and it's not going back. This is it. If you have displaced people who have lost everything, that defines them and leaves them in a place where they don't speak the language, don't have friends; what do you think is going to happen?

"You arrive somewhere new and are left to fend for yourself. It's the beginning of your problems and where we can make a bigger difference.

"Aiman feels so guilty about having left friends and family dying in Syria that he struggles to eat - but I've seen an extraordinary willingness and bravery to want to contribute to a new life.

"How are you supposed to navigate anything new without speaking the language? You have to make a phone call about accommodation and people don't want to speak to you because you speak broken English and they put the phone down."

Should we accept more refugees in London? "I don't know the numbers. We need to find ways of making it accessible when people come here. I'm a layman, I am speaking as a mother of two and someone who works for a living. Despondency is dangerous."

Her answer is to "start with simple kindness, letting refugees know they are not hated".

She told her son, Wylie, who is nearly eight, where she was going. "Trying to explain to somebody who has a great life that things aren't always great is hard, but hopefully some day Wylie and my daughter, Teddy, who is nearly three, going on 150, can meet Marwa and experience the long way there is to go and the brilliant stuff you see. You see people becoming part of society, getting back their pride and being allowed to contribute."

She was tickled when Marwa's German friend thought that she was a nurse come to visit Marwa's baby and relished the anonymity there.

It was hard leaving Marwa. "It felt like our visit was their Christmas. She fed me these delicious sweets, incredible white diamond-shaped joyous bits of love. I was shovelling them down and they ran after us and gave us a box when we left.

"It's a funny thing when you sit with somebody and your connection is just that you are a human being.

"Whatever your opinion and experience, I defy you to look in someone like Marwa's eyes and not feel it's your duty to help."

Headey was born in Bermuda, where her father was stationed as a police officer, but the family moved back to Highburton in Yorkshire when she was a teenager.

She won a competition to act at the National Theatre aged 17 and from there was cast in a string of films and moved to Los Angeles. Last year, she came back to Yorkshire to be near her parents. Wylie says his grandfather is his role model.

Musician Peter Loughran is Wylie's father - the couple were married for five years and separated in 2011. Now she is engaged to director Dan Cadan, Teddy's father.

When the Harvey Weinstein story broke, Headey shared her #MeToo story on Twitter. As a young actress starting out, she met Weinstein and he invited her to his LA hotel room. She wrote on Twitter: "He tried his key card and it didn't work, then he got angry." Nothing happened but, "he whispered in my ear, 'Don't tell anyone about this'. I got into my car and cried."

She says today: "It happened when I was quite young and I didn't really think about it. It was quite shocking at the time because he was very angry that his key didn't work.

"Harvey is very film-literate and the upside is you can chat to him about any film in the world. I fell into that and thought how amazing, he's talking to me about these things. It was only as we were in the elevator that I realised.

"My parents would make jokes about the casting couch and I'd tell them it doesn't exist. I would never take a flirtation seriously. It would make me feel deeply uncomfortable and I never got a job - that's a big part of the reason you don't sometimes. People want to know if you're going to go out for dinner. I'm like, 'I just want to do a bit of research'. I wrote my story on Twitter because I wanted to say Me Too. You add to a voice and it makes it a wave. What's happening now is brilliant. There's no going back."

Appropriately for a show where women are every bit as powerful as their male counterparts, pay on Game of Thrones is equal. Headey is said to earn £390,000 per episode - the same as Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who plays her on-screen sibling/lover Jamie. "I don't negotiate pay," she says. "That's why I pay an agent. I've been with my agent 25 years. He's a New Jersey boy and I love him. He will never accept less than a male counterpart. Ever."

She's moving on from Game of Thrones with a new project, a film of Helen MacDonald's H is for Hawk, and spending time with her children, getting them to eat their broccoli.

"I love what I do," she says. "I always think I should find something more noble and then it draws me back because I want to play a certain person and find out if I can go there."

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