Carice van Houten was in Spain recently when a man twice her size approached her and recoiled in mock-terror. “He said, ‘You’re not going to burn me alive, are you?'” says van Houten. “It was a joke, but….” She gets that a lot these days, she says while mixing milk and honey into her tea at a quiet hotel bar in Amsterdam, where she lives. On Game of Thrones, van Houten plays Melisandre, a Red Priestess who worships R’hllor, the Lord of Light. The character cuts a formidable figure on screen—a stoic woman draped in crimson, who uses sex, trickery, dark magic, and straight-up atrocities to get what she wants. Even as the character has been revealed as woefully fallible in recent seasons, shrinking away from her zealous self-assuredness, people van Houten meets in real life are still intimidated when she walks into a room.
“Everyone expects this stern, straight-backed woman,” says van Houten, “not someone who walks in and trips over the fucking floor.” In person, van Houten is slighter than you’d expect, something she says she hears a lot. She references Friends and jokes that if she’s Phoebe, Melisandre is like Phoebe’s pot-stirring twin Ursula. Van Houten is dressed in a chicly ornate white blouse and tailored pants when we meet, but says her friends usually tease her for dressing “like Oliver [Twist], a messy little street kid.”
She’s famous in the Netherlands for playing complex, vulnerable characters on screen—”confused or lonely or depressed or psychotic or dying—I’ve played all of them!”—as well as for a side-hustle in music (she released an album in 2012 and has collaborated with Antony and the Johnsons).
Before Game of Thrones, she’d been wholly unfamiliar with the fantasy genre. “I saw one Lord of the Rings film once and that’s it,” she says. Early on, she was even asked to audition for the role of Cersei—the queen Lena Headey plays with a trademark sneer—and declined. It wasn’t until Seth Meyers, whose brother, Josh, van Houten had once dated, upbraided her for not following the show that she watched the first season and became hooked. So when she was asked to come in for Melisandre, she jumped at the role.
As the seventh season ratchets up and Melisandre helps move the Thrones chess pieces towards their end game, van Houten spoke exclusively to ELLE.com about dropping one more prophetic bombshell in the seventh season’s third episode, what she thinks it all means, and why the most notoriously difficult scene for fans to watch was her favorite to shoot.’
“I thought it was great, I was sort of star struck,” she says of her scenes in Dragonstone. “I felt like ‘Wow, I’m in a scene with Tyrion and Daenerys and all these people, it was really great. It was an experience for me because I just gave birth six weeks before, so I was in a different country and I just had a baby and speaking Valyrian with different characters and wow, it was a bit of a roller coaster to be honest.”
In this Video with ELLE Carice talks about some hilarious Game of Thrones Fan Theories: