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
, 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
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
, she\'d been wholly unfamiliar with the fantasy genre. "I saw one
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
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.
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Melisandre\'s encounter with Varys was brief, but it may have massive repercussions.
If Melisandre is any one thing, van Houten says, "she\'s quite economical"—at least in how she uses her screen time. Though she often operates in the fringes, many of Melisandre\'s scenes will forever live on in small screen infamy. Lest we forget (although we never would, because "the North Remembers"): She gave birth to a shadow monster who killed Renly Baratheon, clearing the way for his brother Stannis to usurp his army; convinced Stannis to burn his young, innocent daughter Shireen alive as a sacrifice to the Lord of Light; used leeches on poor Gendry\'s genitals so that she could cast more powerful spells with his "king\'s blood"; resurrected Jon Snow; and revealed her true centuries-old self.
"I\'ve had some really epic scenes," van Houten agrees. "In fact, I\'m spoiled because now I feel like,
Where was my big, crazy scene this year
?" Melisandre leaves the seventh season having only had two brief appearances. But each will have seismic effects on Westeros. First she appeared in front of Daenerys at Dragonstone to encourage a meeting between her and Jon Snow, and hinted that Dany might in fact be the prophesied Azor Ahai, or the Prince(ss) That Was Promised—because the term is in fact gender-neutral. (Her interest in uniting the two leaders also plays into some fans\' theories that Azor Ahai may return as not one, but two or three saviors).
Tonight, she watched from a safe distance as Jon arrived at the shores of Dragonstone for the meet-cute (the bringing together of "ice and fire") she arranged. "It\'s dangerous for Melisandre because if Jon sees her, it\'s the end of her," says van Houten. When Varys tells her she\'ll never be safe in Westeros, and that she should leave for good, she replies with a prophecy: "I will return, dear Spider. One last time. I have to die in this strange country. Just like you."
Even the mere meeting of Melisandre and Varys is significant: Along with Littlefinger, these two have arguably been playing the long game, well, longer than almost anyone else in the Seven Kingdoms. She\'s a red priestess, devoted to serving a god whose wishes can be difficult to discern; he\'s a eunuch whose suffering (at the hands of magic like hers) drove him to become a master tactician. They both hail from foreign lands; they\'ve both survived. The actress says the gravity of their meeting wouldn\'t be lost on Melisandre: "It was different for her, talking to Varys, than it was talking to Stannis or Davos. Here\'s someone who, like her, has a long-term vision, who has that sarcastic sort of confidence. They both know how to get what they want in sneaky ways."
Now, in predicting—and, more tellingly, accepting—her death and warning Varys of his, she may have thrown a bigger twist into the works than we think. First, she says she\'s headed to Volantis before returning for what she implies is her last hurrah. Volantis happens to be the home of a huge Red Temple. Could she be planning to rally the disciples of R\'hllor to come fight behind Dany and Jon? Second, in last week\'s episode, Varys re-affirmed his allegiance to Daenerys, who threatened to kill him if he ever betrays her. Melisandre\'s prophecy may upend that allegiance—Varys is nothing if not a survivor, and if he\'ll die because of his new pact, he might turn tail. Not that van Houten thinks he\'d get far. "I think he\'s not gonna make it. But that\'s my personal thought. Some things, terrible things, have to happen in these last seasons! It\'ll probably be one of those where he\'ll try run from it, but he\'ll get it in the end."
For her part, van Houten doesn\'t think Melisandre is afraid to die. "I have a feeling that she\'s tired. She\'s old, man," she says. "She knows what this world is about. That\'s what makes her powerful, but also more vulnerable in the end. But I think she\'s afraid of dying before seeing for herself that everything ends all right." She adds: "Even if it means she has to sacrifice herself. That\'s my other theory."
It\'s time to start taking Melisandre\'s prophesies seriously.
fans know, Melisandre is not as good at interpreting what she sees in the flames as she claims. Van Houten is quick to quip, "Well, her eyesight isn\'t great."
But the debacle of having supported Stannis may have finally taught her to stop forcing her visions into interpretations she favors. (Remember when she had Stannis pull a fake "Lightbringer" sword from the flames—just to check off a prerequisite in the legend foretelling Azor Ahai\'s return?) "At this point, I feel like it\'s not about her anymore," van Houten says. It was a chastened, more clearly-focused Melisandre who met with Daenerys. Does that make her a more reliable interpreter of prophesy? "She\'s made huge mistakes and is aware of it," she says. "She refers to how \'prophecies are dangerous things,\' so she\'s learned from her mistakes. She\'s more careful. And she\'s regained a little bit of her faith after bringing Jon Snow back from the dead."
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One of the show\'s most controversial scenes—in which little Shireen Baratheon was burned alive at Melisandre\'s behest—was also van Houten\'s favorite. Yes, even despite the death threats.
Twitter lit up after a gut-wrenching fifth-season scene in which Melisandre convinces Stannis to set his young daughter aflame in order to elicit more favor from the Lord of Light. It was a ruthless scene, even by
standards. But van Houten valued it, for a surprising reason. "I think that was probably my favorite scene of the whole series. I love not having any lines because—apart from the fact that I don\'t have to learn them—I just love silent acting." says van Houten, who grew up fascinated with the silent film era, and who\'s been developing a Greta Garbo biopic. "The burning of Shireen was fucking awful. That poor child! And [Kerry Ingram, the young actress who played her] was such a lovely girl with a lot of humor. We had a lot of fun backstage. But it was also an iconic scene."
on social media. "You know, how serious should it all be taken?" van Houten muses. "But there are people who take the show very seriously. So it definitely didn\'t get me any sympathy points, that\'s for sure." That is, until she resurrected Jon Snow in season six. "Suddenly, I was a hero! All of a sudden it was \'Melisandre for President!\' Before it was just, \'Die, bitch, die!\'"
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She was as surprised as you were by Melisandre\'s true appearance—even after five and a half hours in the makeup chair.
often means having a lot of questions that showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss will dodge. "They won\'t tell you anything until the scripts are delivered, and they are so good at avoiding your questions," says van Houten. "Everyone tries. I always try to trick them. First I\'ll ask about their weekend, how they slept, and then, \'So about next season…?\'"
One of last season\'s big reveals came after Melisandre abandoned Stanis, realizing he was not the Prince That Was Promised. Feeling defeated, her faith in crisis after sacrificing Shireen to no end, she rides to Castle Black. One night, she retires to her bedroom and finally takes off her enchanted ruby choker, thus breaking a youth-enhancing glamour and revealing her true, frail, withering body. "The tricky thing is that, as much as I
I know about her, I still don\'t really know anything," says van Houten. "You hear that your character is actually very old, and six seasons later you\'re sitting in a chair with five and a half hours worth of makeup on your face and you think, \'Oh, that\'s what they meant.\'"
The scene was a shocker and quickly meme-ified, and even van Houten, whose head was superimposed on an older body double\'s, was surprised by her transformation. "I went to my trailer to pee, and when I walked out of the trailer and looked in the mirror, I\'d forgotten that I looked like that," she says. "I was scared to death!"
Yes, you\'re right to read into the show\'s costumes. And yes, she has her own theory about that ruby choker.
The reveal, she says, was foreshadowed by Melisandre\'s increasingly heavy costumes as the character found refuge north in the perma-winter of the Wall. "You could sense [her frailty] from her costumes. I was always freezing cold while shooting [outside] in my regular costume," says van Houten. "Because Melisandre is never cold. But in the sixth season, she actually wears a fur draped around her in front of the fire. She\'s
. She\'s depressed. She knows she\'s made a mistake."
When asked about a much debated scene in the fourth season that\'s perplexed fans—in which Melisandre appears in front of Stannis\' wife without the choker, but still youthful—van Houten offers her own theory, which she leans back in her chair to deliver: "That was an oops moment."
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Van Houten had new inspiration for season seven\'s more sensitive and vulnerable Melisandre: her first child, whom she gave birth to six weeks before filming.
Although her on-screen counterpart is fine with sacrificing children, van Houten adores them. So much so that when a man walks by with a crying toddler in his arms, the actress doubles over. "My heart!" she exclaims, scrunching up her face until the little girl is out of earshot. Van Houten\'s own baby boy, her child with partner Guy Pearce, is only 11 months old. (For the record, van Houten considers herself a better fortune teller than Melisandre. "As soon as I found out I was pregnant, I knew it was a boy.") She gave birth six weeks before shooting her season seven scenes. Though filming her part in Ireland only took two days, the hormones and distance from her newborn did a number on her between takes. "I was crying on set," says van Houten. "Between shooting the scenes, expressing and acting, and \'Where is my baby?!\'"
So you\'ll excuse Melisandre if she looks like she\'s been weeping on the cliffs of Dragonstone. "The good news was that my character has become more vulnerable, more transparent, more human," says van Houten. "I could use my own emotional tools, my own shit. I was relieved when I was able to show some tears, show some doubts and fear and vulnerability."
Not that she ever thought of Melisandre as simply evil. "I see her as a fanatic, someone who had a really strong vision of the future and was not prepared to let it go," van Houten explains. "As we know from history and fiction, nobody we consider to be evil thinks they\'re evil. Look at stuff going on in the world right now. The guys we find scary, they think they\'re doing the right thing. That\'s the scariest thing about it."
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"Melisandre" and "Jaime Lannister" will meet, but not in Westeros—not yet at least.
These days, van Houten has been zig-zagging through Europe—baby in tow this time—to film Brian De Palma\'s
alongside Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. "It felt like a huge step to work again after having my baby," she says. "But I thought, there\'s no way I could say no to Brian De Palma"—the visionary director whose diverse filmography includes
. "He\'s a young guy in the body of a man with so much experience," says van Houten. "He can be quite blunt, and he\'s not afraid to swear, which I find nice because then at least I don\'t have to hold back either."
Van Houten and Coster-Waldau play two cops whose investigation into their fellow officer\'s murder leads them down a rabbit hole populated by CIA agents, ISIS cells, and an international terror plot. Despite the thriller\'s thoroughly modern and reality-rooted themes, all roads still lead back to Westeros. "It\'s funny, even I sometimes think, \'Look at me, I\'m sitting in a car, having a scene with Jaime Lannister!\'" says van Houten. And yes, even they pore over
theories in their off time. "I was talking to Nikolaj the other day about it," she says. "We were sitting in the Green Room, and I said, \'What do you think will happen?\' He said, \'I have no fucking clue!\'"
Photography by Wendelien Daan • Styling by Thomas Vermeer • Hair by Hester Wernert at UNSPOKEN for Wella Professionals & Balmain • Makeup by Kathinka Gernant at UNSPOKEN for Chanel • Special Thanks to Ernstige Zaken Studio and Pulitzer Amsterdam