Gwendoline Christie on Top of the Lake, Brienne of Tarth and her evolving roles on screen

“I have always wanted to bring light to characters who often feel like they aren’t seen, who don’t fit in”

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Gwendoline Christie is desperate to show the world that she’s more than just a suit of armour. The 6ft 3in actor has made her name as deadly warrior Brienne of Tarth in Game of Thrones (currently airing on Sky Atlantic) and as a stormtrooper in the new Star Wars movies, yet in person she’s bubbly and full of laughter. 

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And for once she’s working on a project that isn’t shrouded in secrecy. “You actually have something to talk about, rather than bringing a series of abstract concepts,” she says of Top of the Lake: China Girl, Jane Campion’s sequel to her award-winning 2013 New Zealand-set drama. 

“I’ve loved Jane’s work since my mother showed me An Angel at my Table,” she says. “When The Piano came out I was 13 and I went to see it twice at the cinema!” 

Christie watched the first series of Top of the Lake four times and emailed Campion to tell her just how much she enjoyed it.

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Top of the Lake

“I contacted Jane to express how much I loved the first season, because we have a friend in common,” she recalls. “She sent me back a very sweet letter and about four months later contacted me again and said she’d written a part for me in the new series and hoped I could do it. It was a really incredible moment – although I still had to audition for it!”

Having the Oscar-winning series creator writing a part just for her was incredible and terrifying in equal measure. “It was hugely intimidating – you don’t want to mess it up! But the wonderful thing training has given me is that in the face of danger you must prepare, so I prepared enormously.” 

A keen dancer as a child, Christie grew up in Sussex before deciding that she wanted to be an actor, attending Drama Centre London, where she was to meet the actor Simon Callow, who has served as her personal mentor ever since. 

“While I was at Drama Centre London he often used to employ the students to do filing work for him,” she recalls. “I did the job and I fell in love with him: he is the embodiment of love, of hope, of artistry – and he believes in giving a voice to those who are less fortunate. He encouraged me to never give up during times that were sometimes incredibly bleak.

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Game of Thrones

Bleak times came early and often, with Christie feeling as if she was being ruled out of certain parts because of the way she looked. She began to dream of screen roles – specifically the kind available in high-profile US TV shows.

But sometimes dreams do come true. When a friend alerted her that Game of Thrones fans had been suggesting her for the HBO series, having noted her similarities to Brienne of Tarth in George RR Martin’s source novels, she saw her opportunity. “I thought: ‘This is what I want!’” she recalls. “I lost a lot of weight, I got a trainer, I did kickboxing, kundalini yoga, running. I used to have long hair and wear make-up and feminine clothes, so I started wearing unisex sportswear, working on changing the way that I walked and moved.”

Her dedication and performance impressed the Game of Thrones producers, as well as the viewers, who have completely embraced the tough but secretly vulnerable Brienne.

As with many other Game of Thrones actors, Christie’s star has since skyrocketed. She played the villainous Captain Phasma in The Force Awakens (and will return for the sequel this Christmas), will star alongside Steve Carell in an upcoming Robert Zemeckis film, and of course joined the cast of Top of the Lake: China Girl.

“I have always wanted to bring light to characters who often feel like they aren’t seen, who don’t fit in,” she says. “And while I’ve loved every moment of being on Game of Thrones, I was desperate to play something different. It was very interesting for me to inhabit a character in Top of the Lake who isn’t very good at anything – who is failing at life.”

This failing figure is a Sydney police officer called Miranda Hilmarson, assigned to help detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) after the latter begins investigating the death of a Chinese sex worker. Miranda is an eager yet awkward figure, desperate to befriend and learn from Moss’s experienced cop.

“Miranda struggles to form friendships,” says Christie. “We all love to watch a character triumph against the odds, but what is very human is to see a woman struggling who can’t seem to overcome the odds in any way.

“In Star Wars, the appeal was simply the idea of there being a female character in something that’s such a huge global phenomenon,” she adds. “There are many actors from different backgrounds who have found it difficult to penetrate the acting industry, and I hope what our current climate is showing us is that there is space for all and that people really want to see those stories being told.”

With or without her armour, it seems that Christie will carry on breaking down barriers and reaching ever greater heights.  

Game of Thrones is on Mondays at 9pm on Sky Atlantic

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Top of the Lake is on Thursdays at 9pm on BBC2