Gemma Whelan was best known as a comedian when she was first asked to audition for Game Of Thrones in 2011.
Whelan won the Funny Women Variety Act Award in Sept 2010 with her character Chastity Butterworth, which also saw her appear at the Edinburgh Fringe and have her own Radio 4 chat show. She is a trained dancer specialisng in tap and jazz and is a member of the dance troupe The Beaux Belles, who are based in London.
Whelan nearly went to the Royal Ballet School before finding herself attracted to more dramatic roles, including in West End smash hit farce, One Man, Two Guvnors.
But it is since winning the role of Ironborn Yara Greyjoy, in Game of Thrones that the 36-year-old’s stock has soared and earlier this year she left a huge impression on viewers and critics alike for her portrayal of Karen Matthews in The Moorside.
But while it appears Whelan has a number of paths to choose from as both an actress and a comedian, her character in the hit HBO series has been left between a rock and a hard place.
The end of series six saw Yara and brother Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) flee their home and strike a deal with Daenerys Targaryen. As part of the agreement, Yara promises the Ironborn will change their ways.
“She’s got no choice,” Whelan explains. “She meets Daenerys and Tyrion (Lannister) and agrees to no more reaving, roving, raiding or raping, even though that’s their way of life. But at that point they have no Plan B. They either agree to this or there’s no alternative... they are running for their lives and time is against them,” she continues.
“Yara can see it’s time for change.” Whelan believes the character’s open-mindedness to this shift shows political prowess. “She really has an idea of taking care of the bigger picture and not just herself or her own rise to power. Even though she has gone about it in her own unique way, it’s make or break for them at this stage. She makes that decision and it has to be the correct decision because it’s the only option.”
Her alliance with Daenerys comes as the show’s female leads grow increasingly influential. But after five seasons Whelan has grown weary of questions surrounding strong women characters.
“It’s a shame because it shouldn’t be a thing to be a strong woman anymore,” she says. “Wouldn’t it be more exciting to ask a man what’s it like to play a weak and vulnerable man?”
She continues: “It’s not insulting but we as women are very strong and independent and to be able to reflect that in a role is not difficult because that’s what we are. Yes, you turn the volume up on some aspects of your personality for a certain character. And sometimes it’s a real privilege to play someone broken and vulnerable because there’s still a great strength in that. It shouldn’t be a question because women are strong. I just think it’s such a fascinating thing to discuss because it shouldn’t be a question anymore.”