Natalia Lee swapped providing weapons to police officers for creating swords for the world’s biggest TV show Game of Thrones. Chris Burn chats to her as she arrives in Yorkshire.
The extraordinary success of Game of Thrones turned many previously-unknown actors into worldwide stars as the fantasy saga gripped hundreds of millions of viewers around the world. But it was not just those in front of the cameras who had their lives transformed over the eight-year run of the television show.
Natalia Lee was working in a police armoury in Australia, providing weapons and ammunition to officers in SWAT teams, bomb squads and riot disposal units, when she was offered an opportunity to work as an armourer on the television pilot of a show based on author George RR Martin’s epic fantasy novel series A Song of Ice and Fire which features dragons, magic and an Army of the Dead as well as a more human fight for power in the fictional kingdom of Westeros.
Eight years on from taking the leap from the police bunker in Sydney to moving to Belfast to join the show, Lee is now preparing to move to Los Angeles to further her career – after giving a lecture next week to hundreds of Game of Thrones fans at the Royal Armouries in Leeds.
Speaking on the phone from Australia (Lee was born in Poland but her family moved Down Under when she was a baby) ahead of her trip to Yorkshire, Lee says she had no concept that the adult fantasy saga would prove to be such a hit with television viewers given the books had something of a nerdy reputation.
“I was doing my research and reading the first novel on the train and someone said ‘Oh, you are one of those people’,” she laughs.
“We really didn’t know it was going to be such a success. I did the pilot, then there was a little bit of a gap. It got green lit and more funding.
“I had a bit of time to think about it. It was the type of hard choice you often get in the film world – do you give up secure work in what we call the real world and take a chance on something in the film industry?”
Game of Thrones was not her first foray into the world of film and television. Lee’s working life had begun in the security industry, doing everything from crowd control and personal protection to international work in maritime security.
She was originally interested in becoming a stunt-woman but after meeting a local film armourer realised there may be a more long-term future in that less well-known and more niche line of work if she was going to work in the screen industry.
In addition to holding down a normal job, she took her first steps into the industry by working on Nicholas Cage superhero film Ghost Rider, which was filmed in Australia and then HBO’s Second World War TV series The Pacific.
During her spare time away from her civilian job for the police, Lee also helped international film armourers by breaking down film scripts and researching budgets for the different types of weapons required.
It led to the opportunity to work on Game of Thrones alongside weapons master Tommy Dunne, with her move to Northern Ireland where much of the show was shot involving a steep learning curve of educating herself about historical weaponry like catapults, siege engines and crossbows – as well as the changeable weather.
She says that she loved living in Belfast, but shooting conditions could often be a challenge. “It was even the small things like putting fake blood on sword blades for a scene. I would be getting screamed at because the blood wouldn’t stick on in the rain.”
The ambitious span of the show meant shooting took place everywhere from the heat of Morocco to freezing conditions on a glacier in Iceland, with intense working days often starting at 5am and involving up to 12 hours of shooting. There would often be hundreds of extras who would need to be kitted out with various weapons by the small team of armourers, with special attention paid to what the main actors were carrying.
“Each series was like making 10 blockbuster movies in a row,” Lee explains. “It is quite complicated on a shooting day – all the work you have put in behind the scenes beforehand has to really work. There might be hundreds or thousands of extras to deal with and then you have to sort out the actors. There might be stunt guys getting set on fire and blown up and you need to be aware of that. It is really exhausting and you have to be a very specific personality type to deal with it. Unless you are in the thick of it, it is hard to understand.”
Lee says as time passed and the show grew more and more successful, their work on the sets was frequently punctuated by celebrity visitors, even including The Queen and David Cameron, as well as George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars. “George Lucas said, ‘You guys have set the bar and for a long time no one is going to supersede this’. Coming from him, that was really big.”
But she says the show’s popularity came at a price as the more relaxed atmosphere of earlier series – which saw her given a cameo in the show as tribal leader Chella, a grizzly character notorious for chopping off her enemies’ ears – was replaced by intense scrutiny and greatly-heightened security.
“It became a little bit uncomfortable,” she reflects. “In the beginning there was lots of camaraderie and we were having lots of fun. I had a cameo in one episode and we weren’t really that big a team. Then as the years went by, it became different. We had a lot of people trying to break into the sets and get paparazzi shots. The actors got so famous and security got very tight. The show became this huge monster that we were all hanging on to. There was a lot of pressure on us. As time went on, when you got a script there would be these mounds of passwords. One year they made us learn code names.”
She says the intensity of the filming schedule meant she only became fully aware of the show’s immense popularity during rare periods of time off.
“If I mentioned what I did to people, they would often get so excited. You would think, ‘Wow, people are really interested in this show’.
“I went to LA to get away from everything and went swimming at night time. When I looked up at the nearby apartments, you could see every screen tuned to Game of Thrones. There was no escape!”
Despite the huge scope of the show, Lee got to personally make a very real mark. She painstakingly designed Heartsbane, the ancient sword of the Tarly family which was an important part of the plot in the final few series of the show. And she also made a key contribution to a plot where a character called Ellaria Sand kills the Prince of Dorne – suggesting to the scriptwriters that she could do it with a concealed knife hidden in her bracelet, an idea which they agreed to.
Lee says she was honoured to be asked to speak in Leeds.
“I had wanted to go the Royal Armouries so many times – it is like the Holy Grail for armourers. So I was shocked when they reached out to me and be part of this, it was fantastic. I’m definitely hoping to come back and do a few more presentations if they will have me.”
Lee is also determined to use her new status to open the door for more women to join the screen industries.
“I’ve come to realise the big responsibility I have with my high-profile work to normalise what I do and help rewrite the existing narrative. When there’s a girl who works with a two-tonne catapult and nobody raises an eyebrow, that’s when we’ll be on a level playing field – when it becomes the norm.”
Talk part of wider exhibition
Natalia Lee will give Game of Thrones fans an insight into her work as a film armourer next week.
Her talk at the Royal Armouries will take place on Wednesday, October 31, between 7pm and 9pm.
It is tied to the centre’s new ‘Make:Believe’ exhibition showcasing the use of arms and armour on screen. It will start with ‘Movie Monsters’ between October 26 and November 3, followed by Action Heroes on November 30 and December 1, Space Heroes on December 28 and 29, Fantasy Heroes on January 25 and 26 and Superheroes between February 15 and 23.
For tickets to an evening with Natalia Lee, visit https://royalarmouries.org/event/woman-of-weapons.