Cersei Lannister is my favorite character on HBO's Game of Thrones. Most people are shocked to hear that since she's pretty universally viewed as one of the biggest villains on the show, especially now that the Night King is dead. From blowing up the Great Sept (and House Tyrell with it) to causing the death of Sansa's dire wolf, Lady, Cersei has been behind acts that are hard to not call evil. Entertainment Weekly even featured her in its Best Villain poll before the start of season eight. She was right there next to her father Tywin Lannister, her son Joffrey, Petyr Baelish, Ramsay Bolton, the Night King and Walder Frey.
This really irked me. Every other person on this list is undoubtedly evil — and most of them sadistic and cruel as well. Cersei, on the other hand, is smarter than that. Sure, she's not a poster child for purity and goodness. I'm in no way arguing that she's a hero — she's no Jon Snow. However, I don't think she's a villain either.
First and foremost, she just wants a seat at the table with all the men, but as a woman in this world she's relegated to being either a sex object or a child bearer. Women aren't allowed to strategize, fight, give their opinions, etc. She's a woman with as much drive as a man, so she's forced to use the tools at her disposal. Using manipulation and trickery to help her gain power does not make her just as evil as a villains like Ramsay or Joffrey, who torture people for fun. And yes Littlefinger also used manipulation and trickery, but I'd argue his motives were a lot less genuine than Cersei's, which were about protecting her family, but more on that below. Had Cersei been given an equal chance to vie for the iron throne just like all the men, she may not have had to be as conniving.
Two things from her childhood colored her behavior, the first being the way her father Tywin raised her. After her mother died giving birth to her brother Tyrion — which her father blamed him for, influencing her to do same — all she had left as a role model was Tywin. She looked up to him and longed for his acceptance but was never able to quite get it. A brutal and unforgiving man himself, Tywin drilled into Cersei that she can't trust anyone but her family and that the betterment of the Lannisters was the most important thing to fight for. Coupled with that, it was revealed in season five that she received a prophecy as a girl from a witch who told her, “You will have three [children]. Gold will be their crowns, gold their shrouds.” All the “evil” she committed was out of this hyper-protection of her family, specifically her children. (And yes, there's the incest thing with her brother Jamie, but the Targaryens have married within their bloodline for years to keep it pure).
It's important to note that my defense of this character is only based on the television show, not on the books. And, perhaps, the way Cersei comes across in the show is largely because of the brilliant performance from actress Lena Headey. Known for roles in 300 and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles prior to her career-defining turn on Thrones, Headey brings wit, sophistication and emotional complexity to the character. “We'd seen a number of actresses before [Lena]… very good actresses, but they were all playing the ice queen. And Lena came in and she was funny and she was weird and she wasn't what we were expecting,” Game of Thrones co-showrunner David Benioff said in a 2017 Time magazine interview. So I decided to take my theory straight to the source and see if Lena Headey herself sees Cersei as a villain or not, and also get into what her mindset is while playing the role.
LA Weekly: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us. I guess my first question is do you see Cersei as a villain?
Lena Headey: No, I've never played her with that intention … my intention with Cersei was to play just a very honest portrayal of this woman who, granted we see her in this fantasy scenario — but she's a real human being. She's a survivalist, she's a kind of early feminist in the fact that she wants recognition for being clever in this world and having the balls to play the game her way.
I totally agree about her being an “early feminist.” Can you go into that a little more?
As [is the case with] all the women on the show in a world sort of driven by men, what I love about it is that she's sort of hung in there … Cersei doesn't play in black and white. All she wanted was recognition from her father. I think that would have calmed her if he had looked her in the eye and said, “I love you and I admire you” or “You're just as worthy as your brothers.” But she was raised knowing that he didn't think that. Over the seasons of the show, she [slowly takes] everybody out because she doesn't want to feel anything anymore. She just wants to prove everybody wrong and that's Cersei's big downfall, it always has been. That all comes from wanting to please her father.
It seems to me that Cersei has been adjacent to a lot of bad events on the show, but she wasn't the person behind them necessarily. For example, it was Jamie who pushed Bran out the window in the pilot (Cersei just shouts “Do something!”). It was Joffrey who decides to chop off Ned Stark's head (she just wanted to send Ned to the Night's Watch, and only after he confronted her about exposing her relationship with Jamie. In fact, she even says to Joffrey, “My son, this is madness” when he decides to kill Ned). Yet, she seems to get blamed for these acts, or at least is seen as an accomplice. Why do you think that is?
I think because [lately] in the show she did some terrible things, so people forget that [this wasn't the case] early on in the show. In recent seasons she's been grabbing power and wanting to hold onto the power desperately. But in the early days she was the voice of reason in these moments. With Ned Stark she was like, if you do that, then [everything] will topple — but nobody listened to her.
So what do you think drove her to do these more terrible things over the years?
I think there's a quiet madness in her and a massive amount of grief … What she comforts herself with is wine and power. And she's been holding on to this prophecy. She's lived with that her whole life and had these three children and then lived in some sort of fear of losing them. And that's where the madness comes from with her; she feels like she's cursed, and I do believe she feels like she's cursed because she's [in love with] her brother.
Does this madness and curse that she's lived with justify any of her actions?
She certainly doesn't know how to ask for help and she does not show her vulnerability because she's never been told or shown that that has any value. She never had a mother and Jamie left — she never thought he would leave her ever — and I think that's broken her heart, so she's in lashing-out mode. And also, she's thinking, well then I'll just use Euron [Greyjoy]'s power to act in my power and everybody will see that no one's going to be beat me.
To go back a couple of years ago, of course the biggest example people give of Cersei being evil is how she blew up the Great Sept with wildfire. While I'm not condoning murder, it definitely was a more common occurrence in that world than in ours. In my opinion, Cersei was backed into a corner. She was planning to have the Mountain win in a trial by combat, but when the Faith Militant manipulated Tommen to outlaw trials by combat, she knew she was being set up to either be sentenced to death or life in prison or exile. Do you agree that she really didn't have any other options?
I thought it was kind of brilliant that she manipulated that whole scenario, but also as typical Cersei she didn't really think of the consequences, which was going to be losing her last child. She wanted Tommen to not love Margaery. She wanted to take Margaery away because she thought that may push him to actually love [her], so in that moment she wanted to get what she wanted to get, which was to not have Margaery in Tommen's life.
So what was your mindset when you were filming all that?
We spoke about that a lot, [director Miguel Sapochnik] and I, when we were doing that episode and it was almost like the biggest orgasm of Cersei's life, that moment, because she took out all the people who fucked her over and didn't want her around, in one fell swoop.
So was she justified in blowing everyone up or do you think she should’ve or could've found another way?
I kind of admire her for it.
Same! Does that make us terrible people?
I think so, but we can form a club.
So moving on to what you touched on before, which is what I think is Cersei's other big motive behind her actions: having the same hunger for power as the men on the show but being relegated to the sidelines as a woman in that world. She says to Sansa in the season two episode during the Battle of the Blackwater, when she's down in the bunker with all the other women while the men are fighting, “I should have been born a man. I'd rather face a thousand swords than be shut up inside with this flock of frightened hens…When we were young…Jamie was taught to fight with sword and lance and mace and I was taught to smile and sing and please. He was heir to Casterly Rock and I was sold to some stranger like a horse to be ridden whenever he desired.” What are your thoughts on this scene and how much did what Cersei said here impact the way you played the part?
I think it speaks for itself in that I always thought there was an innate jealousy from Cersei about Jamie having been born a guy and having been afforded all those privileges that she was not. And so even though she loved him, she kind of wanted to be him in a way or she wanted the power that he has naturally from being a guy. It's very early feminism, it's not perfect. She's got a very deep longing to be recognized.
To expand on that early feminism you mentioned, even though Game of Thrones is a fantasy show, when asked on the recent 60 Minutes episode about the “terrible things that happen to some of the women on the show,” actress Gwendoline Christie (who plays Ser Brienne of Tarth) said, “This story is loosely based on the War of the Roses and I would say learn. Learn that this is what happened in history and this is not what needs to happen in the future.” While women have obviously made progress since the time of the War of the Roses, we still haven't had a woman president. Why do you think that is and do you think that there's a sexist stigma against women in power, or women who want power, that would cause people to view a character like Cersei as more villainous than she really is?
There's always going to be the few people intimidated by powerful women or turned off by powerful women or thinking women cannot perform the same as men. I do think male characters that do bad things are afforded a little more heroic praise than women are. But what I love about what is happening in television and film is that women are being painted as fully rounded human beings. We have lust and desires and some women would love to be in power. Women can be [just as] angry and mean and manipulative as men. So celebrating all that we are is empowering.
Exactly, and that’s why I love the character so much and why I don't see her as a villain. I think she's so complex and it's not this Ramsay Bolton torturing people for fun sort of thing.
No, she's like I'm going to survive and I'm not going to apologize for doing what I do because I don't need you to like me.
What do you think is the worst thing she's done on the show so far?
I think the worst thing is Cersei's sort of lack of consequence until it's too late. I think it's her constant downfall, and because she doesn't trust very many people [she has this] inability to make allies and you can't do that in life. You have to make teams and friendships to survive and get through and that's what she's not very skilled at. I don't even think she thinks she deserves that support. I think deep down she's a really scared woman. But there's a lack of therapy in Westeros for her to go, “I'm really scared and I'm alone and I need a bit of help.” Instead of doing that she locks all that feeling up, pushes it down and she's like, “Fuck this, I'm going to survive.”
The other biggest female in power on the show is Daenerys Targaryen. Why do you think people view Daenerys as more of a hero (with some mad inclinations sometimes) and Cersei as more of a villain?
There's a heroic visual with Daenerys, which I think is very persuasive in a way. I mean Daenerys has done things for the right reasons. I feel like Daenerys has a handle on her desire for power and we're so far down the line with Cersei in her losses and her grief that she doesn't anymore. It's impulse with Cersei, manipulation and strategy. And also Daenerys has people around her who are kind of restrained and sane and they advise her well, [while] Cersei has cut everyone off. The only person she's left with now is Euron and he's not exactly stable.
So had the world (and her father) not given Cersei the cold shoulder, in these early years of the show…
I think she could have been a great leader. I think her, Jamie and Tyrion could have made a great team.
David Benioff told Time magazine in July 2017, just ahead of the season seven premiere, “[Cersei is] not the embodiment of evil! She does a lot of really horrible shit, but you kind of always know why she's doing it, there's a reason for it.” Is that also how you felt when playing her?
I just wanted to play her true and as if she was in a kind of 1980s flat in Manchester, sort of taking away [the medieval style] clothing and the hair. A mother of three whose father kind of fucked her over, whose [own] mother died in childbirth [when her little brother was born]. She has a complicated beginning and a complicated circumstance. I never ever wanted to set out to play a villain in a kind of fantasy drama. I think the beautiful thing about the show is nobody does that, which is why I think it's so beloved.
So you don't think anybody is a pure villain in the show, not even Joffrey or Ramsay?
Maybe Joffrey had some issues. And of course Ramsay is a psychopath. But Cersei is absolutely not [sadistic like them].
One more question — without revealing anything about the rest of the season, how do you want people to remember Cersei's character when the show is over?
I hope they enjoyed her!
Well I certainly did. What you bring to the character is amazing and I'm very happy you've survived until the final season! Thank you for giving us a behind the scenes look at how you view her.
With only three episodes left of the entire series and the White Walkers defeated, Cersei is now officially public enemy number one, especially since she bailed on her agreement to help in the fighting. The next few weeks will definitely see many people crying for Cersei's head on a pike, but keep in mind that she didn't start out as the ultimate villain left to destroy as well as all the factors that led to her becoming that. As Cersei said to Sansa all the way back in season two, “The more people you love, the weaker you are…Love no one but your children.”
The final three episodes of Game of Thrones air Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.