The Passion Of The Christie

The Passion Of The Christie

In The Grand Cultural Lineage Of Grace Jones, Brigitte Nielsen, And Tilda Swinton, Gwendoline Christie Is Reordering Society's View Of Androgynous, Powerful Glamour. As The Towering British Talent Scales The Summit Of Hollywood With This Winter And The Hunger Games And Continues Her Beloved Reign On HBO's Game Of Thrones, She Kicks Back To Take In The Long View Of A Rise Less Ordinary

In The Grand Cultural Lineage Of Grace Jones, Brigitte Nielsen, And Tilda Swinton, Gwendoline Christie Is Reordering Society's View Of Androgynous, Powerful Glamour. As The Towering British Talent Scales The Summit Of Hollywood With This Winter And The Hunger Games And Continues Her Beloved Reign On HBO's Game Of Thrones, She Kicks Back To Take In The Long View Of A Rise Less Ordinary

Photography: Solve Sundsbo

Styling: Robbie Spencer

Text: Paul Flynn

When she was a student at Drama Centre London, Gwendoline Christie told the school administrator, Maggie Wilkinson, a tiny white lie. By way of induction, it’s customary for first-year students to help with the production of graduating third-year shows. When she was handed a wrench and told to disassemble a stage, Christie thought, I can’t do that, I’m wearing a Sonia Rykiel jumper. She told Maggie instead that she was a dab hand at filing. As an actor, Christie is living proof that in the most curious acts, magic lies. And so it goes.

The following Christmas, Ms. Wilkinson recalled Christie’s administrative admission and asked if she would like a job for the holidays. The fabulous British character actor Simon Callow had asked if there was a student who would catalog his 4,000-strong compact disc collection. “Mainly classical,” notes Christie now. “Quite esoteric.”

Over an early lunch of smoked salmon and avocado at the Downton-ish central London restaurant, the Delaunay, she explains it was Callow who showed her a way to be an actor of integrity and ambition. “He was a very, very strong figure at the forefront of my development into adulthood.” She pauses. “Which came late.” Another pause. “Which might not have happened yet.” She laughs. She is wearing a vintage longer-than-floor-length Hussein Chalayan black shift, “so that I can be my own lady-in-waiting, holding my train,” and “a simple Chanel pump” (not simple at all, as she admirably shows by placing her right foot on the table).

Christie went on to work for Callow on and off for years, through the downtime of her early career—researching and collating materials for his memoir and walking his two beloved boxer dogs across Hampstead Heath. Callow is one of the grandees of British theater, probably still best known to populist audiences for his funeral in Four Weddings and… “He gave me a key to the house and said, ‘Make yourself at home, I trust you.’ To show someone who is struggling such kindness, to say, ‘Child, never give up,’ for nearly eight years? He did it without regard for how it would reflect on him. He’s unselfish and a big part of why I had the confidence to inhabit who I am. Because he was one of the first, maybe the first British actor to be openly homosexual at the start of his career and be unapologetic about it all. I miss him. You can’t replicate that kind of artistic patronage.”

For a spell after drama school, it looked like Christie’s work would be strictly stage. Her presence has always been on the captivating side of astonishing. She’d nailed Lady Macbeth by 15 at school. Was she ready to act as the architect of her husband’s demise as a teenager? “So ready. I was ready years before. Born ready for it. There were a lot of years of being marginalized, a lot of not fitting in.”

Her first professional booking was as Mrs. Hubble in artistic director Declan Donnellan’s 2005 Royal Shakespeare Company production of Great Expectations, in association with the theater company Cheek by Jowl. She understudied Siân Phillips’s Miss Havisham. “That was a really incredible experience, particularly for somebody who had always been told ‘No.’” After years of touring regional theater productions and a spell in the West End in a Breakfast at Tiffany’s revival, she spoke with her agent about the possibility of screen work, mentioning that she would love to score an HBO series. “He said, ‘Good luck!’”

This year has been Christie’s annus mirabilis. As 2015 draws to a close, she is at the forefront of three epic screen franchises in roles that will be beloved forever: as Brienne of Tarth in HBO’s Game of Thrones, Commander Lyme in the forthcoming Hunger Games denouement, and as Captain Phasma in the most anticipated film of the year, Star Wars. When she says “Captain Phasma,” she wraps her lips around the words with relish. As well as her sharp, cerebral mind, Christie is a profoundly physical performer. I ask her to repeat the words. “Captain Phasma,” she says. I wish you could hear it. You will soon.

On all three films, she is bound by so many contract clauses of silence that any story on Christie wends its way back to the actor herself. “I’m trying to say what I can without being killed,” she says at one point about Star Wars. When she was first cast in the film, she kept the information to herself without telling anybody for six weeks. “I don’t mind it because it’s a really delightful feeling to keep that kind of secret,” she says. “I would have never, ever thought I would be able to browse around town holding a secret like that.” Due to her science fiction/fantasy omnipotence, Christie is currently available in several different forms of doll, and is the voice of a Captain Phasma face mask at the Disney store. When I tell her I have tried her on, she says, “You’ve not, you dirty bugger...It’s insane, isn’t it?” While every actor dreams of leading roles, few dream of becoming Christmas presents.

Though Christie falls somewhere in the lineage of Brigitte Nielsen or Grace Jones, those ’80s icons of sheer screen physicality, she has a deeper, more reflective strand to her.She namechecks Tilda Swinton in Sally Potter’s Orlando and the films of Jane Campion as early signposts for where she might, at over six feet tall and possessed of an instantly familiar disposition, fit in on screen. She was 13 when she first saw Orlando. “I thought, There could be a place for me. Because she was something else and yet totally herself, existing completely outside of society’s homogenous view of what a woman should be.” She snuck into town twice as a schoolgirl to see The Piano. “It wasn’t that I knew it was by a female filmmaker, it just said something about the journey of a woman that didn’t seem to be said anywhere else. It was an exploration of femininity in a way that I had never known one.”

For five years now Christie has been allotting six months of her diary to filming Game of Thrones, a part she bartered for hard and one that anointed her as the star she was born to be. “I truly thought,” she says, of first reading George R. R. Martin’s books, “that if this part is depicted in truly unadulterated fashion in a television show, this could possibly change, even slightly, the way people view women. I got really excited by the fact that there was a part for a woman who was outside of society, who was very tall, who wasn’t conventionally attractive, but who we fell in love with because of her actions and because of her ongoing pursuit of overcoming obstacles for the greater good.”

First as a schoolgirl, then as a casual fixture among London’s left field nightlife elite, and now as an actor and film star, Christie is used to being stared at. “I think because I’ve always been tall—I reached this height at around 14—I have been used to being looked at and it could be very difficult. I was very tall at 12, and even younger, so I suppose when you have so many years of that kind of experience you have to make a decision as to what you’re going to do with it.” Thrones helped locate her cause. “I felt that this part could give me the opportunity to be forced to acknowledge and embrace those elements of myself that I felt were not so feminine. I had to acknowledge my height and my masculinity. I also had to acknowledge my femininity and figure out what that was exactly—something more than attributes or clothing and hair—whether my femininity was something intrinsic and not related to wearing a dress or makeup.”

Something strikes her as the bill arrives. “This has never occurred to me before,” she says, thinking back to the beginnings of her brilliant professional life. “If I had to say that somebody has influenced some part of my portrayal of Brienne of Tarth, then I would say that Simon Callow and his overriding sense of moral good has been it.” She leaves, vowing to get back in touch with her early mentor.

Credits: Makeup Isamaya Ffrench (Streeters London)  Hair Syd Hayes (Premier Hair and Makeup)  Manicure Adam Slee (Streeters London)  Production Sally Dawson and Paula Ekenger  Digital technician Anna Hendry  Photo assistants Simon McGuigan, James Whitty, Magnus Andersen  Stylist assistant Katy Fox  Makeup assistants Josh Wilks and Choe Ledrezen  Hair assistant Hannah Joy Bull  location and equipment Spring Studios London  Videographer Samuel Stephenson

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