‘Game of Thrones’ star Carice van Houten on magic and Melisandre

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When a TV series crams horse beheadings, frozen zombies, dragons, sword fighting and naked prostitutes into nearly every episode, it’s hard for a single actor to make a grand impact. But actress Carice van Houten has done precisely that in the second season of HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” As the mysterious red priestess Melisandre, Van Houten disrobed, exposing her very pregnant tummy, and lay down on the floor of a cave to give birth to a shadowy assassinating creature that appeared to be made of smoke.

It’s the kind of jaw-dropping moment that can create an instant fan favorite and make the performer a water-cooler topic. But according to Van Houten, who lives in the Netherlands and wasn’t familiar with the series or the novels it’s based on, she had no idea what she was walking into when she auditioned for the part. In fact, it took a little convincing from a surprising figure to get her to commit to the role.

“I called my friend Seth Meyers,” Van Houten recalled recently on the phone from her home in Amsterdam. “I asked him, ‘What is this? Is this good?’ He said, ‘Are you crazy? Say yes!’” (The two met years ago when “Saturday Night Live” cast member Meyers was living in Amsterdam.)

For someone who isn’t already a fantasy fan (Van Houten considers fantasy to be “goblins and Mr. Spock ears and green characters”), the appeal of a series based on George R.R. Martin’s sprawling, bestselling “A Song of Ice and Fire” novels may not be immediately apparent. But the saga’s complexity and willingness to break with convention has made fans out of many skeptics and turned the series into a hit, with the most recent episode drawing nearly 4 million viewers, the show’s biggest audience.


“I love the fact that this is so subtle,” Van Houten said of the drama. “There are no weird creatures … at first.”

Which brings her back to that startling scene in the cave. Van Houten was essentially nude for the scene, wearing only a prosthetic belly and a merkin.

“I basically walked around making jokes,” she said. “Making fun of the merkin. This may sound weird, but we had great fun taking pictures of me and the merkin.”

Van Houten is no stranger to nudity on-screen, and she says she makes a habit of introducing herself to crew members while nude to defuse any tension on set. But the extreme sexual power of the priestess Melisandre felt like a stretch for her. Though the 35-year-old actress came to the attention of American audiences through her role in Paul Verhoeven’s movie “Black Book” as a Jewish spy in Nazi-controlled Europe, most of her Hollywood work has consisted of playing the wife of leading men (Tom Cruise in “Valkyrie” and Jude Law in “Repo Men”).
Melisandre is her most commanding role. As Van Houten points out, the character “is one big chunk of power.” She’s not a victim. (“That’s the stuff I usually do.”) Nor is she “some quirky girl. I can’t get away with funny charm.... I never really saw myself as a sexy person. I consider myself a nerd, basically. It’s funny to see people’s reactions. They see what they want to see. They project all their fantasies on me.”

Van Houten’s Dutch accent helped set her apart from the mostly British and Scottish cast. (Melisandre is supposed to come from the mysterious city of Asshai in the even more mysterious Shadow Lands.) And that accent is helpful when she’s called on to deliver her sermons on the red god R’hllor. The dramatic costumes add to her mystique; costume designer Michele Clapton describes Melisandre as “a very sensual, magical character, very different from the other cast we have met to date.” And to accentuate that difference, she gave Van Houten a flowing and sexy red dress. The chilly Irish location shoots, however, didn’t always make for the most comfortable conditions, as Van Houten discovered.

“The guys have leather armor and hoods,” she says laughing. “I’m standing there in this little red dress. And you cannot put any thermal underwear on because you can see everything.”

A choice role in a major Hollywood TV series might lead most actors to leave their home countries to play in the big leagues. But rather than pack her bags and move to L.A., Van Houten prefers to stay in Amsterdam, where she’s one of the country’s biggest movie and theatrical stars.

“My life here is so crazy. It’s not just acting. I have an Internet radio show. Then, once a month, I present singer-songwriters in an old playhouse.” Her tastes run toward Neil Young and Tom Waits and “guys with beards and pianos.”

Though she’s well known in her home country, the intense international fandom of “Game of Thrones” is raising her profile around the world. Watch any video of Van Houten on YouTube, even old ones, and comments about Lady Melisandre are sure to appear.

In the Netherlands, “I could walk the streets and I was always aware of people staring at me. But the rest of the world was a safe place. I feel that slowly changing,” she says, adding, “At least people probably don’t recognize me without my red wig.”

— Patrick Kevin Day