Gemma Whelan Thinks Yara Is Playing the Long Game

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The actor behind the Iron Island badass, Yara Greyjoy, chats about the kingsmoot, Theon’s future and Yara’s emotional side. 

HBO: At what point did you learn about Yara’s role in Season 6?

Gemma Whelan: [Series creators] David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss] had said to me that Season 5 would be a little shy of Yara, which was their kind way of saying, “She ain’t in it.” But they did say, “We have big plans for Season 6.” Dave and Dan are always men of their word so I did trust that I’d have a good bit to do. I was absolutely thrilled when I read the scripts. They’re just brilliant.

HBO: Was it odd to have Season 5 off and watch your on-screen brother go through hell?

Gemma Whelan: I was watching at home like a lonely puppy pawing at the TV. I was gainfully employed elsewhere, which was very nice, but I did certainly miss my annual trip to Belfast and seeing the gang. 

It was actually really sad to watch Alfie [Allen, who plays Theon] go through that. Alfie and I are good friends and we love our relationship as Yara and Theon. I was always like, “Aw, he’s working with other people! I want my brother back.” But I was so proud of Alfie and how fantastic he is in every moment. I knew we would be reunited, so I knew his struggle would make our storyline all the more interesting and strong.

HBO: What do you think is Yara’s take on her father’s death?

Gemma Whelan: I doubt that she misses her dad. I didn’t play any of that because they had a quite fractured relationship. There wasn’t any love lost. But it’s a frying pan into fire when Euron gets there. Yara slowly works out at the kingsmoot that Euron was the one who did away with Balon. She touches on it, but doesn’t really show any emotion. She just drives on through and goes, “OK, he’s gone. We’ve got a mission.” In that moment that she has to make quick, strong decisions without showing any weakness. 

HBO: Yara seems like the perfect candidate. How did she lose the kingsmoot?

Gemma Whelan: I was really hopeful for her as well. I thought: She’s perfect for it. She’s making really decent, empathetic, strong choices. She’s the woman. Just as you think she’s going to win, Euron swoops in. I hope people had the same feeling I had when they watched it – the disappointment and the despair. Another battle is on our hands now. 

A few people have tweeted me saying, “Why does Yara keep running away from threats?” It’s because she’s playing the long game. It’s like chess and she plays several moves ahead – which makes her even more of a brilliant candidate to lead. She understands exactly how things will play out.

HBO: What is Yara’s relationship with Theon at this point?

Gemma Whelan: I think they’re still a little broken. There’s just enough light peeping through the cracks in their relationship to warrant a little hope for Yara, but she’s still far from trusting him after everything that’s happened. But that was a really nicely edited look the two of us shared at the kingsmoot: “Are you serious?” “Yeah, I’m serious.” “Are we doing this?” “Yeah, we’re doing this.” 

HBO: Was this week’s pep talk as sentimental as Ironborn get?

Gemma Whelan: I think this is as close, sentimental and emotional the Ironborn get as family members– she takes him to a brothel and feeds him alcohol. [Laughs.] It’s a nice moment when she forces him to face up and make a decision to change.

HBO: What does she mean when she asks for “the real Theon Greyjoy”?

Gemma Whelan: It’s a great question because she hasn’t really spent a lot of time with Theon for the last 10 years. There was a fractured, difficult return and he was sent away again. She doesn’t really know, but I imagine she saw glimpses of the real Theon Greyjoy when he came back saying, “I’m going to march with the Starks. I got a great big plan this is what we’re going do.” She saw some fire in his belly. They’re siblings; they know what one another is made of deep down and what they went through to survive. I suppose she must recognize there’s some strength there even though it’s very buried. 

HBO: Does Yara have faith that Theon can recover from being Reek?

Gemma Whelan: I think she grows in confidence. She really believes he can overcome this trauma – she wouldn’t trust in a weakling or a fool. She knows she’s got a job on her hands to bring him back, but she wants to and she needs him because there’s nothing like a family ally. She wouldn’t risk everything if she didn’t deep down trust that he wasn’t going to come back and be true to his former self and to her again. 

HBO: How big of a threat is Euron?

Gemma Whelan: He is a huge and imminent threat at the kingsmoot. It’s quite clear that the men Yara considered hers are turncoats -- they immediately got on board the rebel-rousing speech Euron gave, which was all quite sexual, front-footed, angry, righteous and compelling. Those men are very fickle and misogynistic. 

HBO: Did you know Yara was gay?

Gemma Whelan: No, I had no idea! I reckon she’s any way. I don’t think she’d limit herself to one or another. Anything goes. Get the job done with whatever if fun and interesting.

THINK FAST

HBO: Choose your weapon – magic, whip, sword, or spear?  

Gemma Whelan: I think magic. I don’t know why, but it sounds the most fun.

HBO: If you were queen, who would you want as your Hand? 

Gemma Whelan: Theon.

HBO: If you could warg into any character on the show, who would it be and why?

Gemma Whelan: Jaqen H’ghar. I’m so intrigued by him. When I see him I’m like: Is it him or is he pretending to be someone else? Where does the onion end with him? I really would love to know what’s going on in his head and the game he’s playing. I could be anyone!