Carice van Houten on motherhood: 'It turns you into an open wound'

Carice van Houten attends HBO's "Game of Thrones" final season premiere at Radio City Music Hall on Wednesday, April 3, ...
Carice van Houten attends HBO's "Game of Thrones" final season premiere at Radio City Music Hall on Wednesday, April 3, 2019, in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP) 

Carice van Houten has a Dutch approach to nudity, both on screen and off. "In my country," says the 43-year-old Game of Thrones star, "being naked feels quite natural."

Today, she is dressed in a quirky maelstrom of Gucci: embossed satin jacket, gold paisley shirt, tartan skirt and luminous pixie boots. "Gucci used to feel out-there," she says. "But I'm loving it now."

For her career-defining role as Red Priestess Melisandre, she got to wear some extravagant outfits - flowing scarlet robes, matching red hair, a necklace that literally took centuries off her - as well as the chance to appear in... well, nothing. Having joined GoT in its second season, nudity came with the territory.

Actress Carice van Houten, left, and Film Director Halina Reijn (Urs Flueeler/Keystone via AP)
Actress Carice van Houten, left, and Film Director Halina Reijn (Urs Flueeler/Keystone via AP) 

"It was necessary," she insists, "because Melisandre used her body and sexuality as a weapon, so I don't regret it. But, in my time, I've done nude scenes that weren't really necessary, and I was just too overwhelmed to see that. These days, I'm still willing to talk about the possibility, but I'm kind of over it."

Approaching midlife not long after starting a family (she has a three-year-old son, Monte, with Australian actor Guy Pearce) has had unexpected side-effects for her career: suddenly less assured about her own body, she is, however, more confident about turning down roles with nude scenes.

"Yes, it's good to show that real bodies are different at 40-plus than they were at 22. But I don't necessarily want to be the vessel of that truth myself," she laughs.

Van Houten has a natural honesty and great likeability - partly, perhaps, because English isn't her first language, so dissembling is an effort. She has also done a ton of psychotherapy, so she's used to opening up. "Therapy isn't something to be ashamed of," she says. "It can be painful, embarrassing and hard work, but it's also hugely rewarding."

In the flesh, she is friendlier, funnier, tinier and far more klutzy than you'd ever imagine, were you to confuse her with the formidable Melisandre, the character who, among much else, burned poor little Shireen at the stake, gave birth to a "shadow baby" and extracted blood for her spells by placing leeches on the genitals of Gendry, the royal bastard.

"Melisandre was a real challenge because I had no idea what to tap into," she says. "Personally, I'm not overconfident or a religious fanatic. I also like to laugh a lot. The opposite of her."

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Unexpectedly, Van Houten cried when her role ended in season eight's dramatic finale this year. "I thought I'd be OK. I wasn't a main character and, as a non-Brit, I'd sometimes felt a bit of an outsider. I'd had a career before Game of Thrones, too, so, unlike the younger cast, I hadn't grown up on it. Yet, the emotion was overwhelming, probably because those seven years on the show felt so connected to seven big years in my private life."

Before Melisandre, she'd had roles in notable films such as Paul Verhoeven's Black Book and Bryan Singer's Valkyrie, opposite Tom Cruise. At home, too, she was voted "Best Dutch Actress of All Time" and has five Golden Calf awards, their Bafta equivalent. "People talk about Game of Thrones, and I think: 'Oh, I wish you'd seen me in some of my other roles...'"

We're here to talk about her latest post-GoT project: Temple, a quirky, eight-part Sky drama in which she joins a cast headed by Mark Strong. He plays Daniel Milton, a surgeon who creates a subterranean clinic beneath London's Temple station for desperados needing treatment outside the system and to illegally treat his terminally ill wife, played by Catherine McCormack.

Carice van Houten and Guy Pearce have a three-year-old son, Monte.
Carice van Houten and Guy Pearce have a three-year-old son, Monte. 

Van Houten plays Anna, a medical researcher drawn in, against her better judgment, not least because she's had an affair with Milton. "The role ticked lots of boxes for me," she says. "I'd wanted to work with Mark Strong forever, plus, after Game of Thrones, I wanted to play someone contemporary with some wit and humour. She wasn't the usual mistress, either - not evil or overtly sexual, but human, flawed and likeable. In fact, you have sympathy for all the characters. There was nothing cliched about it."

Toddler Monte, who was born within days of his mother's 40th birthday, was with her during filming in London. Being an older mother, she says, is a mixed blessing. "It's good that I'd had a career beforehand," she says. "Bad that you're more exhausted than you'd have been in your twenties. What I hadn't prepared for was the emotional shock of motherhood and the feeling of being constantly torn. So now, whatever I do workwise, I'm always thinking: 'Is it good enough to be away from my son?' It turns you into an open wound."

Returning to Game of Thrones when he was six weeks old was brutal. "I was thinking: 'The reality is, I just had a baby. I'm at the airport expressing milk, I've had a caesarean, and I can hardly walk.' But, at the same time, you also see the funny side - this is just life happening to you."

Monte's arrival was one of "a tsunami of events" in her 40th year. Born the eldest of two sisters, Van Houten's parents, Margjje, a TV executive, and Theodore, a musicologist and silent film expert, had separated when she was little. But she remained close to both and was devastated when her father died of cancer during her pregnancy.

"My sister Jelka and I went from my father's bedside to my five-month scan in the same hospital. He'd been born with a hole in the heart, which could be hereditary, so we both cried when we were told the baby was normal. My dad had reached the barely conscious stage, but they say hearing is the last thing to go and, when we returned, I whispered the good news to him. Twenty-five minutes later, he died - which was beautiful, in a way, but it still hurts that my dad and Monte never met. They'd have loved each other."

Van Houten and Pearce hadn't planned on being parents. "I didn't know if I could still conceive, but it just happened quickly after we met. Sometimes the universe decides and you go with the flow. I'm so grateful I did."

She shares parenting duty with Pearce, who now lives with her in Amsterdam. But, then, she was never that drawn to the LA life. "I've had lunches in Hollywood where my face has ached from all the false laughing. And, you know, I just can't do it.

"Arrogantly, I've always thought: 'If Hollywood really wants me, come and get me. Until then, I'm happy here with my friends and my family. And if life has taught me anything in the last few years, it's that it isn't all about the work."

The Daily Telegraph, London