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‘Game of Thrones’: Lena Headey talks Cersei and her ‘very poor choices’

Last season on HBO’s epic fantasy series “Game of Thrones,” the cunning Queen Regent of the Seven Kingdoms watched her sadistic son and the apple of her eye, King Joffrey, die at his own wedding. His murder created new strain in her, shall we say, complicated incestuous relationship with twin brother Jaime, as did her politically motivated engagement to Loras Tyrell, who happens to be gay. To top it all off, her father, Tywin, was murdered — while on the toilet, no less — by her younger brother, Tyrion.

With her mild-mannered youngest son Tommen now installed as king, Cersei is now more powerful than ever. Actress Lena Headey has turned Cersei, a character who in lesser hands might be a campy villainess, into a surprisingly sympathetic figure — at least for a woman known for ordering the murder of beloved pet wolves and indulging the whims of her psychopathic offspring.

Forty-one-year-old Headey, who was honored with an Emmy nomination last year, spoke with The Times this week about Cersei’s annus horribilis and the season ahead.

As a performer, how do you relate to someone who can be so cruel?

The great thing about these characters is they are all, except for the White Walkers, living flesh and blood — people who have been really damaged by family relationships, by upbringing, by societal restraint, by all that good stuff. There doesn’t seem to be a functional family in Westeros. I just move forward with [Cersei] in the way of somebody who had a really [bad] childhood. Like most of us who become parents, we don’t want to retread a past that didn’t work and she’s trying really hard not to do that.

What drove Cersei to confess her relationship with her brother Jaime to her father, Tywin, in the Season 4 finale?

I think the death of Joffrey made her a little less controlled. She’s always been afraid of her father — I think that’s held her back. I think she was genuinely at a moment where she thought, “You know what … you old bastard. I’m going to let you have it.”

Her world sort of revolved around Joffrey. Why do you think he was so special to her?

I think because he was so troubled. I think with parents there’s a protective thing that comes in when you admit to yourself when you are alone there are issues you wouldn’t acknowledge in public. I think she thought she could love him into being accepted. She’ll forever feel she failed him because it was never enough.

Another big development last season was the tension in her relationship with Jaime. In particular, there was controversy over a scene in which she had sex with Jaime in Joffrey’s crypt. Some viewers interpreted it as rape. Were you surprised by that reaction?

I was. Obviously it’s not like them sitting down and having beans on toast together. You know, they’ve had an incestuous relationship since they were young kids. It is the world of “Game of Thrones,” and we discussed that scene a bunch before we did it. It’s that thing about grieving that you try to fill the void of pain and hurt and loss. It’s usually done by drinking and [having sex with] somebody. People manage grief in interesting ways and because they have this connection, obviously, she’s not like this is the perfect place. She wanted him, but she’s confused because he’s just returned home and she’s been living life without him and survived for the most part without him. It’s almost like being without her father. So it’s a very confusing dynamic. But I was shocked. Think about Craster’s Keep, where there’s an old man who is [raping] his daughters and stealing their children and giving them to zombies and nobody seemed to raise an eyebrow.

I guess Joffrey’s dead body lying there added an element of drama.

Maybe it was that, but they ended up on the floor, so they’re quite respectful in that way.

How do you keep your performance from being too soapy?

I think it’s tough because I have a very ridiculous side and I love comedy, so sometimes you’re desperate to do it just for a giggle. Everything I do with my job I do because I am intrigued by a character. Just because they’re in Westeros, which is a fantasy world and they’re wearing gowns doesn’t mean they don’t bleed and lie down at night and cry and love someone who doesn’t love them back. We all have these human emotions in that respect. I just put her in reality. If you took off the gown, she could be in a modern-day contemporary piece, like all those characters.

Sometimes it’s interesting to wonder what Cersei would be like if she were a man. There’s an element of sympathy for her character because she exists in such a brutal, male-dominated world.

She feels very much like she’s stuck. I don’t think she knows why, because it’s all she’s known. I think she envies her brothers, even Tyrion, because he’s just given more respect for a guy, and undoubtedly Jaime is. I think that’s part of her rebellion with her father with that conversation. “This is the only thing I can do to make you give me some actual genuine attention for more than four seconds.”

In the season ahead, she’s in mourning, but there’s a power void in King’s Landing she will try to take advantage of.

When we find her in the beginning of the season, she’s kind of in a good place. She believes that she has the seat of power; finally no one can tell her what to do, she can do exactly as she wants. But she’s very unaware of the troubles that the Lannisters have financially. She’s incredibly clever, so she can manipulate most things to her advantage, but as the season goes on, you realize she’s made very poor choices.

You are close friends with Peter Dinklage (Tyrion). How is it to play characters who hate each other so much?

I think probably being as close as we are, it makes it a little easier because there’s an unspoken thing; there’s immediate trust. He’s such an open, winning actor. That makes it joyful. He’s up for anything, you can discuss anything, and that keeps things open and easy.

Jaime and Cersei had their troubles last season. Can you speak about where their relationship is headed this season?

They’re not in the best of places. I think the honeymoon period is really over. They’re at that point of having been together for a couple of years now, and there’ve been a few too many trips to IKEA, you know what I mean?

Is there any key to getting into her mind-set? Is it the wig? The costume?

All of that helps, and so does being on these amazing sets. I just treat her like any other character and consider her history. Ultimately she’s just a woman who is in the midst of a … storm and has to be a parent to three children fathered by her brother. You start off with this blank canvas, and then you think “how would I feel?” and transfer it to the time and place.