WEST YORKSHIRE, England — “Are you [expletive] serious right now?”
Lena Headey is incredulous, an amused smile curving lips best known for sneering as Cersei Lannister on “Game of Thrones.” She is piloting her black Land Rover through the narrow, twisty roads of her native West Yorkshire, a realm of charming villages and no observable traffic laws. The back is filled with carseats and mommish detritus, signs of a bountiful family life decidedly at odds with that of Cersei, one of the most persecuted (and vindictive) characters on a show known for baroque miseries.
One quality the actress does share with her most famous character: She doesn’t suffer fools, especially reporters foolish enough to ask for details about the obsessively secretive show’s seventh season, beginning Sunday, July 16, on HBO.
“Um, she’s not having a good time — there you go,” she adds, laughing. “Apparently winter is really coming, finally.”
It’s a joke on the show’s longstanding tag line, but also a reminder that the end is in sight for “Game of Thrones.” With just 13 episodes remaining — seven this season and six the next — this sprawling fantasy epic has entered its climactic stretch.
Season 7 will be largely about bringing together primary characters that either have been long separated, or who have never actually met. At the top of the heap sits Cersei, who over six seasons lost her father and three children — three murders and a suicide — along with her dignity, during a nude walk of shame that ranks among television’s most memorable, memeable sequences. Then, at the end of last season, she blew up half the show and claimed the coveted Iron Throne for herself.
It was the tale’s latest shocking twist, but also a logical culmination for a season that saw the major female characters overcome all sorts of tribulations — as well as real-world complaints about the show’s sexual violence — to emerge as the game’s most formidable players. Together, characters like the politically savvy Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), the assassin Arya (Maisie Williams) and the messianic dragon queen Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) represent a broad range of feminine power. “Having all of these females rise, in all their different guises — it’s sort of unheard-of, really,” Ms. Headey said.
For Cersei, the Season 6 finale solidified her status as the most captivating of them all. And for the woman who plays her, it came at the beginning of a frenetic stretch that saw her get engaged a few years after a divorce left her reeling, and relocate her family from Los Angeles, where she lived for 12 years, to a tiny village near where she grew up, roughly 180 miles northwest of London. “My life’s been mad for the last year,” she said.
But with “Game of Thrones” about to end, why would Ms. Headey leave the showbiz capital at the moment of her highest profile in a 25-year career? Put another way: Now that the actress, like Cersei, has more clout than ever, what is she going to do with it?
‘A Yorkshire Lass’
To understand why Ms. Headey, 43, felt the pull of home after more than 20 years away, it helps to get a look at the place, at the magnificent swaths of countryside, stitched together with hedgerows and ancient stone walls.
“This made up a part of me when I was born,” she said as we drove through villages with names like Kirkburton and Thunder Bridge. “I’m a Yorkshire lass in my soul and in my heart.”
In a navy tank top and tattered jeans, her numerous tattoos exposed, she looked less likely to rule seven kingdoms than to front an art-punk trio. Her dark brown hair — concealed on the show initially by flowing blond tresses and now by a bobbed wig known on set as “the Turnip” — is cut in a shoulder-length shag that she tends to muss and tease in conversation. Her northern accent is rounder and softer than Cersei’s posh, crystalline one — “love” sounds like “loaf” — and is often deployed profanely.
Ms. Headey was born in Bermuda while her father was stationed there as a police officer. But she grew up in Highburton, a village of just over 3,000 residents, and as she drove she noted landmarks like the centuries-old cemetery where she used to drink cheap booze as “a wayward teen.”
“I’m really selling myself, aren’t I?” she said.
For all of their rustic charms, the villages of Yorkshire were less than nurturing for a young girl with artistic aspirations. In high school, she said, she told a guidance counselor she hoped to become an actor, only to be told that she should instead work in a shop “to get the social aspect you’re craving.”
Nevertheless she persisted, and a national theater competition in London brought Ms. Headey, then 17, to the attention of Susie Figgis, a noted casting director. “She was just this wonderful, fresh country girl,” Ms. Figgis recalled.
She cast her in “Waterland,” a 1992 literary adaptation starring Jeremy Irons and Ethan Hawke, and soon the country girl was off to London. She spent the 1990s and early 2000s appearing in films notable (“The Remains of the Day,” “The Jungle Book”) and forgotten (“The Parole Officer”), as well as a string of British television series. Her most high-profile part came in 2007 as a strong-willed queen in Zack Snyder’s “300,” a film better remembered for writhing beefcake captured with then-innovative chroma key cinematography.
She later reprised the role in a sequel, but it was a little-seen indie film from 2010 called “Pete Smalls Is Dead” that had the more lasting impact. During filming, her co-star Peter Dinklage mentioned “this mad thing” he was reading for HBO, adding that “there’s this great part for his sister, who’s this incestuous psychopath,” Ms. Headey recalled.
“I thought she would be a good fit for Cersei because anyone as funny as Lena is can also plumb the darkest depths,” Mr. Dinklage, who plays Cersei’s heroic brother Tyrion, wrote in an email. “The two always go hand in hand.”
In auditions for “Game of Thrones,” Ms. Headey separated herself, the creators David Benioff and D. B. Weiss explained in a joint email, by straying “far from the Evil Ice Queen stereotype,” and capturing the internal tension of a woman destined for privilege, subjugation and loss in equal measure.
“Lena was the only one who conveyed the discomfort that comes with being Cersei — the sense of perpetual scrutiny and besiegement that comes with her position in the world, a position she never chose,” they wrote.
While Cersei is known for her acid tongue and signature lines (“You win or you die”; “Power is power”), some of her most memorable moments feature few words. These include the walk of shame and her explosive coup d’état last season, in which her rivals assembled inside the Great Sept, expecting to persecute Cersei, only to be incinerated when she blew up the church instead.
As Cersei surveys the destruction from a balcony, her bloody redemption plays out in her expression, cycling from cruel resolve to cool reflection to, finally, delight at claiming the power she’s long coveted.
“She can do more with a look than most of us can with a couple pages of dialogue,” said Conleth Hill, who plays the cagey eunuch Varys.
Viewers shouldn’t expect any radical changes just because she’s now on the Iron Throne, Ms. Headey said. The reign of Cersei I will be based in the same sort of self-serving, Lannister-promoting strategy we’ve seen before, just with fewer restraints.
Cersei’s redeeming quality throughout “Game of Thrones” has been her devotion to her children, born of incest with her twin brother, Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). Her fear for their safety and the things she did to ensure it has driven much of the action on “Game of Thrones.” Though those children are now dead, the fear remains.
“Power hungry people are fearful, otherwise why wouldn’t you just chill?” Ms. Headey said.
As she is reviewing the state of House Lannister, we’re sitting outside House Headey, a graceful 19th-century Georgian manor at the top of a hill, fronted with towering birch trees. It is a historically significant home that she found filled with green carpet and reeking of “decay and sadness.” Renovations took nearly a year — she moved in last month.
Her parents, both retired, live minutes away, and they — more than anything — are what brought her back.
“I would’ve stayed in L.A. and played the game, but I want my kids to have a bit of grounding,” she said. “In the last two weeks, my son has said to my dad, ‘I just want to be like you, Grandpa.’”
“That confirms to me,” she added, her voice catching, “that we did a good thing.”
“We” includes her fiancé, Dan Cadan, a filmmaker Ms. Heady has known since childhood but started dating only a few years ago, after her divorce from the musician Peter Loughran. They have a 2-year-old daughter, Teddy, along with Wylie, 7, Ms. Headey’s son from her previous marriage. Mr. Cadan proposed this spring, and they’re planning a wedding for next summer.
“I always said to him, ‘Don’t ever ask me to marry you, it’s a disaster,’” she said. “But it actually feels really wonderful.”
Her cynicism stemmed from her 2013 divorce, which led to “some tough years” that she “tried to put into Cersei in a way that was cathartic for me, otherwise I’d have had a meltdown,” she said. Aside from the emotional strain, as a private person she was horrified to see details about settlements and custody hearings spill out into the news media.
Things are now civil, she said, and her ex-husband, who also returned to England, remains active in their son’s life. “We got through it, but it was a [expletive],” she said. Friends like Mr. Hill declined to discuss the matter, but attested that a weight had clearly been lifted.
“The last time I saw her in London,” he said, “she seemed a couple of years younger.”
‘We Love a Good Backlash’
At least once a week, generally, Ms. Headey takes a train to London for meetings, voice-over work and other bill-paying endeavors. The morning after our Yorkshire tour, she took the two-hour ride through farmland so she could voice a Mercedes ad and rerecord some dialogue for “Game of Thrones.”
She had picked me up early, and we made a Starbucks stop that turned into an impromptu selfie session with the drive-through workers, as I tried, rather pathetically, to hide.
— Brooklyn (@JungleBrook) June 15, 2017
Starring on the biggest television show in the world brings plenty of such overtures, like more awkward photo requests — say, while sunbathing nearly naked in Ibiza — to a steady stream of pilgrims who want to tip a goblet with Cersei, the Baryshnikov of TV wine drinking.
But most common are fans channeling Septa Unella, the malignant nun who scolded Cersei during her infamous walk of atonement through Kings Landing in Season 5. (“Shame! Shame!”) Perhaps most egregious was a nurse who got caught up in the moment while helping Ms. Headey breast-feed in her hospital room, shortly after giving birth to her daughter. The story ends with the nurse, nipples in hand, chanting “Shame” as “she’s milking me like a human cow,” Ms. Headey said.
“I was flying on morphine, so it was sort of funny,” she said. “Had I been vaguely in the world, I might have been more offended.”
She is still baffled by criticism she received from fans for using a body double for that scene, which she did, she said, to focus on the emotions of the moment rather than on being naked as a mob pelted her with garbage.
But such real-world shaming is par for the course with “Game of Thrones,” a hot-take magnet for its occasionally stunning moments of violence, cruelty and, most controversial, scenes of sexual violence. “We love a good backlash,” Ms. Headey quipped. She starred in one such scene, in Season 4, when Jaime forced Cersei into sex beside the still-cooling corpse of their son Joffrey. Ms. Headey and others on the show insist it wasn’t rape, though it looked like it to the rest of the world. She remains mystified why this scene between two toxic lovers would draw more ire than, say, “a man up North taking his children to the White Walkers,” she said, referring to one of the show’s many outlandishly horrendous people.
I countered that depicting rape is more charged because it actually exists in the world, and for a moment her usual good cheer curdled into Cersei-esque contempt.
“I do understand that, sir — reality versus fantasy,” she said, in the withering deadpan of a woman who has endured her share of mansplaining over the years.
Ms. Headey is matter-of-fact about “the boys’ club” that dominates the entertainment industry. “You grow up in it, and you learn to infiltrate it,” she said, though sometimes it’s not so easy. As a young actress, she faced pressure to sleep with powerful men, she said, adding that “I never played the game.” On later jobs like “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles,” a short-lived Fox series in which she played the title role, “my voice was very quickly ignored and my opinions were very much not wanted,” she said.
These days things are different — starring on a global phenomenon will do that for you. As she plots out her post-“Thrones” path, she is using the opportunity to make sure she is the one shaping the message.
As evil queen roles come rolling in, she is instead developing her own films. These include an adaptation of “H Is for Hawk,” the Helen Macdonald novel, which she is starring in and producing with Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment, as well as a dream project about Grace O’Malley, a female pirate in 16th-century Ireland. She also hopes to create more opportunities for female filmmakers, she said, and also do some directing herself.
She is less excited about simply acting for hire but did recently shoot “The Flood,” a small indie film about the refugee crisis in Europe, an issue she cares about deeply, and more surprising, a wrestling dramedy with Dwayne Johnson called “Fighting With My Family.” Both films are due out next year.
Otherwise she plans to finish moving into her house and generally take it easy until filming starts this fall on the final season of “Game of Thrones.” Like everyone else on the show, she faces an uncertain fate, but at least will finally learn who winds up on the Iron Throne in the end.
“It can’t be me because I’m already there,” she said. “So I’m [expletive].”