Lena Headey explains why she chose not to be naked while filming of the walk of shame scene. The cast and crew remember one of the most iconic sequences from Game of Thrones.
If someone asked you to name the most iconic sequence from Game of Thrones, a few scenes would likely jump to mind. The Red Wedding is an obvious contender. Ned Stark’s execution is another. And then there’s Cersei Lannister’s walk of atonement, a sequence so powerful that — to this day — if I hear an errant bell ring for any reason, I automatically think “shame.”
This scene finds Cersei having to strip naked on the order of the High Sparrow and to walk through the streets of King’s Landing while being jeered at by the peasants. The High Sparrow’s stated reason for making Cersei endure this is so she can demonstrate remorse for confessing to sleeping with her cousin Lancel, but really it’s to take her power away and declaw her as a political rival in the city. “It was a punishment directed at women to break their pride, and Cersei is defined by her pride,” A Song of Ice and Fire author George R.R. Martin says in the new book Fire Cannot Kill a Dragon: Game of Thrones and the Official Untold Story of the Epic Series.
“They’re trying to shame her,” said showrunner David Benioff. “They’re trying to humiliate her as much as they possibly can. It’s supposed to be like a scene from a nightmare. And the nightmare is you’re walking naked in front of a city of people. It’s a common anxiety dream to be naked in front of people. I don’t think it’s as common that you’re in your pajamas in front of people. It’s much more horrific if they’ve just completely dehumanized you and taken off all your clothes and you have nothing to hide behind.”
Based on the real-life punishment in 1483 of King Edward IV mistress Jane Shore, the sequence posed a challenge to the production team. To start, a church in Dubrovnik, Croatia — the city that had long stood in for King’s Landing — objected to the sequence as going against a city policy against “public displays of sexuality.” The GoT team still managed to get permission, but that was only one issue. Another was that Lena Headey, who plays Cersei, did not want to appear nude, since she didn’t think she could do that and still give the performance she needed to.
“I chose not to be naked for many reasons,” Headey said. “[After the episode aired] some people thought I was less of an actress because I didn’t get my t*ts out. That was really a bit shocking. I’ve done nudity. I’m not averse to it. But I’m a very emotional actor, and I get really driven by that. In order to do my job, I allow myself to be very vulnerable. I don’t know any other way to do my job. Things really affect me.”
The thought of being naked for three days and trying to contain her in the way she would be… I think I would feel very angry. I didn’t want to be angry. I don’t think Cersei would be angry. I film every year and I have kids and it was just too much on top of that.
The solution everyone came up with was to hire actor Rebecca Van Cleave. She played Cersei’s body, and Headey’s face was later added in with digital effects. The two actors worked together to make sure they were as much in sync as possible, walking through the location as a team beforehand. “It was as helpful for her as she was for me,” Headey recalled. “She was very cool and brave. It takes a lot to walk through the crowd naked for three days with the crowd braying at you. I didn’t phone it in; I was there for three days with Rebecca.”
As for the actual shoot, the production team did everything it could to make sure the actors were protected, lining as many view lines as possible with umbrellas. “[W]e wanted to make sure just everybody behaved and was respectful of the situation, and we didn’t want to offend anybody,” said executive producer Bernadette Caulfield. “We left very little exposed, so to speak.”
Still, at the end of the day it was still a scene where actors had to walk through a crowd of people jeering at them. It was an intense experience for Van Cleave. “The first time I took off the robe there was all this anticipation building up to it,” she said. “But it’s such an emotional experience for Cersei, you almost check out of the fact that you’re nude. You’re so in touch with the scene and what you’re going for.”
“It’s not hard when people are screaming at you and you look like sh** and you’re being f**king humiliated [to express] how that would feel,” Headey added. “I did what I thought she would do emotionally. And wonderful Rebecca was able to contain herself and be naked. She found it very difficult, obviously. It’s not a natural thing to do.”
As brutal as it was to make, the sequence ended up being incredibly powerful. I remember being struck by how long it lasted; they really wanted you to feel what it was like to be in Cersei’s shoes, to the point where I felt sympathy for a character who was pretty vile in most respects.
“It was one of the scariest, most wonderful experiences I could have imagined,” Van Cleave said. “I never in a million years would have thought I would be in Dubrovnik surrounded by hundreds of crew members and extras throwing food, but it was an amazing and gratifying experience. It helped me; I feel stronger than ever now.”
In the end, the walk was the turning point for Cersei it needed to be. And her story wasn’t over. “The thing about Cersei is that she’s never going to be fully broken,” Headey said. “There’s something in her that’s vengeful and angry and survivalist. You can break every bone in her body, but if there’s one left, she will fix it.”
Fire Cannot Kill a Dragon is available now!