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Gwendoline Christie on the ‘Unconventional’ Women of ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’

Game of Thrones” fans are already familiar with Gwendoline Christie in her guise as the honorable Brienne of Tarth, but audiences are about to see a very different side of the statuesque thesp thanks to roles in winter’s two biggest films — the final installment of the “Hunger Games” franchise, “Mockingjay – Part 2,” and Episode VII of cinema’s most beloved sci-fi franchise, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

For Christie, a classically trained method actor who graduated from Drama Centre London, the most compelling aspect of all three projects is their commitment to diversity, especially in regards to providing roles for women that eschew the traditional, often stereotypical narratives that many female characters are forced to follow in film.

“It’s great to be involved in three big franchises, but [they’re] big three big franchises that are looking to expand our consciousness about each other as human beings, and that’s very exciting,” Christie noted during a recent interview with Variety. “They are three enormous things — however, the quality of the writing and the concepts are very, very well developed and very relevant, so everyone seems engaged in the excitement of what these things are doing. All three projects are incredibly progressive, so it feels as though everyone’s caught up with the idea of that, and everyone’s dedicated to giving their absolute best and honoring the set of ideas and setting them forth into the world.”

Christie’s “Star Wars” character, Captain Phasma, has been a source of fascination for fans since images of the military leader’s distinctive armor first appeared in the trailer, and unlike the original “Star Wars” trilogy, in which David Prowse gave the physical performance for Darth Vader on set while James Earl Jones provided the villain’s iconic voice, Christie told Variety that she was able to embody the character completely during filming, at the insistence of director J.J. Abrams.

“It was very important to J.J. that I was there acting a part,” she noted. “I found it to be a really interesting acting challenge, not just because of what I felt this character was representing — and it was just what I felt, and we talked about it a little bit, but it was never like a manifesto, ‘this is what it must be’ — and it was exciting to me to have that weight of responsibility taken away, of having to be a certain way as a woman, to have to be mindful in a way that isn’t always useful. To have that stripped away was very liberating, and it meant that as an actor I had to focus on other things. I had to focus on what my body was communicating and what exactly my voice is communicating.”

She added, “It becomes about the way in which you hold your hand, the way in which you walk, where your weight lies and what you want that to mean, and I wanted to give the character identity. I thought it was interesting to make something about the character identifiably female in a non-superficial way, and I hope that comes across.”

While outwardly it might be difficult to imagine that a “Star Wars” villain would share similarities with a “Game of Thrones” heroine, Christie admitted that she found one link between her roles. “I don’t think many female actors get the opportunity to play a part where they’re not having to think about the way their face looks, but I found exactly the same thing with Brienne of Tarth, and that was very liberating,” she said. “It was great as an actor to work on your skills — that it isn’t about holding your head so you look beautiful. It’s about what you’re transmitting, and to be in service of an idea greater than yourself, whether it’s the character’s overriding objective or, beyond that, hopefully something more sociopolitical. We have seen an image of [Phasma] and again, it’s an unconventional kind of woman exhibiting a kind of strength, but in a very different way to my other two characters.”

Christie also praised the position of the “Star Wars” official Facebook page, which eloquently shut down a sexist remark from one commenter, who recently observed that Captain Phasma’s armor didn’t identify her as female. (Which is just as well, since “breasts” on a chestplate would likely kill the wearer.)

“It was beautiful because it was informative, which is what we all need in order to tackle prejudice of any kind in our world … to be fed information,” Christie said of the measured response. “That’s just my opinion, that education combats fear, and fear leads to prejudice — so if we all become more educated, and if our mainstream media continues to expand and show a more realistic representation of women and of men… For instance, in ‘The Hunger Games,’ Katniss is an incredible woman, but Peeta also is a different kind of male hero. He’s a different kind of male character because he has a rich emotional world and he isn’t the brawny steadfast man that we have seen again and again.”

As for “Game of Thrones,” which won a record 12 Emmys this year, Christie remains awed by the depth of storytelling and character opportunities for both women and men in the show. She recalled her first exposure to the books, telling Variety, “[I] totally fell in love with the character [of Brienne], but the books were so fascinating because the narratives were so unconventional. There were character viewpoints from women, and women were written about in a three-dimensional way with depth, with reality, with huge positivity and with faults — you’ve got human beings. And the only way I can sum it up is with a quote from George R. R. Martin … I remember he said this to me and I was so bowled over by his brilliant intelligence and insight, he said, ‘I’ve always thought of women as people.’ Its simplicity is beautiful. So I read these books and I thought ‘how fantastic — obviously they’ll cut down the women and just make them girlfriends for the TV show.’ And then when I received the scripts I saw that that wasn’t the case at all, and that David Benioff and Dan Weiss had honored the text and had brought it to life and continue to bring it to life further and further.”

“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2” hits theaters on Nov. 20; “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” bows on December 18, and “Game of Thrones” returns to HBO in Spring 2016.

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