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The Secrets to Playing a Notorious Villain

Carice van Houten couldn’t be more unlike her devious Game of Thrones character

In a television series celebrated for its bad-ass bad guys, the character of one particular woman enjoys special status: Melisandre. She’s the apocalyptic, seductive, deeply evil priestess who, with a knowing little smile, likes to say things like, “The night is dark and full of terrors.”

 In Game of Thrones Season 5, which kicked off April 12th, the word among the wise (OK, OK, those who’ve read the book this season is based on, by George R.R. Martin) is that Melisandre is going to get even worse. The first response to this news is: How is that even possible? She whispers war strategy in the ear of would-be king Stannis Baratheon, tries to bring to life her annihilating visions of the future, sets people on fire for fun and, most memorably, turns a sex romp with Stannis into giving birth to a smoke monster who slays Stannis’s over-confident kid brother.

Even Carice van Houten, the Dutch actress and singer who plays Melisandre, was startled when she read the scripts for Season 5. “It was quite something,” she says. Of the audience, she thought, “They’re not going to like me more.”

If you’re wondering if meeting van Houten is like being in the presence of Melisandre, the answer is a definite NO. She’s prettier in person, with glowing pale skin and huge blue eyes, and darts around gracefully in towering Dior shoes. When talking about the phenomenon of Game of Thrones, she smiles and yes, even laughs. Playing Melisandre “doesn’t come naturally to me,” she admits. “Most of the things I’ve done in my own country are much lighter, witty, even nerdy. Or I play women who are fragile, vulnerable, someone who is in doubt or in pain.”

Right. All those qualities? Not a bit like Melisandre. In the season premiere, she hits on Kit Harrington’s Jon Snow in an elevator (“Are you a virgin?” “No.” “Good.”) and (spoiler alert!) happily sets fire to one of the show’s few decent men, Mance Rayder, played by Ciaran Hinds, in a gruesome death that was the talk of the Internet immediately afterward.

“It’s my first time playing someone who is so sure of herself,” van Houten says of Melisandre. “She’s highly intelligent, in control, so convicted, such a believer.” But what does she do with her own sense of humor? “I sometimes try out a little joke, but they cut them out.”

Playing this role can be draining, she says. “At the end of the day, I am so tired.” What brings her back to life:  listening to music, getting a massage, and enjoying dinner with cast-mates Stephen Dillane (Stannis) and Liam Cunningham (Davos.) “I love being around these two guys—we’re a great trio.”

Van Houten will be seen in four big-screen dramas in the next year: Incarnate, with Aaron Eckhart; I Feel Fine, with Dominic West; Race, with Jason Sudeikis and Jeremy Irons (she plays Leni Riefenstahl); and Brimstone, with Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasikowska.

But, she says wistfully, what she’d really love to do is another comedy. “If I’m in a room with people and they see the nerd I actually am, they wouldn’t cast me for anything else.”