Game of Thrones started as a dark, rich, captivating fantasy epic. Over the years, however, the show kept getting darker, particularly in regards to how it treated its female characters, who seemed to increasingly bear the show’s most horrific, disturbing violence. Unfortunately, that also turns out to have been the case on the other side of the camera on at least one occasion.
Speaking with Collider’s Ladies Night After Hours, actor Hannah Waddingham — who you may be more familiar with due to her more recent role in Ted Lasso — talked about her experiences playing Septa Unella, a member of the cult-like Church of the Seven who inflicted the bulk of misery Cersei (Lena Headey) received when she was imprisoned by the Sparrows. Septa Unella was also the one who sadistically enjoyed screaming “Shame!” Shame!” as she forced the queen to walk, naked, all the way to the Red Keep under the eyes of her subjects. Cersei being Cersei, there was no way Unella was not going to pay for the cruelty and indignity she heaped upon the queen. When we next saw her, in the season six finale, “The Winds of Winter,” Unella was tied to a wooden table, and Cersei was pouring pitchers of wine onto the captive’s face.
I certainly assumed that there was some special effect involved so that Waddingham wasn’t actually having liquid poured on her face for hours, over and over. I was wrong and Waddingham had a lot to say about it. Gizmodo has reached out for comment from HBO and has not received a response at time of publishing. We’ll update if we hear back. [Note: Before you go on, we want to mention Waddingham goes into great detail about her experience here and it’s not easy to read.]
Speaking to Collider, Waddingham explained what she went through like this: “There I was strapped to a wooden table with proper big straps for 10 hours. And definitely, other than childbirth, it was the worst day of my life. Because Lena was uncomfortable pouring liquid in my face for that long, and I was beside myself. But in those moments you have to think, do you serve the piece and get on with it or do you chicken out and go, ‘No, this isn’t what I signed up for, blah, blah, blah?’ And then, the funny thing was, after we’d finished shooting it for the whole day, and people like Miguel Sapochnik, the director by the way, walking past with a cup of tea and a sandwich on-the-go and going, ‘Hi, honey, you all right?’ And I was like, ‘Not really.’ ‘The crew have just been saying we are actually really waterboarding you here.’ And I was like, ‘Yup, you don’t need to tell me that!’”
Did episode director Miguel Sapochnik really not know what was being done to Waddingham? Because it seems like someone should have known and put a stop to it. There were, unsurprisingly, physical ramifications to getting authentically tortured: “I could barely speak because I had been screaming through the Mountain’s hand, which is quite frightening as a singer to completely lose your voice, so I had no voice at all to barely whisper, bruises already coming up like I had been attacked and I was like, ‘I’ve basically just been waterboarded for 10 hours.”
And there were other consequences, too: “I hadn’t even realised that it definitely gave me claustrophobia around water. Definitely. I hadn’t realised until I watched a program where the camera’s down on the actor’s face and they’re being dipped into the water, but you see them face-up to the camera, and I got in a terrible panic about it. And I actually went and had a bit of a chat to somebody about it, because it’s quite full-on being waterboarded for 10 hours, and then only one minute and 30 seconds can be used on camera.”
Waddingham goes into more detail about her experiences filming the scene over at Collider, very little of which is good (although she is proud of her work as an actor). She did manage to clarify that the scene was originally planned to be even more horrific than what we ended up seeing on screen, as it was supposed to end with undead knight the Mountain (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson) raping Unella, continuing Game of Thrones’ lurid obsession with showing women get sexually assaulted. Waddingham credits the public uproar over Sansa’s rape scene in season five with the change.