Lena Headey is a presence. Not surprising considering a mere raise of her devilishly arched eyebrow sends all of Westeros into a panic on Game of Thrones, where she plays the cunning and frighteningly sinister Cersei Lannister. Though in real life, stripped of Cersei’s icy blonde wig, chalice of wine, and giant sidekick ready to crush some skulls on her command, that devilish brow raise comes with the delivery of some well-timed f-bombs and jokes about brother fucking.
Sitting in a hotel room in Midtown Manhattan, where right outside horses and carriages line up on the street to take tourists on romantic rides through Central Park, Headey talks about pile driving her only daughter in a musty wrestling ring. Well, her fictional daughter. The actress co-stars in Fighting With My Family, a comedy based on the life of Saraya-Jade Bevis (played by Florence Pugh), most famously known as WWE superstar Paige, who grew up in a family of wild but loving wrestlers in Norwich, England. Headey plays her mom, Julia, a pro wrestler and promoter who goes by the stage name Sweet Saraya. Paige, along with her brother Zak (Jack Lowden), dream of becoming big stars in the world of wrestling, idolizing the likes of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (who produced and appears in the film). The siblings get their shot at the big stage to vastly different outcomes, and we all see the rocky path Paige took to become the major WWE star she is today.
The film grew out of the documentary The Wrestlers: Fighting With My Family, which followed the Bevis family. Johnson caught the doc on TV during a restless night while in London filming Fast and Furious 6 and saw the big screen potential. Headey, too, caught the doc and was enamored by not only the story of the family, but with Julia, who overcame abuse, addiction, rape, and living on the streets through wrestling and the love she shared with her husband, Ricky (played by Nick Frost).
For the film, Headey trained tirelessly to become a wrestling powerhouse, flexing not just her camel clutches and chokeslams on screen but also her comedic chops. She sat down with VICE to talk fighting, lycra thongs, and finding yourself.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
VICE: So, did you ever think you’d end up pile driving your fictional daughter at some point in your career?
Lena Headey: I would have never had said that. Stranger things have happened. Have yet to happen.
Headey: I mean, you have sex with your brother and you pile drive your daughter. Is there a theme?
VICE: Familial relationships have been an ongoing theme in your career. [Editor’s note: For those not familiar with the ins and outs of Game of Thrones , Cersei Lannister has an ongoing sexual relationship with her brother, Jaime Lannister.]
Headey: She walks the line.
VICE: You know, it keeps things interesting. So I guess first off, how did you prepare for this? How did you come into this role?
Headey: I watched the documentary many years ago when it first came out and loved it. Loved it and loved the family. And because they are the most honest people I’ve ever seen and their love is out there. They’re sort of fuck-ups out there. Nothing is hidden with them. Then the script was written nine years later and I love Stephen Merchant [writer and director of the film, who co-created The Office] and he’s brilliant. His writing is brilliant and I loved it. I was like, I have to play Julia. I have to.
VICE: Specifically what about the role was the thing that grabbed you the most?
Headey: She, like Paige, is a really impressive woman. When you start to research Julia, I watched a lot of interviews of her, you understand her life and where she came from. It wasn’t easy. She survived a lot. And again, even talking about that part of her life, she’s vulnerable and full of strength. Well vulnerability is strength. There's such honesty and purity about her. And then you get this kind of bawdy comedian that she is. She’s kind of all sorts of things.
Nick Frost (left) and Lena Headey show off a makeshift Paige action figure. Photo courtesy of MGM.
VICE: As I watched the film, I thought there were so many moments of alluding to this very long traumatic history and being at a point of having really overcome a lot. I mean, I don’t know the full extend but yeah, was there anything you felt about that?
Headey: Yeah. Obviously the film wasn’t about that part of Julia, and Stephen was like, "even when she’s telling you these things, they’re kind of tinged with like…'anyway, do you want a cup of tea?'” And you're like, wait, did she just tell me something really deep and shocking? But that’s always in somebody. Your history comes with you. It doesn’t define you but you carry it.
VICE: Now I was very impressed with your moves. You know I’ve seen the bad bitchery in full effect on some of your other projects, on Game of Thrones, but this was another level. Like look at you throwin’ moves, knockin’ your daughter and your son and your husband out. Were there any moves in particular that you worked on and were like, I’m gonna nail this down?
Headey: Well I wanted to do some of the harder stuff, but you know they’re like “you might break Florence's neck or something" and you’re like, "OK, fair enough." But when you’re doing that physical stuff, if you love it, it’s really frustrating when they’re like, you can’t do that. I’m like “no, I can. I think I really can.” Also we did that fight really early on, so we got to know each other really well and that helped bond us as a family. Punching the shit out of each other.
VICE: If there’s one thing, I suppose, that’s going to do it.
Headey: Beating each other up and wearing lycra. Wearing stages of lycra. I was saying it’s disgusting. I could totally recognize every one of them by smell.
VICE: So the smells, Nick had a smell of...
Headey: I don’t know if I want to share the exact scent.
VICE: I’m just saying we could bottle this. Some merch opportunity here.
Headey: If you bring them in we can do this.
VICE: Well, you alluded a bit to the fashion. There was a very pop-punk look going. The red hair, the studded belt. This was a very era-specific look. How was it for you wearing that?
Headey: I mean, lovely. I enjoyed it. Julia’s ring persona, Saraya, is such a bad bitch. In the documentary she wrestles in denim hot pants that are up her ass. I was like “please, if you let me, please no. I can’t.” They were kind of there but they’re like up Julia’s ass. What I love about her is that she doesn’t give a fuck. She just engages with everybody. Kids. All women. She’s like “awww yeah.” That part of her I love when she’s out in the ring. Everybody’s fair game for her.
VICE: Are you planning on making any appearances at WWE?
Headey: If we could step in the ring a minute, it would be fun as fuck.
VICE: I mean, once again, just the gold lycra options.
Headey: Options. A big gold thong. I’m joking. Never.
VICE: You’re so funny in this movie. We kind of talked about this a bit before but there’s that alluding to Julia’s past and what saved her. Is there anything that had that deep of an impact on you?
Headey: Uhhh, yes. They’re pretty intense. But yeah, I’ve had moments like that.
VICE: It often puts you in a position where it’s like, this is where I’m at now and this is great. Headey: I think things happen and it’s a tricky one. They are some things that take a while to work through and some things never find the thing. I think it’s human resilience. And, in the end, loving yourself and realizing that you are what you are so you’ve got to accept that at some point, scars and all, and just persevere. Things are shit and things are great. Things are shit and things are really great. Things are fucking really shit. And that’s just, that’s the way.
VICE: Honestly, that came through in the movie. It came through really beautifully...in a movie where Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is screaming at people.
Headey: I mean, it’s one of my favorite moments.
VICE: It was really good.
Headey: Paige said today, I think it was Dwayne that said it to her, “your superhuman power is being yourself.” That really moved me. I was like, that’s true.
Fighting With My Family hits theaters Friday, February 22.
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