Every rose has its thorn, and as the Queen of Thorns on Game of Thrones, the regal Dame Diana Rigg became a fan favorite with her first acerbic quip about cream and udders. But she had no idea her performance would draw in a new army of followers, decades after her days as a Bond girl and as Emma Peel on The Avengers.
And, no, she also doesn’t know anything about those internet memes. But she does laugh at the thought of Olenna Tyrell wearing shades while throwing shade.
“Obviously, it’s great that has happened, and great it was a young audience — terrific,” Rigg tells EW over the phone from London, looking back on her role almost a year after her final episode (and ahead of the show’s much anticipated conclusion). “That’s the nature of my profession. The young, I don’t expect them to know about my past, but if, through Game of Thrones, they discover me, that’s good.”
When showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss looked to the dame to fill the role of Lady Olenna — once described by Cersei (Lena Headey) as “the tart-tongued” matriarch of House Tyrell — Westeros was unknown to Rigg. All she knew was that the scripts were masterfully crafted.
“I loved the complexity of Olenna,” she recalls. “She was a political woman, and she played the game brilliantly. Anything and everything executed ruthlessly for the survival of her family, which is historical in a way, like the Borgias and various other famous families.”
The trips to Northern Ireland and Croatia were an added perk. “I love locations, I love traveling,” says Rigg, having only just returned from a trip to France. “Locations, for the most part, have always been interesting. To begin with, it was Croatia, and that was wonderful because I’d never been to Croatia, and on my days off I’d do some exploring. Belfast, also, I didn’t really know. So it was an opportunity to explore these places and get to know them.”
Rigg spent a week with her castmates in Croatia to film the Purple Wedding during production on season 4. “I loved that location, it was absolutely beautiful,” she says. “I remember one early scene in which I had a huge list to learn of what my army needed in terms of food and transport. It was a great big endless list, and I remember as I learned it thinking, ‘Are they testing my memory because of my age?’ I did it in one take, so that was okay.”
Natalie Dormer, who portrayed Olenna’s granddaughter Margaery, remembers “playing a lot of Words With Friends” and “a lot of Scrabble around on iPads” during that week to help pass the time in the sweltering summer months. “Diana Rigg beat everybody,” she remembers. “I think she even beat David Benioff, and that’s saying something.
“She’s a legend,” Dormer adds. “Respect is shutting up and listening. Just that dynamic of a younger actress and someone with as much experience as Diana is what I call NAR, which is ‘no acting required.’ She’s one of the earliest feminist figures on our screen. She’s one of the original ’60s feminists.”
As Olenna, Rigg never gave veiled threats. She would say, “What veil?” The twist of her words yielded far more snaps from Thrones watchers than any twist of a knife. Then, in the third episode of season 7, she gave her final mic drop and redefined the meaning of “famous last words.”
Rigg doesn’t miss her role per se. She chalks it up to the nature of her profession: “You move on.” But she does miss her shared scenes with Charles Dance (Tywin Lannister), having worked with him years earlier, notably on the 1997 British adaptation of Rebecca. The actress calls it “one of the great pleasures of the show” to be able to work with actors like Dance and Julian Glover (Grand Maester Pycelle).
“I don’t know that I’ll miss her,” Rigg says of Olenna. “I enjoyed her hugely, and I’m very grateful for the new audience that she’s brought me.… I was extremely grateful that I didn’t die on the lavatory or in some rather undignified manner. It’s in the nature of this series, isn’t it, that people are dispensed with quite often? The fact that I’d been kept alive for far longer than the original author [George R.R. Martin] had intended seemed to me that I had a pretty good run for my money, and I was perfectly philosophical about being killed off.”
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