Photo by James Naylor.
Hannah Murray is reflecting on her not-so-pretty role as Gilly in HBO’s fantasy hit Game Of Thrones.
“People sometimes say that I look better in real life, which I’m quite pleased about because I think I look really rubbish in the show. But then I always think that, because they still recognise me, I can’t look that much better.”
It’s mid-July and an uncharacteristic English summer sun is threatening to frazzle her pale complexion ahead of this feature’s photo shoot in Richmond Park. Strangely enough, such a climate echoes a key scene in her new film God Help The Girl, in which in aspiring band of three young friends bond over a day out in the countryside on a similarly uncharacteristic Glaswegian summer’s day.
God Help The Girl is based on Belle And Sebastian’s concept album of the same name, with the twee indie-poppers’ leader Stuart Murdoch making his directorial debut. Murray plays posh English girl Cassie, the eternally upbeat counterpoint to her angsty friends Eve (Emily Browning) and James (Olly Alexander, of Years & Years). All three core cast members share a love for the band that they were “constantly trying to hide” from their director.
She continues: “I got into Belle And Sebastian when I was about 14 and particularly at that age they were really, really important to me. I think that’s one of the really amazing things about Stuart, is that he wrote these songs about female adolescent experience that completely spoke about what I was going through. I think that’s why he’s been able to write this film, which has two such strong female leads that feel really honest.”
A rare film that will easily pass the Bechdel test, God Help The Girl follows the trio’s voyage of self-discovery and growing pains through a mixture of narrative and musical performances from the cast, which range from the intimate and naturalistic to a huge set-piece based in a seniors club, which recalls the flamboyant extravagances of movie/music classics from the past.
Yet such a film is nothing without the interplay between its characters. Cassie possesses an almost naive confidence that allows her to drive her often self-defeating friends to push on with the band.
“I think we lose that attitude far too quickly, and I think it’s a really important aspect of trying to be creative, to keep that youthful naivety and innocence. I think it’s a very interesting contrast between Eve, who is a super talented girl, but who finds it so hard to even just make it through the day, and Cassie, who’s so happy and not necessarily gifted. I thought it was a really interesting film about creativity and what that means: the struggles; how much it’s self-indulgent, and how much that’s a good thing.”
“I think it’s a really important aspect of trying to be creative, to keep that youthful naivety and innocence.”
As a teenager, Murray wanted to be a vet, but a local theatre production titled Doctor’s Quirkey’s Good Emporium (a surreal mix and mash of woodland animals, aliens and politicians) inspired a eureka moment that realigned her ambitions. Eventually she joined the Bristol Old Vic youth theatre and was soon hurtling into a key role in the early seasons of Skins as Cassie. Stranger still, just like God Help The Girl’s Eve, Skins’ Cassie also faced an on-going battle with anorexia.
“That’s a fair comment,” she concurs. “I think they both find the world really difficult; like finding your experience of the world being really quite painful and not understanding why and being quite introspective. I relate more to Eve, but I’d like to be more like Cassie. Most people would probably be happier if they were more like Cassie.”
With Game Of Thrones’ Gilly a character inherently informed by years of abuse within her upbringing, Murray prepared for the role – which seems to grow season-upon-season – by reading up on the Josef Fritzl case. Is it daunting to commit to such a level of darkness for so long?
“As much as it’s a long-term project, it’s also so vast in terms of the number of characters and the number of different stories they’re telling that I think people are often quite unaware of how in-and-out it is. It’s not like I’m stuck for six months dealing with that subject matter every single day. I do think it’s been handled really well by the show. For me it’s made the character of Gilly so fascinating, because whatever situation she’s in, even if it’s quite ordinary, she’s come from such a darkly sheltered place and her view on the world has been so shut down and made so negative. To think about how that influences someone’s worldview, I found that really interesting.”
She attributes the show’s continuing appeal to a mixture of presenting fantasy themes in a manner that would appeal to people who might otherwise be turned off by the genre, as well as for the freedom that HBO allows to its creative team.
“I think quality will always win out over a show that’s trying to appeal to a wide audience in a watered-down way. There aren’t any other TV shows like it, and there particularly weren’t any when it first came out. Something that’s unique and good is a winning formula.”
Does Murray’s growing reputation enable her to exercise more control over her career?
“I don’t know if you can keep a tab on your level of fame and renown and then work out how it correlates to your success because I think that all of that stuff is so relative. You can be incredibly well respected in a certain area or by certain people for a project that other people will never care about or never even hear about. I’ve learned that I don’t just want to be a cog in the wheel; I want to be able to contribute in other ways. I don’t really have an overarching ambition. I want to be proud of the work I do.”