On a nondescript hour of an ordinary day, I find myself eating lunch with the anything but ordinary Carice van Houten – in a cosy hotel restaurant, somewhere in the backwaters of her native Amsterdam. In The Netherlands, where she hails from, Carice is an uber-star – but in person she’s as self-deprecating, charming, and as down-to-earth as an actress of her calibre can be. The year 2013 was a huge one for her: she starred in the third season of HBO’s mega-smash Game of Thrones, played opposite Benedict Cumberbatch in controversial Julian Assange biopic The Fifth Estate, and released her debut album – See You On The Ice. I wonder which moment satisfied her the most in such a hectic year. She takes a sip from her Diet Coke and thinks for a while.
“I’m very lucky to be doing the things that I like. But it’s the music that makes me the happiest. That’s when I feel at my most creative. I mean, it’s great to be part of an ensemble show like Game of Thrones, and it’s amazing to shoot a movie like The Fifth Estate. But it’s like being a tiny little puppet … like being a little fish in a big pond, and I enjoy being more directive and being in control with what I make. Do you know what I mean?”
I do. I also understand why she’s so proud of her music: her debut LP is a quirky and eclectic collective of tracks, often delirious and zany – at times deeply melancholic – but almost always brandishing a brilliantly bizarre type of pop sensibility. I ask how much creative control she had on the LP.
“It’s so my language. That’s all me. Of course, I made it with great musicians that I really connected with, but there’s not a note on that album that has nothing to do with me. I’ve always sung. Always!” She laughs. In the flesh she’s impossibly beautiful: her skin is like pale porcelain, her eyes deep cyan pools you could easily drown in. And it’s when she talks about music that those eyes really crackle with excitement. I ask how this passion with music started.
“I did some musical theatre and rock musicals, but then once you get into the movies, there’s hardly any time to perform music. And you know… they don’t make great musical films anymore. But in between the acting I was always busy with songs, almost in a very anal way, pushing my music through my friend’s throats [laughs]. I’m the person at the party who will change the music, and that will go through your CD rack to find what I want!”
One track on her LP, Particle of Light, features Antony Hegarty – of the band Antony and the Johnsons. I ask how that collaboration came about, given that she also starred in the video to his song Cut the World, where she featured along with actor Willem Defoe.
“When I sang Particle of Light in the studio, I could just hear Antony’s voice all the time: that very unique sound that he has… I just heard it. So I thought – well you know, I can always ask him. So I called him up and said would you like you to sing on my record. And he said yeah I’ll do it, if you star in my video. So I was like hell, yeah, of course!”
Particle of Light is a beautiful track, one seemingly forged from opposing realms of joy and sorrow. A lot of the tracks on her album, I say, strive to fuse opposing dualities like happiness and sadness. Was there a deliberate attempt to strike a balance between conflicting forces?
“Yes. I guess there was. I’ve always loved the combination of light and shadow, of happy and sad, all at the same time. It’s something that Paul Verhoeven (her director from the 2006 movie Black Book) loves to work with – the fusion of opposites. I think I inherited that from him.”
She really captures my attention when she mentions light and shadow. They’re concepts that her character from Game of Thrones, Melisandre – an enigmatic, deeply powerful priestess – often referenced in her on-screen rhetoric. I’m intrigued to know how she’d feel if, given its ever-growing popularity, Melisandre should be the character she is remembered for?
“I’d be honoured, but for me I wish people would remember the music … because I feel it’s a vessel to show people the many different sides of my character – funny, sad, everything at once. As far as movies go I’m still waiting for a part that will showcase me in a more varied side to a wider audience. That’s why I love being in the studio and adopting a co-producing role – it allows me to translate a multi-faceted image to the listener.”
When we met earlier that day as she was being photographed, she was clasping in her hand a piece of paper, on which she’d written words to a new track, called “That Rainbow Song”. Rainbows are multi-faceted I say – I ask if that song is relevant to the conversation, what the song is about, and whether it will appear on her new album. “It’s about a man who has the chance to walk outside and redemption, but decides to continue to wallow in misery. The rainbow is just outside his door; he can see it, but he chooses to ignore it. I think we all know people like that …”
I wonder what’s round the corner for her and, if subject to no creative restraints, what would she do next? She tells me that her pet project is a movie about Greta Garbo, which she would co-produce and star in. Carice shows me some mock-up photos on her phone, where she looks uncannily like Greta in her prime. What attracts her to that biopic I wonder?
“She was such a complex character. Not just in her acting, but the fact that she could be so shy and yet she became the most famous actress in the world. Everyone wanted to know what she was doing, and she just wanted to be alone with her friends.”
I ask Carice what her relationship with the press is like. “It’s a part of the job. Talks like this – with someone who is genuinely interested and knowledgeable about what you do – they can be very therapeutic. But when someone says they want to sit down and talk about Game of Thrones, but all they really want to talk about is my ex, that’s hard. Stupidity is hard for me. I prefer people to be interested in what I do rather than the fame element of what they feel I represent.”
We say our goodbyes then. Glasses are drained and we shake hands. I feel that I understand her more. But more than that, I know that the next year for her will be another great chapter in the ever-impressive narrative arc of the career of Carice van Houten.
by Benji Taylor
All images by Justin van Vliet