Lena Headey: Free to Be Funny
From Westeros to Watergate, the actress enjoys playing characters who kick against "the throbbing maleness" of their worlds.
Before Lena Headey made her screen debut as a teenager in the early 1990s, she had been thinking about becoming a hairdresser — and to this day, she can still provide a quick trim if a loved one is in need. ("I'm pretty tasty with a razor," she says.) But there's one famous cut she won't give, even to her worst enemy. It's the crude chop that was inflicted on her character Cersei Lannister for her walk of shame on Game of Thrones. She calls it "The Turnip," adding that she doesn't miss the itchy wig. "The Turnip was brutal!" she says with a chortle.
Headey has an earthy sense of humor, but she rarely gets to use it onscreen. So it's ironic that it was on the set of one of her rare comedies — Pete Smalls Is Dead — that Peter Dinklage first suggested she read for Thrones. "He was like, 'You're going to dig it.'"
Embodying the bitter Westerosi queen catapulted Headey into worldwide fame and brought her five Emmy nominations, but since Thrones ended — and along with it, Cersei's reign — Headey has found it isn't the professional calling card she had wanted. Most of the roles she gets offered these days are the same: evil women. "I get why," she says, "but it's also like, I don't want to just take those jobs. I hold out for things that I really want to do."
So she was happy to play Dorothy Hunt in the new limited series White House Plumbers — premiering May 1 on HBO and HBO Max — based on the true story of the bumbling Watergate burglars who failed to sabotage President Richard Nixon's political opponents. Headey's character describes herself as "just a suburban hausfrau," but she's not just that. She's a CIA asset, a Watergate paymistress and — as her husband says — "a veritable Bond girl." As the smartest of the operatives, Dorothy is able to pick apart doomed plans and unleash brilliantly cutting remarks that often fly over their intended targets' heads.
"That was really fun to play," Headey says. "Just the madness of Dorothy thinking, 'They're all idiots and I'm the only sane one in the room.'"
Sure, Dorothy shares some similarities with Cersei — they both love their children, they both hold their marriages together with spit and spite and they both fight against, as Headey puts it, "the throbbing maleness" of their worlds. But Dorothy's brand of humor isn't as subtle as Cersei's. Shooting a sex scene with Woody Harrelson (playing Dorothy's husband, E. Howard Hunt) was pure fun because she didn't have to hide any disdain. "Dorothy's thinking, 'Oh God, get off me,'" she says.
"I've never really been allowed to be this funny before," Headey observes. "It was like being let out of the gates."
Next up, she'd relish the chance to do more outrageous comedy, in which "nothing is held back." For now, she's enjoying the fact that her latest character "didn't have to wear a Turnip cut — Dorothy had glorious hair."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #3, 2023, under the title, "Queen of Comedy."