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You might not know the name Gwendoline Christie yet, but you’ll recognise her immediately, whether as the scene-stealing warrior Brienne of Tarth in Game of Thrones; or as Captain Phasma, the first female villain in Star Wars, who debuted in The Force Awakens and returned in The Last Jedi; or as Commander Lyme, the leader of District 13 and a former champion in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2.

“A humanity so moving”

At six foot five, Gwendoline is hard to miss, “a real expansion of the idea of how women ‘should’ be,” according to Jane Campion, director of Top of the Lake: China Girl, a 2018 Golden Globe nominee for Best Limited Series that is now streaming only on Showmax in Africa.

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Jane cast Gwendoline as her third lead alongside 2018 Golden Globe winners Elisabeth Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale) and Nicole Kidman (Big Little Lies) in the second season of her Emmy and Golden Globe winning crime series, praising her as having a “humanity so moving and touching.”

Gwendoline Christie in Top Of The Lake: China Girl on Showmax
Gwendoline Christie as Miranda Hilmarson in Top of the Lake: China Girl. Image: BBC

Gwendoline plays Miranda Hilmarson, a police constable partnered with police detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth), who has just returned to Sydney and is trying to rebuild her life. When the body of an Asian girl washes up on Bondi Beach, there appears little hope of finding the killer, until they realise ‘China Girl’ didn’t die alone: she was a surrogate carrying a child for a desperate couple.

A new way of looking at the world

Gwendoline had wanted to work with Jane since seeing her Oscar winner, The Piano, as a teenager. “When I was at drama school, I used to go home and watch The Piano regularly, and I’d fall asleep to it. So it really was a part of my world, and it helped me to see the world in a different way. I realised I was not just looking at a story through the eyes of a great artist but I was looking at the story through the eyes of a female director. And that wasn’t something I’d had a huge amount of experience of, and in that 15-year-old state, when your body’s changing, everything’s changing, you’re going through adolescence, it was reassuring to me that there was the scope for a new way of looking at the world. A way of looking at the world that spoke to me as a woman, that said something about the experience of what it is to be female in a way that wasn’t a protest, it wasn’t a statement, it just existed. And it existed in a state of beauty, complexity, and extreme depth. I found it very profound. That has definitely had its space in shaping the way I view the world and the way that I want to work.”

Landing a dream job

She reached out to Jane after seeing the first season of Top of the Lake. “I fell in love with it. I thought it was the most brilliant series. I thought that Elisabeth Moss was brilliant, ravishingly brilliant, and everyone was so real. And the humour, the incredible humour. The relationships between the characters were so complex and so real, I really wanted to be a part of it. And so I contacted Jane and a miracle happened. She sent me back a very nice message. And then about six months later, I got a phone call from her saying that after she read my letter she started dreaming about me and she’d written a part for me in her new series. So it’s really extraordinary.”

Gwendoline calls the season two scripts “absolutely the most darkly hilarious thing I’ve ever read. It’s a piercing stare into the core of what it is to be human. That’s why the drama is so painful and so funny – because it’s true.”

She says Top of the Lake: China Girl “is an exploration into a subject that doesn’t get enormous amount of airtime in TV shows – what it is to be a woman, at many ages.” Watch now »

Top of the Lake: China Girl is on Showmax
Image: BBC

Representing women in the margins

Gwendoline has built her career on playing unconventional women. “I’ve always wanted to play parts outside conventional norms – that’s why it was so brilliant when I was given the opportunity to play Brienne of Tarth in Game of Thrones. I enjoy giving voice to a section of society that is not being given a voice. I don’t play conventional women. I’ve been enormously lucky that those sorts of roles are starting to appear in entertainment. I truly hope that I can continue to represent unconventional women. My interest lies in the margins of society. I never expect results. But if even one person feels heard or feels stronger as a result of watching my work, then I think I’ve done my job.”

Playing her polar opposite

But part of the appeal of playing Miranda was the opportunity to explore a more traditionally feminine role. “I’ve been very lucky in my work in that I’ve explored characters that are considered to be traditionally more masculine, and it’s interesting for me to move that journey on and explore those aspects of womanhood that are considered to be conventional. This character is enormously different from me and is the opposite of what I’ve been known for. I’ve been very lucky to have the opportunity to play women who are strong and overcome obstacles and use what’s different about them to help. They laugh in the face of convention. Miranda, however, is the opposite. She doesn’t have much working for her. She’s really struggling to make life function. She doesn’t have a lot of friends and is searching for the opportunity of friendship.”

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Miranda has been in the police force for around two years. During that time, she’s formed a relationship with her married boss, and isolated herself from the other officers. So when she hears that star detective Robin Griffin is arriving at their police station, she makes a beeline for her, but making friends proves challenging. “It’s a very thorough investigation of the dynamics of a female relationship. It starts from a place of imbalance, and then it swings wildly through what it is to be a friend. It examines all those complexities. To explore that through a female dynamic is what’s really fresh and interesting about this series.”

Forming real-life female friendships

Gwendoline particularly enjoying acting opposite Elisabeth. “I knew she was a sensational actress, but I didn’t know I’d be equally bowled over by her incredible personality and her discipline and her dedication and her imagination and creativity. And her absolutely wonderful, wicked sense of humour. I have so enjoyed every moment that I have worked with her and I have a much-treasured friend too now.”

The first season of Top of the Lake, which won Elisabeth her first Best Actress Golden Globe and a Cinematography Emmy, among other accolades, is also available on Showmax.

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