Fans may be impartial towards Cersei Lannister amongst the wide range of characters within the Westeros universe conceived by George R.R. Martin, but one cannot deny that the character is at the center of a treacherous and murderous war. It is due to her inability to feel compassion for anyone outside of herself that ignites the barbarous path most characters are forced to embark upon when she easily could have accepted exile. Instead, Cersei is established as a character who not only functions through sheer determination, but also is completely confident of her decision-making, which inadvertently makes her a weak individual. Whether one has read the five current George R.R. Martin novels for the series or have watched the HBO series, no one can deny that Cersei is a complex character who cannot be mitigated a single adjective. Therefore, when it came to casting the role of Cersei Lannister, it was essential that the role would be given to an actress who would be able to give the role sensuality, but deceive its audience using that very sensuality. This is because Cersei Lannister is a self-proclaimed male in a woman’s body. She is aware others see her as secondary because of her gender and uses that very under-expectation from others to manipulate a victory that benefits her. When Lena Headey was casted in this role, many feared this perception of the character wouldn’t be met considering Headey admitted to having not read the books. Yet when assessing Headey’s current performance as Cersei Lannister, it is remarkable how her acting and her conception of the character perfectly mirrors the descriptiveness of the character within the books.
Cersei to Ned Stark: “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground” (A Game of Throne, 471).
Cersei Lannister is a survivor and Lena Headey had the entirety of season 1 to augment that notion to audiences throughout the first 13 episodes of the show. The difficult task with Headey in establishing this fell in that she had to avoid her character becoming a stock character and avoid being merely seen as a venomous, incestuous woman. George R.R. Martin effectively conveyed this in the first novel with Cersei clearly being disgusted with her husband, which Headey mirrored perfectly to portray a woman who lavishes in the position she is in, but despises the role she must occupy in order for it to be maintained. Her bitterness and repressed hatred is because the man she is married to is the very definition of everything she hates in a man. Headey’s acting was sure to emphasize that her true love is Jaime, but her hatred towards her husband is due to his own actions. Additionally, Headey was sure to establish her Cersei as power hungry in the show’s first season but still being vulnerable. While she is able to exert power, she is still minimized by her husband. Yet she makes sure audiences understand that Cersei is a cutthroat and lives by a survival-of-the-fittest standard. She doesn’t care about the path that others have to embark on if it means she will retain, or expand upon, her power.
Cersei: “Sansa, permit me to share a bit of womanly wisdom with you on this very special day. Love is poison. A sweet poison, yes, but it will kill you all the same” (A Clash of Kings, 584).
Cersei has no allegiances to anyone, aside from Jaime. Headey adequately conveys this notion with Cersei always having an air of arrogance with whomever she speaks towards. She talks down to everyone and those who take the abuse and continue associating with her is whom she places assurances with, not trust or loyalty, but the assurance that they will do what she demands of them. Headey’s acting makes the audience understand clearly what her mannerisms with others mean; it is not out of respect, but rather she is well aware that those who associate with her do it out of the desire to gain a portion of her power. Headey’s acting conveys Cersei’s blatantly obvious manipulation tactics of dangling power over those who lust for power to get what she wants accomplished. Headey places extra complexity with her character by representing her as a somewhat effective politician (initially), but does so by repressing her ability to care about anyone. Compassion and love are sentiments that cause weakness, to which Cersei refuses to possess either of them. Even with Jaime, her love for him is repressed from public view, further establishing her cold demeanor.
Baelish about Cersei: “She thinks herself sly, but in truth she is utterly unpredictable. Her strength rests of her beauty, birth and riches. Only the first of those is truly her own, and it soon will desert her. I pity her then. She wants power, but has no notion what to do with it when she gets it” (A Storm of Swords, 878).
Cersei’s power hasn’t been earned. Headey has subtly implied this notion with her performance by having her character’s confidence blind her to the reality that events are transgressing beyond her scope of control. In the show’s second season with Joffrey consolidating his power and bypassing her counsel or in the third season with her father, Lord Tywin, dictating what her future will be, Headey has given her character instances to which she has realized her power isn’t as solidified as she presumed it would be. Thereby, Headey deliberately interjects delusions of grandeur into her performance by having Cersei believe her presence is both influential and her expectations are final. Yet Headey is also able to convey the unfairness of males regarding her gender, but having her character’s rare outbursts be the result of the male characters manipulating her stature as a woman. It is her gender that keeps Cersei in check; a reality she utterly despises.
Ser Kevan to Cersei: “And from what I saw of Joffrey, you are as unfit a mother as you are a ruler” (A Feast for Crows, 123).
Baelish about Cersei: “In the game of thrones, even the humblest pieces can have wills of their own. Sometimes they refuse to make the moves you’ve planned for them…It’s a lesson Cersei Lannister still has yet to learn” (A Feast for Crows, 354).
Cersei is not as smart as she thinks. Her solid frame is beginning to show cracks on its surface, which Headey had been subtly implying with her acting. Thus far in the show Cersei’s struggles have been internalized within the Lannister family, but within these family struggles Headey has been able to express her character’s desire to be a part of the decision making process by creating the aura that she has earned it. Headey establishes in her acting that Cersei’s insecurities of herself are overcompensated with an abundance of confidence that she makes sure to flash to others and use to demean others. Headey’s performance seems to indicate that her Cersei believes her behavior has convinced others of her influence, yet it has been quite the contrary. Thus far in the show her actions and those associated with her have already exposed her as a weak and ineffectual leader, especially with Lord Tywin, who sees her for exactly who she is. It is only with Tywin that Headey allows her character to exhibit moments of desperation and the will to prove to her father that she is deserving of where she has brought herself, primarily because he is the one individual who could strip every ounce of power from her immediately.
Cersei to herself: “‘Your Grace.’ Those two simple words thrilled her” (A Dance of Dragons, 823).
Power is all that Cersei desires. That is the foundation of the performance and the character, to which Headey excels at that.
Lena Headey former starred as Sarah Connor in FOX’s Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles from 2008-2009 before beginning her role as Cersei Lannister in 2011. In the show’s current five year run Headey has been nominated once for a Primetime Emmy Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Drama Series her work in the show’s fourth season. She lost to Anna Gunn (Breaking Bad).