Indira Varma: ‘If you don’t get big in the first 10 years of your career, you’re lucky’
Indira Varma says success is ‘just fucking luck’. Currently appearing in Ionesco’s Exit the King at the National, the actor, best known for her TV role in Game of Thrones, tells Sam Marlowe she’s not interested in the fame game
You probably know Ionesco’s The Chairs, The Bald Soprano or perhaps Rhinoceros. But, Exit the King?
“It’s a play about death,” says Indira Varma, who’s tackling a leading role in the relatively obscure 1962 absurdist drama at the National Theatre. “A guy is told he’s going to die, and then he dies. That’s what happens.”
When she first read it, she found it “very funny, very weird, but I can’t say I got it by any stretch”. She was searching for some sort of narrative shape. Instead, the experience was like “only seeing colour”, she says. “And going, ‘Fuck, how do we even attempt this?’ ”
Some actors might have baulked, but for Varma the material presented an irresistible challenge. “What’s really cool about this play is that not many people will know it – God knows what their expectations will be. Their response to it will be really surprising. And it’s exciting to do something where we’re not going to be compared to loads of other productions.”
Ironically, despite a richly varied stage career, Varma is most widely recognised for a smallish part, Ellaria Sand, in the TV fantasy juggernaut Game of Thrones. In Exit the King, adapted and directed by Patrick Marber, she plays Queen Marguerite, the first wife of an ailing monarch who, at the age of 483, is struggling to stare the Grim Reaper in the face, while his kingdom crumbles around him. She sees her character as a kind of “midwife – she births the King into death”.
Marber’s version incorporates the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance – into the play’s minimal action, forcing characters and audiences to confront their mortality. It’s territory into which, as Varma points out, we venture from an early age.
“We all experience death, or dying, whether it’s through illness or the death of a parent. I want my child, who’s 11, to come and see it. I thought, is this appropriate? But it is, totally – it’s very pure. The King talks about a pet cat – and for a lot of us our first experience of death is the death of a pet. That’s a very intense experience when you’re young, isn’t it?”
‘It’s much harder to be a good actor with smaller roles. The people who’ve grafted and keep going are the nicest’
It’s far from Varma’s first brush with death on stage. In 2014, she played Tamora in Titus Andronicus at Shakespeare’s Globe – a production, by Lucy Bailey, so notoriously gory that spectator faintings were rife. The same year, she also appeared in Nina Raine’s NHS drama Tiger Country at the Hampstead Theatre. She played the prickly registrar Vashti, dubbed by another character in the play “an asexual surgical bitch”. As research for that role, she devoured books about death, in particular Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. It aroused an enduring fascination with healing and the human condition.
“In the medical profession, people are taught that they can cure things, so they go into their studies thinking they’re going to save people,” she says. “But some conditions are incurable, so instead their job becomes to help someone die.” In Exit the King, she says, “that’s what Queen Marguerite does. The King is dying, we’re all going to die, and the world is collapsing. We must do it with dignity”.
Varma first encountered absurdism at RADA, where she trained. “I don’t come from a theatre background. English was a second language for my parents and they were both visual artists, so literature wasn’t particularly part of my upbringing. But – this is going to sound really pretentious – I didn’t go to university, so at drama school I was discovering literature through plays. I started to enjoy poetry, and Beckett, and the non-linear sort of work. I didn’t really have a handle on it, but I was intrigued by the fact it was very different. There’s a heightened thing in European literature that I related to temperamentally, more so than English social realism.”
If the play’s existential themes are timeless, it also speaks to our current political climate, with its undercurrents of environmental disaster and bone-headed right-wing tyranny. “Yes, there’s all that,” Varma agrees. “But you don’t want to squash it into a particular period or turn the King into Trump or some other idiot. That would reduce the play.” Marber’s production will, she says, be “very stark. Just three thrones and a wall. But there is a red carpet”.
That last design feature has all sorts of connotations in our celebrity-obsessed world. Post-Game of Thrones, Varma has surely walked her share of red carpets? “Not really,” she insists. She’s not a fan of the fame game, and has only recently hired a publicist, because, she says: “If what is required to get a part is a profile, then, fuck – try to get a profile somehow. Which is depressing, in a way, but you know… the work comes first.”
She’s had to fight for her chances in the business. She was born in Bath to a Swiss mother and an Indian father who met at London’s Central School of Art. They had only a tiny black and white TV that her dad found on a skip, and didn’t go to the theatre much, but she did see some mime at the Bath Festival, and, aged 10, got Marcel Marceau’s autograph. At her single-sex school, she always had the male roles in plays.
“That whole idea of glass ceiling and lack of gender equality – when I was a teenager I wasn’t even aware it existed,” she recalls. “I thought I could do anything. When I watched TV and film I wasn’t directly represented in any way, but I still found myself going, ‘Yeah, I’d play that part.’ It was only once I left drama school that I went: ‘Oh right, nobody wants someone like me.’ That was a pretty rude awakening.
“I thought: ‘How do I negotiate this? How do I get noticed? Do I conform?’ It had never dawned on me that I was seen as Asian. ‘Do I start putting on an Indian accent and mugging? Do I play to a stereotype?’ And then being a young woman… ‘You’re not quite pretty enough, maybe if you lose a bit of weight…’ all that rubbish – which still goes on – it was just really boring.”
Q&A: Indira Varma
What was your first non-theatre job?
Sales assistant in a clothes shop.
What was your first professional theatre job?
As You Like It, Nottingham Playhouse and Kama Sutra (film).
What’s your next job?
Narrator on Tommies, BBC Radio 4 drama about the First World War (ongoing).
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Being true to yourself and following your instincts is really important. Have the courage to say no – to all manner of things – but remember smaller jobs are often unexpectedly rewarding.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Be prepared and be positive. Use it as a rehearsal – try things out, get to know people. Have something perky to say, work hard, and don’t take it personally – as soon as you’ve done it, forget about it.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been?
Maybe a drama or English teacher.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Still, she has managed to snag some deeply satisfying roles, not least the opportunity to work, more than once, with Harold Pinter, to whom she still feels an enormous gratitude.
She has a US agent, though she doesn’t have a base there – “I’m not rich enough”. Home is Archway, north London, with fellow actor Colin Tierney, whom she met on Sam Mendes’ Othello at the National in 1997, and their daughter Evelyn.
Some major projects are due for release soon – including Carnival Row, an Amazon-produced fantasy series with Cara Delevingne and Orlando Bloom, and a film, The One and Only Ivan, directed by Thea Sharrock. But, an ongoing radio-drama narrating gig aside, nothing is lined up beyond Exit the King.
She’s confident something will arise, and remains determined, philosophical – and refreshingly forthright. “If you don’t hit the big time within the first 10 years of your career, you’re lucky,” she declares.
“Because you’re learning that it’s much harder to be a good actor with smaller roles. The people who’ve grafted, and chipped away, and keep going, are the nicest. The people who’ve been stars since they left drama school, there’s a complacency and a sense of entitlement about them, and you know what – it’s just fucking luck, mate. Nobody can do it on their own.”
Exit the King is at the National Theatre until October 6
CV: Indira Varma
Born: Bath, 1973
• Othello, National Theatre, London (1997)
• Celebration, Almeida, London (2000)
• Ivanov, National Theatre, London (2002)
• The Vortex, Donmar Warehouse, London (2002)
• The Skin of Our Teeth, Young Vic, London (2004)
• The Vertical Hour, Royal Court, London (2008)
• Hysteria, Theatre Royal Bath (2012)
• Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s Globe, London (2014)
• Tiger Country, Hampstead Theatre, London (2014)
• Man and Superman, National Theatre, London (2015)
• The Treatment, Almeida, London (2017)
Film and TV:
• Kama Sutra (1996)
• Rome (2005-2007)
• Luther (2010)
• Game of Thrones (2014-2017)
• Patrick Melrose (2018)
Agents: Dalzell and Beresford Ltd (UK), Gersh (US)