It’s not easy to like Lena Headey’s Game of Thrones baddie Cersei Lannister. She’s cold, ruthless, and vindictive. Remember how she enabled that little monster Joffrey Baratheon, unjustly insisted her brother Tyrion Lannister be sentenced to death without proof he was guilty of poisoning her son, and orchestrated the destruction of the Great Sept of Baelor? How can any fan of the HBO medieval fantasy drama forget? And yet, there’s a part of us that kind of digs Cersei, despite her evil ways. That’s a credit to both the show’s writing and Headey, who has received four Emmy nominations for her portrayal of Cersei.
Headey has been acting since she was a teenager and landed decent parts prior to Game of Thrones — including roles in the movie 300 and TV series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles — but none compared to the Cersei role that would bring her to prominence. Here’s a look at the stunning transformation of Lena Headey.
Born in Bermuda
Headey was raised in England — more specifically Highburton, a village in blue-collar Yorkshire with around 3,000 residents. "I’m a Yorkshire lass in my soul and in my heart," she told The New York Times. But the girl from Yorkshire actually wasn’t born there or anywhere near there. Headey was born to English parents in the islands of Bermuda, which is technically a self-governing British territory for those not up on their United Kingdom history.
Her dad was stationed in Bermuda as a police officer when she was born. The family eventually moved to Somerset in southwest England when Headey was 5 years old and then Highburton when she was 11. Headey doesn’t talk a whole lot about her time in Bermuda, and there’s a perfectly good reason for it. She told Vulture, "I was too young to remember any of my time there. Home for me is Yorkshire…"
Not ballerina material
It’s all too common for little girls to dream about one day becoming a ballerina. The grace. The hair. The tutu. The shoes. Many little girls live for this sort of thing. But there are exceptions, obviously. Not every little girl is cut out for the girly girl lifestyle. Headey wasn’t.
She told The Daily Beast, "Yes, I lived in a tomboy phase. I still do," before revealing what happened after her mom enrolled her in ballet. "They asked me to leave ballet when I was 5 or 6," Headey said. "They just said to my mom, ‘It’s a waste of my time and your cash. Take her out.‘"
As harsh as that might sound, they probably did Headey and her mom a favor. And something tells us Headey probably wasn’t too beat up about having her ballerina days cut short. She was destined for much less girly girl things.
"Speak like a lady"
Just because Headey was a tomboy, that doesn’t mean she couldn’t talk like a lady. Headey told Men’s Health that her mom signed her up for elocution lessons "to speak like a lady." And unlike with her ill-fated ballet stint, this time she wasn’t persuaded to discontinue the lessons. She went through with them and wouldn’t you know it, they worked — maybe even too well.
She said her upper-class elocution made her stand out in her working class town. And the way she makes it sound, that wasn’t the kind of town where you want to stand out. She told Men’s Health, "I remember asking this boy where the playing field was, and he was like, ‘Where are you from?’ Then he literally smashed me on the head with his cricket bat because I was different." It’s also possible that it had nothing to do with her accent and more to do with her looks. She suggested, "Maybe he just wanted to kiss me."
Rather than learn the acting craft in drama school, Headey learned on the job. According to her profile in The New York Times, casting director Susie Figgis noticed a 17-year-old Headey in a group pic of the Huddersfield school theater company. "She was just this wonderful, fresh country girl," Figgis said in a separate New York Times story. A small role in Waterland with Jeremy Irons and Ethan Hawke followed in 1992, as would a move from the country to London to pursue acting full time.
Not everyone was as gung-ho as Headey about the decision. Her parents felt she should go to college and some friends felt she should go to drama school. But it was clear early on that she had made the right choice, as she was booked for roles in The Remains of the Day, The Jungle Book, and, maybe her biggest movie, 300. It’s easy to forget she was Queen Gorgo in the iconic film (and it’s not-so-iconic sequel) because Headey wasn’t the recognizable face that she is now.
Unknown and loving it
Despite having a decent acting resume to her name, Headey felt most people didn’t really notice her prior to Game of Thrones. She wasn’t exactly appearing on the cover of Entertainment Weekly or Vanity Fair back in those days. And that was perfectly fine with Headey. While promoting 300, she told ThoughtCo., "I’ve worked for 15 years without being recognized or known pretty much anywhere, and for that to change terrifies me. I love my life; I love my anonymity."
In true Headey fashion, she said one of the perks of going under the radar back then was "being able to be trashed at parties and nobody’s going, ‘Look at her! Look at her with watercress in her teeth.’" She dreaded the idea of being photographed, calling it "an invasion of privacy." About five years later, Headey would join the cast of one of the biggest TV shows of all time, eliminating her much-enjoyed anonymity in the process.
Her Thrones rival helped her land the role of Cersei
Few probably remember or have even heard of Headey’s indie flick Pete Smalls Is Dead, but this little-known 2010 movie had a major impact on the massively popular Game of Thrones. Headey’s co-star in the movie was none other than Peter Dinklage, who plays fan-favorite Tyrion Lannister on Game of Thrones and who was reading the script at that time. Headey told The New York Times that Dinklage mentioned to her that "there’s this great part for his sister, who’s this incestuous psychopath."
Why did Dinklage think Headey would be a good fit for Cersei? He told The New York Times that "anyone as funny as Lena is can also plumb the darkest depths." Producers David Benioff and D. B. Weiss agreed with Dinklage, telling the newspaper that Headey stood out in auditions by straying "far from the Evil Ice Queen stereotype." It’s nice to know Dinklage and Headey are so supportive of each other, even if their characters detest one another.
Motherhood shaped her acting
Headey married musician Peter Loughran in 2007 and together they became parents to son Wylie in 2010, which just so happened to be the same year she was filming the first season of Game of Thrones. The show did its best to hide the pregnancy, as reported by Vulture, but that wouldn’t be the only time motherhood would affect Headey’s performance.
She began approaching mother roles in a different manner, including her part in The Purge. "I have my methods as an actor, so I went to the place of ‘If somebody came near my children, with bad intent?’" she told Vulture. "It’s a feeling without a lid, of what you would do, physically, verbally, to protect the one thing that is your greatest love."
Unfortunately, Headey also dealt with postpartum depression. She just didn’t realize it at the time. She told Vulture, "I was having all these hideous post-pregnancy hormonal moments" but "that helped for playing Cersei."
The "tough years"
Lena Headey’s postpartum depression wasn’t the only real-life struggle she used to shape her portrayal of Cersei. She and Peter Loughran separated in 2011 and then filed for divorce after five years of marriage in 2012. She told The New York Times it led to "some tough years" that she "tried to put into Cersei in a way that was cathartic for me, otherwise I’d have had a meltdown." In an interview with More (via Us Weekly), Headey, who has been open about her depression, said, "It’s a mourning process, and yet nobody’s died."
To make matters worse, the settlements and custody hearings played out in public. Sure, this is pretty standard for cases involving celebs, but that didn’t make it any easier for for the typically private Headey. The good news is that things now appear to be civil between the two exes. "We got through it," she told The New York Times, "but it was a [expletive]."
Headey is what you might call a tattooaholic. She can’t get enough of them. "I always want more. It’s a terrible thing," she told More (via People). "I’ll be outside a tattoo shop and hear the needle and think, ‘I could just get a little one that nobody would see…’"
Not that she cares what people think of her tattoos. Headey — who has a birdcage on her forearm and peonies and swallows that go from her lower back to shoulder — said she’s drawn to "dark, weird stuff, things other people would say, ‘Eww, I’d never do that.’"
Normally actors have to sit in the makeup chair for hours to cover up their tattoos before filming, like Headey did while filming Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, but she found a way around that while working on Game of Thrones. She told Esquire, "You can usually get away with it by keeping your clothes on."
Before she was having the Mountain do her dirty work on Game of Thrones, Headey was getting her hands dirty as the titular character in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. The role required her to kick butt and spend plenty of time in Connor’s trademark tank tops, which wasn’t a problem for Headey. She’d thrown plenty of punches in her day. "I took up boxing as a fitness thing," Headey told Entertainment Weekly. "I got obsessed and I would go every day when I wasn’t working. It’s just an insane sport when you get into it."
But as much as Headey loved boxing, she loved acting even more, which is why there were certain limits on her training. She told Esquire, "Where I used to spar, there was this terrifying Russian female boxer named Angel. She was like Dolph Lundgren. Being an actress, I’d scream, ‘Not in the face!’" Can you blame her?
She thinks she looks like a horse
The pressure to be beautiful really got to Headey, and understandably so. The double standard in Hollywood is grossly unfair, as she pointed out in her interview with Net-A-Porter. "Male actors can be ‘interesting’, but there’s a real pressure on women to be beautiful and skinny," she stated. Headey got a real sense of how superficial the industry could be in her 20s when she was auditioning regularly for parts in the United States. She said a casting director told her, "The men take these tapes home and watch them and say, ‘Who would you [sleep with]?’" Yikes.
These days, Headey feels she no longer has to live up to these unfair expectations, which she said is a relief. "I’m happier now I’m older, playing women who aren’t expected to be beautiful," Headey told Net-A-Porter. "That pressure has gone for me." It should be noted Headey always has been hard on her own looks. She told The Telegraph in 2014, "I think I look slightly like a horse. Hand on heart, I think I’m pretty average. … Maybe you just don’t see your own beauty." Apparently not.
She found love again
Headey didn’t plan on getting remarried. She even warned her partner, filmmaker Dan Cadan — with whom she had daughter Teddy in 2015 — never to dare pop the question. "I always said to him, ‘Don’t ever ask me to marry you, it’s a disaster,’" she told the The New York Times. Cadan didn’t listen to Headey and boldly popped the question in 2017. Despite her earlier stance on marriage, Headey said that "it actually feels really wonderful" to have gotten engaged to Cadan.
As she is known to do, Headey has been mostly private about her relationship with Cadan, whom she has known since childhood, and her two children. In fact, she initially didn’t reveal publicly that Cadan was the father of her second child, instead keeping her baby daddy’s identity a secret. And good luck finding pictures or videos of her family on her Instagram page as there aren’t a whole lot of them.
You can go home again
After 12 years in Los Angeles, Headey packed up the fam and moved them to a village near where she grew up in England. Her reasoning? More than anything, her parents, who live minutes away. She told The New York Times, "In the last two weeks, my son has said to my dad, ‘I just want to be like you, Grandpa.’ That confirms to me that we did a good thing."
Headey is well aware that there are significant benefits to living in Los Angeles. And she was willing to stick around, but her kids came first. She told The New York Times, "I want my kids to have a bit of grounding." Headey never thought she’d live in LA in the first place, but, as she told The Telegraph, she felt that, while "LA offers some great living," the downside is that "it can be incredibly isolating when you spend all f***ing day in your car." She’s not wrong.
She has a Harvey Weinstein story — two of them
Headey had the misfortune of working with disgraced film mogul Harvey Weinstein. And like many actresses before her, she said the experience was less than pleasant. Headey tweeted that he made a "suggestive comment, a gesture" during their first interaction at the Venice Film Festival and that she rebuffed his advances, telling him it would be like "kissing [her] dad."
Apparently Weinstein couldn’t take a hint because Headey said he invited her up to his hotel room during a later interaction. Headey tweeted that she made it clear she wasn’t "interested in anything other than work," which reportedly infuriated him. He allegedly told her, "Don’t tell anyone about this," according to Headey. Headey appeared in two Miramax films before the incidents occurred but never worked with the production company again, causing her to question if it impacted her career in an interview with the Sunday Times. A rep for Weinstein denied Headey’s claims in a statement to People.
She’s vocal about causes she cares about
There are many causes close to Lena Headey’s heart, and she’s not afraid to publicly speak out on their behalf and to raise awareness of certain issues. The actress appeared in an ad for PETA, encouraging the public to not support circuses that use animals, and in an ad for the equal rights-focused NOH8. She’s also worked with the International Rescue Committee, particularly on the refugee crisis.
Of course, the Game of Thrones star has received pushback for taking a stance on certain hot-button issues, but that hasn’t kept her from speaking her mind. She posted a blunt video on Instagram in March 2019, saying, "When I post my views, I don’t think of myself as highly political. I just think of myself as a human being." She added, "If that offends you or you think actors have no place in the world to have an opinion, f*** off."