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Sibel Kekilli talks about playing Shae and her fight to stop violence against women

Game of Thrones has had so many strong characters that it’s difficult to pick one. Women have especially been at the forefront throughout the story; fighting, waging war, making love, using their charm, and leading when it feels right. Their emotional vulnerability makes them strong yet sensitive.Shae was definitely one such woman on the show.

Sibel Kekilli, who played Shae, recently talked to Variety at Italy’s Lucca Comics convention. She spoke about her battle against the culture she comes from, the impact of Game of Thrones and playing complex female characters such as Shae.

On the question of what makes Shae a powerful character, she said, “She’s a complex character and a strong one. After my first audition, the writers changed Shae from how she is in the book, where she was more of a gold digger. But of course, because of where she comes from, she is a fighter. She’s always trying to survive, be it using her body or her brain. She’s not born with a silver spoon in her mouth. I like these types of characters that come from a broken past. She’s a survivor!”

Shae was a prostitute, who knew what she wanted and was not afraid to get it. Her romance with Tyrion Lannister promised a salvation for both from the troubles of the world. But things spiraled towards darkness due to misunderstandings. I am a whore, she had infamously said at court during Tyrion’s trial.

Sibel had already been a successful actor before she did Game of Thrones. Her debut was Faith Akin‘s Head On, a film that won her several awards at film festivals. Yet things must have changed after Game of Thrones. “It gave me more international recognition…I got calls from casting agents and interest from international directors. But I’m not like: “I have to be international at all costs!”….What’s important is to get a really good role, based on a good script,” she responded.

The German actress hasn’t had a smooth life. Earlier in her life, she worked a host of jobs; a bouncer, saleswoman, waitress, nightclub manager, adult film actress. This didn’t go down well with the culture of her Turkishorigin. When she started working in German cinema, her past was highlighted by some tabloids. And this caused distress in her familial relations. Do these episodes still haunt her? she was asked.

“Let me put it this way. As you know, my background is Turkish. And I’ve made some decisions in my life, I’ve gone down a certain path because maybe I did not have any choice….And it was traumatic…it’s still traumatizing, it’s painful. And that’s the reason I’m not going to talk about my family,” she recounted.

Describing her way forward, she continued,“But I will say this: If you want to be a free woman, with a free will, if you want to live a life of freedom, you have to make a complete break with your culture….I don’t know if you understand, because people from Europe or from other cultures are like: ‘You can leave your family…and still be in contact with them or with your culture.’ But in Turkish culture, in the Muslim culture, this doesn’t work. They will always think they own you.”

Her riveting speech from the podium of Terre des Femmes, a feminist collective, on International Women’s Day 2015 caught considerable attention. She urged the fathers, husbands and other men of the society to treat women with respect. Her take on whether her popularity makes a difference to what she says reflected the suffering she endured.

“I’m fighting for women’s rights…especially within the Muslim culture because, as a girl and as a woman, I’ve known this culture. People have been threatening me, insulting me…I’ve had death threats…but I think it’s my duty because I know this culture. Because I suffered a lot, I have to speak out. I have to say it! And if it can change just one life, then it’s worth it.”

Sibel has worked in German cinema for a while now. Addressing the gap people face in a foreign country, she said, “They box you in….I’m not saying everyone in Germany is like that. But it [racial stereotyping, discrimination] is something to be aware of…You have to say it loud so that people start thinking about it.The funny thing is that while we were shooting “Game of Thrones,” Dan and David [the showrunners] would keep telling me: ‘You are so German!’ And I was like: ‘nobody would say that to me in Germany!’”

A curtain to the discussion was drawn with information about her future projects. She is working on Bullets, a Finnish-English TV show. It’s a political thriller with women taking center stage. Another is an anthology feature film, Berlin, I Love You which is due for release. Then, there are others she’s can’t disclose yet.

When Shae died on Game of Thrones, something died inside Tyrion too. He sees life more closely and intimately now. She’s no more but her incantation lives on. What do you think about Sibel Kekilli’s interview? Speak up in the comments.