Indira Varma of ‘Game of Thrones’ is scheming once more as Lady Macbeth


As Indira Varma can attest, inhabiting Lady Macbeth eight times a week — in a production spanning four cities and five months, no less — is a gratifying but taxing affair. For instance: After pulling a muscle onstage, the actress had to go straight into physical therapy following a recent video interview from her London dressing room, depriving her of a chance to relay a treasured theatrical anecdote.

Never one to leave a tale untold, the cheerfully loquacious Varma sent a voice memo the next day. She started the recording by recalling a performance of “Macbeth” in Liverpool that was briefly, charmingly interrupted by a butterfly fluttering between her and co-star Ralph Fiennes. A few days later, Varma recounted, she saw that same butterfly onstage, reached toward the creature and marveled as it crawled onto her hand for Lady Macbeth’s “unsex me here” speech. Later that night, when Ben Turner’s Macduff learned of his family’s murder, the butterfly flew back onstage and landed on the actor’s shoulder.

“Of course, magical things like that do happen on camera,” says Varma, 50, best known for such television series as “Obi-Wan Kenobi” and “Game of Thrones.” “But when it happens live, it does feel like the spirits that we talk about in the play are present.”

Ever entranced by theater’s ephemeralness, Varma has never gone long without circling back to the stage. After starring in “Macbeth” in Liverpool, Edinburgh and London alongside Fiennes, the Olivier Award winner has arrived in D.C. with the rest of the cast for the production’s final leg, which is being mounted by Shakespeare Theatre Company at the former Black Entertainment Television studios in Brentwood.

Director Simon Godwin, Fiennes and Varma laid the groundwork for “Macbeth” when they collaborated on a 2015 production of “Man and Superman” at London’s National Theatre. As Godwin and Fiennes subsequently discussed tackling the Scottish play, the decision to crown Varma as Lady Macbeth was an easy one. Over the past four years, Godwin says, Fiennes and Varma have been critical creative partners as he crafted his vision for the play, staged in nontraditional spaces and set among a modern war zone’s rubble.

“It wasn’t a discussion between Ralph and I,” Godwin says. “It was just, ‘Let’s do this with Indira.’ She was pretty fundamental to the conception of ‘Macbeth,’ really, from the beginning. And she was such a fellow traveler in revivifying the language of the past and putting it in the present.”

Varma credits her lingual acuity to her upbringing, as the daughter of a Swiss mother and Indian father in the southwestern English town of Bath. Although English was her parents’ shared language, neither spoke it as their native tongue. “They were communicating in quite an expressive way,” Varma recalls. “I feel like that was the beginning of my need to know how to communicate.”

While Varma’s mother and father were artists — a graphic designer and illustrator, respectively — they were more inclined to take her to concerts, dance performances and physical theater productions than traditionally staged plays. Thus, Varma initially dreamed of training as a mime over becoming an actor.

“That was the universal language,” she says. “You didn’t need words. So it’s ironic that I’m now doing Shakespeare.”

As Varma grew older, she got in the habit of lining up for 1-pound tickets at the Theatre Royal Bath, developed a fondness for the classics and studied acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. But after her breakout role in the 1996 film “Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love,” Varma found she was being typecast on-screen as the “slightly exotic young Indian girl.” So she shifted her focus to theater and got steady work delivering the words of William Shakespeare, Harold Pinter, Anton Chekhov and Noël Coward. Once she made a name for herself in the theater community, better on-screen roles — in series such as “Rome,” “Torchwood” and “Luther” — came her way.

When Varma played the charmingly calculated Ann Whitefield in George Bernard Shaw’s “Man and Superman” nearly a decade ago, she endeavored to give the character an impact equal to that of Fiennes’s free-spirited Jack Tanner, despite having significantly fewer lines. In “Macbeth,” a similar dynamic played out: Varma decided to deliver much of her dialogue to the audience — an unconventional choice for Lady Macbeth — so she can rival the connection Fiennes forges with theatergoers over Macbeth’s many soliloquies.

“Indira has really carved out every bit of that journey with real clarity and real humanity so that Lady Macbeth, who can sometimes feel sidelined in Shakespeare’s play, really remains at the center of our emotional experience,” Godwin says. “She does that in a way that never feels overbearing but is eternally present and always watchable and always precise.”

Without knowing it, Varma has been working toward Lady Macbeth’s arc of power-grabbing betrayal, Machiavellian maneuvering and deep-seated regret. Her “Game of Thrones” character — Ellaria Sand, the paramour to Pedro Pascal’s Oberyn Martell — proved to be a ruthless schemer in her own right. In “Obi-Wan Kenobi,” Varma played a double agent who undermines the tyrannical empire she once supported.

So what makes Varma so adept at playing duality?

“I have mixed heritage, so I’m already born a mixed-up person with two very different cultures,” Varma responds. “I think it’s called code switching — it’s in my DNA. So it’s a very easy thing for me to do because it’s part of me. It’s very useful in my line of work.”

Varma can also be seen on-screen as the title character in the dark comedy “The Trouble With Jessica,” which hit U.K. theaters last week. And she can be heard as the Bride of Frankenstein in the upcoming DC Comics animated series “Creature Commandos.”

But Varma tends to feel the most fulfilled in that cherished, high-stakes space onstage, where the margin for error is thin and serendipity creates drama that can’t be replicated. In fact, she already has her next theatrical project lined up: a Rami Malek-starring production of “Oedipus” that begins performances at London’s Old Vic in January.

“I always come back to theater,” Varma says. “I think the more you work, and the more successful or known you become, the more tempting it is to not disappoint people and to stop taking risks. And I think the importance of risk taking is everything, because to fail is the only way to make discoveries.”

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