There’s no shame in admitting it: If you’re a Game of Thrones fan, then you’re totally in love with Septa Unella a.k.a. the “Shame, Shame” Nun. Since overseeing Cersei Lannister’s naked walk of shame in the Season 5 finale, Unella has entered the Westerosi Hall of Fame for Scene-Stealing Supporting Characters, joining such storied company as Bronn, Jaqen H’ghar, and Ros (RIP). Her cries of “Shame, shame,” accompanied by the tolling of her bell, have inspired countless costumed imitators, Internet memes, and even a convenient tribute site. Unella’s notoriety has been the gift that keeps on giving for Hannah Waddingham, the British actress who won the role of the ultra-stern Septa. Out of costume, the glamorous musical theater veteran couldn’t look less like a grime-faced guardian of the Faith of the Seven. But, as she tells Yahoo TV, she’s embracing her alter ego with devoted fervor. Waddingham filled us in on crazy fan encounters and being recognized (or not), and, of course, gave us a good shaming.
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Were you at all prepared for the wave of fan devotion that greeted the “Shame, Shame” nun?
Who knew, right?! [Laughs] It’s been so overwhelming and it makes me feel like I did something right. People like Unella because she’s a hard, unbreakable b—h, but actually, she’s absolutely devout and totally behind the High Sparrow. And I think it’s quite fascinating that we don’t even know why that is; maybe it’s something in her background that has made her so impassioned. She makes you think about your own atonement. To walk the streets with absolutely nothing on, and this woman behind you who doesn’t help when you fall? That’s hardcore, man!
What was the audition process like?
I was eight months pregnant when I first got the call to audition, so I thought, “There’s no way I’m going to get this role, because I look like a ship in full sail!” I mainly thought it would be nice to meet David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss], so they could keep me in mind for the next time, when I wasn’t pregnant. But then I got the part! I must have really been channeling some awful thoughts for them to see past all of that. When I talked to them about it, they said my look wasn’t remotely what they had in mind, but they saw my tape and there was a darkness in my glare that made them think, “We have to have her.”
What kind of look did they originally have in mind?
I think they wanted a shorter, more heavyset older woman. In the character breakdown, she was described as a hulking brute of a woman, to which I thought, “Well, they’re clearly not going to pick me! I’m far too glamorous!” [Laughs] In all seriousness, it takes some getting used to to appear on international television without one scrap of makeup on. But once I got into her habit, it wouldn’t have even crossed my mind to try and beautify her. She is who she is.
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Did you model Unella after any religious figures from your own upbringing? She feels like a nightmare version of a stern Catholic school nun.
I’m not religious myself per se; I believe in goodness, of course, and to do unto others as you would do unto yourself. And I kept being encouraged by David and Dan to not think of Unella as a nun. The Septas aren’t nuns — they’re guardians of the faith. I thought to myself, “Unella is devout. She really believes and doesn’t believe anything she’s doing is untoward because she has to cleanse these vile creatures [like Cersei].” And because Cersei is so flamboyant and regal, that’s why Unella is so harsh with her: she sees her as a harder nut to crack, and so she’s a little more heavy-handed.
Cersei’s “Walk of Shame” is one of the most memorable sequences in the novels and the series captures it in all its horrific glory.
The director, David Nutter, was thrilling to work for. And he was very specific: He wanted me to be an absolutely immovable object. So we really took that idea and ran with it. When we were walking through those streets, he directed our supporting cast to be very, very aggressive. So Lena [Headey] and her body double, Rebecca [Van Cleave], were really being horrifically [yelled at], and I had to remain completely stone-faced. When we weren’t filming, every time I walked past the extras, they would say to me, “Shame, shame!” And I thought, “Yes, yes all right. How about ‘Shut up’ instead of ‘Shame.’” [Laughs]
By now, you’ve probably heard countless people say that away from set as well.
Oh, I know! I’ve been sent so many things on Twitter. I also did a comic convention in Brighton recently, and there were so many people dressed up as Unella, including lots of men, which was funny. I saw one man who had a blow-up doll covered in blood in front of him as he was walking. It was wonderful.
What’s the craziest fan encounter you’ve had at a convention?
The craziest was a guy who wanted me to write “Confess, confess, confess” on his arm so he could have it tattooed over. I mean, seriously! And everyone wants me to write “Shame” on my photo when I sign it for them. It even translates to my own friends: when somebody does something wrong, they ask me to take a picture of myself on my phone and send it with a text message saying, “Shame!”
Are you aware of tribute sites like Shamenun.com?
I know about it, but I haven’t visited it. It’s a little difficult for me. I was really enjoying all of that stuff, and then I suddenly realized that I have to be careful. I know how I feel in Unella’s clothes, and I don’t want to think of everyone enjoying her on a comic level too much. I have to keep her honest.
Does that mean we can expect to see more of Unella in Season 6?
I’m going to take the Fifth Amendment on that. [Laughs]
Do people recognize you out of costume?
No, thank god! And when I tell people that I’m Unella the Shame Nun, they all say, “No,” which I love. Although, there was one day where I was about to get on a plane, just myself and my daughter. It was in the very early morning and I was totally in Mommy mode with no makeup on. I sat down next to this guy, and he said, “Am I right in thinking you can ring my bell?” And I said to him, “Yes, but I’m really insulted that you even recognized me!” Seriously, I always need to put a little mascara or something on when I leave the house.
Where can fans see you outside of Westeros while we wait for more Game of Thrones? You’ve been a mainstay on the London musical theater scene.
I’ve taken a little break from theater, because of my little girl. I’m very old-fashioned and want to tuck her into bed at night. But I’m currently filming a BBC series called In the Club. I play a senior obstetrician on that series, so it’s another serious role. I used to do comedy all the time — I don’t know what’s happened! Ever since I had a baby, I’ve been on a serious streak.
So have you kept your bell and habit to shame your daughter when she’s older?
Every now and then, I drop the props guys an email saying, “Please can I have the bell?” And they conveniently skirt around the issue. I’ll get it one day! But I’m not sure I’d really want the costume. I’d look like I’m wearing a comforter!
Game of Thrones returns in April on HBO.