Finding fame at 13 left Sophie Turner "mentally unwell". Now, as she graduates from Game of Thrones, the actress talks to Josh Glancy about marrying pop star Joe Jonas and her role in the new X-Men film.
It takes all of three seconds for Sophie Turner to win me over. She is standing in the lobby of the Mandarin Oriental in Manhattan. I sidle up to her awkwardly and for a moment she looks troubled, another autograph hunter, before I eventually mumble an introduction.
Then she smiles and slaps me chummily on the shoulder. "Come on then, let's do this." In however many hundreds of interviews, this has never happened before; it is strangely thrilling.
Heads turn when we walk into the restaurant, as I suspect they do wherever the Game of Thrones star goes. I don't know if people actually recognise Turner or not, but she really just looks famous at this point: long black strappy jumpsuit, shining blonde locks, 5ft 9in plus plenty more with heels, and the air of someone who knows they are always being watched.
There's a big Thrones premiere in New York the evening after our interview, so the hotel lobby is a full-blown Westeros reunion. There's King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy) depositing his luggage and waving to adoring fans, and Ser Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen) meandering towards the gents — all these once modest British screen stalwarts transformed into global icons.
No one, though, has been transformed more than Turner, who was a 13-year-old from Chesterton, a small village outside Leamington Spa, living a very ordinary middle-class life when she was selected to play Sansa Stark, a character whose narrative arc has become the most interesting in the entire show. Over eight series, Sansa has seen her father beheaded, been married or nearly married off three times (twice to violent psychopaths, once to a drunk dwarf), been manipulated by kings and queens, raped and abused in her own home — before finally winning it all back through war and sheer willpower. A once spoilt princess has become a masterful leader of men.
Now 23, she finds herself at a fascinating moment. Last night was the finale of Thrones. It is the culmination of a quite astonishing decade-long journey from a tits-and-turrets cosplay long shot to the planet's biggest television show, obsessed over by tens of millions. It has become one of the defining cultural artefacts of our age. But what happens next?
The show made Turner a tabloid darling. She has a celebrity husband, the pop star Joe Jonas, whom she married in a surprise Vegas ceremony earlier this month, and A-list pals such as her X-Men co-star Jennifer Lawrence, who is a "really close friend". Turner's a star now and Hollywood is hers for the taking.
But it's been a bumpy ride, and growing up on Thrones, perhaps the world's weirdest boarding school, has left her with plenty of battle scars. Like Sansa, Turner has been through the wringer, plagued by physical insecurity and mental distress. Coming of age as a young girl in the spotlight, in the age of Instagram, with her every gawky pubescent moment captured by a thousand camera phones, was an unprecedented challenge.
"Having your adolescence being displayed in public, that's something I really wish hadn't happened," she says. "Being in the age of social media when that's happening, I think I would be a much saner person if I hadn't been documented from 13 — your most awkward, uncomfortable, unsure-of-yourself years."
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Turner's co-star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who plays Jaime Lannister, a smarmy princeling turned flawed hero, observed recently that he doesn't know how Turner and Maisie Williams, who plays her sister, Arya, stayed out of rehab. How did she manage it?
"Therapy," she says bluntly. "I just think it's so important everyone should have a therapist, honestly." Her mum wasn't convinced, suggesting she just "keep her chin up", but at 19, as the strain of life on Thrones really started to bite, Turner started talking to a professional. She was "desperately unhappy" and a "complete mess" at the time. She even considered suicide at one point. Her biggest problem was body image.
"Suddenly, everyone's metabolism slows down at 17, 18 and then that's documented," she recalls. "My skin and everything. People commenting on it. I was too aware of my body at a young age. And it just kind of took over my mind, it was all I would think about. Calorie counting, everything. Oh, I'll just eat nuts today." Eventually, her eating issues reached a point where she ceased menstruating. "I stopped having my period for a year — that's when I decided to have therapy." She's been doing it ever since.
None of this stops her being excellent company, though, as she slouches back in the booth, puts her two ("in case one of them runs out") blinged-up vapes on the table, orders a grapefruit juice and settles down in an ask-me-anything sort of pose.
So, how does it feel to be released from Winterfell's icy grip? "There's definitely a relief," she says. "You feel quite liberated." But it's been difficult too. She has missed school and university, friends' birthdays and family holidays. She gave up her other love, ballet. So who exactly is she beyond Thrones? "I've had a bit of an identity crisis, to be honest," she says. "I've grown up for so many years as this character. If I wasn't filming, I was promoting it, if I wasn't promoting it then it was on TV. I was immersed in Sansa, so finally stepping out of it, I don't actually know what I like to do or who I really am."
Falling in love has been Turner's salvation. She met Jonas in 2016, after he sent her a direct message on Instagram. The Jonas Brothers, in case you don't know, are a latter-day version of the Osmonds: handsome child teenyboppers turned wholesome purveyors of forgettable pop music (as teens they famously wore purity rings promising chastity). This fusion of all-American pop sensation with English-rose fantasy superstar has made Jonas and Turner — or the Jonases, as I guess they are now — the snappiest celebrity couple of the moment.
They were engaged within a year and planned to get married in France this summer, post-Thrones. That was too long to wait, though, so a few weeks back they dropped into A Little White Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas, to be married by an Elvis impersonator. It was a very "Jophie" affair, broadcast live on Instagram by the DJ Diplo, with Turner's sister-in-law, the Bollywood galactica Priyanka Chopra, as maid of honour. Vows were exchanged with candy rings and the afterparty involved cruising the strip in a pink Hummer. Jesse Grice, the Elvis officiator, liked what he saw. "I'm a Vegas man, so I give them 75-25 odds," he said. "That's good!"
When she first met Jonas, Turner, then 20, was at perhaps her lowest ebb. "I was going through this phase of being very mentally unwell," she recalls. "He was, like, 'I can't be with you until you love yourself, I can't see you love me more than you love yourself.' That was something, him doing that. I think he kind of saved my life, in a way." But it was rocky at times — they even broke up for a day. "It was the worst day of our lives," she recalls. "For a second we both had cold feet, then 24 hours later we were both, like, 'Never mind.' "
Turner and Jonas, who now live together in New York, are the ultimate millennial cutesters. They have an Alaskan klee kai called Porky Basquiat, who has more Instagram followers than everyone you know put together (but fewer than Turner, who is approaching 12m). And they share matching Toy Story tattoos, "To infinity" on his wrist, "& beyond!" on hers.
For Turner, though, the celebrity hype machine is really beside the point. What Jonas offers her is acceptance and unconditional love, from someone who has seen it all before. "Happiness has just trumped it all," she says. "You want to be normal, to go out without the fear of people hounding you, but if I'm happy then I'm not going to give that up to be private."
It seems almost trite to compare Turner's bumpy journey with that of Sansa's, who is a victim of savage cruelty, but there are a few parallels. "She's taught me resilience," Turner says. "Because we both kind of started out wide-eyed. Me not realising what the industry really was, her not realising what the world of Westeros really was. Going into it blindly, figuring it out, going through some ups and some downs, for both of us." Eventually, both become confident in who they are and what they want. "It sounds stupid, but I don't think I would have been able to get through the hardships — I mean, boo hoo — but the hardships, mental health-wise, in my life without playing Sansa and without having that constant inspiration. If she can do it, then I can definitely do it."
Turner remains bullish in defending Sansa's toughest moment, when she is raped by Ramsay Bolton, her barbaric husband, on their wedding night. It caused some fans to stop watching. "I don't think it was gratuitous," she says. "It's a matter of Ramsay exerting his power over Sansa and seeing that's the greatest weapon he can hold over her. I think it just makes it more of a taboo if people refuse to watch it." In Turner's view, the more discussions there are on this subject, the better. "The fact there was such an uproar and a discussion, I was, like, 'F*** yeah, let's keep talking about it, but don't stop watching the show.' "
In fact, one could argue, if you can look past the wanton nudity and controversial rape scene, Thrones has been a remarkably feminist show, turning the overwhelmingly blokey genre of fantasy on its head and giving us a bevy of thrilling female heroes, from Sansa to Daenerys the dragon queen (Emilia Clarke) and Arya the ruthless assassin.
So, how does it end tonight for Sansa? "It's a great ending," she says vaguely. "From my perspective, it's very satisfying. But I think a lot of people will be upset too."
Defining herself post-Sansa will be a challenge. "I definitely find myself getting a lot of scripts about medieval princesses and I'm, like, 'Nooo, I don't want to be typecast,' " she says. Next month also sees the release of X-Men: Dark Phoenix, in which Turner plays Jean Grey, another powerful, vulnerable, haunted heroine. She particularly looks up to her X-Men co-stars Jessica Chastain and Jennifer Lawrence.
Like Lawrence, Turner wants to do credible indie movies alongside the blockbusters. But the actor she truly desires to emulate is, er, Gary Oldman. "He's my real hero," she says. "He disappears into every role he does, you know very little about him and he's f****** awesome. His is a career that I would love."
She has more TV in the works and is starting a production company, but she's also beginning to paint and dance again, though "not as gracefully" as at 16. "It's a pain in the arse, I used to be so good," she laments. A new passion is criminology, inspired in part by watching true crime docs on Netflix, and she has become "completely obsessed" with psychopaths and sociopaths. "It's probably Game of Thrones that did it," she laughs.
Turner really is excellent company. Yes, she's prone to the odd foray into Hollywood gushiness, but she's also funny, thoughtful and self-deprecating. She seems happy now, but the demons are clearly still there. She says she hasn't actually watched Game of Thrones since the third series, because she can't stand to see herself on screen. "I don't like watching myself," she says. "I really, really hate watching myself. I refuse to do it."
She now avoids bikini scenes if she can, because of the "agony" it used to cause her. "I've learnt that I have to turn down jobs if I need to lose weight for them, because it's not good for my mental health at all," she says. "You feel so much pressure to say yes, but I've learnt that I have to put my mental health first, beyond anything, otherwise I'm screwed and then I might actually end up in rehab."
Turner's other survival tool has been Williams, her on-screen sister and off-screen pal. "Having a confidante to talk to at the end of every day, her being your best friend, it just really, really helped," she says. "I don't think I would be half as mentally secure as I am now without Maisie." The pair also share a tattoo, 07.08.09, the date they were first cast in Thrones.
It's not all doom and gloom, though. Turner revealed recently that she and Williams have a penchant for sharing a bath and getting stoned together after a long day on set, which sent the internet into a frenzy. Turner also revealed that she's sexually fluid (though she and Williams are "too good friends" to have ever shared a snog). "I've never felt the need to define myself," she says. "I just think, you're attracted to who you're attracted to. I'm attracted to a person's personality rather than their aesthetic."
She doesn't believe in the strict binaries of "coming out", because "everyone should just be OK with whatever people want to be or whoever people are. If it's what makes you happy then it's the right thing, unless you're killing someone." The best thing about her generation, she says, is that they're "so open" to discussing these things. "If someone wants to transition into being a man, you do that, it's f****** awesome," she says. If only the old farts could get on board. "The older generations, they don't understand it," she adds, shaking her head. "They don't want to know about it."
Turner does diverge from thespy wokeness on occasion. While she thinks the advent of #MeToo is "awesome" and has compared Harvey Weinstein to a cross between Ramsay Bolton and a White Walker (a homicidal ice zombie, for the non-initiated), she does worry that some people in Hollywood have become "too scared to hug each other". Has there been an overcorrection? "At times. It happens with everything, there's always an upside and a downside and I think the downside of it is that men can sometimes be a little scared to go up and hug women now."
She recalls a scene in the latest X-Men when she and Tye Sheridan, who plays her love interest, Scott Summers, were due to embrace. "We have this intimate scene, I could see him visibly so afraid that I had to be, like, 'Hey, it's cool, we're friends, it's all good.' So you can see there's a lot of terror. But it has to happen, that's the price you pay. Give it time and people's fear will lessen, but they will still be respectful, hopefully, that's the dream."
Turner is enjoying her new life in New York. The only downside is the "paparaaaazzi" (for some reason she pronounces it like a duchess), who are apparently worse in the Big Apple, particularly if she's out with Jonas. Apart from that, "No one really gives a f*** about who you are walking down the street, they're just, like, 'Get the f*** out of my way, I've got to go somewhere.' " She's certainly mastered cursing better than a Bronx cabbie.
Turner may swear like a New Yorker and gush like an Angeleno, but underneath it all she is still as English as strawberries and cream. She goes home whenever she can, to her family's Edwardian house, to the pigsties and the barn, her parents, Sally and Andrew, and her two older brothers, who have "never watched" Thrones and still enjoy "picking on me and pushing me over". Nothing changes when she's back, except now she "pays for meals a lot". Most of her best friends are her "real deal" mates from her Warwickshire primary school.
"It's my favourite thing to go back to my family, it's always where I'm happiest," she says. Jonas has even been over for Sunday lunch and a walk to the pub. What did he make of it? "He loves it. Yorkshire pudding, fish and chips and all that … Americans lap it up, they love that shit. They're, like, 'Wow, you have sheep.' "
It is true that you don't see a lot of sheep in America, but before we can get into this we have to cut our interview slightly short, because Turner's very same family have flown into New York as a surprise treat. There's time for a quick grab of the vape and a cheery hug on the way out, which is another rather charming interview first, then she's gone. I'm left with one overarching thought: I do hope Sansa wins the Game of Thrones.
X-Men: Dark Phoenix is released on June 6
Written by: Josh Glancy
© The Times of London