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.”

Big break

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.

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