Dame Diana Rigg, known to Game of Thrones fans for playing the indomitable Lady Olenna Tyrell, died at the age of 82 following a months-long battle with cancer on September 10, 2020. Younger fans of the show may not realize Rigg was an icon both on and off the screen long before she was cast on Game of Thrones, having played super-spy Emma Peel in the 1960s show The Avengers and Tracy Bond, the only woman to ever get James Bond to the altar, in 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
During her time on The Avengers, Rigg discovered that she, the lead actress on the show, was making less than one of the cameramen, and certainly not as much as her male costars. She successfully lobbied to get herself a raise. “I remember thinking, ‘something’s very wrong here,'” Rigg said of the incident at the Canneseries TV Festival in 2019. “When I complained publicly, the newspapers got hold of it, and I was represented as a mercenary young woman stepping out of line and demanding money. I was lonely as well because no one supported me. I did get more money, but thereafter I was labeled as go-getting and ‘hard’—and it was unfair because I wasn’t."
As Rigg acknowledged, the fight for pay equality continues to this day. Fighting for it back then made her a trailblazer, both onscreen and off. “I go to see a female lead as often as a male one, so why there’s disparity in the paycheck I have no idea. Bosses need to be talked to about this.”
Fast-forward to getting cast as Olenna on Game of Thrones, and Rigg was ready for anything they threw at her. “Interestingly enough, they tested me very early on,” she said. “One of my earliest scenes was incredibly difficult, listing all the things my marching army would need. It went on forever, talking about the sheep and the cows and the soldiers. I read that and thought, ‘these guys are testing an old actress to see if she can get it into her head.’ I thought, ‘I’m going to do it in one take.’ And I did.”
Rigg also had an admirable detachment from her work. “Just like The Avengers, I wasn’t watching Game of Thrones and had absolutely no idea of its influence in the world,” she said, speaking of when her agent got the offer for her to audition for the show. “They sent me a script, and I thought ‘I can do this.'”
But don’t think she didn’t enjoy playing Olenna; on the contrary, she seems to have had a ball. “I love playing bad [characters],” she said. “They are so much more interesting than good. There are some actors who don’t like to play bad; they like to be liked. I love to be disliked. Olenna had the best lines.”
Rigg saved special consideration for Olenna's death scene, which she thought was “just wonderful.” Unwilling to go meekly, the Tyrell matriarch uses her final moments to taunt Jaime Lannister. “She does it with dignity and wit, and wit is not often in final death scenes.”
As for not watching Game of Thrones “before or since” appearing on it, Rigg said that’s just not how she does things. “Been there, done that, all of it. Dredging up the past is not my style. I prefer to move on.”