Esmé Bianco was not yet diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when she was cast as “a red-headed prostitute” on “Game of Thrones.”
Although she was only meant to be in the pilot episode, Bianco’s character ended up becoming a series regular named Ros, a clever brothel worker who was featured in numerous sex scenes throughout the first three seasons of the HBO show. At the time, she thought it was a dream job. But looking back now, Bianco is aware she was fighting her own demons while on set.
“My domestic-violence relationship happened many years ago, and I was only diagnosed with PTSD two years ago,” Bianco told HuffPost during a phone call earlier this week. “It was at that point that I started unraveling what had happened to me. I just thought that I was an idiot, got into a really bad relationship and it was all my fault. I was very ashamed of what he did to me. I thought somehow I was asking for it and I didn’t really understand what happened to me was completely not OK, completely illegal in multiple ways.”
Bianco said her trauma was hiding her truth “in order for me to survive.” So while she was shooting scenes like the “sexposition” lesson with Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen), she wasn’t even aware of what was lying underneath the surface.
“Honestly, I was probably so mentally tapped out about my own past experiences at that point that I didn’t really think about it. It didn’t even cross my mind that that should be traumatic to me,” she said. “I watched the scene that Joffrey has me beat the other prostitute two weeks ago, and I was shocked by how graphically violent it was and how it had never occurred to me before that it might be triggering some of my trauma.”
That scene was one of the most controversial of the show, as it featured the cruel young king Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson) forcing Ros to slap fellow prostitute Daisy (Maisie Dee) with a belt before handing her a wooden scepter to use.
“Your Grace, too much pain will spoil the pleasure,” she tells him as he loads up his crossbow and points it at her.
“Begin,” he demands.
Bianco recently shared her story in a Twitter thread.
“When I was filming that scene, I remember being super uncomfortable with it. ... It was pretty tense and everyone was squirming a bit,” Bianco said. “But violence like that had been sort of normalized for me and, because of my experiences with intimate partner violence, I dealt with it and probably minimized it a lot more than I would have otherwise.”
Bianco says producers wouldn’t have known about her history since she hadn’t even come to terms with it back then, but she does feel like perhaps that scene would have been reevaluated if there had been a more diverse crew. (Only four women in total worked as directors and writers during the eight-season run of “Game of Thrones.”)
“That’s why we need more female producers, that’s why we need more female directors, in every position on set. We need greater diversity so that people can be there to recognize details, and so that it’s not just men directing women who may or may not have mental health issues in the face of nude scenes,” she said. “There really needs to be more support for actors, not only just in intimate scenes but really in any kind of violent or possibly triggering scenes so that they have the support they need.”
“But this was like eight years ago now and it was before Me Too, it was before we were having a discussion about intimacy coordinators. So at the time, I was like, ‘This is a great opportunity,’” Bianco added. “I loved the role and I just thought it was a good show to be on. Honestly, I didn’t feel massively uncomfortable with the kind of material I was working with.”
Within the first half-hour of the pilot episode of “Game of Thrones,” Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) is seen partaking in sexual activities with Ros at a brothel during his family’s visit to Winterfell. From there we saw Ros not only satisfy characters like Tyrion and Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), but work for Littlefinger in King’s Landing and scheme on behalf of Varys (Conleth Hill) until she met her gruesome end at the hands of Joffrey, who killed her with a crossbow in his bed chambers.
In the early 2010s, viewers knew that when they turned on HBO on Sunday night, sex scenes were coming; nudity was guaranteed. And for Bianco, that’s OK.
“I’ve always been fairly defensive, possibly is the word, of the nudity that I’ve done because I feel that firstly, what we’re producing is entertainment and we will be very naïve to think that sex isn’t a part of modern culture’s entertainment. And also, especially on a show like ‘Game of Thrones,’ it’s a real part of the world in which it inhabits; prostitution, sex, it’s part of the life they’re depicting,” she said.
“At the same time, quite rightly, people have gotten very upset about the sexual violence against women on multiple shows, including ‘Game of Thrones.’ There was a spousal rape scene, for example, with Sansa [Sophie Turner] and Ramsay Bolton [Iwan Rheon], and lots of people were really up in arms and felt that the scene was unnecessary and shouldn’t have been there. On the other hand, I’m a survivor of domestic violence and intimate partner rape myself and, personally, I believe those conversations should be had. I’m really split about it because how do we handle it in a responsible way where we’re opening the door to conversations and making it something that people should, quite rightly, be outraged about, but at the same time, without making it look like it’s OK and that we’re trying to glamorize it in any way?”
Bianco, who is a former burlesque performer, has “absolutely no regrets” about any of the scenes she shot and would totally do it all over again. But she does believe some of the sexual content would have been received differently in the current social climate of Me Too, which she credits as the reason nudity has perhaps dwindled on the show.
“They’re dealing with actors and actresses who are now really big stars, who have more say in what they will or won’t do,” Bianco explained. “I think the climate has changed in terms of, well, viewership to a certain extent, but really how much the producers want to push the envelope, especially when it comes to what they’re asking their big stars to do. Also, there are such massive, sweeping plot points for them to cover that perhaps it’s got to the stage where having a long, drawn-out sex scene is just not practical in their work, in terms of what they have time for.”
Season 8 gave us one racy scene with Bronn (Jerome Flynn) and a few modest love scenes between Arya (Maisie Williams) and Gendry (Joe Dempsie), and Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) and Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), but not one of them came close to the graphic nudity aired in previous seasons. Like Bianco explained, the times have changed, as has the storyline of “Game of Thrones.” The producers are at the end, and they need to cover a lot of ground with a shortened final season.
“There’s that innate pressure in the world of TV to bring everything to a neat ending, so I wonder if there’s some of that pressure on the producers to wrap up each of these characters’ [arcs] rather than leave us hanging, which it is hard for them to do that in a six-episode season,” she said.
Bianco does somewhat agree, though, that some of the storylines haven’t landed because of the rush to the end, i.e. Dany going full Mad Queen.
“It is hard when Dany goes from being moderately sane to like really losing it. But it’s sadly like a practical necessity, to a certain extent,” she said. “The turn was quite dramatic, and it happened pretty quickly, but it would have lost the dramatic edge somewhat if we’d really seen it coming.”
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.