Curtain Call: Keisha Castle-Hughes

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By Petra Halbur and Luka Nieto

Keisha Castle-Hughes is one of those rare actors whose intensity and passion in her performance on Game of Thrones could be largely attributed to the fact that she was a fan before she was cast. Obara Sand’s gruesome death at the hands of Euron Greyjoy marks the end of an actresses’ brief run on the show who nonetheless played her character with the commitment and passion only an enthusiast can muster.

For me, Obara was one of those characters who grew on me the more I learned how much the actress loved and understood the character she was playing:

I was really interested in playing one of [the Sand Snakes] because #1 as a fan of the books I always thought that if there was one place that I’d like to live in it would be Dorne. It kind of seemed like the most appealing place to live and you’ve got the highest chance kind of living a longer life as well … What attracted me to playing Obara was her strength … and not just her physical strength but also the fact that she’s the eldest of all these girls and these are huge responsibility on her part to lead them, especially once her father’s death, and how do you portray that via some whose quite tough and probably wouldn’t cry but also who takes on the role of looking after her sisters immediately.

Obara’s monologue in “Sons of the Harpy”, plucked word for word from A Feast for Crows to convey the same thematic purpose, manages to convey everything you need to know about the character, and Keisha delivers it fiercely: Obara relates how she met her father and chose the spear as a way to follow in Oberyn’s bellicose footsteps, and then proceeds to prove her point by killing the merchant captain with said spear; in other words, Obara chooses war, a path that ultimately results in the tragic death of many, including their new queen’s Hand’s niece Myrcella and Obara’s own half-sister Nymeria.

MV5BNjQ0NzU5NjM4N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzgzNjE0MTE@._V1_While Game of Thrones is certainly the highest profile project that Castle-Hughes has been a part of to date, she was nominated for an Academy Award at the age of 12 for her performance as Pai in Whale Rider, making her the youngest actress nominated in that category at the time. Other memorable roles include the Queen of Naboo in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, and, interestingly enough, Virgin Mary in The Nativity Story opposite Oscar Isaac, who played Joseph (so, you know, if you have any interest in watching Obara Sand and Poe Dameron cuddling a little baby Jesus, maybe check it out).

There is no doubt in my mind Castle-Hughes will keep having many interesting roles in her career, but her Game of Thrones story is now over and we must bid farewell. Ultimately, what makes Castle-Hughes’ departure quite sad is the unfullfilled prospect of getting to know her character a little bit better, and that, after the delight of seeing Oberyn’s bastard daughters become great friends behind the scenes, that is over as well. More than anything else, the dedication of Keisha to the role cannot be denied.

29 responses

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    1. Hodor!

      Keisha, just like Jessica you made the most with what your were given and I appreciate you putting all your effort into the role right up until the very gruesome end!

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    2. Thank you for all your hard work, Keisha! She always seemed like such a delight and I really appreciate her passionate love of the series.

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    3. I imagine when Keisha signed up she thought she was going to be playing a role more akin to her book counterpart. “Whale Rider” is one of those films which crops up on (British) TV from time to time and Keisha was very good in it. I hope she continues to have a successful career.

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    4. Every character brings value to the show and her character was no exception for me. And she went down in style… fighting to defend her family.

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    5. I am tremendously happy that Keisha Castle-Hughes got to be part of Game of Thrones. While a great number of actors in this immensely talented cast joined the show as relative unknowns – at least for me – I was familiar with Keisha’s work from one of my favorite movies of the past 15 years – Whale Rider. When I heard the rumors that Keisha would be playing one of the Sand Snakes, I thought “That’s a perfect fit.” When it was confirmed that she would be playing Obara, the oldest and perhaps fiercest of Oberyn Martell’s daughters, I thought “Even more so.”

      I’ll celebrate Keisha’s role on Game of Thrones shortly. But first, I have to offer up an appeal: If anyone hasn’t seen Whale Rider (written and directed by Niki Caro), I would implore you to watch it. Keisha plays the lead role, as a young Maori woman whose love for her people and her culture is matched only by her love for her grandfather, who devalues her and her potential purely because of her sex. She’s destined to lead, but he can’t see it because he’s too constrained by his traditional views. But rather than resent him for it, she loves him unconditionally, and strives to both gain his acceptance and fulfill her destiny. It’s a tender, thoughtful, beautiful piece of art that hinges almost entirely on Keisha’s performance, and she is simply extraordinary.

      I’m usually pretty good about keeping my emotions in check, but the ending of that movie destroyed me – first with devastation (“What do you mean which one?”), then with joy and pure catharsis (“I’m not a prophet, but I know that our people will keep going forward, all together, with all of our strength.”). I sadly haven’t watched it in a few years (I should remedy that) but I still tear up thinking about it. Keisha received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress that year (2003). She was only 13 years old – at the time, the youngest actress ever to be nominated in that prestigious category. And in my view, that nomination was absolutely, unequivocally, 100% deserved. I wish she would have won. I consider it one of the best performances that I’ve ever seen a child actor – of any gender – deliver.

      Moving on to Keisha’s time on Game of Thrones, there’s an interview that she gave shortly after being cast that’s always stuck with me. In it, she described that in light of the connection between her character and Pedro Pascal’s, she experienced an intensely personal and emotional reaction while watching Oberyn’s death at the hands of the Mountain in Season 4. I’ve always remembered that, and it’s imbued all of the scenes in which Obara proudly declares herself the “daughter of Oberyn Martell” with an added emotional weight, even though the two characters never shared the screen. That bond was always there, and while I understand if most viewers didn’t appreciate it to the same extent, for me it was more than enough.

      The same things I said on Jessica Henwick’s Curtain Call about the apparently warm and genuine bond formed between the actresses playing the Sand Snakes applies to Keisha as well. In the lead-up to Season 5, I remember seeing set photos of Keisha, Jessica, and Rosabell training – Keisha always looked like a natural with a spear – and then more photos of them going out on the town in Spain together when their work was done. They looked like they were having the time of their lives. The Sand Snakes may not have the most loving relationship with one another, but Keisha, Jessica, and Rosabell are true sisters. I hope they stay in touch.

      Keisha’s also a member of the select but growing member of the Game of Thrones family who is also part of the Star Wars universe (playing a very small role as Queen Apailana in Episode III). For me, that’s always something worth celebrating!

      It genuinely saddens me that there’s a section of the fandom that will not look back on Keisha Castle-Hughes’s contributions to Game of Thrones fondly, because for me, she’s accumulated a veritable lifetime of goodwill. But I can’t control that. I can only control my own opinion, and I consider Keisha’s performance as Obara Sand to be a worthy inclusion in this world that we all love so much. I will always be glad that we got to see her play her part in this epic story, and I sincerely hope that in time, everyone will be able to look back with nothing but appreciation that this incredibly talented young actress was part of this show, and always will be.

      I wish Keisha nothing but the absolute best as she moves forward with her career. Forward, with all of her strength.

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    6. Ultimately, what makes Castle-Hughes’ departure quite sad is the unfullfilled prospect of getting to know her character a little bit better

      I apologize if this is poor etiquette. I felt she was the most well rounded SS. Maybe because her book counterpart imo was the most similar to what I saw on screen. Nina Gold again deserves some credit (always) as Keisha immediately struck me as strong physical and emotional representation of Obara. As soon as I saw her, I immediately thought “Obara”

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    7. Keisha’s so crazily talented and passionate. Big thanks for being part of the show – can’t wait to see what she does next!

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    8. I was excited when Keisha was cast and had hopes that they’d beef up the role for her the way they did with Natalie Dormer’s Margaery. Sadly, there probably just wasn’t enough time for it. Winter is here and a lot of the cast’s numbers are probably going to be up this season or the beginning of the next. She did great with what little she did have though and at least got a good, harrowing death scene.

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    9. I remember her enthousiasm when she was cast. I was really curious to see her in Game of Thrones. Pedro Pascal as Oberyn was beyond a perfect casting, I loved every millisecond when he was on screen, except of course for the last minutes.
      It was difficult to live up to that expectation. But she gave herself 100% and I’m really thankfull for that. When Whale Rider is on Netflix in my country and I hope it will soon, I’ll make sure to watch it.

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    10. Alas poor Barbara…

      Like Jessica, Keisha gave 100% in a role and storyline that was not kindly received by too many. Perhaps in time there will be some greater and wider appreciation of the actors’ dedication in preparation and efforts to bring the characters to life.

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    11. Obara was the Sand Snake who gave the best first impression, with the monologue taken directly from the book, with the same purpose: in AFFC, Doran asks what she would have him do, and she answers by telling this story, which has a very clear meaning behind it – war; in Season 5, it’s Ellaria who asks Obara if she will follow her to war, and she answers with this story, and an addition: “I chose a long time ago.” Again, war. I always thought that was a great introduction, both in the books and the show. The Sand Snakes haven’t done anything since their introduction in the books, and their time is now done in the show, but I’ll always have that introduction, wonderfully played by Keisha.

      Aside from that, I concur with many of you that the thing I enjoyed the most was the beautiful friendship that blossomed aming the three fictional sisters. It’s a pity they may not get to see each other as often now. Their sisterhood was evident on-screen, and not to diminish their acting but I think their very real friendship had a lot to do with that.

      Also, it must be said: the fight scene in which Obara died was AWESOME. The coreography was amazing. Keisha deserves a lot of praise for that. If that’s not redemption I don’t know what is. She went out on a high.

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    12. I praise the dedication Keisha Castle-Hughes (as well as Jessica and Rosabell) put into training and her commitment to bringing Obara to life. I also celebrate the friendship the SS actresses developed during training and filming.

      As Luka Nieto said, the awesome fighting scene in which Obara dies completely redeems the clunky fighting choreography in the Water Gardens (which is not THAT bad as most of the fandom like to claim.)

      I wish KCH nothing but good things in her career.

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    13. Jared,

      Well said, totally agree with this. I did see Whale Rider several years back, for some reason never connected that character to this actor in GOT. I need to rewatch it, and encourage others to watch it as well. It will give you a very different take on this young lady’s talents.

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    14. When Obara and Nymeria died, I was actually surprised to find myself a little sad. I guess I cared about them more than I thought I did.

      Whatever the problems with the Sand Snakes, it was no fault of the actresses. I thought they did perfectly fine with what they were given.

      In interviews and social media, Jessica and Keisha both seem like such warm, lovely people. I wish them the best of luck in the future.

      Unlike Jessica, I am not familiar with Keisha outside of this show, unfortunately. My mom likes the movie Whale Rider though, so she was sad when she died. And I know she won an Oscar for that movie, so… Congrats to her.

      I’m glad the Sand Snakes at least had a good death. They fought very well in that final battle (the choreography there was, in my opinion, some of the best the show has had). Unfortunately for them – Euron had armour… and a big fucking axe.

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    15. Best of luck to Keisha. Loved her as Mary in the Nativity Story, just wonderful. So, when I read that she was going to be in GOT I was very excited, especially portraying a Sand Snake. Given more time and better scripts, I think she would have stolen every scene she was in, much like Lady Mormont. Wishing her all the best for the future.

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    16. I did say in Nymeria’s (Jessica Henwick) curtain call that she was the sand snake I was most sad didn’t get more to show off. Obara in Keisha Castle-Hughes’ hands was the second sand snake that I’d have loved to get a meatier material to work with because as with Jessica, I’m convinced Keisha is a great actress. But sadly, it was not to be. Perhaps specifically because Obara, as eldest daughter, “inherited” Oberyn’s spear, she stood in Oberyn’s darkest shadow, and the character just couldn’t hope to become as loved as Oberyn himself.
      Well, all that is moot now. I wish Keisha Castle-Hughes luck in the roles to come. She certainly deserves it.

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    17. Just as with Henwick, Castle-Hughes did well with very limited material. It’s tough to stand out when you are playing not just a tertiary or even quaternary character, but when that minor character is basically part of an ensemble. This has not yet been the springboard for Castle-Hughes that it has been for Henwick, but it certainly will be a good stepping stone for her.

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    18. Wimsey,

      I’m not sure that Keisha Castle-Hughes is deeply invested in being a huge Hollywood star. After all, she had her first acting role (an Oscar-nominated one!) at 11 or 12 years of age, and is now, what, in her late 20s or early 30s? She married and had a child as a very young woman, and I’ve always been under the impression that she’s far more interested in maintaining a strong family life… and in taking on quality roles in quality projects as they come. In thirty or forty years, she may well be that great character actor recognizable by all, which imho is preferable to having been the falling star that shone briefly and then crashed.

      Sorry, I got a tad carried away there. 😉

      On that note… Whale Rider is one of my favorite all-time films. I highly, highly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t watched it. When the film was released my daughter was in her early teens (she’s just a little younger than KCH), and it had a profoundly positive effect on her. For that alone, I’ve always wished KCH the very best.

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