WARNING: SPOILERS ahead with regard to the most recent episode of Game of Thrones, “The Queen’s Justice.”
While Game of Thrones fans will continue to mourn the loss of Lady Olenna Tyrell (and her brilliant one-liners) on HBO’s hit show, we can all take comfort in the fact that the prolific actress who played her, Dame Diana Rigg, 79, is already hard at work on her next TV show — a supporting role on Season 2 of Masterpiece on PBS’ Victoria — and has no plans to retire anytime soon.
PEOPLE recently caught up with the award-winning British star for a look back on her most memorable roles and a glimpse into her very full, happy life.
She wanted to be an actress after dying in a play
“It was an extremely overdramatic play called Wild Decembers,” Rigg recalls, of playing a dying Emily Brontë when she was a teen in the ’50s. “It was all about the Brontës, and they all, one after the other, died of tuberculosis. I remember taking every opportunity to cough over other people’s lines.”
She helped pave the way for badass female characters on TV
Back when most women on TV were happy homemakers or damsels in distress, Rigg broke the mold. In the ’60s she played Emma Peel, a secret agent who karate-chopped bad guys on the British cult series The Avengers. “What I remember most is the extraordinary effect she had on the viewing public because she was the prototype of the independent woman,” Rigg says of the iconic Mrs. Peel. “Every bit as intelligent as any man.”
She happily walked away from the role that made her famous
While Emma Peel (and her signature leather catsuit) led her to fame, Rigg knew when it was time to step away from the part in 1968. “I’m deeply grateful to the character,” she says. “But I needed to move forward and to develop as an actress. Everything I was being offered at that point was a pale imitation of Emma.”
She loved being a Bond Girl
“My God, I loved it,” she says of her role in 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the first and only appearance of George Lazenby as 007. (Rigg’s character Tracy Draco was also the only Bond Girl ever to marry the spy but was promptly killed off in the movie’s finale.) “It was so profligate — money was no object,” she recalls. “There was a 10-second bit where I looked at my watch. And they sent for a watchmaker to arrive with a case full of watches. I just chose one, and they gave it to me. I also had a huge beautiful fox fur coat that I wore in the film, and they gave it to me! I loved it.”
She did The Great Muppet Caper for her daughter
“It was so fun,” Rigg says of her role as British fashion designer and jewelry heist victim Lady Holiday in the 1981 Muppet movie. “And I did it for my daughter [actress Rachel Stirling, now 40] because she — the kids absolutely adored the Muppets. And I was able to gather her and some friends and get them to visit the set and visit Miss Piggy.”
She had never heard of Game of Thrones before reading the script
When the producers asked her to play the quick-witted, politically savvy matriarch Olenna Tyrell, Rigg had no idea what she was getting into. “I hadn’t seen it,” she says. “But the scripts were absolutely wonderful, and its production values are wonderfully rich.” Her favorite aspect? “Mostly what you remember and enjoy are the scenes you played with people,” she says. “And quite often they’re the combative scenes!”
She loved her Thrones death scene
“It’s a beautiful scene, and Nikolaj is wonderful,” Rigg says of filming her final moments on the show with costar Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. “When it’s well-written, it’s a joy to do. And you don’t get an awful a lot of always-brilliant writing on television, do you?”
Coster-Waldau agrees. “It’s a great scene,” he says. “I was thrilled [when I read it] because first of all, what happens in the episode, it’s such a great surprise that suddenly they go there and the Lannisters actually were smarter than Tyrion, which was really cool. And then it’s just a great scene. It was truly an honor to be there because she’s given so much to the show with the character, just amazing. And of course both on and off set, she’s wonderful and she’s so smart and so clever and she’s just a brilliant actress. I was very lucky to be there.”
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She is a lethal Scrabble player.
“Don’t play Scrabble or Words with Friends with Diana Rigg, she’ll beat you every time,” says Rigg’s Thrones costar Natalie Dormer. “The cast went crazy for Words with Friends a couple years ago. I stopped playing because I was bored of losing.”
Rigg equates that particular skill to a lifelong love of words and poetry — which Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss say she also applied to her work and professionalism on-set. “One time we had a meeting in August, she asked about a line she had in an upcoming scene, which wasn’t shooting until October,” they recall. “She already had her dialogue memorized. And she was right about the problem with the line.”
She is a great storyteller.
In addition to dominating word games with her Thrones cast members, Rigg apparently has endless juicy tales about spending her formative acting years in some of the most prestigious theater companies and among the company of its well-known players. “No one tells better risqué stories about life in the London theatre scene,” say Benioff and Weiss. “Someone should make a movie about the Dame’s life. Say…”
She has no plans to slow down.
“Oh, God, I love my life. I’m a very lucky woman,” Rigg says. “I’m in a position to do exactly what I want. I travel quite a lot. I read prodigiously. I go to the theater, to concerts. London is a wonderful city to live in.” As for what’s next? “I’ve played the Greek classics, I’ve played the English classics. I promise you, I’m not complacent, because I hope to be playing all sorts of stuff that I’ve never played before, while the mind and the body still functions.”
Game of Thrones airs Sundays (9 p.m. ET) on HBO.