Behind Game of Thrones – Interview With Hollywood’s Female Film Armourer Natalia Lee
Hollywood’s leading weapons expert Natalia Lee is the only woman film armourer in the world. Discover the Queen of Swords behind Game of Thrones.
Natalia Lee has become one of Hollywood’s most sought-after film armourists in a heavily male-dominated industry. She commands thousands of swords on-set, builds trebuchets and designs and makes her own weapons. Her career has spanned a range of roles arguably wider than those of the actors she’s worked with. She’s been a stuntwoman, worked in a New South Wales armoury for a 30,000-strong police squad, and sharpened her talents in a rescue and bomb unit, too.
Natalia Lee now has a film armoury career forged of finest Valyrian steel. She consults on the safe use of weapons in Hollywood, and designs and creates the weapons they use on shows like HBO’s The Pacific and Game of Thrones. Oh, and those with three-eyed raven eyes will recognise her as GoT’s ear-wearing tribal leader Chella!
It’s so extraordinarily inspiring to hear of a woman with such expertise in the field. Natalia cuts a swathe through the opposition, forging a path for women who would also like to explore film armoury as a career. We caught up with Natalia to find out more…
How did you become a leading film armourer?
I’m quite young for a Film Armourer. Most men I work with have at least 15 to 20 years on me. I say ‘men’, because there’s not many women doing what I do. I personally have never met one. It’s not an easy job. I really have to chip away at it every day and realistically I’ve only just started my career. I’ve been lucky so far to have travelled the world, working with a vast variety of weaponry from bullwhips, catapults to iconic swords from shows like Game of Thrones. I’ve also been thrown into stunts and acting.
I did some stunt training in my late teens. My teacher, being an old school American cowboy, introduced me to bullwhips (which would later be so valuable when I was asked to stunt double an actress using a kangaroo leather bullwhip). A turning point came when I attended a film school seminar with my stunt. A Film Armourer asked me to stand in front of a handgun and get shot (movie magic… blank firing) to freak the film students out. I had a blood squib attached to me that was detonated in timing with the gunshot, spraying fake blood everywhere. I still get a kick out of shocking film students!
I’ve worked in security, Maritime Security, and Police Armoury, looking after law enforcement weapon and ammunition needs. All these jobs gave me exposure to a wide variety of weapons and defensive armour and equipment. I began assisting Film Armourers on big productions and eventually became one myself.
As a woman in a male-dominated industry, you tend to have to work harder and prove yourself a lot more than your male counterparts. I think I may have taken multi-tasking to a new level but surprisingly it has gotten me to where I am.
You created the concept for the Heartsbane Sword in Game of Thrones! Can you tell us more?
I wanted to prove to myself I could design a beautiful, timeless and classic sword. Weapons master Tommy Dunne and our whole armoury team were enthusiastic about the design. I knew it was going to be a special piece. It’s now a part of TV history.
When designing weapons, I try to incorporate elements pertaining to the script. In this case I wanted to incorporate the House of Tarly sigil – the hunting archers. I positioned mirrored archers centrally in the cross guard maiming other house sigil animals.
I drew inspiration from biblical renaissance paintings and classic hunting rifle engravings. If you look closely there’s Lannister Lions wounded with the archers’ arrows along with Targaryen Dragons, Baratheon Stags and the like.
A large arrow also runs down the full length of the handle with the pommel flaring out for the feather fletching. This was 3D printed from my sketches to create a mould which could then be cast in bronze. The cross guard used traditional sculpting methods as well.
The handle and scabbard were made with burr elm wood showcasing rare grain patterns and unique cracks for an ancestral antique look. The sword took months to complete and was a collaborative effort with some very talented folk.
Is forging swords a regular thing for you?
Film armoury encompasses many manufacturing processes, including modern machining processes. Older processes, like bronze casting and bladesmithing, may be used now and then… but the bulk of time is spent on making safe versions of weapons. Such versions include aluminum blades, modelmaking for safety rubber versions and things like sculpting and 3D printing. Film armoury involves many unique processes to create safe working weapons so we don’t really chop heads off!
Your weaponry expertise is highly sought-after in Hollywood. What do actors need to know when they’re handling weaponry on set?
Generally, you will familiarize the actor with the weapon, its moving parts, and general safety before their upcoming scene. Anyone working on set will be well-informed and prepared for any safety procedures and actions taking place with regards to weapons and armour.
Stunt people may spend more time with the actor if stunt choreography and other actions are involved. Film armourers are always on standby on the film set whenever weapons are being used, making sure the actor continues to execute the functions safely and correctly.
We can have all kinds of safety versions of a weapon, and many directions for cast and crew to follow. Some actors have weeks of training while others may have just five minutes before a take. It all depends on the type of action required.
If the weapon is part of the main focus, we make sure in advance that all the necessary training has taken place. Some actors have had a lot of experience or have a natural aptitude, while others may need more time. Everybody’s different.
Is there ever any conflict between historical accuracy and fantasy entertainment? To what degree do accuracy and fantasy visuals play a role in your work?
The conflict is always with the Director or the Producers /Creators. As Film Armourers, we have to present options and do our research to the best of our abilities. However, the decision ultimately lies with the Director. It’s their project. Historical accuracy is always a great reference point for our job and we have a fair idea from the script as to the direction in which a project is heading. You learn very early on that you are part of the entertainment industry and you have to keep things in context.
Once, I tried to persuade a Director that he should let me present the weapon more accurately but, in the end, he reminded me it’s a visual medium. He understood my concerns, but he wanted to take a more aesthetic approach. This is hard when you deal with those viewers who see small inaccuracies and aren’t aware that they are outside of your control.
Some projects may not have the budget to recreate everything in extreme detail, either. This is probably the biggest surprise to film students who first enter the profession – all those complex choices and compromises you have to make to finish a project. Logistics, financial allocations, time factors…
It’s not easy or cheap to make custom weapons to arm up hundreds of army extras, or ship a giant catapult to a perfect location – especially when millions are already being spent on lights, cameras, and talent.
You must have fond memories of merry mayhem behind the scenes…
Where on earth should I start? I’ll never forget erecting 2-ton catapults on the magnificent Croatian coast, sword fights on freezing Icelandic glaciers, and the knights’ tournaments on epic Mediterranean fortress walls. Or there was that time I was asked to play a little grizzly character in “Game of Thrones.” Watch out for my cameo in the earlier seasons, a tribal leader called Chella who chops ears off and wears them around her neck!
Then again, there’s the time I was a stunt double wearing very risqué body armour for a ferocious Sand Snake with a cracking bullwhip. Apparently that costume caused a fashion scandal…
It must have been wonderful to work on Game of Thrones. What else have you been working on?
Game of Thrones has taken up most of my film armoury career; I started on the pilot and have been working all the way through the eight seasons. The show is just as epic behind the scenes as on the little big screen. We have made some amazing historical weapons and travelled the world on wild adventures.
I recently worked on Amazon’s new TV series Jack Ryan, a CIA action thriller featuring John Krasinski. Watch out for my Behind the Scenes interview in Morocco where I’m chatting in my office… on the back of a Moroccan Military Monster truck, racked to the brink with modern weapons and ammunition. It’s completely action-packed, and we had amazing Stuntmen and former Navy Seals helping out. I also got to meet an amazing female Director/Producer duo: Reed Morano and Barbara Broccoli are working on a project still in production. Good to see more women making action films!
You’re currently the world’s only woman film armourer. How can women lean into film armoury as a career?
Film armoury is a field that requires a specialist. There aren’t that many people doing this and even far fewer women. I really have to chip away at it every day, and realistically I’ve only just started my career.
Most men I work with are about 20 years into their career, so you are always the youngest and learning as much as you can. Back in the day, attitudes were discouraging, and I had to constantly prove that a woman could do the job just as well, if not better. I was super fit, attentive and a fast thinker but still had to build a tough persona. When you’re young, those attitudes and remarks can really affect your confidence. As you get older, you start to believe in your abilities a lot more and ignore the white noise.
Film armoury is not an easy gig. You need a tactile nature whilst still being very assertive. When you’re in charge of thousands of weapons, safety must be your top priority and the cast and crew need to trust and respect your instructions very quickly. It takes time and a lot of experience.
As a woman, you have to come to the realization that in the current film armoury climate you will be the only woman and it will be isolating. It’s a lot easier now to get 400 rowdy toy soldiers on my side or laugh off those comments. You wouldn’t believe how many times I still get mistaken for the secretary or the other half.
I have to say that most men are very supportive and want to see women pursue amazing career opportunities like film armoury. To those dinosaurs that don’t: you‘re an extinct species and you should spend a day out with me on an armoury bootcamp. I will make sure you walk out with a healthy dose of respect for women in the workplace!
My advice for women wanting to do what I do is to not get discouraged by being the only woman in the room. Most men want to help and they want to see you succeed. When someone says to you “But you’re a girl, girls can’t do that,” tell them to give me a call!
Remember to learn as much as you can. In the end, you will be judged on your abilities not your gender. Film armoury is a very specific field so you will have to think outside the box. Always ask yourself – what skills do you need to be an asset to any person or organization who might want to hire you?
There are so many complementary fields that can lead into film armoury. For example, some of the most crucial team members of an Armoury department are Model Makers. They help to recreate weapons and parts into safe working versions from materials like rubber. If you really want to be in the film industry, get work experience on a film set. Once you’re on set and in a huge studio workshop environment, you will have a better understanding of how the business works and what it takes to be involved.
As for the film industry, there’s a long way to go but right now the turning point has occurred. Women are given a voice; their stories are being heard and broadcasted on wider-reaching platforms. As a society we need to bust those bogus gender stereotypes and support brave women in all industries breaking barriers.
On a recent trip to Australia, I was so saddened to hear women soldiers were opting not to march in commemorative military parades because of ignorant attitudes that they were wearing their husbands’ service medals incorrectly rather than those medals actually being their own. I was impressed by a national incentive in conjunction with the media to help educate the public about women serving in the armed forces. We have thousands of years of gender discrimination to make up for, but the revolution is back on track.
Photo Credits: Courtesy of Anderson Group PR