The taxi drivers who take Emilia Clarke home often remark how close she lives to the former residence of Boris Johnson. They assume this is the first time she’s heard this fact, and she’s too polite to tell them otherwise. She is not, however, too polite to add that — if the Prime Minister did still live there — she would egg his house.
A sense of ending still pervades Clarke’s life over two years after Game Of Thrones, in which she played talismanic mother of dragons Daenerys Targaryen, finished filming. She stifles a yawn as she sits on a sofa in her house, a warren of rooms as ornate as an antique serinette. “I’m definitely just starting to see I’m this tired because the show finished,” she says. “I was chatting to Kit [Harrington, her Game Of Thrones co-star] about this the other day and we were like, we wanna chat to the Mad Men people. Or the fucking Sopranos people… and just see. Did everyone feel this way? Like, what’s going on? What do I want? What shall we do!?”
Clarke is one of only a handful of people who know first-hand the head fuck of what it is to be in all our living rooms. In a decade where TV became the prevailing medium, she was part of its biggest show, a phenomenon that helped shape the culture of fandom into what it is today. By the eighth and final season, each episode of Game Of Thrones was watched by an average of 44.2 million people. Its wild success had wilder effects on the careers, fame, wealth and health of its young cast and creators, and as our conversation progresses, there is a sense that Clarke, rather than being interviewed, is interrogating a subject she’s still trying to come to terms with: her extraordinary life so far.
Emilia Isobel Euphemia Rose Clarke grew up in affluent rural Oxfordshire, “the least ‘yah’ people in a very ‘yah’ place”, where her father was a sound engineer for a theatre, her mother a businesswoman, and the biggest TV show in their home a Sunday evening re-run of sleepy whodunit Midsomer Murders. She was a loud, silly, funny child, and decided she wanted to act early. Her parents were supportive but unconvinced, on the basis that “actors are neurotic, crazy motherfuckers. You’ll be unemployed for the rest of your life. There is zero security there, all those things.” Clarke was undeterred, and when she maps the awakenings between then and her getting where she wanted to be, her eyebrows, the most fidgety feature on a restlessly expressive face, rise and fall like the double-leaf bascule of Tower Bridge.
“I didn’t really give a shit about school until I was 16. And then a boy broke my heart. And I went, no no no no. I’m not having some guy [tell me who I am]. I’m gonna show him what’s up. Fuck you. I’m gonna be really clever. So I did well at school, was happy as Larry, applied to drama school. But…” those eyebrows again, “But then I didn’t get in. I was completely crushed.” Clarke reluctantly took a year out, working catering jobs and travelling, until she could reapply for drama school, only to be rejected a second time. But, while contemplating paths less desired, she got a call from The Drama Centre. A new student had broken their leg. A place had opened up for Clarke to fill.
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“And then I got there, where I wanted to be, and suddenly I had another reawakening… I didn’t know what the fuck was going on. I hadn’t read enough plays! I hadn’t watched enough fucking Coen brothers! Who are the fucking Sopranos!? I had no idea. I’d not had a bouji, arty upbringing. I was filled with such shame, suddenly thinking like, maybe there was a reason I didn’t get into drama school… So I did what I did when I was 16 and broken-hearted again. I said, fuck this shit. I decided I’d work 18 hours a day, read everything there is to read, watch everything there is to watch.” Her doggedness paid off. She graduated, but was unemployed for a year, broke all of the time, working pub jobs that remedied neither. Eventually, close to finally quitting, she was asked to audition for a show called Game Of Thrones.
HBO’s Game Of Thrones, adapted from George RR Martin’s series of fantasy novels by David Benioff and Dan Weiss, had already shot an expensive pilot so disastrous it’s still only been seen by a few select, sworn-to-secrecy people. When choosing to try again, HBO decided to recast the role of Daenerys, the actor who’d previously held the part joining the teenage heartbreaker and student leg-breaker in inadvertently shaping Clarke’s future. “I’d never heard of Game Of Thrones,” she admits. “I Wikipedia-ed the shit out of it, so I kind of grasped it slightly. But [it] was weird. Parts of it were in a different language. I didn’t know how to spell it, how to say it, what I was saying… Absolutely bonkers. But it just seemed really fucking cool.”
It was only in the third audition, on a stage in Los Angeles before an audience of HBO execs, that Clarke felt she could stop being scared, and fully embody the character of Daenerys, scourge of slave masters and, of course, mother of dragons. In that moment, she reminisces, “there was this little bit of my brain that overrode any fears I might have into going, ‘you can do this, this is you at 16 telling your boyfriend to go fuck himself!’”. Nobody could have known what would become of Game Of Thrones, or its young cast, predominantly straight out of drama school, who resolved to spend their downtime during filming “getting mashed up” across Belfast and Malta where the show was made, because they might never get the opportunity again. They were green, but they were green together, free from the weight of expectation, unrecognised outside the “shitty Dalston flats” where they lived. They didn’t know they were in a show that would become the biggest ever made.
“I was like a tadpole when I first arrived [on set]. Everybody has a huge journey in their 20s, largely because they get jobs and leave education, but for me there was the reaction to the show, and then… [the matter of] life and death.” In this brief time after filming season one and transmission, Clark suffered a catastrophic brain hemorrhage in the bathroom at the gym. “The headache is the worst pain you can possibly imagine, and as I was throwing up I knew I was being brain damaged, but I didn’t know how I knew. And I was like, no, fuck this, not today, it’s not happening. I was wiggling fingers and toes, thinking of lines from the season, trying to do everything I could to keep myself conscious because I could feel myself slipping into a coma.”
By the time she got to hospital she was so contorted with pain her parents barely recognised her. Clarke was diagnosed as having mirror aneurysms, which as their name suggests serve up a double opportunity for a death every bit as sudden, shocking and grisly as those for which Game Of Thrones became notorious. Desperate not to jeopardise her place on a show now premiering to great acclaim, Clarke found a resolve that had typified her life thus far and told no one, not HBO, Benioff or Weiss, until she was sure she’d survive… only to suffer a second, even bigger brain hemorrhage a couple of years later during the non-invasive surgery designed to prevent it.
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“They managed to find another surgeon who was doing a lecture at a nearby university who came and cracked my head wide open, and did it that way,” she says. “Scary as all hell. [With] the second one, I lost a lot of hope; I lost a lot of optimism. That’s insane bad luck. But there I was in a fucking American hospital with drains coming out of my head, fully swollen, full of all the drugs they give you, and all I could think was, ‘please don’t recognise me, please don’t recognise me, please don’t recognise me.’” By then, Clarke and the cast were having to get to grips not just with being recognised, but the notion of fandom itself. It wasn’t beyond the realms of imagination that someone could enter a hospital room and take a photo. With Game Of Thrones as a kind of big-budget test case, fandom was metastasising beyond simple niche interest, into something new and potentially noxious – a sense of ownership. The idea that the show, its storylines, characters and cast could in some way betray the viewer, or let them down personally.
“This,” Clarke says, “is where you very quickly sound like a complete fucking dick because we signed up for this, we asked for this, it’s part of the job… And then you’re in a shopping centre with your mum who is crying over your recently dead dad and someone comes up and asks you for a picture and you say no and they’re like, ‘I expected better from you, I thought more of you than that.’” By the final season of Game Of Thrones, this fandom had mutated into something else entirely. Almost two million people signed a petition imploring HBO to reshoot season eight, largely because they were unsatisfied with Daenerys’s trajectory. Clarke’s beloved breaker of chains had transformed into a genocidal maniac on dragonback, and the fandom wanted revising a fictional history that, for the best part of a decade, they’d been thrilled to be given, like handing back the bike they’d been gifted because they didn’t like the view from the mountain they’d scaled. The growth of the show into a televisual behemoth coincided perfectly with the rise of social media — Daenerys herself became a thousand memes — and it was here that fandom’s opprobrium festered. Naturally for Clarke, who for a decade had been Daenerys, it felt personal.
“I do feel like the brain hemorrhages are the literal, physical embodiment of what it is to be attacked on a social media,” Clarke says, “because I didn’t want to look anyone in the eye, and I didn’t want anyone to recognise me; I wanted to disappear completely, to wipe myself off the face of the earth, because I couldn’t handle the level of interaction. Because I felt totally laid bare, totally vulnerable, totally in pain…” Since the show ended there have been film roles in other huge franchises – Solo, a spin off from the Star Wars movies, and as an incarnation of the heroine Sarah Connor in Terminator: Genysis, that make it all the more unusual to see Clarke in a film like the Emma Thompson-written Last Christmas, where for all intents and purposes she plays someone both of this earth and point in space/time. A human being like the one Clarke, after the last decade as Daenerys, finds herself re-figuring out how to be.
“It’s like there are so many waves of stuff to chew over – the fame, the brain hemorrhages, my dad dying. But for me, the show became my escape from all of it. If I was changing, I wasn’t really aware of it. All the change was done for me. Because she did it. Daenerys Stormborn, Mother of Dragons. Fucking Game of Fucking Thrones.”
She tails off. The eyebrows descend. “What was I going to say? Oh, I don’t know, some bullshit about myself probably,” she chuckles. And she’s right, it was about herself. Now the dragon smoke is clearing, we are seeing: Clarke and Daenerys are divisible after all.
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