Emilia Clarke | Put A Record On, Watch The World Grow
“When I watch telly or a movie, it’s escapism. I just want to not think about my fucking life for a minute. I want to sit there, and be transported,” says Emilia Clarke, the 32-year-old English actor at the epicenter of one of the biggest, highest grossing, most culturally significant and revered shows on the planet: Game of Thrones.
17.4 million people around the world tuned into the final season premiere episode of the show, making it the most watched screening in HBO’s history. Memes have been flying across social feeds, passionate debates have ensued on who will take the Iron Throne, and bubbling excitement-meets-a saddened unwillingness to really, truly accept that the eight season-long fantasy epic has finally come to a close, has sunk in.
Game of Thrones, and the original Song of Ice and Fire novels by George R. R. Martin, is a cultural phenomenon of insurmountable proportions. It holds six Guinness World Book of Records entries, is the most awarded series in Emmy history, and has won 308 awards out of 596 nominations to date. It’s been quoted in speeches by politicians. Referenced in shows from The Simpsons to Sesame Street. Children have been born and named after its characters. Its fans are said to be the most devoted and dedicated of all, exceeding Bieber’s “Beliebers,” Gaga’s “Little Monsters,” and Star Trek’s “Trekkies.”
And now, after eight long years of the show and franchise, it’s ending. Chants of ‘Winter is Here’ float across countries, time zones, social media platform of your choice, and into the canon of entertainment history.
Escaping to fantastical worlds such as Westeros is cleary a favoured pastime of our generation. “It hit at a time when, culturally and socially, people were interested in power,” explains Clarke, who plays Daenerys Targaryen, one of the warring heirs to the epic’s Iron Throne. The original story was inspired by the War of Roses that took place in England during the 14th century. “You’ve got power, which is really fascinating, and how our world is still run to this day, then you’ve got incredibly beautifully written complex characters and sensational intrigue.”
I meet Emilia Isobel Euphemia Rose Clarke, who is as English and lovely as her name sounds, in the other-wordly floral interiors of Annabel’s private member’s club in Berkeley Square, just behind Green Park Tube station in London. It feels like a fitting place to have coffee with the Queen of Fantasy. Clarke has dyed her short hair back to her natural brunette tone—it couldn’t be more different from the long platinum locks of her character in the show. We talk about the perils of constantly dying hair, how in love we are with BBC Radio 4 interview show Desert Island Discs (Tom Hanks and Judi Dench are her favorite episodes), battling self-doubt, her family, admiration for Olivia Coleman and Emma Thompson, and the first home she’s just bought and decorated in the London borough of Islington. Obviously, we also talk Thrones.
Clarke was raised in a small village an hour outside of London where she lived with her mother, father, and older brother. There was a stream at the bottom of the garden with ducks waddling about. It was an idyllic and loving environment, but completely sheltered. “I remember very vividly seeing, at around nine or eight years-old, two men kissing in the street. I was like, ‘WOW!’”, Clarke explains. The proximity of London to this insular world, its diverse community and magnetic pull to its immortal art scene, meant moving there was “always inevitable.”
She describes her school in Oxford as “posh.” Most of the people there were from Conservative backgrounds, which meant she and a few friends often felt like outsiders. “It was confusing. Why on earth would you think like that? I earn a certain amount of money, so yeah—tax the shit out of me. I deserve it, that’s how it should work,” Clarke says.
Clarke is a Londoner through-and-through. Although she bought her first home in California, which she still owns and loves, she admits she can only handle it in short bursts before coming up for air. “London is my hood, this is where I’ll always be. I’ll have kids and raise them here,” she says. “I’d get so bored if I stayed in California. How many more hikes can a girl go on? Jesus!”
David Benioff and Daniel Weiss, Game of Thrones writers and Clarke’s best friends (“they’ll be at my wedding”, she says), have described her as goofy. She’s expressive, incredibly friendly, funny, enthusiastic, and someone who unapologetically wears her heart on her sleeve—right by the tattooed dragons on her wrist. Clarke’s eyebrows endearingly turn down when she smiles, and she manages to balance real warmth with uncompromisingly strong views. She’s petite, standing at around 5’2”. Despite her fame, there’s zero ego.
She’s also smart, highly charismatic, and thrives on engaging with the world. It’s easy to see why Brad Pitt bid $120,000 at a charity auction just to get a shot at watching an episode of Thrones with her. Clarke refers to podcasts she’s constantly listening to, what she’s read and is reading, and politics. She talks about the Time’s Up movement’s transformative effects on the industry, and cuts through the bullshit-side of fame: “This is not real, this is photoshopping, this is four hours in hair and makeup, this is a dress that I didn’t buy, this is a stylist, this is a professional hair and makeup person whose entire job is to make people look beautiful. I’ve been the person who measures their self worth on those images, and it’s hell.”
Clarke knew she wanted to be an actor from the age of three, when she was too young to understand what acting was. She applied to every drama school in the UK as soon as she could. After a raft of rejections, she moved to the capital to continue chasing her dream, earning money through bartending and waiting tables. She eventually landed a place at Drama Centre at the University of the Arts London—otherwise known as art powerhouse Central Saint Martins—when someone dropped out after breaking their leg. That’s right, the Mother of Dragons got into acting school because a fellow actor ‘broke a leg.’ The school’s alumni includes Pierce Brosnan, Russell Brand, Tom Hardy, Colin Firth, Michael Fassbender, and fellow Game of Thrones star, Gwendoline Christie.
She remembers her years at drama school as happy. She met some of her best friends there, people she still hangs out with to this day. “As soon as I get back home I want to hang out with them. If someone knows I’m free and says, ‘Come to the pub!’, I can’t say no.”
Her first acting break was landing a one-off role in BBC daytime TV show Doctors in 2009, and a Samaritans TV commercial the same year, which is still on YouTube—an early flash of her acting brilliance.
Clarke’s acting credentials don’t end at Game of Thrones. In 2015, she played Sarah Connor in Terminator Genisys, and in 2016 she starred in surprising box office hit Me Before You. She joined the Star Wars franchise, playing Qi'ra in 2018’s Solo: A Star Wars Story. She’s even voiced characters on Futurama and Robot Chicken, and performed on Broadway, too, as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. You’ve also probably seen her as the face of Dolce & Gabbana's fragrance, The Only One.
But it’s her character in Game of Thrones, Daenerys Targaryen, affectionately named ‘Dany’, —the show’s most loved and arguably most important character— that Clarke will forever be remembered as. Deep inhale for the official title: Daenerys Stormborn of the House Targaryen, First of Her Name, the Unburnt, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains, and, of course, Mother of Dragons.
The character has evolved from a girl in her teens, dependent on an abusive older brother, stripped of her innocence and married to a war lord at the centre of a world of savagery, to a brave young woman suffering incomprehensible loss, rising out of the ashes, literally, with dragons in tow, building an army, freeing slaves, fighting injustice, and claiming what is rightfully hers: the Iron Throne. Inspired by the likes of Joan of Arc and Boadicea, Daenerys Targaryen is one of the most powerful and dynamic female roles ever written and performed for TV.
Clarke admits that it took her a long while to grasp international stardom. “To really understand how lucky I was, I think, genuinely: Season Seven,” says Clarke, explaining the moment when the reality of playing Daenerys hit. “We’ve grown together. She’s part of who I am. Obviously, I don’t have dragons and I can’t walk on fire, but there have been so many parallels in our lives that I have drawn upon, so each season has been so much me, and so much her. I doubt I’ll ever be able to see her objectively.”
The role has at times, alongside other female leads in the series, been at the center of the debate on female representation in entertainment and media. Commentators, including female politicians, denounce the show for glorifying violence towards women, bias in showing female nudity over male, and using glamorized versions of rape as plot devices. Clarke’s decision to shoot nude for scenes is often heavily scrutinized. “I’ve put so much of my brain into this character, and it comes down to that. And you’re just like, ‘What? Why?’ It’s not an issue at all. It’s not in anyway something that needs to be discussed. And it’s all anyone wants to talk about. It’s not interesting, it’s boring.”
Clarke scored the leading role after a decision to recast Daenerys post-pilot. HBO bosses were looking for a one-of-a-kind actor with the emotional variation and depth to carry the character’s complexity. “Throughout the show I’ve always fought for a sensitivity in her, which they’ve written in. I was like, ‘This is great that she’s getting stronger, but you have to know why. You have to know how much it is costing her.’ I’ve always tried to show that it costs [to get stronger], and it’s not easy. I think that’s as much talking about myself. There’s collateral there.”
A resilience of character is something that Clarke truly understands. Days after our interview, Clarke published an essay in the New Yorker disclosing that she’d suffered two life-threatening brain aneurysms—the first in 2011, at the age of 24, after filming Season One, and the second in 2013 after Season Two.
During recovery, Clarke couldn’t speak. She didn’t know what her name was. She couldn’t see properly, it was so bad she wanted to die. For a spirit that thrives on communication and self-expression, how could she go on without the ability to be herself? Against the odds, she pulled through, averting serious brain damage. Clarke had to learn to trust her brain again. To cope with the overwhelming pain that the aneurysms inflicted, she attended press photoshoots and filmed with a morphine bottle by her side.
To clarify: Emilia Clarke filmed Season Two of Game of Thrones overcome with exhaustion and cerebral damage after a second aneurysm in her brain. It’s a story of survival. She admits the terror she felt at the time, a terror she sometimes still feels, but demonstrates the power of self-resolve that has rocketed her and Daenerys to fame.
It’s hard to imagine the strength and determination required to pull through such impossible circumstances, juggling the demanding requirements of a high-profile acting career whilst secretly recovering from a life-saving procedure. “Maybe it’s because my Dad was a crew member as his job, but I see it as my job to never ever let anyone know if you’re having a shitty time. I just don’t think it’s helpful, at all,” she explains.
“When I do get the two o’clock terrors and feel like I’m the biggest failure on the planet and I don’t know how to breathe, I pop on Judi Dench’s Desert Island Disc.” Everyone has a balm to alleviate anxiety; for Emilia, lying in bed, picturing her loved ones and local environment brings her peace of mind. “I imagine myself in my room at home, I can hear my Dad in the garden, my Mum and my Brother and my family, and just hear those noises and I’m reset. That’s my happy place.”
It was Clarke’s father, a sound designer for the theatre, who was responsible for her love of acting. He worked alongside Emma Thompson in a production of Me and My Girl. “My Dad always fancied her! They used to go swimming, but my Dad was short sighted, so he’d just swim in circles and bang into things,” Clarke fondly reminisces.
From a young age, Clarke would run around backstage and watch the shows he was working on in London. “I got to see the magic of it because of him,” she says. “He was incredibly encouraging but, also like, ‘Darling, if you want to do this, you’ve got to know that fame ain’t going to happen. Success may not happen. You’ll go a little bit crazy. You will work in a restaurant, you do know that?’”
She admits that this brand of reverse psychology works all-too-well on her. In the final season of Game of Thrones, Clarke earned a salary of $500,000 per episode, the same as her male counterparts, and has amassed an eye-watering net worth of $13 million during her career to date.
Saying goodbye to a job that’s spanned a decade, the safety net of HBO, and a film crew that’s become a family to her has been “weird”, “scary”, and “sad,” Clarke explains. “It’s such an enormous amount of your life. Everyone has grown. If you think about how much life happens in 10 years… Sophie and Maisie were children when they started filming, and now they’re beautiful grown women, and you’re like, ‘What?’. We lived our twenties on the show. The slightly older generation had babies. It’s so surreal.”
In a bittersweet moment, Clarke laughs as she recalls re-shooting takes of a final scene with an actor who had to say goodbye ten times until they were actually done. “As soon as the first one went I was like, ‘What do you mean, you’re not coming back?? OK, we’re saying that it’s done, but we’ll all be at work tomorrow, and you’ll start to piss me off again, like you always do?”
As this decade of her life comes to a close, Clarke reflects on the next chapter of her life: “I’m an achievement junkie. I’ve got my goals, and I go get them. Turning over a new leaf for me is like, ‘Yeah, let’s do another thing, let’s change!” Clarke has set up her own production company based in Los Angeles with multiple projects already in the pipeline. She recently finished filming Last Christmas with Emma Thompson and Crazy Rich Asians-stars Michelle Yeoh and Henry Golding, due for release later in the year.
Where does the Queen of Fantasy go from there? In a nod of noble solidarity, Clarke has launched a charity, SameYou, to transform care for survivors of stroke and brain injuries. “I’ve always wanted to help people. I helped my family first, I helped my friends, and now I want to help as many other people as I can,” she tells me.
She’ll continue her work as an Ambassador for the UK’s Royal College of Nursing, and keep spreading the love for the National Health Service and other causes close to her heart through her 19.5 million (and counting) following on Instagram. It was the NHS who first cared for Clarke after her brain injury, and who looked after her father before he passed away in 2016 after a short battle with cancer. Clarke was in a London airport when she found out he’d passed, right after landing from the States on her way back home to visit him. She talks about the family home she and her mom are building, with a dedicated ‘Dad’s Office’ in his memory. It’s an incredibly painful loss for her, and a defining moment in her adult life. “I cannot describe how much I would give everything I’ve done, everything I’ve made, everything, I’d just give back, just for one cuddle from him.”
Emilia Clarke and Daenerys Targaryen are individuals who refuse to back down and refuse to run away when faced with adversity. Television may be escapism and Game of Thrones may be a fantasy, but in their respective worlds, action and tenacity are the matter that bond them. Clarke will forever be a woman on a mission.