Her role as the Mother of Dragons has made her famous, but Emilia Clarke sounds relieved that she hasn't really had to deal with the pitfalls of fame since the debut of HBO's "Game of Thrones" (Sundays at 9 p.m. ET).
"I'm really oblivious to it, because I look so different," said Clarke, whose natural brunette hair color makes her look quite dissimilar from her character, the white-haired, royal exile Daenerys Targaryen. Still, people do occasionally recognize her: A woman in a department store in Los Angeles was too stunned to get on the elevator when she saw that Clarke was in it. "Khaleesi?" the fan asked.
"And then the doors closed, and the lift kept going up," Clarke said with a laugh. "Stuff like that happens, and there's also, 'You kind of look like that girl from "Game of Thrones."'"
Given that she prefers a low-key lifestyle, it's perhaps good that the film role she just finished also has the actress wearing things that make it unlikely that fans will recognize her. In "Spike Island," Clarke plays one of a group of early '90s Stone Roses fans, and wears baggy overalls and that era's puffy, fluffy hair.
She's a huge fan of the band, but as she noted, "The '90s were really just bad for fashion and hair." It is known, Khaleesi.
That movie, which doesn't have a release date yet, just wrapped a couple of weeks ago, and at the end of 2011, Clarke finished filming her "Game of Thrones" scenes, which were mostly shot in Croatia. Once again, she typically worked far away from the rest of the cast -- this season, Dany is across the Narrow Sea, trying to keep her Khalasar (her Dothraki tribe) alive and ultimately trying to get back to Westeros, the land that the Targaryens used to rule. In last week's episode of "Game of Thrones," Dany and her followers finally found refuge in the mysterious city of Qarth, which is far from the capitol of the Seven Kingdoms.
Back in the real world, the London-based actress sees the rest of the cast whenever she can. "All of the boys, I see regularly because we're all in London together, so that's really nice," she said. "A special bond was made with the whole of the cast from the beginning, when we were all a bit more together, and I don't think that's really going to go away."
But as we discussed in our conversation, being away from home and all her friends and family is a situation her character Dany is quite familiar with -- though of course the khaleesi's situation is more extreme. She's not only trying to keep her people safe and retake the Iron Throne, she's also mourning the deaths of her husband, Khal Drogo, and her baby, and trying to nurture the three young dragons that hatched at the end of Season 1.
Clarke and I began by talking about the parallels between the actress herself and the young exile.
When we first spoke a year ago, we talked about how your journey kind of mirrored Daenerys', because she was coming into this new, really challenging situation, as you were when you joined "Game of Thrones." Do you still feel as though you're on a similar path to her, in terms of finding your way?
Yes, weirdly, I do still feel the same. I feel like it's going to continue. Well, sort of being vaguely aware of where she ends up, I'd love for [my journey] to continue to mirror hers. But yes, it definitely does. I found myself in Season 2 feeling in a similar territory to her. Hugely with Season 1, because [I was] sort of coming from nothing and coming from a similar naïve place to her, and now [in Season 2], feeling much more experienced, but kind of still being unsure of everything.
So much of Dany's story, certainly so far, has been about the fact that other people want to use her as a pawn or a prop for their own purposes. Is that a difficult thing to play, or does it give you a through line for the character, in that she's always got something to fight against?
What it really does is it just clarifies her ultimate goal even more, because it's continually being tested. I think that the biggest thing that it does is, it just hones in for Dany what she wants and where she needs to go. It again highlights the harsh realities of what she needs to do to get to where she needs to go. The trials and tribulations she stood up against in Season 2, it just fundamentally ended up honing where she wants to go.
I've seen up through Episode 4 at this point, and one thing that struck me is that Arya and Dany are off in their own stories, but there's a real unity in terms of what they're going through. They're both being tested and storing up everything that's going to help them survive this and ultimately have their revenge on other people.
Well, that's exactly it. I think the both of them as characters are intelligent, and because they're women, they're forward-thinking. [Dany] is planning and she's aware. She comes from a line of leaders. She comes from a really, really powerful, strong family. It's in her blood, and I think she's, without realizing it, incredibly aware of what she needs to do and what it takes to be a leader, which is what her destiny is, fundamentally.
She knows what she needs to do for her people, and to do that, she needs to make her mistakes when they don't matter so much. She needs to kind of figure out what it's all about, because ultimately she is still a kid. There have been a huge amount of experiences that she's gone through in the few years that she's been around, but she's still not an adult. She is still not where you'd normally find someone who has to deal with that much responsibility.
What I loved about the scene at the gates of Qarth is that Ser Jorah [Mormont] is like, "Don't piss them off!" But she turns on the Thirteen and says she's not going to just take their treatment of her. Is it one of those situations where she's more reliant on herself and more trusting of her own instincts?
Definitely, definitely. I think the lioness in her comes out, and it's not only that she feels incredibly maternal towards her dragons, which are ultimately her children, it's also her people. So when it comes down to the wire, when it comes down to the fact that their survival is in her hands, then she does everything that she needs to do to make sure that they survive. She's also realizing that it's less about how it reflects on her as an individual, and it's more about what she needs to be for everybody else.
There is something really interesting going on with the female characters in this show. The show and the books are unflinching about showing that usually, the women have fewer choices and they have less overt power. So I feel like, as a result, they have to be less sentimental and really strong and intelligent. Do you feel like that's a theme through the show?
Yes, I do. I suppose it's because it's ultimately against probably their natural instincts as well. I'm not in any way, shape or form saying that just because they're women, they're sensitive. That's not the case, but there is a maternal side that you can't ignore, that women do have. I think with that in mind, and with the fact that they have fewer choices, they're forced to be even stronger than any man would be, because they need to make more of what they're born with. There's also the fact that they're not going to be taken seriously, so they need to fight that much harder to be able to show that they should be taken seriously and that they're actually 10 times more dangerous than any man.
I know that you all get warned about spoilers and that's not what I'm asking about, but for the rest of the season, emotionally and intellectually, what's the journey for Dany? Last time we talked, you were talking about how you mark up the novel with all your own notes and reminders. What sort of things were you writing in your copy of "A Clash of Kings"? What were you thinking about during production?
During Season 2, the big thing for her is trust. If you see her in Season 1, there are a lot of physical extremes that she's up against, and it's a huge emotional journey that she goes on as well, but a lot of it is kind of physical circumstances that force her to make decisions. In Season 2, in the beginning, it starts with something quite physically desperate, but as the season progresses, it feels more as kind of a political drama that she's in, and that's a whole new ballpark for her. That's something that she's never had to deal with until now. So it brings into play trust more than anything else -- who she can genuinely trust and who she can turn to?
I think Season 2, for her, is kind of a blueprint for the rest of her life, because it's dealing with stuff that she hasn't come up against yet.
And she has to be good at these political situations in order to survive.
Exactly. It's like she's sharpening her weapons. She's tooling up. She's working out exactly what she needs. With Dany, in every single thing that she does, she's trying to learn from everyone and everything, either from their mistakes or from their successes. She gets tested so much in Season 2, and when she may think that she is learning from someone's success, she is actually learning from their failure.
The biggest thing is trust, because it's an incredibly lonely place that you see her in. [Up to and including Episode 4,] you can see that, but it gets even worse, because you are just reminded of the fact she has no one aside from her khalasar and Ser Jorah and her dragons, but there is no family there at all. There is no husband, and she is still mourning the loss of her child. It's quite a dark place, really.
I was watching the episode where she's at the gates of Qarth and you have to really believe in that moment that she will come back and destroy them. You have to believe that she could and would, yet here is this person with nothing. She literally doesn't even have a scrap of food and you have to believe in that moment that she has or could get that power and would use it. And thanks to your performance, I did believe that.
Oh, thank you. That was one of the fun things to do from Season 2.
But it's interesting, because in that moment, you have to show that she's an incredibly vulnerable child threatening this revenge -- I mean, it could be comical, but it can't be, because she truly believes this.
Completely, completely. She's completely and utterly desperate and she doesn't accept failure in anything. I think that she will die trying to do what she believes is right. That [belief is] tested, but it pays off, because they can see in her that she believes completely in what she's saying.
You talked so eloquently when we spoke before about just feeling like you instantly got this character. Was it more challenging for you this season, or was that the same?
With every season I feel like I kind of grow another skin of Dany, if you see what I mean. You get to a point where you feel like you start to question yourself, because there are times when I think it should be harder work. It should feel harder than it is and often [it isn't hard] because Dany and I are on the same page, and I do continue to still understand her. So the only thing as far as Season 2 is concerned, in comparison to Season 1, is that my trust in myself was tested.
Why was that?
It's like the second album syndrome. You're just worried that if you show them [what you can do] again, then they're going to go, "Oh no, now we can see all the flaws." But [the sympathy with the character] is still something that I can't get away from. I get her, and it continues to feel right and a complete fit. The vulnerability and the strength is just kind of taken up a level. I left Season 1 thinking it couldn't get kind of more real, it couldn't get more intense, and then, Season 2 comes around and it does, and then being aware of what will happen in Season 3, you're kind of like, right, [it's even more intense].
You talked last year about your first day of filming on "Game of Thrones," about how there were hundreds of extras and you were on top of a horse and Ian Glen [who plays Ser Jorah Mormont] was kind of talking you down because you were nervous. Was there anything like that this season where you just looked around you and were like, "This is just insane"?
I think actually it was probably all the stuff in the Red Wastes. You look around and you're like "Huh, yeah, we're in the Red Wastes, I'm under my little umbrella. Can I have some more water, please?" That was probably the Season 2 moment for me -- looking around the canyon and going "I can't see anything for miles. Oh my goodness, there are no cars or nothing. I genuinely feel like we're kind of stranded."
At least you're not like those actors in the green-screen productions where they're told, "OK, imagine you're in this forbidding desert..."
Yeah, the only times that ever happened was with my dragons when [the director said,] "Can we cut -- so, Emilia remember that the dragons actually have weight, so you need to [remember] that," And you're like, "Shit, okay, yeah, sorry, I know what I'm doing. How heavy is a dragon? How heavy is a dragon?!"
That's kind of funny -- that for your performance, you have to guess how much a baby dragon should weigh.
That's exactly it! I'm on set, looking at my shoulder intently and everyone around me is cracking up, and I'm like "No, no, no, no, I need to see it, I need to see him." And people are sort of looking at it like, "Oh, such an actor."
But was that really challenging this season, making the dragon relationship feel real?
Well, they have these amazing life-scale models that we used for camera rehearsals for the sake of the CGI [computer-generated imagery] people, and I got very attached to them. They genuinely helped me and I kind of got very maternal towards these -- fundamentally [they're] dolls, I suppose. But it was nice to have something physical that I could really picture in my mind. The dragons are what got me through Season 1 and they're such a huge part of Dany, so it wasn't difficult, because I already have a relationship with them. But when you're getting into the physicality of holding them and of moving them, that's when it gets tricky, because you don't want it to look not real. You don't want, for one moment, for the audience to go, "Wait a second, where is she looking? That doesn't make sense."
Just going back to the bigger picture, I spoke with ["Game of Thrones" executive producer D.B. Weiss] recently, and he was talking about the demands of this huge story, with new characters coming in and so much going on. The show needs to tell the story, but the audience also has to feel for the character's situations. Is that ever hard? Do you ever think, "I wish we had more time to tell Dany's story," or "I hope that this reads the right way, because there is a lot of other stuff going on"?
Yes, I think that does happen. The biggest thing with Dany that I always hope that people get is the backstory -- where she's come from and her family, now her lack of [family]. That's always kind of my worry -- maybe that doesn't show, and how can you make that show in an hourlong episode, when you've got as many other characters that need all of their stories told also? Dan [Weiss] and [executive producer David Benioff] are absolute geniuses, and I think that they do it brilliantly. It's just the actor side of you starts to go, "Please say that the words that they've given me to tell the story mixed with my acting is showing you what needs to be seen."
I was just thinking about what you said: She has lost a child. She has lost a husband, and he was her first love. We talk about this as an epic story, but for a human being, those are the most epic emotions you can feel.
And she's an orphan as well now. Every member of her family has died, ultimately. She knows there is no one, and she has this absolutely glorious image of her father. You completely see this in the books: There is this man that she looks up to and she's desperate to hear about. Her brother, Viserys, didn't tell her how it was, about the the history of the world, let alone the history of their family. But I think she enjoyed hearing the stories about her family, because there is no one else around her. To have got that so wrong ... that's what sort of gets me with Dany, I think.
If she didn't believe that she was from this magnificent heritage, she'd be just bereft. She'd have so little to fall back on.
Exactly, which is why she puts so much into her dragons and her people and her destiny, which is something that she can't fight against -- for better or worse, it's there. It's something that she can't control and that's the magical element of Dany -- this sort of path and this destiny that she's on that she can't change.
How far have you read in the books? You said you were just going to read each book before the relevant season began.
I know, and then I kind of got impatient. [Laughs.] Basically, I read Book 2 ["A Clash of Kings"] and it wasn't enough, so we were filming Season 2 and I started reading Book 3 ["A Storm of Swords"] and then I started reading Book 4 ["A Feast for Crows"] and now I've stopped because it's getting silly. For my performance I need to stick [with the book of that season.]
What's your feeling about the next season? Is it "I can't wait to get going"? Are you nervous, scared or just kind of like, "Bring it"?
Genuinely, I've looked forward to doing Season 3 for since I read Book 3. I really can't wait. I love it. I just ridiculously still love everything about the show and Dany, so any excuse to get back and play her is pretty wonderful.
Is "A Storm of Swords" your favorite book, of the ones you've read?
Out of the ones that I've read, yes. Book 1 is truly incredible and like page to page, front to back, it's just the most perfect book, but then ["A Storm of Swords"] happens and you're like, "Right, it stepped up."
Does it ever freak you out that this might be a commitment for more than a decade of your life, if they keep going with the entire saga? Or do you not get ahead of yourself like that?
Well, there is always that possibility, but with Dany if she keeps doing what [she has been] doing, every season is different, and it feels you're playing a different character every time. The world keeps changing so fast and there are so many characters, so many people. It's not like you feel like you're stuck in something that's not going anywhere. It feels like a new job every time. It feels like a new character every time. So I never get that fear. I'm a fan, so [the thought of] doing that many seasons just makes me really happy. I get excited by it.
"Game of Thrones" airs on Sundays on HBO at 9 p.m. ET