“I’m pretty fatalistic about this industry,” says the actress Emilia Clarke — who is best known as one of the most fascinating and beloved characters in TV history, Game of Thrones‘ Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen, rightful heir to the Iron Throne, rightful Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Protector of the Seven Kingdoms, the Mother of Dragons, the Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, the Unburnt, the Breaker of Chains — as we sit down at the offices of The Hollywood Reporter to record an episode of THR‘s “Awards Chatter” podcast. “I think that what’s doing so good today maybe isn’t gonna do so good tomorrow, so why not grab it with both hands and live it?”
That outlook explains why the 31-year-old — who has been starring on HBO’s massively acclaimed fantasy drama series since its debut in 2011, and received best supporting actress in a drama series Emmy nominations in 2013, 2015 and 2016 as well as Critics’ Choice nominations in 2013 and 2016 — pushes herself so hard even during the five months of each year when she is not working on the show. She has spent her hiatuses acting on Broadway, in Breakfast at Tiffany’s in 2013, and in movies, such as 2015’s Terminator Genisys and a little one coming out on May 25 that you may have heard about, Solo: A Star Wars Story.
“I want to just try to do everything to figure out what bits I really like and what bits I really don’t like,” she explains, “so when I’m older I can feel a bit more secure in going, ‘No, you know what, I know what it is I like, I know what it is that I don’t, I know that I’m ready for this or I know that I’m ready to actually do something completely different. I mean, that‘s never gonna happen — I’m just kind of addicted to it.”
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Clarke, the daughter of a sound designer for the theater and a marketing executive, was born in London but raised in the countryside. From an early age, she dreamed of a career as an actress, but ran into a number of bumps along the way. After high school, she initially applied to the U.K.’s top two drama schools, RADA and LAMDA, and was turned down by both. “I was knocked out in the first round of both and had a bit of a ‘What am I gonna do with my life?’ kind of moment,” she recalls. Then, after taking a year off to travel, she reapplied to drama schools, this time increasing her number of applications to 14 — and, once again, was not admitted to any. She was, however, waitlisted by Drama Centre London, and was offered a spot there when another young actress who had been admitted injured her leg. “I got in by the skin of my teeth,” Clarke marvels, and notes that the next three years — during which she played not ingenues, but Jewish grandmothers and farcical parts — were “genuinely the happiest years of my life.”
Once she was out in the real world as a professional actress, though, Clarke quickly grew frustrated. She gave herself a year to land work of import, or else she would move on with her life — but the only work that she really found was as a bartender, caterer, telemarketer and performer for children. She did also appear in a commercial (which required her to look into a camera and cry for a full minute) and scored a guest part on the daytime soap Doctors, but it wasn’t the sort of thing that she went to drama school to do. Then, out of the blue, she got a call from her agent, who told her that he had secured her an audition for the part of Daenerys on HBO’s Game of Thrones. Clarke was totally unfamiliar with the source material — and the fact that a pilot for the show had already been shot with another actress, and then abandoned — but she was ecstatic and quickly began cramming by reading up about the show on Wikipedia. A string of auditions soon followed — for casting director Nina Gold, then for executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss (who were “seeing a bunch of girls”) and ultimately for HBO’s top brass (at the end of which she danced the funky chicken and the robot). Then, despite the fact that the 5’2″ actress was not “tall and willowy,” as the part was described on the page, she was offered the part. “It was the happiest moment of my entire existence,” she says.
While making the first season of GoT, Clarke admits that she had no concept of how big the show would be; it was only after it went out to the world, in April 2011, that she realized what a huge thing she was a part of. “It’s kind of extraordinary to see a genre come about and be incredibly popular,” she says. Her name and the character that she was playing quickly became very widely known — there was a marked uptick in babies named Daenerys or Khaleesi, not to mention in people getting tattoos of her image — but as for her own day-to-day life? She insists that not much changed — even after Esquire named her “The Sexiest Woman Alive” in 2015 — as she’s known as a blonde on the show (a wig), but is still harder to recognize as a brunette in real life (excepting the day of our sit-down).
One frequent topic of discussion regarding Clarke, about which she feels very conflicted, is nudity, since Daenerys has not infrequently appeared in the buff on the show. As she puts it, “Was it daunting for me, as a 23-year-old, to do it? Yes, 100 percent. Hell, it’s daunting anyway. But I must admit, having done it, I believe people care more for her as a character, because they’ve seen her suffer — so there’s that. But the volume of interest in the fact that I took my clothes off is astonishing to me. Emilia Clarke didn’t go up on stage and go, ‘What up guys? Check out these guys [her breasts]!’ That didn’t happen. I took on a character, and the character had things happen to her.” She continues, “It is something that I get asked more than any other question,” adding, “It genuinely is something that I find really difficult handling.”
The massive scale of Game of Thrones was initially intimidating to the actress, but over the years she has learned how to navigate it and its challenges, the biggest of which is how to keep things real when one is acting opposite a tennis ball or riding on a mechanical bull that will later be converted into a dragon or some other fantastical creature. This experience has made her able and willing to spend her time away from Game of Thrones working on film projects that come with similar demands, such as Terminator Genisys and, of course, Solo: A Star Wars Story. (She confirms that she has signed up to do multiple Star Wars films, but isn’t sure that she will actually be used in them; “I think it’s like an insurance thing,” she explains.) But she is every bit as interested in more intimate film projects — indeed, she has already made some (e.g., 2016’s Me Before You and the forthcoming Above Suspicion), and aggressively pursued others, such as 2015’s Ex Machina. “I was desperate for that,” she recalls. “God, yeah. I think I would have been pretty bad at it, though — my face doesn’t stop moving, you know what I mean? This ain’t robotic; there’s gotta be some serious intel behind this robot face.” One project for which she was pursued, but ultimately walked away from doing, was 2015’s Fifty Shades of Grey. “It genuinely wasn’t a nudity thing,” she says. “I just knew the enormity of what that was… and I just didn’t think I could take that.”
Soon, she will have more time to do movies, or anything else that she pleases, because the Game of Thrones chapter of her life is coming to an end. After a seventh season in which, thanks to Daenerys’ story arc, Clarke was able to share the screen with a lot of her castmates for the first time, she is now at work on the show’s eighth and final season, which will hit HBO in 2019. “It’s incredibly emotional, this final season that we’re in the middle of right now,” she says. “I truly get really emotional just even thinking about the end of the show [because] what you’re leaving behind is everything that has happened to me in my 20s — 10 years of my life was woven within the show. You know, there’s so much that’s happened to all of us, and you’re walking away from all of that.”
“The transformation of Daenerys is the greatest gift I’ve been given as an actor, 100 percent,” Clarke says, adding, “Daenerys is so much a part of who I am, and I am so much a part of who she is, so it’s this incredibly frightening thing to walk away from — but at the same time, unbelievably exciting.”
While Clarke’s future is, of course, still to be written, Daenerys’ already has been. But ask Clarke when she learned how Game of Thrones will end — in other words, who will end up on the Iron Throne — and she says, “I don’t know that I even do now. I’m being serious. I think they’re filming a bunch of stuff and they’re not telling us. I’m being serious. I’m being deadly serious. I think that they don’t even trust us.” She adds, “There’s lots of different endings that could happen; I think we’re doing all of them and we aren’t being told which is actually what’s going to happen.”