Emilia Clarke: The Breakthrough Actress on 'Game of Thrones'

Emilia Clarke, the Breakthrough Actress on 'Game of Thrones'

As Daenerys Targaryen, the Emmy-nominated British actress has created one of the most beloved characters on HBO's Game of Thrones. Now the Mother of Dragons is preparing to storm Hollywood

IF YOU'RE GOING TO WORK with dragons, once in a while you're going to get burned. Emilia Clarke found this out not too long ago in London while on break from filming the culture-conquering HBO series Game of Thrones. On the show, Clarke plays Daenerys "Dany" Targaryen, an exiled royal trying to win back her place on the throne, and the steel-willed mother of a trio of fire-belching beasts. She's one of the toughest television matriarchs since Carmela Soprano, and it's a character (and a performance) that demands respect. But on this particular night, there was this one guy. 

"It was his birthday, and he was drunk," the 26-year-old actress says. "And he said, 'Please, Mother of Dragons, sing me "Happy Birthday." ' " After Clarke obliged, the tipsy stranger offered an impromptu critique of her Thrones work: 'You're doing it all wrong, you know? You're f—kin' it up,' " Clarke recounts, mimicking the carouser's gruff-bloke tone, before breaking out in a laugh. "I kind of wanted to pursue him and ask for notes: 'What exactly did you mean?' " she says. "But the reality of taking a book and turning it into a television series is that you're dealing with people's imaginations. It's impossible to please everyone."
That may be true, but during Clarke's three-year stint on the fantasy series—adapted from George R.R. Martin's gargantuan-size novels—she's done a good job of keeping Thrones-watchers happy: Last year, Clarke was the first female cast member (and the second ever, after Peter Dinklage ) to be nominated for an Emmy, and by the time the show kicks off its fourth season this spring, Dany will have earned her place as one of Thrones's best-loved figures, commemorated on everything from Tumblr-page .GIFs to homemade Etsy pillows.

Still, on this mid-fall afternoon in Los Angeles, as Clarke sits in an upscale yet unpretentious West Hollywood hotel café, no one seems to recognize her. In fact, despite the occasional run-in with English riff-raff, Clarke is seldom spotted in public, in part because she bears little resemblance to her on-screen warrior-queen alter ego: Whereas her Thrones persona is known for her golden-white hair and sand-strewn costumes, Clarke is a brunette and dressed today in cream-colored jeans and a sleeveless white-tufted Topshop sweater. 

But the biggest difference between Clarke and the character that's made her famous is that, unlike the long-suffering, oft-forlorn Dany—who had to eat a horse heart, watch her lover die and tame a horde of desert brutes, all in the first season—Clarke herself is a bit of a goof. A very dignified goof, mind you, but a goof nonetheless. After all, this is a woman who sealed the deal at her final Thrones callback by busting out her dance moves in front of HBO executives. "She's effing funny," say Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss in a jointly composed e-mail. "Does that mean we've written hilarious scenes for her? No. But someone should."

Clarke was barely out of drama school when she landed the job on Thrones. At the time, most of her experience had been on the stage, and her on-screen experience consisted of an episode of a British soap and a Syfy network movie called Triassic Attack. Playing Dany, who goes from timid naïf to self-assured survivor, was daunting, especially given that Martin's fans would scrutinize her every move. "I spent season one just hoping I was doing it right," she says. Eventually, she realized that she and her character had more in common than she could have guessed: Dany's an untested unknown who's been kicked into a vicious world and tasked with winning over hordes of doubting savages. What young TV actress couldn't relate to that
CLARKE GREW UP in Oxfordshire, England, about an hour outside London, where her father worked as a theatrical sound designer. When she was still a toddler, her parents took her to see a production of Show Boat; she sat in quiet awe for the entire performance. "I think somewhere in my parents' minds, they thought, Ah, we'll just keep taking her to shows. She'll be quiet!" Clarke remembers.

She also accompanied her father to many of his jobs, and the older she got, the more intrigued she became by the sight of an empty theater. Clarke would find herself running around barren stages, imagining how they'd soon be transformed. "It's a kind of magic," she says now. "I became fascinated with what it was like to fill that space—not just with people, but with a performance. And with the way you're all creating something together."

After she announced her intention to become an actress, her father took a 10-year-old Clarke to an open audition for a show on London's West End. But they were unaware that she'd be required to both act and perform a song, and when the producers called upon her to sing, she improvised. "I was learning a folk song in school about a donkey, so I decided to sing that," she says. "They said, 'Do you know anything more current?' I then gave them my best rendition of the Spice Girls, complete with dance moves—that's where my musical career ended. It made me realize that I wasn't quite ready. I think my parents were trying to give me a healthy dose of realism early on."

Clarke spent her teens at a boarding school in Oxford, with the sole goal of getting into the esteemed Royal Academy of Dramatic Art—which promptly rejected her. Chagrined, she traveled abroad before returning to the U.K. and applying to every school she could, including the infamous Drama Centre London, whose alumni include Michael Fassbender and Colin Firth, and whose nickname is the Trauma Center. There, she was taught to drill deeply into her characters, and to prepare for the communal creativity—and constant rejection—of life in the theater. "The training definitely breaks you down, in a way that's fundamentally good," Clarke says. "It makes you humble to the work. You realize you are just a part of the thing that you're creating."

"She didn't find it a breeze at all," recalls Annie Tyson, one of her former instructors. "She was challenged, and at times she found it tough, but she had courage and determination. What emerged was an actress of imagination and real instinct."
One of Clarke's toughest days came during her third and final year at the school—a time when professional agents come to the school and seek out new talent. She'd been cast in Hamlet as Rosie—a female Rosencrantz—and as an audience of professionals watched in judgment, Clarke attempted to turn the character into a comedic foil. "It failed miserably," she says with a laugh. "There just isn't space for that in Hamlet, apparently. That might've been one of the worst days. But every horrible day just made me want it even more."

NOT LONG AFTER graduating from the Drama Centre, Clarke embarked on a string of time-killing jobs—bartending, catering, waitressing—none of which she did particularly well. (A telemarketing gig ended after Clarke proved more interested in chatting with customers about their day than trying to sell them something.) It was at one of these drudgery-inducing day jobs that Clarke got a call from her agent, asking if she'd be able to try out for Thrones. Realizing she could get in trouble for talking business at work, she "ran to the loo and stood on top—in case my manager came in and looked underneath the stall doors—and whispered on the phone," Clarke says.

A few weeks later, after a series of auditions, Clarke was on a plane, making her first trip to Los Angeles. "I stole all the tea from the hotel lounge because I never thought I would come back again," she says. "I walked around L.A. and swiftly got stopped by the police, checking to see if I was okay. I didn't realize you didn't walk in certain areas." Eventually, Clarke was brought into a giant room filled with HBO execs—where, on a joking dare from Benioff, she demonstrated her aforementioned dance skills. "I did the robot, followed by the funky chicken," she says. "I think it sealed the deal."

In truth, she'd won the part long before she busted out the robot. "We needed an actress who could convincingly embody both the timid, voiceless Dany we first meet, and the Mother of Dragons she later becomes," say Benioff and Weiss, who made each auditioning actress read from both the pilot and the season finale. "Some of the young women could do fearful but not fearsome—one or two could do the reverse. Only Emilia nailed both."
Thrones debuted in April 2011, a mix of blood-spewing violence, jiggly sex and the sort of backroom backstabbing and malevolent power grabs that are normally limited to U.S. congressional caucuses. The series became an instant hit for HBO—last year's season finale drew more than 5 million viewers—and it turned Martin's books into a multiplatform pop-culture phenom akin to The Hunger Games or Harry Potter.

While much of Thrones's story lines revolve around several interconnected, constantly at-odds families and fiefdoms, Dany is a bit of an outlier: Throughout the series, she's wandering the desert, away from the main action, as she accumulates power and confidence, all in preparation for an inevitable showdown for the throne. As a result, Clarke has yet to share a scene with many of her top-billed costars. "We're [often] in totally different locations," says Clarke, who filmed season four in Ireland and Croatia, and often sees the main Thrones cast only at photo shoots or industry shows. "You're at an awards show, saying 'Lovely to meet you. We're in a show together, apparently. You're really good!' "

Clarke was reunited with many of her long-distance coworkers last September, when she was up for an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series (she lost to Breaking Bad's Anna Gunn). The nomination wasn't surprising: By the show's third season, Clarke had shaped Dany into a character capable of both common-touch compassion and scorched-earth fury (in one of the series' most giddily cathartic moments, she punishes a vile misogynist by turning him into a dragon-scorched corpse). "Watching her perform in season one showed us that she could handle anything we threw at her," say Benioff and Weiss.
Indeed, just as Dany was growing more comfortable with her ascent, so was Clarke. When she first began working on the series, she consulted a dog-eared copy of Martin's original book. "It was like having a cheat sheet," she says. "I took it everywhere with me and kept referring to it, looking for more clues." Now, she says, she sees more of Dany in herself, and vice versa. "It's the growth of a girl into a woman," she says. "She's being thrown into the deep end, to see if she can sink or swim, and she decides to do it her way. It was wonderful to see a character with such humble beginnings, and such low self-esteem, beginning to trust herself. So my feelings within filming it were echoed—in a much more dramatic way, obviously."
So, no dining on horse hearts, then?
"Not really, no," she says, with a bright smile.
"I tried a robin heart once. It wasn't very good."
LAST YEAR, just as season three of Thrones was debuting, Clarke was on Broadway, playing the role of another drama-plagued queen: Holly Golightly, the troubled heroine of Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's, and a role made famous by Audrey Hepburn. Considering that Clarke had watched Hepburn's My Fair Lady "obsessively" as a young girl, the job was particularly exciting—and intimidating. "At first, everyone was telling me how brave I was," she says, "and I kept thinking, What are you talking about? Who would turn this down? This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, to be on Broadway playing this iconic role. And then you get on Broadway, and you go,"—here she adopts a what-was-I-thinking voice—I'm on Broadway playing an iconic role! It all dawns on you."

Unlike her days at the Drama Centre, when she'd worry whether the agents in the audience would even notice her, Clarke didn't have to fret about getting anybody's attention. "Every night, there was a big gathering of Game of Thrones fans outside the stage door," says Tiffany's director, Sean Mathias. "You could tell they were there for Emilia."

Clarke was dealing with some offstage drama as well: She'd recently broken up with her boyfriend, Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane—the two had dated for about six months—and tabloid reports later claimed she was rushed to the hospital for an aneurysm toward the end of the show's run. (Clarke declines to elaborate, except to note that "it was a routine thing" and that she's totally healthy; as for her private life, she says she's single.) "She had a lot of stuff coming at her," says Mathias. "But she handled it really splendidly."
Tiffany's only ran for a month, but for Clarke, it was a reminder of why she loved theater in the first place. "It was like going back to drama school," she says. "My indulgent actor side was having a ball." 

Still, as Clarke finishes her coffee, it's clear she won't have time to return to Broadway any time soon. In a few days, she'll head back to Belfast to finish season four, which finds Dany adjusting to her newfound role as leader. ("You start to see her struggle with the realities," Clarke says, avoiding even the mere hint of a spoiler.) After that, she'll move on to her biggest film yet, playing warrior-mom Sarah Connor in the next Terminator film, due out in 2015. It's a role literally and figuratively light-years away from Holly Golightly—but one that, to some fans, is equally iconic. Adding more movies to her résumé will require Clarke to spend more time shuttling between London and L.A., a city she's still getting to know.

"One of my best friends has come out with me for this trip, and she reminded me of something rather embarrassing," Clarke says. "I've known her for almost two decades, and she said, 'When I first met you, you said, "Hi, my name's Millie, and I want to be an actress." I was like, 'God, that's cringe-worthy.' But I was always determined." With that, the Mother of Dragons smiles, clearly ready for her next conquest.
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