She wasn’t the first choice to play Daenerys Targaryen. The part supposedly called for a tall, willowy blonde, but when the pilot episode of Game of Thrones ran into problems, Emilia Clarke, a then-22-year-old Londoner—petite, curvy, and blond only by dint of that now-trademark platinum wig— dove headlong into her audition.
“We intentionally chose heavier scenes requiring a bold, Joanof- Arc faith in herself that extends beyond the bounds of reason,” wrote the show’s cocreators, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, via tandem e-mail from Los Angeles, where they were adding final touches to the seventh and penultimate GOT season, which begins airing July 16. “We watched her audition on a tiny, two-inch-by-two-inch video window on a computer in David’s kitchen. Then we met her in London—this fun, friendly, easygoing person who was about fivefoot- nothing. And we were like, ‘You did that?! Do it again!’ So she did, and we knew she was the one.”
The casting revealed its perfection from the first episode—the story of a young queen coming into her power, bound up with an erotic coming-of-age. We get a glimpse of Daenerys’s future capabilities when she’s literally tossed into an arranged-marriage bed with the muscle-bound 6’4″ ruler of the semibarbarian Dothraki clan. This fragile-looking, tiny woman, until then a virgin, soon has him in her sexual thrall, ready to seek world domination at her bidding. Death soon removes Khal Drago from the picture (a fate that seems to await most GOT characters), but Clarke’s “Khaleesi” (the honorific given to her by the Dothraki people) has just begun her quest for the Iron Throne—the power center of the show’s 67-episode, seven-kingdom epic. She’s a young woman on the make who wants to do the right thing, but when the expedient thing is called for, as it often is in the bloody alt-medieval world she inhabits, she’ll have you hanged from the nearest lamppost without losing too much sleep over it. And when conventional realpolitik fails her, she’ll play the dragon card (another honorific: “Mother of Dragons,” a nonmetaphorical title) and materialize from a wall of flames, naked and purified, as her people swoon in wonder and her cold-blooded offspring swoop menacingly in the sky.
The HBO offshoot of George R.R. Martin’s dungeons-and-dragons fantasy novels, once regarded as the exclusive province of adolescent boys of all ages, has emerged as a pillar of our Golden Age of Television alongside Mad Men, The Sopranos, and Breaking Bad, with 8.9 million viewers tuning in for the season six finale alone. And Clarke has emerged, along with her friend and castmate Kit Harington (aka Jon Snow), as the heart and soul of the show.
“I remember vividly the first time I met Emilia, which was in the hotel bar in Belfast, before season one,” Harington recalls. “I was sort of bowled over by this absolutely stunning, petite girl with this wicked sense of humor. We became very fast friends quite quickly.” Although a showdown between their characters is inevitable (“I think it will be a huge pleasure,” he says), to date they’ve never shared the GOT screen; their time together is time off in London, usually in the company of Harington’s girlfriend, Rose Leslie (her GOT character, Ygritte, was killed off in season four), who has become one of Clarke’s best friends. “It can get a little tricky in pubs,” he says. “With two or three of us in the same show, you can attract a bit more attention than you might like.”
No such problem at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Clarke’s meeting choice—it’s on her New York to-do list. (A keen seer and doer, she checked off many of the city’s attractions during the four months she spent here in 2013 during her run as the title character in Holly Golightly, a Broadway reimagining of Breakfast at Tiffany’s.) “I’m lucky to be working constantly, but the focus can get so narrow,” she says. “I kind of have to go to museums and galleries and concerts.”
At the Whitney, the actress is in character as maybe her least publicly recognized guise: herself. Her fellow museumgoers haven’t the slightest that if they were to turn their attentions, and their iPhones, in her direction, they could capture the woman responsible for one of the more iconic television images of our time: Daenerys leading her army of liberated slaves across the desert, a pop-culture mashup of the aforementioned Joan, Lawrence of Arabia, and Eva Perón. Which suits her just fine. “Once, I had someone run down the street after me and say, ‘My friend says you’re famous; can I get a picture?’ And I was like, ‘No, you idiot!’ ” she says with a laugh. And then some minutes later, in a characteristic fit of people-pleasing remorse: “I feel really bad about being so disgruntled about selfies. I increasingly sound like an old lady.”
Clarke, 30, hardly looks the part of an old lady, nor does she particularly resemble Dany, as “Thronies” are wont to call her. An English tea-rose complexion, full lips and, yes, Dany’s prominent brows add up to a friendly beauty. Today, her naturally brown hair is cut in a chic, shoulder-length bob, and she wears a silky Valentino peasant skirt and suede Gucci jacket far removed from the low-cut, lingerieinflected gowns that make up Dany’s warrior/dominatrix look.
On this trip, relative anonymity suits her. Clarke, contrary to her native exuberance, has been charged with the keeping of corporate secrets. For one, she’s not allowed, contractually, to divulge any Game of Thrones plot turns. Even more hush-hush are the details of the latest and greatest coup in her emerging film career: At this moment, she’s in the first weeks of shooting a new Star Wars spinoff, a prequel account of Han Solo’s early years. Which is to say she now finds herself swooped up in the only global entertainment juggernaut capable of eclipsing GOT. “This film dispels the very common interpretation that if you’re going to do a big blockbuster, you just need to stick some muscles and a pair of boobs in, and that will be that,” she says. “Everybody in the cast [which includes Woody Harrelson and Thandie Newton] is, like, an ‘actor-actor,’ which is just wonderful.”
If Clarke’s metamorphosis into Khaleesi wasn’t proof enough that she, too, belongs squarely in the “actor-actor” realm, she seems determined to use the launchpad provided by GOT to carve out a film career that exhibits a sort of extreme versatility. Last year, she starred as Lou Clark, an adorable, chatty, unapologetically dorky English country girl—her famous contours hidden beneath a rainbow of mismatched, lumpy sweaters—charged with the care of a handsome quadriplegic in the romantic sleeper hit Me Before You. “The second she walked into the audition,” says Thea Sharrock, the film’s director, “I texted the producer straightaway: ‘We found her.’ ” Later this year, in a notable change of pace, she’ll play a Kentucky trailer-park denizen, drug addict, and sexual opportunist who leads an FBI agent astray in Above Suspicion, a gritty indie based on a true story. The interview for that role, too, was an at-first-glance affair. “She came over to my place in Hollywood, and I opened the door, and there was the character from the movie,” says veteran Aussie director Phillip Noyce. “The accent, the swagger, the neediness, the confidence. We could have started shooting that day.”
Kit Harington says, “Emilia is so sweet, so giving, but she also has a filthy, filthy mind when she wants to.”
Almost a year after filming wrapped, Clarke can still slip into character when the mood strikes. “Ah play this girl called Susan Smith,” she says in an Appalachian hill country accent, the words pouring out like codeine cough syrup. “She was married to a drug dealer, then she meets this other guy. It doesn’t end pretty.” Still, in the cinematic universe, Clarke’s calling card remains, in a word, badassery. She was, after all, Linda Hamilton’s successor in the Sarah Connor role, playing opposite Ah-nold in the 2015 Terminator reboot, Terminator Genisys. And even though we don’t know what character she’ll play in the Han Solo movie, it’s impossible to imagine that there won’t be a frisson of recognition, an echo of the young Carrie Fisher from those first Star Wars: cute, feisty, and constitutionally incapable of taking any crap from men, whether they be foes or friends.
Fearless is the adjective that her friends and colleagues invariably use to describe her. But as fearless as Clarke has been in seizing the chances that come her way, she admits that certain aspects of maintaining her alter-ego masterwork, Dany, send her nerves into overdrive. Take that yet-to-be-shot final season of Game of Thrones: “Oh God, I get sleepless nights over it. ‘Oh, you’re gonna mess it up. It’s the last season, and it’s going to go wrong.’ My mates are like, ‘It’s you—you [and Daenerys] are one and the same now. You need to trust your instincts!’ And I’m like, ‘No, I’ve got to do more research!’ The higher everyone places the mantle, the bigger the fall. That sounds really awful, but it’s true! I don’t want to disappoint anyone, basically.”
While it’s an excellent thing that Wonder Woman’s Gal Gadot has finally proven that a woman superhero can carry a global blockbuster, for the past six years, GOT has given Clarke the canvas to sketch a richer palette of female power. And you don’t have to take a refresher course in Carl Jung or Joseph Campbell to recognize the different forms it takes: lover, warrior, mother, at times something close to messiah. Take, for example, the close to season three, when Daenerys is carried aloft by a multitude of slaves she has just liberated; Clarke’s face, in extreme close-up, ecstatic—a rock ’n’ roll goddess at a medieval rave.
But it’s the lover who has generated the controversy. Game of Thrones is a show that can creep up to the border of soft porn—yes, all those harem scenes—and yet virtually nothing on TV or in film has so many strong, indelible female characters: Lena Headey’s Cersei Lannister; Sophie Turner’s Sansa Stark; Maisie Williams’s Arya Stark; and, of course, Clarke’s Daenerys, whose control of the bedroom is as firm as her dominion over the multiple kingdoms she conquers. GOT has generated pushback for this have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too approach to sexual desire between the sexes—the New Yorker likened it to reading an antimisogyny tract inserted into an issue of Penthouse— but Clarke is fully on board. She’s even game to gleefully dissect one remarkable scene in the fourth season, when her lieutenant Daario slips into her bedchamber, and Daenerys basically commands him to disrobe before her.
“ ‘Take off your clothes,’ ” Clarke quotes. “It’s brilliant. I actually went up to [GOT cocreators David Benioff and Dan Weiss] and thanked them. I was like, ‘That’s a scene I’ve been waiting for!’ Because I get a lot of crap for having done nude scenes and sex scenes. That, in itself, is so antifeminist. Women hating on other women is just the problem. That’s upsetting, so it’s kind of wonderful to have a scene where I was like, ‘There you go!’ ”
In the scene, her disrobed cavalier was played by Dutch actor Michiel Huisman. “He has got a cute bod and definitely wasn’t a shy wallflower about it! He didn’t wear a sock. Which was a surprise. David and Dan were like, ‘You need to pull yourself together. Daenerys would not be cracking up like this.’ Not very queenly.” Kit Harington says, “Emilia is so sweet, so giving, but she also has a filthy, filthy mind when she wants to.”
And Daenerys is, to be sure, a woman warrior, not of the handto- hand combat variety, but rather a leader possessed of the notion, heretical in the tooth-and-claw milieu of GOT, that she can make the world a better place if she’s running it. In one oft-quoted scene from this past season, she compares the jousting ruling families of the Seven Kingdoms that make up the GOT universe to the spokes on a wheel. “I’m not going to stop the wheel,” she tells her counselor Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage). “I’m going to break the wheel.” Her soft voice, informed by a certitude that would sound mad if she didn’t make us believe it, achieves a kind of Shakespearean intensity. Yes, it’s Shakespeare with CGI dragons, but still, the Bard’s force is with her.
Emilia Clarke is the daughter of two strivers who raised her and her twoyears- older brother in the bucolic countryside outside the university town of Oxford. Her father, who died last year, had been a roadie who worked his way up to sound engineer for some of the biggest, most overthe- top London musicals; Mum was a secretary who climbed the ranks to become a respected marketing executive. Clarke went to a prominent local boarding school, St. Edward’s, mostly, she says, because her brother did, and she fancied some of his friends. (Scorecard: one serious high school romance.) But, ever the keen enthusiast, she says she’d never have been mistaken for one of the cool kids. “My school was quite posh, and I never quite fit in that mold,” she says. “I was really arty, and no one else was. They were all, like, lawyers who did tennis. I was crap at tennis, and I didn’t care about law.”
After boarding school, she found her tribe in drama school—not the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (she hadn’t been accepted), but at the still-more-than-respectable Drama Centre London. That was her kind of fun. (“I like being surrounded by people where you suddenly go, ‘Oh, I’m not clever enough; I need to read more, watch more.’ ”) By graduation, she says, not one of her teachers considered her the next breakout girl, so she decided to take a practical approach: She’d give it a year and then assess her future. After some low-profile TV and movie work and a pay-the-rent stint as a telemarketer (a quotidian hell beyond the imagination of George R.R. Martin), she’d already passed her self-imposed deadline when she shot herself out of the cannon at that GOT audition.
In some ways, Clarke and the character she created couldn’t be more different, a testament to her dramatic gifts. Dany, even in her most endearingly underdog moments, is rather grand, and Clarke comes across like your cheerful best mate from school. But in drive and ambition, they’re at least first cousins. If Clarke doesn’t aim to break the Hollywood wheel—one actress up, another down—she at least wants to be able to walk away from it unbroken, with options intact: “If this industry tires of me—which I’m sure it will, because it tires of everybody—I will already have been doing something different. I’ve got a ferocious thirst for doing other stuff.”
“Relying on just being an actress is never going to be fulfilling enough for me. When I think about running a company, I have that kind of calm and certainty that I go to when I play Daenerys.”
Remarkably, after ascending to Iron Throne status in this profession, Clarke says acting, for her, is the coolest day job imaginable. “My best friend Lola and I are writing a script together, and I’m starting a production company. I’m that girl. Because I know that relying on just being an actress is never going to be fulfilling enough for me. When I think about running a company, I have that kind of calm and certainty that I go to when I play Daenerys. But it’s not like I’m going to be burning down slave masters or anything.”
Clarke explains: “My mum gave me most of that drive, if I’m really honest. She always just said, ‘You know, you do this silly job, and well done,’ but she’s proud of me when I go, ‘I’m gonna run a production company.’ That’s when she says, ‘Oh yeah, that’s my girl!’ That’s something she understands.”
To get to know Emilia Clarke, even a little, is to appreciate that she’s got a master plan in her head—and not just about work, all-consuming as it currently is. At some point, she says, romance will come back into the picture. The gossip sites have had her linked with Harington, “which literally makes me want to cry, it’s so far from the truth,” she says. But she has been open about the long-distance romance she had with Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane that ran its course about four years ago. “It’s funny,” she says. “I’ve dated other people, but he was the only one that the Internet found out about. But I kind of set myself with a little rule this year: NMA. No More Actors. And yet it’s almost the only bloody choice; they’re practically the only people I know!”
But somehow a solution will be found. “Yes, I want babies,” she says. “I don’t know about marriage. That’s probably quite a painfully millennial thing to say. But I do want to find a human that you’d want to create a family with.” In England, in the country, not dissimilar to the Oxfordshire countryside where she grew up.
“I grew up with ducks in the garden and a stream,” she says. “We used to go mushroom picking in the fields. My first plays were done inside of trees. And if I manage to push out a few sproglets, I’d like them to have that experience as well.”
Way back in the second season of Game of Thrones, in the citystate of Qarth, a young would-be queen makes her pitch to a highly skeptical spice merchant to borrow his ships so she can get on with her mission of conquering the Seven Kingdoms and ascending to the Iron Throne. Emilia Clarke could just as well be speaking for herself when she speaks as Daenerys: “Do you understand? I am no ordinary woman. My dreams come true.”