“It’s this epic story: My grandmother was colonial Indian, and it was a big old family secret because her mum had an affair with someone in India,” says the English rose Emilia Clarke. “She would wear makeup to make her skin look white.” Granny passed away when Clarke was 16, and the teenager took off for India with her boyfriend to scatter the ashes. “She loved India more than she loved England,” Clarke says. “Fuck, yeah. I love that part of me—I’m like one-eighth Indian.”
Nationality is a fluid concept for the actress who speaks the fictional Dothraki language in Game of Thrones, played the flighty New Yorker Holly Golightly in Broadway’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and broke hearts as the working-class Brit Louisa in Me Before You. And now Dolce & Gabbana has her speaking Italian as the new face of its fragrance the One. Her first ad campaign for the house captures Clarke returning home to her imaginary Neapolitan family and enough pasta to feed a Targaryen army. And, mamma mia, does she love Italians. “People in Italy let you know how they feel,” she says. “I like that I don’t need to guess. There’s something so addictive about their personalities.”
The same could be said of Clarke, who gets worked up as she discusses the U.K.’s Brexit vote and other hot-button issues. She’s as direct and engaging chatting about politics as she is about her career and budding art collection, but when the subject turns to the passing of her father in July 2016 after a battle with cancer, Clarke grows pensive. She was in Kentucky filming the upcoming Above Suspicion as he neared the end: “It’s the worst. I did the journey three times to see him, and door-to-door it took 22 hours, and each time the movie was like, ‘We need you back.’ ”
We’re huddled in her trailer at the end of a long photo shoot in Kew Gardens, west of London, and, finally free to clothe herself, she’s put on a white cocktail dress with a green floral print and Dolce & Gabbana embellished lace slippers. The perfume Clarke is promoting may be called the One, but she has stopped believing in Prince Charming. “You’d love to, though, right?” she asks. “You’d love to believe there is just one.”
Such romantic notions have been dampened by the reality of fizzled relationships, Clarke says. “There is ‘the one’ for particular parts of your life—you change as you get older. So when I was in my teens, there was ‘the one’ for my teens, for sure, and then, you know, there’s ‘the one’ for the next time of your life. There’s this Buddhist philosophy that says you can only really understand yourself through your interactions with other people.”
But dating can be tricky when Esquire has called you the sexiest woman alive. “I think in the early days I second-guessed everyone,” she says. “I mean, I do that in life anyway, but especially with fame and becoming successful, and strangers knowing you more than your circle of friends, I would worry about what people thought of me. Then you get to a point where you’re like, ‘You know what? I’m okay.’ ”
Her parents nearly bankrupted themselves sending Clarke and her brother to St. Edward’s boarding school in Oxford, where she appeared in her first theatrical productions before enrolling at Drama Centre London in 2006.
Early on she would get frustrated that she didn’t have the right look. “It got me angry. Well, no, not angry. ‘Angry’ is the wrong word. But it pushed me into another casting type; forced me to be an actor. Instead of playing Juliet and doing the light, airy stuff, I would be the granny who cracks wise, or a down-and-out hooker who has seen better days.” The types of characters one finds in a place like Westeros.
For the 31-year-old actress, 2018 is shaping up to be a big year. The endgame of Game of Thrones is approaching, and it’s time to show that she has box-office appeal once she’s shed the Khaleesi’s platinum tresses. Next up, she’s starring in this spring’s Solo, a Star Wars spin-off that, despite a troubled production history, which saw the firing of the original directors, looks like a surefire hit. Being part of such a storied franchise means less pressure on Clarke, who acknowledges, “We are in this era where the movie star is less than the movie.” A fairer test of her staying power will be her role as FBI informant Susan Smith in director Phillip Noyce’s adaptation of Joe Sharkey’s true-crime thriller Above Suspicion.
Thankfully, neither of these parts requires Clarke to talk about dragons and nudity. She vents: “I’m starting to get really annoyed about this stuff now because people say, ‘Oh, yeah, all the porn sites went down when Game of Thrones came back on.’ I’m like, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale?’ I fucking love that show, and I cried when it ended because I couldn’t handle not seeing it. That is all sex and nudity. There are so many shows centered around this very true fact that people reproduce,” she adds. “People fuck for pleasure—it’s part of life.” Starring in the biggest TV series on the planet has its benefits, of course, particularly when it comes to indulging her passion for art. “When I started to earn money, I’d buy prints. I’ve got a Matisse that is, like, one of 1,002, and is vaguely affordable. I like female artists and pieces inspired by women. Now I’m trying to buy actual pieces, but I can’t afford name artists.” All in good time.