Daenerys Tells All! | The New Yorker
Not long ago, it was difficult to determine who wielded the greater global power: Was it Daenerys Targaryen, Queen of the Ashes, Mother of Dragons, or Beyoncé, Queen Bey, Mother of Blue Ivy, Rumi, and Sir? Emilia Clarke, the young and skillful actor who has played Daenerys over eight seasons of “Game of Thrones,” encountered just this question earlier this year. Clarke found herself at an Oscars after party thrown by Beyoncé and Jay-Z, at the Chateau Marmont. The place was a shimmering aquarium of celebrity. Clarke sat at the bar with a couple of friends, slack-jawed and watching. She was, in fact, “pretty drunk”—“six glasses of champagne in,” she says—as Drake, Rihanna, J. Lo., A-Rod, Adele, and Leo swam by. Then Clarke spotted the hostess, and she was heading toward the bar, toward her.
“I see this vision, this angel, this incredible woman float towards me,” Clarke recalled the other day. “I can’t quite control myself. And Beyoncé says to me, ‘Oh, my goodness, it’s so wonderful to meet you. I think you’re brilliant.’ I just couldn’t handle it! I was on the verge of tears. I could see myself reflected in her eyes. I could see her go, ‘Oh, no. I misjudged this. This girl is crazy and I’m not going to have a real conversation with another celebrity. I’m having a conversation with a crazed fan who’s looking at me like a rabbit in the headlights.’ Which is exactly what I was. I said, ‘I’ve seen you live in concert and I think you’re amazing and wonderful! Wonderful!’ And all I wanted to scream was ‘Please, please still like me even though my character turns into a mass-killing dictator! Please still think that I’m representing women in a really fabulous way.’ ”
This was in February, before the start of the eighth and final season of “Game of Thrones.” Clarke could not tell even her closest and most trusted friends, who were nearby at the bar, why she had to hold back her innermost anxiety from Beyoncé. What Clarke knew was that, by the time Season 8 was over, her royal character would hardly face the final credits, much less the final judgment, in a posture of triumph: “I was just, like, Oh, my God, my absolute idol in life is saying that she likes me, and I know for a fact that by the end of this season she’s going to hate me.”
The moment of resolution has come at last, and it was not a happy one for Daenerys. Clarke first read the concluding scripts of “Game of Thrones” nearly two years ago. She, like everyone else associated with the show, was sworn to secrecy. When we reached her in London two days before the airing of the final episode, she seemed eager to clear up a variety of mysteries. We began with the mystery of the Starbucks cup, which someone had unaccountably left before Daenerys on the table of nobles, thus marring, or perhaps distinguishing, the episode called “The Last of the Starks.”
What was with the coffee cup? Is that your cup? Did you leave it there?
So, I’m just going to let you in on a little “Game of Thrones” trivia. We don’t drink Starbucks. So anyone who’s clucking around with a Starbucks cup is someone who is not a cast member. There’s no mocha-wocha-frappuccino anywhere.
Are you ratting out craft services?
Yes, I am. I’m ratting out craft services.
You don’t know what was in the cup, then? Is that what you’re trying to say?
It could’ve been anyone’s gin. Or it could have been some very fancy producer’s mochaccino.
When this scene was filmed, do you now remember, “Oh, my God, I remember that coffee cup sitting in front of me?”
No, I really don’t. You’ve got a lot of cast, and you’ve got two-hundred-odd extras in that room. But you know who I could actually quite happily blame? Did you notice some quite familiar-looking extras in that particular scene?
No, who? Ed Sheeran?
No. When Kit is having his kind of “Cheers,” and he’s downing all the booze, there are two people who look slightly like a Metallica tribute band, and they are our showrunners and writers, David Benioff and Mr. Dan Weiss. They are in the shot. Most people were laughing at their terrible handlebar mustaches rather than looking at anything that was on the table. When I was watching it, I was too busy laughing at their hilarious return to acting. So there are many excuses for the coffee cup for you. Pick whichever one you’d like.
Now that it’s all over, I want to get your reaction to the fate of your character, Daenerys. Are you disappointed? Were you surprised? Have you taken note of the feminist criticism of this?
I read these scripts coming on to two years ago now. When I did, I took a very long walk around London in a daze, not quite knowing how to digest the news. Now, finally, people are going, “Oh, now we understand why this season hit you hard.” I had no idea what to expect for this last season. I hoped for some juicy things to get into, as I always do for each season, but I didn’t see this coming. Throughout the show, there have been these glorious moments of Daenerys taking on a very strong role in a battle or in a decision to be made. There were these wonderful moments when she takes control, and it’s really liberating and beautiful. She frees people, she kills the baddies, and it feels good.
And, I must admit, I was sitting tentatively on that chair thinking, How long is this going to last? Everyone was saying, “Isn’t she great? She’s our savior, Mhysa.” It’s been beautiful and amazing, but I’ve been looking over my shoulder the entire time while everyone else gets a more human—for want of a better word—story line. They do good things. They do bad things. They do silly things. They do brilliant things. They fall in love. They break hearts. Daenerys has quite consistently had this road to salvation, and she’s been sitting atop a very safe mountain.
I remember the boys—our writers and showrunners—telling me that Daenerys’s arc is that of Lawrence of Arabia. I watched “Lawrence of Arabia,” and I was, like, “Great, cool. He’s brilliant. He survived, and it’s wonderful.” But then you remember how that movie ended, with Lawrence’s disintegration. I didn’t quite put those two things together. Or maybe I didn’t want to see it coming because I care about Daenerys too much.
Can you talk about that a little more, how Daenerys’s arc is like Lawrence of Arabia’s life?
Well, fundamentally, he’s brought in as a savior. He goes in and fights for the people, but then, ultimately, it’s a story about how power corrupts absolutely. You see power turn this man wild and mad. He can’t see anymore through the haze, the giddy highs, of being in charge. And that’s what Daenerys experiences. And yet I care for her so much. She’s been a part of me for so long that, in reading this script, I did what any actor is told to do and would do. You have to agree with your character. If you don’t agree with your character, then you shouldn’t take the job.
I really just had to sit there and wrestle with how I could make good on what they had written. Because that’s her. They are the writers. They have made this woman, and I’m going to take on what it is and try and interpret that to my best ability. Now, when I showed the first glimmer of coldness, in Season 1, when Khal Drogo kills my brother, Viserys Targaryen—Jason [Momoa] kills Harry Lloyd . . .
A glorious moment.
It was the first time I inhabited this kind of steely serenity, this calm, quiet. So that’s where I’ve gone with her. She’s so completely in control of this part of her that it actually calms her.
I’ve always wanted to warm her up, because I’ve seen the more feminine aspects of her. I’m not saying that as anything derogatory at all. But she was a child. She was sold. She grew up around a life that was written for her. She was on the run her entire life. She lost every single person that meant anything to her. She was brought up by a brother who was telling her why her family had been taken from her, because people haven’t allowed them to inhabit the Iron Throne.
So that’s always been her mission and, at every turn, she’s sacrificed everything. She sacrificed being a mother. She sacrificed love. She sacrificed happiness. She sacrificed an easy life. She sacrificed friends. She sacrificed everything to be the ruler that she believes herself to be. And, with each next step up that ladder—with each next mass killing, with each bad person that she kills, for every ten good people that she saves, for putting her friends and her lovers in harm’s way—each step up that ladder has just solidified her course towards sitting on top of the Iron Throne. Because then it will all have been worth it.
Every time I was faced with Daenerys having to do something pretty cold, like a mass killing, it was always with this thought that she’s headed toward her destiny. She’s gone too far to turn back now. So then she finally falls in love with someone who is her age, someone appropriate, who seems to love her back, who seems to be a good guy. The fact that she’s his aunt is just kind of by the by! And then it seems almost too good to be true. Even when she finally gets to relax for the first time, she’s thinking, My God, I can have it all. I can have my love. I can have my career. I can have the prospect of a family. I can have it all. . . . But no! I fucking can’t.
She encounters the dark side of that. She’s not wanted. She’s not loved completely there. And so she gives herself to Jon [Snow] entirely, and she gives him many, many choices, many options to see clearly with open eyes. And she’s asking him, “If you wanted to be with me, then let me fulfill this. . . . I know I can be a good leader, so let’s do this together. Let’s do it.” And he doesn’t. And that disappointment is the final thing that breaks her as a human being, because, my God, all she’s known is pain, sacrifice, and abuse. All she’s known is people turning on her, people betraying her, and she’s completely alone. And so, with all of that, I think that it brings us to the moment where she’s on top of the dragon and making that choice.
When you were sitting on the green-screen dragon in that scene as it began, what were you thinking and feeling to bring that moment about realistically?
On the motor unit, riding a dragon, it takes a week to shoot a minute’s worth—sometimes two weeks. And it’s very hard to engage your acting muscles when you’re, like, “I’ve got to be aware of the dragon breathing.”
But we wanted very much to show this moment of humanity and choice, a real person deciding to do the thing that they know will only harm themselves, but they can’t help it. I think it’s an incredibly human trait. We all have that thing, whether it’s binging on chocolate or drinking seventeen bottles of wine or having an affair. Whatever it is, everyone’s got this dark part of themselves that no one really likes inhabiting. It’s something we all really struggle with.
A lot of well-known series have ended in a way that’s either mystifying or disappointing.
I always knew that the show was never going to satisfy everyone. I watched and loved too many television series to ever think that would be possible. The stories are too vast, the characters too complex. The show is, in a certain way, divisive: “Whose side are you on?” Also, if you’re pleasing everyone, then it’s probably quite tepid. But to me it seemed like the only way it could end.
Didn’t you want it to end more triumphantly for Daenerys?
I’m not sure it could. Even for a part that I’ve given so much to and I’ve felt so much for, and for a character that’s seen and lived through so much, I don’t know that there was any other way. But it was a shocker to read.
Which part was a shocker?
The final moment sort of passed me by when I first read it. And then I suddenly was “Wait a second.” And I went back and I reread it, and I was, like, “Oh, great. Excellent. What I read was correct.” But then I had to wrestle with that. The actual acting of it was hilariously long and arduous, but it was incredibly emotional.
Your final scene?
Yes. The scene was definitely under the microscope for quite some time—understandably so—but it was poetic and beautiful.
Tell us what you can about filming the last scene.
As I say, I always wanted to show that softer side of Daenerys—or more textured. There’s always a thousand reasons why anyone comes to any conclusion or says anything. We are the product of the experiences that we’ve had, and so with all of these moments when they’re kind of, like, “She’s just brutal, she’s cold,” I really tried to bring a kind of lightness.
I wanted to play a game with what the scene was about. It’s not that I wanted to show her as “mad,” because I really don’t like that word. I don’t enjoy fans calling me “the Mad Queen.” But she’s is so far gone in grief, in trauma, and in pain. And yet our brains are fascinating in the way that they find a fast route to feel O.K., whether you’re relying on a substance or you’re mildly deluded.
If you see abuse in someone young, they often are able to mentally leave the room. I wanted Daenerys to be there. I wanted to show her as we saw her in the beginning: young, naïve, childlike, open, and full of love and hope. I wanted so much for that to be the last memory of her.
And, for eighteen months, you had to keep the secret.
That was the worst thing ever. I couldn’t tell anyone. I mean, I’d be sitting around the table with my family being, like, “Guys, out of curiosity, what do you think of Daenerys? Do you like her? Do you think she’s nice? Do you like her?”
My best girlfriend, Lola, doesn’t watch the show. It’s not her cup of tea. But she’s been around me enough listening to snippets of conversations with everyone, from the driver to a friend at work. And she came up to me about two and a half months ago and said, “She goes bad, doesn’t she?” And it all came pouring of me: “Oh, my God! I’ve been wanting to tell someone for so long!” And she was, like, “I knew it! I knew it!”
Let’s talk about her arc a bit more. In Season 1, Daenerys goes from being an innocent pawn in a marriage bargain to the determined would-be warrior known as Khaleesi. She eats a stallion’s heart. She watches with pride as her husband murders her abusive brother with molten gold. She emerges from a funeral pyre with three baby dragons. What was your experience of enacting these early transformations? Did it make you feel powerful? How did you feel offscreen? And how does one convincingly eat a stallion’s heart?
Oh, well, I’ll answer that last one first. You convincingly eat it like you haven’t eaten anything for a week, and on eating this heart you will get everything that you’ve ever wanted in life. That’s how you convincingly eat a horse’s heart. I remember thinking, I’ll just eat this as if all my dreams will come true. Ultimately, it was just gelatin, a big gummy bear with dried pasta running through it to make it look like real arteries. Yummy.
Delish. And the transformation?
I couldn’t have been more overjoyed at getting the opportunity to inhabit this character. At drama school we studied Shakespeare, and Dany’s not far off from that in terms of the sort of extraordinary, primal, bizarre, un-modern moments that a character can live through.
This was also my first job. Coming at such a character represented a kind of a growth. In so many of those early moments, you probably saw a lot of Emilia’s pain rather than Daenerys’s pain, because it’s not comfortable, it’s not easy. A film set is an incredibly scary place to be for the first time. Every new job is scary. I’m not for a second saying that anything untoward happened on the shoots. I was always protected. Everyone was very sweet and lovely. But I was a young girl starting off in the industry.
And then, later, as I’ve described before in The New Yorker, in regards to my two brain hemorrhages, I didn’t want to give anyone a reason to say, “Oh, she’s just a kid—she can’t handle this.” You just want to do the job well. You don’t want to give anyone a reason to go, “Oh, no, look at her—young, inexperienced female, whatever—she’s not capable of doing it.”
Can you talk about a scene early on where that was particularly tough on you emotionally?
This is a really weird sentence to come out of my mouth, but I’m going to do it: I couldn’t have been raped by anyone more lovely. Jason Momoa plays Khal Drogo. And the scene we had—I mean, he cried more than I did. It was brutal, and he was so kind and so caring. He was so protective of me that those scenes were actually manageable.
The more difficult scene was her very first: Daenerys walking into the bath. That was brutal because you’re literally just standing there naked in front of people you’ve not really met before. And there’s a camera.
Concerning your medical trials: you had to perform during Seasons 2 and 3 in the aftermath of brain surgery each time. Can you describe that?
I just felt weak and consistently in this mode of “Please don’t fire me. Please, please don’t let me fuck this up. Please don’t let anyone have an opportunity to think I’m anything other than beyond capable of taking on this role.” Every day I would fight my own demons of thinking, You’re sick, you can’t do this. You’re tired, give in. Stop. I just bulldozed through. There were a couple of seasons where I just questioned everything and struggled through everything and felt a tremendous amount of guilt at not being able to fully inhabit this role of a lifetime that I was given when I had many friends who were still knocking on casting directors’ doors. It left me fatigued and exhausted and anxious and worried and fearful every day.
What was your worst day on the set?
The first couple of seasons we would film in hot countries a lot, and we would film in quarries and other places that were incredibly unforgiving with regards to heat. We had very long days, and I’m in this enormous wig over a bald cap glued on to my head. You’re paranoid you’re going to die all the time, because you’ve had two brain hemorrhages. I’d feel incredibly faint and want to pass out. I got headaches and thought I was dying. But I just didn’t ever say anything.
So a difficult day would be a long day with lots of people, lots of heat, and I was just trying not to cry, just trying not to pass out, trying not to think I was going to die. And, at the same time, deliver lines in Dothraki. And then turn up for dinner and say hi to the cast and try to keep friendships alive. That was really hard. I’m sure lots of people will read that and go, “You prissy child, that’s nothing, that’s nothing at all.” But it just felt incredibly dark and tricky when you kind of can’t be honest with the people around you and say, “I’m struggling a bit.”
Did you ever feel in real danger? I mean, did you ever think, I’m on the set, I’m riding a dragon, my head hurts, and I’m about to have another episode?
Oh, yeah, a hundred per cent! In moments of extreme stress, my fear of dying was dialled up to a million. There were many moments where I would just take one of my hair or makeup girls aside and just go, “I think I’m dying, and I’m not. Can you just hold my hand? Could you just look at me and tell me that I’m all right?” And they would look at me like I was mad and try and help me breathe through it.
How much creepy fan stuff do you get?
When people are drunk, it can get very frustrating. The more drunk people get, the worse it becomes.
Do they ask you to say “Dracarys”?
Yes. Yes, they do. And now the favorite thing is “Oh, don’t kill me!” Oh, O.K. I won’t tip over a candle just yet. Don’t worry. You’re safe.
What do you see happening next? Do you only want to do small theatrical productions of Beckett in regional theatre? Or are you looking for superhero roles?
I really want to learn. I’ve got a lovely job that I’m going to do with Björn Runge, who directed “The Wife,” which I thought was magnificent. It’s a small film about Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
What about the “Thrones” prequel?
Well, there is a prequel, but it’s nothing to do with David Benioff, Dan Weiss, or any of the current cast.
What do you think of that?
I think that maybe let it be for a minute, before getting on that so quickly.
Do you think it’s pure money-making?
Oh, Christ. I don’t know if I’m allowed to say that.
You can say anything you want. You’re a star.
I just think that it would be lovely to just let this lie for a minute before doing anything else. But then it’ll be something completely different, and it won’t be “Game of Thrones.” It won’t be called “Game of Thrones.” It will be inspired by “Game of Thrones” characters, a fantastical series, set in a similar time.
I can’t speak because I don’t know the script. But I would just like a bit more time between “Game of Thrones” being cold in the ground before something else comes along. Because isn’t everyone already up to their eyeballs with “Game of Thrones”? . . .
I’m of the mind-set of, like, “Leave while the party’s still going,” because then you’re going to leave with some good memories. But you’re talking to somebody who’s been living in this character for ten years, so I’m, like, “What other story is there to tell?” I know that there’s lots of people saying that they wish that the episodes were longer, and that they wish there were more of this season, which I totally respect.
The final episodes do feel concentrated. There’s so much happening. It’s so smushed together. And people started petitioning to have a whole new Season 8 shot. Did you hear about this?
No, I didn’t.
If they were to reshoot and redo Season 8 entirely, what would you want to happen?
Oh, my goodness. Well, I can only speak to my own character, and the people that I interact with on the show. But I would’ve loved some more scenes with me and Missandei. I would’ve loved some more scenes with me and Cersei.
Yeah. I would’ve loved some more scenes between Grey Worm and Missandei. I would’ve loved to see a bit more between Cersei . . . I feel like there was . . . The genocide was there. That was always going to happen. And I just think more dissection and those beautifully written scenes that the boys have between characters—that we are more than happy to contently sit there and watch ten minutes of two people talking, because it’s beautiful. I just wanted to see a bit more of that. But I’m in no position to critique the geniuses that have written eight seasons’ worth of wonderful stuff.
What are you hoping to see in those final scenes?
I’m hoping to see what I was saying before about Daenerys’s last images being that of kind of a hopeful, childlike love. I just really want that to be the last image of her. And it absolutely breaks my heart that anyone would think anything bad of her. But I’m sure they will, and I can’t control that.
Hundreds, maybe thousands, of mothers and fathers across America, and maybe Britain, too, have named their daughters Khaleesi.
Oh, it’s so strange!
I would guess that they named them Khaleesi in the spirit of empowerment. And yet the character has taken this rather dark turn.
I know! It doesn’t take away from her strength, though—it doesn’t take away from her being an empowered woman.
I think that, when you see the final episode, they’ll see there is a beginning and a middle and an end to her as a character. I think that there are people that will agree with her, because she’s a human being.
And Khaleesi is a beautiful name. [Laughs] It’ll all be forgotten in a minute! You know, and people will just go, “Oh, what an unusual name, how fabulous,” and the child will say, “Yes, yes. My parents just really liked the name.”
Is there anything you would say to all the girls named Daenerys or Khaleesi?
I would say, “Work it, girls!” I’ve enjoyed being called that, and I think they will, too.