Emilia Clarke interview: the Game of Thrones star on leaving Westeros behind to tackle the West End
Clarke, who now stars in Chekhov’s The Seagull, tells Louis Wise that the HBO fantasy series made her feel like a ‘small cog in a big machine’
PHOTOSHOOTS & OUTTAKES > 2020 > 2020 The Sunday Times
MAGAZINES > 2020 > 2020 The Sunday Times Culture Magazine – March 15
The Times: Emilia Clarke says she views herself primarily as a stage actress, which is a little weird when you consider that she has only appeared in one play professionally before, and it was an absolute turkey. Or, as the 33-year-old star of Game of Thrones says, in her jolly British way, it was “terrible, awful, awful! Bad! That was a bad show!” The piece was Breakfast at Tiffany’s on Broadway in 2013, and it’s safe to say Clarke’s Holly Golightly did not enchant. “I’ll never forget, someone said to me after press night the only thing they liked was the cat.”
If Clarke relays this with surprising good humour, this is part temperament, part experience. For one thing, in person she is relentlessly chipper and pukka. Whereas on HBO’s mega-fantasy series Game of Thrones, she grew in stature as Daenerys Targaryen, a still, dignified stateswoman (until that end), in real life she is a goofy motormouth chatterbox, always eager to catch the joke at her expense. And she is no stranger to what we shall politely call “the mixed review”. She has known some drubbings, whether for that Broadway show, or films such as Last Christmas or Terminator Genisys, or indeed the final series of GoT, which — euphemism alert! — didn’t quite turn out the way everybody wanted.
Luckily she never reads reviews. “Because if it’s really, really good, someone will tell you. And if it’s really, really bad — some f***** will tell you.”
We are meeting today, though, at a rehearsal space in south London, because she is chucking herself back into the fray. For only her second stage appearance, Clarke is going straight into the West End, in Chekhov’s The Seagull, and taking on the prestigious role of Nina. If she is nervous, she’s handling it in the usual way, which is to say with huge blasts of good cheer.
Two clichés about meeting starsis that they are a) smaller than you thought, but b) their features are stronger than expected. Both are true of Clarke. She is tiny, proper Kylie-tiny, nicely decked out in a gauzy beige-cream knit, some fashionably frayed jeans and pointy, well-worn white cowboy boots. Yet her eyes and grin look extra big: if she stays still, she’s a dainty doll, but as soon as she moves it’s Looney Tunes. To be clear, she never stays still.
This energy feels helpful, as we have a lot to pack in. After all, Clarke’s past decade has been particularly wild. Not only did she rocket suddenly to fame in GoT (until then, her only screen credit was an episode of Doctors), she also lost her father to cancer in 2016 and, as she revealed in 2019, had suffered a sequence of brain haemorrhages in her early twenties, just as the madness of GoT was kicking off.
In private, she experienced various exhausting surgeries at the same time as becoming one of pop culture’s favourite mascots, scrutinised relentlessly on a moral, artistic and very physical level. She recalls being in hospital recovering from an operation and picking up a newspaper. “I was, like, ‘I’m going to see if I can read it,’” she says. “And I was, like, ‘Oh my God, there’s a review of the show. And, oh God, they are just talking about how fat my arse is.’”(Which is the last review she read.)
All of which brings us to the elephant, or dragon, in the room. Over seven seasons, Daenerys, aka Khaleesi, Mother of Dragons, had one hell of an arc, going from weak dynastic pawnto all-conquering queen, a kind of Catherine the Great with sub-Barbarella hair. And then, oops! Daenerys, thrilled at almost achieving her goal of ruling the Seven Kingdoms, lost the plot, turned into a psychotic dead-eyed tyrant, massacring a whole city and essentially going the full Pol Pot. She was then abruptly bumped off by her lover-cum-nephew, Jon Snow, and a worldwide fanbase stopped and went: what?
For Clarke, it had been a hard secret to keep — she had known the ending long in advance. She admits she is still processing it all.
“When the show did end, it was like coming out of a bunker. Everything felt really strange. Then obviously for it to have the backlash it did …” Did she expect it? She slows down, a rare occurrence. “I knew how I felt when I first read it, and I tried, at every turn, not to consider too much what other people might say, but I did always consider what the fans might think — because we did it for them, and they were the ones who made us successful, so … it’s just polite, isn’t it?”
It’s clear Clarke is caught between her close friendship with the series’ creators, David Benioff and DB Weiss, and her deep awareness of what most fans wanted. In fact, she first suggests that it’s the news wot done it.
“I do think that the global temperature, how much horrific news there is consistently, goes a way to explain the enormity of the fans’ outrage,” she argues. “Because people are going, finally, here’s something I can actually see and understand and get some control back over … and then when that turns, and you don’t like what they’ve done …”
Hmm. It’s a nice theory, but with Daenerys we were just denied a happy ending, right? She nods quietly. “Yeah.” So did not getting that also make her sad? She tries to explain that “as an actor” it was actually all “a gift”, but eventually the tornado of diplomacy peters out. “Yeah, I felt for her. I really felt for her. And yeah, was I annoyed that Jon Snow didn’t have to deal with something?” She lets us out an exasperated laugh. “He got away with murder — literally.”
She also eventually agrees with the critique that the final season condensed far too much in far too little time (“We could have spun it out for a little longer”) and that it could simply have had more dialogue. “It was all about the set pieces,” she agrees. “I think the sensational nature of the show was, possibly, given a huge amount of airtime because that’s what makes sense.”
Is she at least happy it ended when it did? “I mean, ‘happy’ is a funny word. It’s a strong word. Again, the show was so big. I was a small cog in a very, very, very big machine …”
What she means, though, is that she actually liked this. The show provided a routine, a family, something to fall back on every year; it also gave her experience. “I very much feel my career is something that’s happened to me, as opposed to the other way around,” she says. But she can see that being a cog has its limits, as doesforever having to cater to fans and, yes, to the press. “Doing a show so many people had opinions about doesn’t serve your creativity on any level.”
All of which explains why she is doing this Seagull with Jamie Lloyd, the director who just landed raves for his Cyrano with James McAvoy. And, yes, although she knows it’s “hilarious”, she somehow does “identify closer with theatre”. This is mostly to do with her dad, who was a theatre engineer; her mother is a vice-president in marketing for a management consultancy firm. Clarke and her brother had an idyllic-sounding childhood in Oxfordshire. Inspired by her father’s job, she always wanted to be an actress, apparently from the age of three. “I think of him whenever I’m walking through the West End,” she says. “My dad is everywhere in the theatre, 100%.”
She says this happily; I get the impression she hasn’t finished grieving, she’s just moved on to a better, celebratory phase. How would he feel about her playing Nina? “I think he would be nervous for me,” she says with a chuckle. It is, she knows, a big role: Nina, the aspiring actress whose dreams of fame are dashed, but who plugs away regardless. “I was never your Nina at drama school, that’s for sure,” says Clarke. “I wasn’t really a favourite [there], at all.”
Instead, she got parts like Jewish grannies, or “a down-and-out, pissed-off, washed-up prostitute”. But did she always want to be Nina or Juliet? “Well, of course I did. Oh my God, yeah. So I’m in no doubt there’s still some of that in me where I’m like: ‘Oh my God, guys, check it out! Finally she got there.’”
Clarke does like to cast herself as an underdog, although, thankfully, she does seem mostly to be aware that she is coming from a place of privilege. By the end of GoT she was reportedly paid $500,000 an episode. Is money a concern any more? “I am careful,” she says. “I’m a lot more careful now than I was.” She has a lovely house in north London with a bar in the garden. She can pick jobs for their artistic content first and foremost (“I want to work with an auteur!”). So yes, she knows she has it good, which is why she waited several years before revealing her brain trauma.
“I didn’t want to turn it into this celebrity sob story. I didn’t want people’s pity or ‘Oh, poor little rich girl, your successful life ain’t good enough?’” She is now happy she did it. “It’s done a huge amount of healing for me, being able to open up about it.” Her health status is “beautiful” now. “I was match-fit six weeks after the second surgery [in 2013],” she clarifies. “But mentally …”
On the other end of the spectrum, her fame has made something else hard: dating. “I am single right now …” She says with a smile. “Dating in this industry is interesting. I have a lot of funny anecdotes, a lot of stuff I can say at a fun dinner.” She was last seen in 2018 with a film director, and before that she was linked to Seth MacFarlane and James Franco. Does she mostly date fellow actors, because that’s how the industry works? “I was, and now I’m not,” she says — more smiles.
“I mean, I wouldn’t say I’ve completely sworn off them, but I do think actor relationships that are successful are few and far between, and you have to have a ton of trust.” Now and then her friends tell her to try Raya, the dating app that is supposedly for more exclusive celeb types. When she looks at it, though, “it’s just models. What am I going to do there?”
In short, everything about Clarke’s life is still monumentally weird, but she is doing a good job of pretending it’s not. After the play, she has “any one of nine projects that could go at the end of this year, and I have no idea which one will win”. A lot, she announces, are “dark”. Would she do fantasy again? “I think, if I did, it would be me having a giggle,” she says. I take this to mean her doing a send-up, a kind of Extras take on GoT, but no: “I want to do something absolutely stupid and silly, like, you know, The Avengers or whatever. Something where I got to have a giggle with mates.”
I’ve never thought of the Marvel mega-franchise as a downtime laff with pals, but that’s the level Clarke is operating on. I suppose it’s a pretty good happy ending.
The Seagull, Playhouse, London WC2, until May 30