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A Role Fit for a Queen: Emilia Clarke Talks 'Game of Thrones' and Daenerys

by Maureen Ryan, posted May 4th 2011 3:30PM
When HBO showed the media a 15-minute trailer for its epic fantasy series 'Game of Thrones' in January, two things were immediately apparent: First, the Wall (a 700-foot ice structure at the northern edge of the kingdom of Westeros) looked amazing.

Another thing that jumped out at me: Newcomer Emilia Clarke was giving a very compelling performance as the exiled royal Daenerys Targaryen.

No actor on the show had a greater challenge: Clarke's character was viewed by her haughty brother Viserys (Harry Lloyd) as a mere bargaining chip in his quest to regain the throne of Westeros. He sold Daenerys to Khal Drogo (Jason Momao), the ferocious king of the warlike Dothraki people, in return for assistance from Drogo's army. Dany didn't know the language or the customs of her new tribe, nor was she used to riding for hours every day, which is the way of the horse-obsessed Dothraki. Her new life was alienating, lonely and strange in myriad ways.

Despite all her daunting trials, Dany began to assert herself with Khal Drogo and with her impetuous, self-absorbed brother. Over the course of the first three episodes of 'Thrones,' Dany has realized that she now has more power than her brother, and she's also begun to regard her husband with affection, rather than fear. She started out as a terrified young girl and she's on her way to being a truly regal Khaleesi, or queen. Those in the kingdom of Westeros who fear the return of the Targaryen clan have every reason to fear Dany even more now.

Clarke's great empathy for her character shines through; on the page Dany could seem a bit petulant, but on the screen, the strength and endurance exuded by this young woman are admirable and even impressive. I sat down with Clarke in January, after screening that 15-minute preview of the show, and talked about her own journey with 'Game of Thrones,' which mirrored Dany's with the Dothraki. Clarke, like Dany, had to dive straight in to an intimidating situation; her role on 'Thrones' is among her first acting jobs, and she joined the production after this key role was recast.

The interview below has been edited and slightly condensed (and a small part of it first appeared here). It does not contain spoilers. Some answers that contained spoilers have been partly redacted; the full answers are at the very end of this post, after a spoiler warning. For a number of 'Game of Thrones' interviews and features and for weekly reviews of the drama, look here.

Maureen Ryan: As I was preparing for this interview, I was thinking about how much you, as a person, must have undergone what your character did, because she's a young woman, untested, coming into this intimidating situation where she doesn't know anyone and much is expected of her. It's really similar to what you went through when you joined this huge production. Did you ever ponder that while you were taking on the role?
Emilia Clarke: Definitely, definitely. I mean, there were so many scenes that, on a fundamental level, I could completely relate with. I mean, the fear of the unknown and kind of dealing with that, and dealing with the pressure of it, I suppose, but then overcoming it. Daenerys always did, so I kind of took strength from that.

But how did you overcome that fear? It was your first big role on a film or TV project, so what was your method of dealing with the stress?
The method of dealing with the stress was the joy of being in love with the character and being in love with the series, and the acting just kind of takes over. I suppose that's the lucky thing of me being kind of fresh out of drama school. I'm still filled to the brim with training. I can really kind of get into the acting side of things.

And then with Daenerys, it was easy too, because it's such an all-encompassing, brilliant character that it was simple to just slip into that. That was the thing that got me through. Every time I felt unsure or scared in any way, I would just read the book and I'd read the script and I would work. It's kind of what I've always done, I suppose. It worked.

I'll be really honest with you about the book. When it came to Daenerys, I was interested in her story, but in terms of personal investment in the character, it just wasn't there for me. You said yesterday at the TCA panel that you were in love with her as a character. I guess I'm saying, I was never in love with her. What was it about the character that made you become involved emotionally in her story?
Well, I mean, it started off on a level that ... I felt for her. I felt for her situation as a woman. Being in such a male-dominated society, where she was being abused by the men around her -- [it was] that sort of sympathy, I suppose it started off as that. But then as you track her story, the problems that she overcomes and the way that she deals with them with such grace and the way that she deals with them when she has no training.

The only thing that she [has is] herself and her iron will -- that's just a fabulous, incredible side to her character, really. And the fact that you watch her fall in love. You know, she meets the man that she loves more than anything else. She [goes through painful events*] but she is still this strong, independent woman. And I think that, as a female, is what I really connected with.

[*Her full answer is at the end of this post. It's best to read it if you have read the book 'A Game of Thrones.' If you have not and don't want to know what's coming, don't read that section.]

Well, I saw the couple of the scenes that you were in, in that 15-minute trailer that HBO showed us, and I felt for her thanks to your portrayal. You are helping me invest in her much more.
Oh good, good, lovely. Oh, that means so much. That is the biggest, biggest thing. When I'm playing her and when I'm thinking about the scenes and working on stuff, the biggest thing that I want to do is to do her proud and to do her justice, because I feel for her so much. That's one of the biggest things that I wanted to portray. I wanted to really show you what [her situation] is, and I think that's the beauty of acting on camera and being in a TV series -- the camera is a window to your soul. It can see and feel everything. So that's really good to hear.

Your character is off in one world, she's really separate from the journeys of the other characters. And you as an actress were filming your scenes separately from the rest of the cast. Did you feel alone sometimes? Did you feel that separation and was it good or bad?
It's funny, because we all met, and we all did the read-through together, and the whole cast were joking about it, we were all saying, "Well, this is the last time we're going to see each other. [laughs] We're just going to be on the same TV series for the rest of our lives, but we won't hang out!"

[Note: As it turned out, despite the fact that there are several story lines that were filmed separately, a lot of the cast's time in Belfast overlapped, so she became good friends with several other actors, including Harry Lloyd, who plays Viserys Targaryen, Kit Harington, who plays Jon Snow, Richard Madden, who plays Robb Stark, and Alfie Allen, who plays Theon Greyjoy.]

All of us had a nice kind of crew together, which was lovely, and we kind of overlapped, we hung out. But then the biggest thing was that the people who I personally worked with are just the best people ever. Harry Lloyd is now my best friend. Ian Glen [who plays Daenerys' advisor, Ser Jorah Mormont] is the best mentor anyone could ever ask for. He's incredible, just the most brilliant, prestigious British actor, and a wonderful person. And Jason Momoa [who plays Dothraki leader Khal Drogo] is just the coolest kid around. So just that alone -- to be working with those guys and being around such brilliant professionals -- it didn't really feel lonely at all.

Describe what your first day on set was like.
Crazy! It was on a horse! It was with a whole caravan of the Dothraki people, and we're in these amazing willow fields. It was petrifying. It was so scary. I can ride, I've done some riding before because I grew up in the countryside. But riding on camera is just something totally different. And riding on camera with 60 other horses is crazy.

So that's where Ian -- that's where we bonded to start off with, because he was kind of calming his horse down and calming me down at the same time. But it was amazing, because, as with this entire shoot, it was baptism by fire. And for me, my favorite thing to do is have new experiences and learn from them. After that, you're like, "Cool, bring on the acting!"

Was there ever a scene or a moment where you felt like you really locked in to the central key to the character?
Yeah, completely. The scene when I -- I don't know if you're allowed to print this because this is a spoiler.

It's OK, this will run after the first few episodes air.
Well, okay. What I will say is my connection with [Khal Drogo] -- I think for me, that was one of the biggest things that opened a door for Daenerys as a character, to working out what was really, truly possible for her in life. And how far away that was from the world she grew up knowing and the destiny that she assumed [she would have]. There were just so many [things that occurred] that I emotionally as a person, connected with -- kind of around ... the love stuff.

Well, it's interesting how she masters this world, you know. She really asserts her queenly role.
She does.

Was that your take on the character, that there was always this core of strength, this will, in her?
I think so, yeah. I really do. But I think it's within everyone. Who we are, are kind of is always there and it's just your experiences that let you realize that as a person. [Things occur] that let you bring it to your consciousness. For her, it was definitely always there. And if you know, as the actor, if it's always there, then each scene and each new experience that she has, you can let it out more and more until she turns into the warrior queen that she is.

Can you point to something that was just, for you as an actress, was really enjoyable? Or a case of just nailing a scene that had really scared you?
Looking back on the experience, it sounds really perverse, but my best day was [redacted*]. It sounds really crazy, but emotionally, that place I had to get to -- for me it was the climax for the character, because it's an actual live-or-die situation. And facing that with Daenerys was a pretty special kind of feeling. That was when I kind of felt myself shift as an actor and as a person.

[*Her full answer is at the end of this post. It's best to read it if you have read the book 'A Game of Thrones.' If you have not and don't want to know what's coming, don't read that section.]

What did you learn over the course of making this series? You said yesterday at the panel that you were "the rookie." It's an HBO series, so you went straight into the big leagues. Do you feel like at the start of the series you were a different person from when you were finished?
Of course. I mean, fundamentally, no, but I think that it has hopefully matured me and more than anything, the thing that I wanted was to have a higher level of professionalism. And I hope that's the biggest thing that I've taken away from this. And [the goal was] to learn as much as I possibly can. Asking so many questions from everyone.

You talked about being in that willow field on the first day, are there other days that you look back and you think, "That was an amazing day or that was a hard day or that was the worst day"?
Oh yeah. Every day was some kind of emotion. Every single day was completely different and completely amazing in its own way. Some of the big stuff was in Malta, on an emotional level, because obviously Daenerys goes through some pretty heavy stuff. And there were some days that really, really took it out of you, but in this incredibly [satisfying way], because actors are crazy like that. Satisfying in a really weird way because when you have such a huge emotion to play and we have such a huge scene to play and you feel like you do it even remotely justice, that's... well, it's just wonderful.

Well, Daenerys goes through such a journey. She starts out a child.
Yes, she is. She is completely.

She is the pawn of other people, she has so little control over her own fate. And then she begins to be transformed in every way. Was that the challenge of it? Was it hard to foresee how you would do that or were the scripts your guide?
Yeah, well, it's ... it's weird because people keep asking me this question, but I think this is why they gave me the part -- because I kind of didn't find it hard on a fundamental level, I understood Daenerys so much that it just [made sense]. Knowing Daenerys so well, I just respond in an organic way, and I think that that kind of led [the performance] for me, really.

I asked for some fan questions on Twitter, and one fan asked -- with all the expectations for this series, are you getting used to the fan attention? Have you experienced much of it?
A very, very small amount. I was hugely aware of the enormous fan base that came with 'Game of Thrones, with it being such a brilliant book. From my point of view, I always wanted to try to give them what they deserve as fans who love this thing so much. I just think that it's the least, as actors, that we can do.

As far as the attention, it's the part and the acting that are the thing for me. So the other stuff -- it's there, but it's not something that I concentrate on, that I'm fully aware of. More than anything, it's the acting [that occupies her attention].

Wait till you go to Comicon.
Yeah, yeah right. [laughs]

There's a fan site called Westeros and Elio from that site sent a really good question. In the Targaryen clan, there's madness and greatness as two sides of the same coin. It's like flipping a coin. Which side do you this it landed on with Dany?
I think she has the beautiful perspective of understanding both, but [she has] the greatness, really. Because she has the beauty of hindsight. She can see where she came from, she can see not only her family, but the other families that make up Westeros and the Dothraki tribe. She has so many different influences that I think that that kind of enables her to stay away from the crazy.

I wonder if maybe you have to have a touch of it to get through all the strange things that go on. They're mad situations sometimes.
Yeah. I suppose you can definitely see that she must be a little bit crazy to believe in [her destiny]. That fundamentally carries her through. And all leaders have to be a little bit crazy. I think Viserys got most of the crazy, though.

Have you started reading the second book?
Well, I celebrated wrapping [season 1] by starting the second book.

Oh, okay.
She goes through so much. My book is scribbles, you know, I carry it everywhere with me. But I didn't want to know where she was going to go at the end of the first book. I didn't want to kind of confuse myself in that way, so after we wrapped [season 1], I started the second.

Is it your intention to read one book per season? So you just don't get too far ahead in your performance?
[I don't want to get] too far ahead of my performance and I [want to] know roughly where it goes. I know her trajectory and I get so engrossed in each book at a time, it's so epic, there's so much going on.

Spoiler alert: If you read on, you will learn plot points from later in the first season of 'Game of Thrones.'

Proceed with caution or jump out now if you have not already read the book.

*Clarke's first complete answer from above:


"You know, she meets the man that she loves more than anything else. She has her child, she loses her child, she loses her husband, she loses her brother and still she is this strong independent woman."

*Clarke's second complete answer from above:

"Looking back on the experience, it sounds really perverse, but my best day was killing my husband. It sounds really crazy, but emotionally, that place I had to get to -- for me it was the climax for the character, because it's an actual live-or-die situation."

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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Dane

"A Role Fit for a *****"
The actress Emilia Clarke exposes her breasts and naked body on the Game of Throngs and in an interview she comments,It was "100 percent tasteful, totally legit, everything is all wonderful." According to the Bible the word[original root Greek]for someone who is sexually immoral is "*****." Therefore Clarke is distasteful, totally illegitimate and filthy and according to God's Word she is a *****! Ouch! With respect, speaking the truth in love...

May 13 2011 at 9:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Shara says

Great interview! I am really enjoying her portrayal of Dany - I am almost through the 3rd book now, and I think that this is the perfect actress to play this part - she really nails the balance between vulnerability and emerging strength. The thing that I love so much about the character (one of my favorites in the books, right up with Tyrion and Arya) is how she presents a somewhat different vision of how to wield power than most of the other leaders. I guess any more details on that would be too spoilery.. Anyway, thanks for the interview!

May 06 2011 at 11:37 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
KathyB

I believe the final chapter of the first book is its strongest. Wasn't sure I would read more, but that sold me. Bought all four books, but so many books so little discipline:) Daeneyres has been a very successful part of the HBO series for me, shows her developing into the Khaleesi. Enjoying the series more now that I am three shows in. Getting to know them. Interesting choices and adaptations here and there.

Can't wait for the next show!

May 04 2011 at 8:26 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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