Note to readers: This article contains a spoiler about the series finale of “Game of Thrones.”
When Emilia Clarke finished reading the scripts for the last two episodes of “Game of Thrones,” she went for a long walk, wandering the streets of London in a stupor, trying to process the shocking fate of her character, Daenerys Targaryen, and whether she had the strength to play it. Shortly afterward, plagued by self-doubt, Clarke called her mom, the most pragmatic person she knows. She needed someone to talk her off the ledge.
Mom’s advice: You’re good and, if anything, you get to do some wicked acting. So enjoy it. “The boys [showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss] gave me a gift this season with Daenerys,” Clarke says. “They gave me a gift just giving me the part in the first place. To get the opportunity to play a girl who goes from being a naive, frightened creature to a dictator with genocidal tendencies is amazing. That’s a pretty big arc!”
Over lunch around the corner from her home in Venice and, later, in a phone call from her London residence, Clarke talked about that journey, the finale and how she handled the frightening brain aneurysms that beset her while making the show.
How did you feel when you read the finale script and you came to your last scene, when Jon Snow stabs you?
When I first read it, I read past it three times. Because what actually happens is all in the stage directions. I was reading the script and I was like, “What? Did I choke on something? What am I? Ill?” Then I read back and I’m like, “Oh. Oooooh no. Right. Brilliant. So he did it. The bastard.” It was a huge amount to digest and my response was complete shock.
What were your emotions when it came time to film it?
I don’t know what I was expecting, but it was difficult and enormously emotional. It isn’t just something I sat with for nine months. It’s a woman I lived with for a decade. And the relationship she has with Jon Snow is, I still believe, the truest, most real love she experiences in her entire life. So for that to be the way that it ends … obviously there’s a poetry to it, but there’s a huge amount of pain that comes with it. There was also something weirdly cathartic and full of closure about her journey being one of complete finality. Maybe the show goes on. But for her it absolutely doesn’t. For her, there’s an absolute full-stop. And there’s a release to that after all of the madness that happened before.
The Daenerys we see in that last scene feels like the woman we’ve known for years, not the person who just murdered thousands of innocent people.
I just wanted the audience to have a little reminder of who she was in the beginning. And I wanted that kind of justice for her, if I’m really honest. I wanted the person that he kills to not be a tyrannical dictator. It should just be a girl. It should be a human thing. And I think there’s an enormous amount of that person left. She’s had every opportunity to recover from what happened in King’s Landing. There’s a certain amount of her that thinks she’ll recover from it and everything will then just carry on.
Did her decision to carry on and lay waste to King’s Landing make sense to you?
[Director] Miguel [Sapochnik] suggested that I should play it like she’s an addict. I think there’s a certain kind of just needing to feel something. So you could ask that question to any addict who’s sitting at the bar who has been sober and decides to take up the bottle again. What makes them do it? What makes someone turn and go, “I know this is wrong. I know this is hurting people. I know this is painful. But I have to do it.” And that’s the headspace she’s in at that moment.
And the reason why she makes the decision is a lifetime of pain, hurt, misery and disappointment and heartache and that she is never enough. Never enough for love. Never enough to get this throne she’s orchestrated her entire life toward. That’s where it’s coming from. It provides noise when there’s a deafening silence that you can’t get through. If you talk to an addict, what they’re escaping is their own thoughts, their own complete lack of self-worth. She’s creating the noise by laying waste to people she doesn’t need to lay waste to. She’s just a broken woman.
Do you feel protective of Daenerys? Fan reactions to her journey this season have been intense.
I feel desperately protective. I’ve always spent time putting my head where it needs to be to give her the absolute benefit of the doubt. Everyone’s got their reasons. I’m that type of person who’ll assume the best about a person until proved otherwise. Because you don’t know what’s going on in a person’s life. I was having brain hemorrhages and nobody had any idea. You just don’t know.
Think about what Dany went through. She was a slave. She was sold. There was a complete disregard and utter lack of love for her when she was growing up. Her brother told her the Iron Throne was ours by right. Her father was completely crazy. Through all that she had her mission and, at every turn, she sacrificed everything — everything! Friends, happiness, being a mother. And then imagine working your way up and suddenly at the last hurdle, this … cute boy with curly hair comes along and screws everything up because she’s in love with him and doesn’t know how to handle that. She thinks she can have it all with him, that he can give her what she’s been craving her whole life. And he turns out to be not what she thought and he will choose someone over her. Again, her worth isn’t enough for anyone else.
Well, he is her nephew. That added a wrinkle to the relationship.
For her, that’s not a thing at all. Inter-familial marriage isn’t an issue. When he told her that, the only thing she hears is that he comes in contention for the hot spot for ruling.
You can’t discount that she’s a Targaryen, either, can you?
Absolutely not. And again, that’s the addict in her, the part she sometimes can’t control. And it’s frightening and you need a huge amount of strength to be able to override that instinctive thing. The Targaryen in her is something she is always butting up against and it flares when she’s scared and vulnerable.
Did making the show get easier for you over the years?
Before every season I get worried that this is the season that I’ll … it up. Every season. My dad always used to say, “When you stop getting nervous, stop doing it.” That terror becomes part of my process.
How would you describe your process?
My process is freaking out, worrying about it, fretting about it, brief moments of inspiration, followed by doing it and being fine. A director once told me that my process is this whole circle of self-doubt, self-doubt, fear, self-doubt, terror and back to the same place. But because I’ve gone through all of that, it’s out of my system. The truth of it is, I’m a heart-on-the-sleeve kind of gal. Anyone who knows me will tell you this. I’m very open and receptive to things that come my way. It’s just part and parcel of how deeply I care. Many times in my life, I wish I didn’t care. My God, it would have been so much easier.
Oh Christ, anything! When you spend too long worrying about a picture you threw in the rubbish. When you walk away from a conversation and go, “Dammit. I shouldn’t have said that!” When you spend too much money on a pair of shoes. [Laughs]
Do you read what people have been saying about the show’s final episodes and Dany’s actions?
I don’t read anything, not even the good stuff. I didn’t know there was a petition [to redo Season 8]. I truly have no idea. The fans are glorious and people are kind, but I don’t need to hear the one … who says that I’m a fat cow that can’t act. I’ve got plenty of my own thoughts that say exactly that. I try to be just present in the moment with what is going on. Life’s too short. When I was just starting out, I was so freaked out most of the time, like a rabbit in headlights. And one of my oldest, best friends told me, “You need to remember these extraordinary experiences.” It woke me up. I went through a phase when I would write postcards to myself so I would have a little memento of a memory that wasn’t related to work.
You must have a pretty thick stack of postcards.
When I’m 90, I’ll have a million stories to tell my grandkids. It’ll be lovely. And I’m not going to let the noises of people who aren’t nice get in the way of trying to keep on a steady track of being as normal as possible in this mental, crazy, bonkers world.
I read the New Yorker story you wrote about having two brain aneurysms. With that history, is it sometimes hard to keep on a steady track?
Every time I bump my head on a taxi, I think it’s this thing. It’s taken me a number of years to get past that. After my dad died, I started getting optical migraines, which is a stress response. You might have them for a month and they go away. But that’s a completely separate thing. The “Game of Thrones” set can be tense, so there’s a lot of pressure and there are moments in the day when I’ll think, “Oh God, this is it,” when logically I know that it’s just an anxious response. I’ll suddenly get a tension headache and I’ll turn to someone who’s near me — God love every hair and makeup girl I’ve ever had — and say, “I think I’m having a brain hemorrhage, but I’m not. Can you just hold my hand and look at me and tell me I’m going to be fine?” And I’d just try to relax, take some deep breaths and get through it.
How do you move past that then?
One doctor was just like, “Live your life. Maybe don’t do cocaine. Live your life.” Thank God I never did drugs. I’m a complete scaredy-cat. If I had ever done a line of coke, I would have died on the spot because of the blood pressure. But yeah, just live your life. There’s a certain amount of fatality to that. But there’s nothing else to do but just carry on.
You know who doesn’t run a tense set? Paul Feig. “Last Christmas” [a romantic-comedy starring Clarke and Henry Golding, due in November] must have been a welcome antidote to the pressure of “Game of Thrones.”
That was one of the most joyful experiences of my entire life. I’ve never laughed so much. And Emma Thompson will now be a friend for life. I ended up staying at her house for the last month of filming because I had builders in. She took care of me. Dinner and a martini every night. She makes a mean martini. We drank them by the fire. It was delightful.
A small thing that blew me away about that New Yorker piece is the revelation that you sat through all of “Show Boat” at the age of 3. Really? You didn’t get antsy?
[Laughs] No! And I was an antsy child. That evening has stayed with me, genuinely affecting my taste in music, that kind of soul and heart. On the anniversary of my dad’s death, I like to listen to the album, walking through the theater district.
That’s beautiful. I know you had a deep connection with him.
It’s been three years since I lost him and it’s like yesterday. I just miss him so much. The power of grief unnerves me. I can still feel his shirt, giving him a hug. I’m asking him questions all the time. He was the best of us.