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Emilia Clarke trades dragons for tragedy in the romantic weepie ‘Me Before You’

“Game of Thrones” star Emilia Clarke stars in this weekend’s new film “Me Before You”
Emilia Clarke, best known for playing Khaleesi on “Game of Thrones,"will join the still untitled ‘Han Solo’ movie.
(Christina House / For The Times)

“Sometimes, I just come here and stare at all the pretty boys,” says Emilia Clarke. She’s standing in the middle of Gjusta, a bakery-slash-deli-slash-juice-bar in Venice that may also secretly serve as the national headquarters for Jesus impersonators.

“OK, truth be told, this is, like, a poser-y kind of place to go, I think,” she says, looking around at all the well-coiffed beards and Birkenstocks. “Everyone’s pretty, and everyone’s looking at each other, but the food is so good that I just cannot help it.”

Everyone is looking at each other, and especially at Clarke, even though they’re trying not to make it obvious. She insists that without the blond wig she wears as Daenerys Targaryen/Khaleesi/the Mother of Dragons on “Game of Thrones,” fans barely recognize her. But as she waits by the counter for a salad made of four zillion types of lettuce, it seems most of the patrons know who she is.

Maybe it’s all the ads that have been running on television lately for her new film, “Me Before You,” which is out this weekend. In the movie, based on Jojo Moyes’ bestselling novel, the actress plays Louisa Clark, a small-town girl in desperate search of a job to help support her working-class family. The only gig she can find is one no one wants: working as a caretaker for a wealthy young man who was recently paralyzed after being hit by a car.

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Emilia Clarke and Sam Claflin in a scene from “Me Before You.”
Emilia Clarke and Sam Claflin in a scene from "Me Before You."
(Alex Bailey/Warner Bros. Entertainment via AP )

Though Louisa has an, uh, eccentric wardrobe -- she’s obsessed with floral-patterned high heels and bumble-bee-striped tights -- she looks a lot more like Clarke than Daenerys does. For one, the character is a brunet, as the 29-year-old is off-screen. And she certainly would never stand stark naked in front of a crowd of onlookers as a building burned to the ground behind her.

Indeed, the filmmakers initially had trouble envisioning Clarke as anyone other than the fearless queen she plays on “Game of Thrones.” She’d only appeared in one major studio release prior to “Me Before You”: “Terminator Genisys,” last year’s reboot of the Arnold Schwarzenegger franchise, in which she starred as Sarah Connor.

“Frankly, I was a little bit skeptical,” admits Moyes, who helped director Thea Sharrock sift through more than 300 actresses for the part. “Like, the Mother of Dragons? How is that gonna work?”

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But during her audition, Clarke took off her coat and accidentally knocked over a bottle of water -- behavior that seemed totally in line with the clumsy Louisa.

“She got down on all fours and started apologizing profusely, embodying Louisa’s klutzy nature,” recalls Sharrock. “It’s amazing that she’s had the part of ‘Game of Thrones’ for so long, but I think fans of the show are going to be really surprised by her range in this movie. It feels like when people first saw ‘Pretty Woman,’ when Julia Roberts just popped and came to life and you went, ‘God, where did she come from?’”

The movie was a personally transformative experience for Clarke too. Unlike “Thrones,” which is filmed abroad in remote locations like Malta and Croatia, “Me Before You” was shot mostly in England. She was able to go home every night to her apartment in Hampstead. (She only recently purchased a place here in Venice, where she has been spending about her half of her time when she isn’t working.)

But she also identified with Louisa in a way she never has with her more iconic character.

“I just felt so much that someone had written me down -- that a part of myself was written in a book,” she says. “She wants to be happy. She’s got this innocence that I -- after six ... years in this industry -- I’ve lost. What I’ve managed to go through within this industry has, I think, given me a maturity at a speed which I wouldn’t have normally had. I was forced to grow up and take responsibility for myself, because whatever mistakes you make? You can’t be putting nothing on no one. You have to be cool with the choices you’re making.”

Emilia Clarke in “Game of Thrones”
Emilia Clarke in "Game of Thrones"
(HBO )

If Hollywood has jaded Clarke, she does a good job of hiding it. When she arrives at Gjusta -- in heels, mind you, even though she walked from her house -- you can almost imagine Taylor Swift’s “Welcome to New York” playing in the background. You’d have to substitute “Venice” for “New York,” of course, but still -- she appears to have the boundless energy and optimism of someone finding herself as an adult for the first time. She knows a few people at the cafe -- the barista, one of the many dudes who looks like Jesus -- and already seems like a local.

“It just seems like the sea breeze and the attitude here blows away the haze of anxiety that looms over L.A.,” she says, straddling a bench and cupping some coffee with an intricate foam design.

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Even out here by the ocean, though, she’s not entirely immune to industry pressure. She’s struggled, for instance, to feel comfortable with her body -- particularly with a role on “Thrones” that requires her to show it off so frequently. As a teenager, sometimes she worried about her weight so much that she wouldn’t go out with her friends for fear they might call her fat.

“I feel like so many women in this business don’t speak truthfully about what they put in their body,” says Clarke. She puts on a Valley Girl affect: “They’re, like, ‘I eat pizza all the time and I don’t work out!’ It’s, like, no. You’re a twig. You’ve got a[n] ... eating disorder and you’re not talking about it. And that’s annoying.

“For me,” she continues, “I got to a point where I was, like, wait a second. I, Emilia, care more about the size of someone’s brain than the size of their ass. So why should I care if someone is looking at me and judging the size of my bum over my brain? If you work hard enough and you’re not a [jerk], people will hire you for your talent over the fact that you’re, like, super skinny.”

Still, Clarke acknowledges she’s still learning how to speak up for herself in the business world. On set, she says, it’s not her tendency to demand a latte -- instead, she’s the one profusely thanking the production assistant for retrieving her drink.

“I’m not saying this, like, ‘Aren’t I brilliant?’” she insists. “Because there are moments when you need to step up and be, like, ‘Embrace your reality, dude. You got to this place; now you need to start acting like it or people will walk all over you.’”

She’s also still trying to work out how to navigate the jump from television to film. Sometimes, she frets to her agent that she’s worried she doesn’t have a strategic game plan -- that it seems like “we’re kind of just going with it.” Ultimately, however, she’s been advised to continue choosing roles on gut instinct.

“That’s what I did with ‘Terminator,’” she says. “I was, like, ‘You are offering me a part playing Sarah Connor? Who the [hell] turns that down?’ And everyone’s, like, ‘Um, everyone would turn that down because it’s too much pressure.’ And I’m, like, it’s my innocence and optimism again! There I go, just thinking I can do it all!”

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As for “Me Before You,” Clarke believes she gravitated toward the project because deep down she’s a hopeless romantic. “As much as I would like to hide it,” she says. “I mean, what am I hiding it under? Absolutely nothing! I think I hide it and everyone’s, like, ‘No, Emilia, it’s pretty obvious.’”

By now, you’ve probably figured out that Louisa falls for the guy she’s taking care of, who is played by “The Hunger Games’” Sam Claflin. There’s just one problem: Before he meets Louisa, Claflin’s character has decided that in six months time he plans to take his own life rather than suffer through it.

Like many readers of Moyes’ novel, Clarke was initially perplexed as to how a man could still consider killing himself when he’s fallen so deeply in love. She understands the desire to believe that true love conquers all. Recently, she was watching last year’s live-action adaptation of “Cinderella,” and she started thinking about how “Disney screws us over.”

“We’ve been brought up with these fairy stories and Disney being, like, ‘happily ever after,’ so we look for that magic when we’re adults,” she says. “We look for it in yoga or, ‘If I hold this crystal, it’s going to make me feel better.’ We do that even in this modern day and age, where Netflix and chill is the only choice.”

Pause: Clarke has Netflixed and chilled?

“Oh, honey,” she says, shaking her head. “I can’t get on no Internet [dating] site! I’m not going to be, like, ‘Daenerys is ready! Swipe right, people!’ Everything that I’m doing right now is because I feel like doing it. It’s pretty dope. I think that when you sit there waiting for someone or something, you’ll wake up and be, like, ‘Oh, I didn’t live a life’. If you just get out there and say yes to stuff, then even if you don’t get a boyfriend, you’ll get a friend or a great meal. Or bankloads of beards for your brain.”

amy.kaufman@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter @AmyKinLA


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