Emilia Clarke has a certain kind of nubile beauty that’s irresistible to casting directors. She’s one of those child-women who’s all bee-stung lips, broad brow and soft, round visage, a facade of über-innocence that’s always hiding anything but. On an actress like Mila Kunis, a baby face is the alluring mask of a bad girl. But in the case of Game of Thrones star Clarke, it’s the portal to a type of young female character you’ve rarely seen, one whose womanly side isn’t largely expressed by her sexuality but by a solid core of inner strength and authority.
Of course, there’s a reason you haven’t seen many characters like that: Not many young women—or young men, for that matter—are masters-of-the-universe material. Not yet, anyway. So the executive producers of HBO’s highly rated fan favorite fantasy-epic series launched an extensive search for Daenerys Targaryen, one of the would-be monarchs of Game of Thrones’ dungeons-and-dragons world.
HBO signed a more well-known actress to the pilot, and then, as Hollywood tales often go, the part of the silver-haired goddess was recast to Clarke, now 24, after more than 100 had auditioned. “It’s just so rare that someone so young is called upon to be so commanding and have so much gravitas,” says D.B. Weiss, who cocreated Thrones with David Benioff based on George R.R. Martin’s wildly popular series of novels, A Song of Fire and Ice.
During the first season—the second premiered last month—Daenerys starts out as a girl who’s used and abused by her ruthlessly ambitious brother, Viserys, before eventually evolving into a commanding tribal ruler. She becomes the last surviving member of House Targaryen, which rode dragons to conquer the Seven Kingdoms and rule them for 300 years. The first season ends dramatically with Daenerys rising naked from the ashes of her warrior husband’s funeral pyre with three newly hatched dragons clinging to her.
“There are so many great actresses who have had the opportunity to play variations on the frightened young girl,” Weiss says. “There really isn’t much in the way of a prior body of work for 18-to-25-year-old actresses that would indicate their ability to give you that kind of power and fire and edge of the slight unhingedness that you see in a Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia or [Renée Jeanne] Falconetti in [The Passion of ] Joan of Arc—somebody who has crossed over to the other side and is experiencing a different world. Emilia was the only person who could really go to that place convincingly.”
To say Clarke’s track record wasn’t revelatory for the network’s purposes is an understatement. Her prior screen credits consisted of a guest spot on the daytime British soap Doctors and a role in the Syfy movie Triassic Attack, about dinosaur bones that spring to life to chomp down on a small town.
Suffice it to say, the latter hasn’t earned eternal life on the cable channel’s website. If you’re surprised HBO would gamble on an unproven actor to star in a series estimated to cost nearly $60 million for just the first season, you aren’t alone.
The voice on the phone sounds as bright and effusive as that of any artist who’s just springboarded her career—and more humble than many. “I’m coming up against things I never in a million years thought I’d experience so quickly,” Clarke says from her parents’ home in Buckinghamshire, a leafy London suburb.
“It is a continual pinch-myself moment—am I actually experiencing this and getting to meet so many people I can learn from? [I’m just] trying not to make any mistakes in this minefield I’ve found myself in.”
There’s a bit of a disconnect between Clarke’s age-appropriate reality and five-three stature and her ability to deliver lines like, “I am the dragon’s daughter, and I swear to you that those who would harm you will die screaming,” so convincingly the bad guys would do well to hit the road.
At the moment, she’s on a break from shooting Spike Island, the Mat Whitecross–directed indie film about a pilgrimage to see the Brit band Stone Roses, so she’s hanging out with her folks. “I long for the countryside,” Clarke says. “That’s where I get my calm and tranquillity—from being able to come and find a spot of green.” Not exactly the rallying cry of young Hollywood.
Clarke may have had a strong role model in her businesswoman mother, but it was the world of her theatrical sound engineer father that enchanted her. The Clarkes took their daughter to see her first show at age three. “We sat her in the front row in house seats—Showboat at the London Palladium,” says mom Jenny. “She sat on my lap the whole way through, transfixed by the whole thing.”
If Emilia knew from a young age that she wanted to become an actress, she took her time getting there, even passing on stage school as a child. “I looked around one when I was maybe nine,” she recalls. “It just scared the bejesus out of me. I was incredibly open, and the girls seemed fierce and determined.” She did spend summers and holidays in National Youth Theatre workshops and joined the local after-school Stage Coach program in Oxford.
But it wasn’t until after secondary school that she enrolled in Drama Centre London (alma mater of Colin Firth and Pierce Brosnan, to name two)—after taking a year off because she’d been rejected by a first batch of schools. “Drama school is fundamentally practical,” she says. “I didn’t write any essays, so I came out with a BA honors degree in acting. But you [get] an agent—that’s what matters.”
Still, even landing the agent was a squeaker. For the school’s agent showcase, Clarke prepared a snippet from the film Bright Young Things, adapted from an Evelyn Waugh novel, and a comic monologue. Then she crossed her fingers.
“It was possibly the worst month of my entire life; every day you’re clutching the phone in your hand, waiting. People were getting 12, 13 offers. Some people in my year got 25. I had two, maybe three.” She graduated in 2009 and launched into what she wryly recalls as the “big bad world,” where she mostly passed canapés for a caterer, tended bar, manned a call center and worked at the London Film Museum to pay her rent.
One year later, her agent called about the part of Daenerys on Game of Thrones. Given the character breakdown calling for someone “tall, willowy and blonde,” petite Clarke believed she didn’t have a shot. But after auditioning for the London casting agent, she was called back to read for producers.
“By the time the recall had come around, I’d read the book and was engrossed in Dany,” she says. “It’s bizarre, and it’s going to sound really corny, but it’s the God’s honest truth: For some reason, I just felt so connected to Dany I kind of just knew what I needed to do.” And so she did a third read, this time before HBO brass in Los Angeles, where she landed the role.
Despite the overnight success, Clarke goes about her life unrecognized. That’s thanks to the long, heavy, semibraided silver wig stylists spend some three hours attaching to her naturally brunette hair. She takes such travails in stride, even when they involve shooting for hours under the fierce Malta desert sun, often emoting in a made-up tribal language called Dothraki.
“She’s the kind of person who lights up rooms,” Weiss says of Clarke. “A lot of people about whom you’d say that also have a flighty, manic, pixie quality, maybe a fluffiness, to them. She doesn’t have that. She’s extremely serious about what she does.”
Indeed, Clarke’s admits to currently “dating her work,” and she’s grateful for the unusual platform it provides. “One of the many things I love about Dany,” she says, “is she’s given me an opportunity to fly the flag for young girls and women, to be more than just somebody’s wife and somebody’s girlfriend.”