Ahead of her British stage debut in The Seagull, the Game of Thrones star talks about her self-doubt as the hit show took off, her decision to write about her brain aneurysms – and showing her love through baking
On 16 March 2020, Emilia Clarke went on stage with the cast of The Seagull. Previews had started, and the actor was about to make her much-anticipated West End debut after a decade starring in some of the biggest films and TV shows imaginable. At the half-hour mark, everything stopped: the government had decreed that theatres were to shut with immediate effect. Lost and adrift, everyone huddled into a pub, which was filled with crowds from the surrounding theatres. “My lawyer from America was calling about something,” recalls Clarke now. “And she was like, ‘Get out of the pub!’ We had no idea of the enormity of it.”
Events, of course, got in the way. Two-and-a-bit years on, we meet at The Seagull rehearsal studios in south London, a cavernous former warehouse with a skeletal stage set up in the middle of it. Not much is known about Jamie Lloyd’s production of the classic Chekhov play, but hopefully it isn’t too much of a spoiler to say – based on a diorama sitting on a side table – that it will feature some chairs. “There are no distractions,” says Clarke. “We don’t have a samovar. There’s no linen. There aren’t any trees. No one’s in crinoline. What we’re doing could be seen as quite radical. I think it might be Marmite.”
The actor is no stranger to the divisive power of art – on which more later – but the spare and lean production marks a pronounced change from the jobs she has done since being catapulted into superstardom by Game of Thrones in 2011. Following the phenomenally successful HBO series, in which she portrayed Daenerys Targaryen, Clarke has starred alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator Genisys, played Han Solo’s love interest in Solo: A Star Wars Story and dressed as an elf in Paul Feig’s Emma Thompson-scripted romcom Last Christmas. She has won a Bafta Britannia award and been nominated for numerous Emmy, Screen Actors Guild and Critics’ Choice awards; in 2019, she was one of Time’s 100 most influential people.
Today, Clarke is sitting alone in the coffee area, perched on the edge of a low sofa; she looks immaculate in a green blazer, crisp white trousers and a smattering of necklaces and gold rings, a burst of tropical colour in the otherwise drab room. She exudes the kind of understated glamour that befits a film star fronting a global skincare brand, with huge, arresting eyes that take up a significant proportion of her face. It’s the start of the third week of rehearsals, and there is understandably a hint of nervousness about anything disrupting the run: everyone tests every day, and we begin the interview with an awkward, 2020-style elbow-bump.
Theatre’s reliance on bodies in a room together feels heightened in the age of Covid. “It definitely intensifies the experience of being on stage,” says Clarke. “In stage work, it’s every cell of your body, it’s a 360 feeling. On screen, it’s so often your left eyeball, your right shoulder – it fractures you as a human.” The last time she performed on stage was in her 2013 Broadway debut, an ill-fated production of Breakfast at Tiffany’s which she has previously described as “slightly catastrophic” (the New York Times verdict: “this particular soufflé seems doomed never to rise”). But that was then. “Chalk and cheese doesn’t even sum up the differences between that play and this. I feel like I’m meant to be in this. I’m not sure I was meant to be in the other one,” she adds with a cackle, the first of many.
Clarke is personable and engaging company, her answers thoughtful and considered; there’s a seriousness about the way she thinks about her work, but there’s always a joke close to the surface, a self-deprecating aside when she feels her answers are insufficiently original. Several times during our conversation, her calm and stately intonation gives way to a funny voice or an impression (a representative sample: New Yawk stallholder, sceptical cockney, musical theatre kid, exhausted goblin). If this was an audition, you’d hire her on the spot.
Clarke has been trying to return to the stage for nearly a decade, but because of her high-wattage film choices, theatres assumed she wasn’t interested. Her agent suggested sitting down with some directors, who all jumped at the chance; one of them was Jamie Lloyd, who offered her the role of ingenue actor Nina, in an Anya Reiss adaptation that relocates The Seagull to present-day England. “Nina’s up there with Juliet – she’s a role that many actors before me have done,” says Clarke. “She’s one of the few roles Chekhov wrote who is as hopeful at the beginning as she is at the end, despite the brutal experiences she lives through. And the thing that makes her feel better is her craft, and that’s a beautiful thing for an actor – but it can feel quite meta at times, for sure.”
People don’t tell you this about grief, but it just seems to get – not worse, but it becomes so much more present
“It’s a very painful, very delicate play,” says Lloyd, who I speak to on the phone a few days later. “And so I thought of Emilia – I always think you never really see her ‘acting’. Whatever she does is so honest and thoughtful and true, and there’s this amazing warmth which felt appropriate for Nina.” He has just finished a rapturously received, hip-hop-inspired production of Cyrano de Bergerac starring James McAvoy, but this is very much an ensemble piece. “What I love about it is it’s not a very showy West End debut,” he says. “It’s not this big tour-de-force leading role. It’s unexpected in its quiet simplicity and precision – I think it’s brave. Sometimes people don’t realise how hard it is to dig deep and connect.”
Clarke’s British stage debut comes with an additional layer of emotional significance. Her father, Peter Clarke, was a sound designer from Wolverhampton who worked in every theatre in the West End; one of his first plays was at the Playhouse (where the play was originally going to be) and he worked for many years at the Harold Pinter theatre (where it will be this summer). Press night is two days before the anniversary of his death in 2016. “It’s in the front of my mind every day. Any aspect of my work that I can relate back to my dad, I will,” she says. “I’m gonna try not to get teary even thinking about it. It’s quite ridiculous. It’s been nearly six years. And it’s still just as – it gets more painful. People don’t tell you this about grief, but it just seems to get – not worse, but it becomes so much more present.”
When Clarke was three years old her father took her to see a musical he was working on, Show Boat; she became enamoured with that world, and got it into her head that she would become an actor. A “classic sound designer”, her father warned her: “Are you ready to be unemployed for the rest of your life? Because that’s what it’s gonna be.” She did not listen to his advice, but his support for her never wavered. “He just really loved me. My dad gave me my mystical, magical love of the theatre. To me, the best place in the world is backstage at a theatre – backstage anywhere is where I feel most at home.”
He must have been very proud of her.
“Yeah. He was a very quiet man. A very sensitive man. But I’d like to think that he is. I think he’s gonna be with me every night.” Her eyes fill with tears. “Sorry.”
Emilia Isobel Euphemia Rose Clarke was born in London in 1986 to Peter and Jennifer Clarke, a businesswoman. She had an idyllic childhood in Oxfordshire, getting her first lead part in a play aged five at the Squirrel school, Oxford. When she finished school, she applied to study drama but was rejected; she took a year out, waitressing and backpacking, before being accepted by Drama Centre London. Her first television role was in BBC soap Doctors, followed by TV film Triassic Attack, for which she was named a Screen International Star of Tomorrow.
Her father’s prediction was not far off: for a year, she supported herself working in a pub, a call centre and a museum, but acting roles were hard to come by. Until, in 2010, Clarke auditioned for fantasy series Game of Thrones after an expensive pilot needed to be reshot. All contenders for the role prepared two scenes: one from the beginning, when Daenerys is a meek, fearful girl, and one from the season finale, when she has become the “mother of dragons”. “Many were good at the first scene. A few were good at the second. Only Emilia made both work,” says David Benioff, co-creator, showrunner and writer of Game of Thrones (along with DB Weiss), over email. “And she made them work far better than the words on the page. It was impossible to imagine anyone else in the role: she was our one true queen. And frankly, she just has that mysterious quality that makes an actor special, that makes you want to watch them. When you find someone who matches that star quality with serious acting chops… well, you hire them.”
Her co-star Iain Glen, who played Daenerys’s adviser and companion Ser Jorah Mormont, was with Clarke from the beginning. “She was absolutely thrown in at the deep end of this mega HBO series, and it must have been really frightening,” he tells me on the phone. There was a great nervousness around the place at the start, especially among the producers. “Everyone looks back in hindsight and thinks Thrones was just such an enormous global success, but really, when we began, there was a lot of trepidation, and Emilia would have been absolutely in the sights of the powers that be as to whether she could do it or not.”
What happened next was a whirlwind. From the release of season one onwards, Game of Thrones became a bigger and bigger hit, breaking record after record, going on to win 59 Emmy awards and attracting an average of 44.2 million viewers per episode. Looking back on it now, Clarke says she only truly understood the scale of the show’s success after it ended, something she is grateful for. “I had nothing to compare it to. I was as young as they come, as wildly unaware and new as you could possibly imagine.”
From the beginning, she was plagued with self-doubt. “My only concern was, ‘I’m gonna get fired, someone’s gonna find me out. Someone’s gonna tell me I’m shit at my job and I need to go home,’” she says, her voice rising as if in a frenzy. For years, she was convinced that her character would be killed or that she would be replaced. “Emilia has no idea how good she is,” says Glen. “She really is very innocent of how wonderful she is. And that’s a lovely quality. But you have to be careful it doesn’t undo you, that it doesn’t stop you from having conviction.”
As the seasons progressed, Clarke became more assured, both of her talent and her ability to act on her own terms. She has spoken in the past about feeling pressured to do nudity from the very first episode, and then being constantly questioned about it in interviews. With the rise of intimacy coordinators and movements such as #TimesUp, she says, things are slowly changing. “There’s now at least a conversation people are able to join, and highlight if they are ever feeling not OK in a certain scenario, which was very far from the case when I was doing it.”
But, overall, she thinks about the decade she spent on the show with pride and affection. “I look back on Game of Thrones like anyone else would look back on high school. It was my entire education: it informed my understanding of the industry, I learned about press, I learned about work. It gave me my bedrock of understanding of what it means to be an actor.” Along with Glen, who was a sounding board whenever she needed advice or reassurance, Clarke made many lasting friendships. “I got my crew from there. The fondness I feel for everyone is something that will never go away. Rose Leslie is someone I speak to every week. And Kit [Harington], obviously. We’re very, very close.”
One thing that comes up again and again when speaking to Clarke’s co-stars and collaborators is how deeply she cares for those she works with. “She’s an incredibly generous, kind person,” says Glen. “It’s very easy for actors to get somewhat self-absorbed, particularly when they’re taking on such a big thing. But she was always the one who was looking after people, getting cast meals together – that really binds a group of actors.” Lloyd agrees: “She’s a very unassuming, quiet, good person. She’s the first with the boxes of doughnuts for someone’s birthday – it’s very meaningful. Most people don’t do that. She’s thinking about other people all the time, making sure everyone’s having a good time.”
What viewers didn’t know about Clarke, however, was what she had been dealing with behind the scenes. In March 2019, she wrote a remarkable essay in the New Yorker detailing two brain aneurysms she suffered in 2011 and 2013. “That’s the scariest thing I’ve ever done,” she says, her tone sombre. “I was never going to do it. Then I realised I might be able to help someone – even if the story was gonna help two people feel better, I had to do it.” For a long time, she worried it would be dismissed as attention-seeking. “What I was slightly obsessed with was people going, ‘Wah wah, celebrity sob story, we don’t care,’ which they would be completely within their rights to feel. But that didn’t happen, and it was just incredible. But it’s still exposing, it’s still difficult. I’ve spoken about it so much now, and yet it’s weird to have normalised an experience that was so hard.”
In 2019 Clarke, who is an ambassador for the Royal College of Nursing, founded SameYou, a charity that supports the recovery of brain injury and stroke survivors. “The first thing you feel when you’ve had a brain injury is that you are no longer yourself,” she says. “And that is the single scariest thing that could possibly happen, because you can’t escape yourself.” After the first of two life-saving surgeries, for a week Clarke suffered from aphasia, a condition that impairs speech and the ability to recollect words; at one point she was unable to remember her own name. “I thought the bit in my brain that had gone was my ability to act. That was the thing I was most worried about. If it was, then I got it back – I think,” she deadpans, summoning a smile.
While people have been overwhelmingly supportive in the wake of her New Yorker piece, she still gets the occasional insensitive question. She leans into the dictaphone, enunciating emphatically: “Just as a heads up? With anyone who has had a brain injury – don’t make a ‘Eugh’ face,” – she mimes a pitying worried face – “and don’t ask them if they’re OK. That is the most insulting thing you can say. If they’re stood there talking to you, what do you think?” She quickly caveats that this is understandable, given that brain injury is so rarely spoken about. “I am incredibly lucky, because I saw a scan the other day, and I’m missing about three-quarters of my brain.” She pauses. “And I’m sat here talking to you, so… apparently we don’t need very much.”
There is often a sense that, after a serious illness, a person’s priorities and sense of purpose will change. This was not the case for Clarke. “It made me very, very scared for a number of years. Very scared I was going to die all the time, like I’d cheated death and it was coming for me. But it didn’t make me feel like ‘Grab life by the balls’ in any way, shape or form. It didn’t have a profound ‘Now I can do anything’ effect.” What did do that was losing her father. “That’s the thing that made me actually understand and analyse and look at the idea of mortality and living and dying and what’s important and what’s not.”
Fame has afforded me many wonderful things. But I don’t understand why anyone would want it
Another thing that had a tangible effect on her was the enforced stillness of the pandemic. “I think I went into an existential crisis pit of despair. I live on my own, and it was very hard. I found it really, really difficult, as did so many people.” With the play on hold, and her film projects bumped years into the future, she was left with nothing to do for the first time in her life. She did poetry readings, charity fundraising, wrote a comic (M.O.M.: Mother of Madness) as well as stories she is “too scared to show anyone just yet”. But, after a lifetime of feeling like someone had duct-taped her foot to the gas pedal, she was able to focus on the here and now. She started doing yoga every morning and meditating every night (“Oh, actress does meditation, what a surprise,” she berates herself), and talked with her friends for hours on the phone.
A “massive bookworm”, she spent a lot of time reading; some of her recent favourites have been Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr and Richard Powers’s Bewilderment, as well as Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss (“My mate Lola wanted to borrow it and I’ve never been so reticent to hand a book over. I was like, ‘No, no, you don’t understand, this has got my soul inside it’”). She also became obsessed with baking, and now does a Monday bake for the cast; this week’s is a strawberry and rhubarb crumble cake. “That’s how I show my love to people. I bake them cakes.” (Her cakes are “pretty amazing”, Lloyd confirms.)
At the height of the pandemic, walking her dachshund Ted (very much a “pre-lockdown dog”, she is at pains to point out) was a lifeline. “I just didn’t see anyone because I lived on my own. Fame’s the shittest thing in the world and I don’t wish it on my worst enemy. It’s horrible. It forces you to look down all the time. So it was very liberating doing these dog walks on my own being like,” – she smiles manically – “‘Hello!’” She is now based in “let’s call it London, for the sake of my stalkers”, after a stint in Los Angeles, and is determined to live as close to a normal life as possible. “I made a choice many years ago, and I’ve stuck to my guns. I don’t have a security guard, I don’t not go places because I think I’m going to be recognised, I go about my daily life as if it weren’t the case.”
I remark that most news stories about her are some permutations of “Emilia Clarke goes for a walk” or “Emilia Clarke posts on Instagram” (where her 27 million followers are usually treated to Clinique or charity endorsements and pictures of Ted; she has a penchant for a dorky hashtag: #teddyturnstwo, #goodvibestooneandall).
“Completely. That’s the other thing: I’m inherently dull. I’m incredibly boring. I really live a very boring, very dull life.”
Or, you manage to keep your private life private.
“Yeah. I do have a private life. And there’s plenty that I’ve done that no one knows. The way I do that is by just doing it. I also am not a very controversial human being, boringly enough.”
One thing she is happy to discuss is the moment that stands out as the most bizarre she has experienced over the years: when Brad Pitt bid $120,000 to watch an episode of Game of Thrones with her. It was Sean Penn’s annual gala for Haiti, and she was surrounded by “creme de la creme celebrities”, and no one was bidding. And then – incredulous stage whisper – “Brad fucking Pitt comes to my rescue! I thought I was going to spontaneously combust.” (He was outbid by Clarke’s friend, much to her chagrin.) “It was, to this day, the strangest, most glorious moment of my adult life.”
But her relationship with fame has been a complicated one. Aside from the stalkers, she has been woken up on a flight for a selfie, and was once asked for one while in the middle of a panic attack, after which she implemented a no-selfies rule. What she misses most is the ability to have a conversation with a stranger on an equal footing. “I’ve really struggled with it, because I like talking to people.” She tells a story about walking into a shop recently where the server was evidently annoyed about something, but, as soon as they saw who she was, plastered a beatific smile on their face and rushed to her assistance. “You’re like, ‘No, no, no, be in the bad mood. I’m just normal. Please, don’t.’” She clasps her hands together, her expressive eyebrows knitting diagonally upwards. “Fame has afforded me many wonderful things. But I don’t understand why anyone would want it.”
Bad reviews are heartbreaking – because find me an actor whose entire purpose in life isn’t to be liked
There is also the thorny question of Game of Thrones’ infamous final season; it was roundly criticised for its rushed pacing, with many fans objecting to Daenerys’s transformation into murderous tyrant at the end. When Clarke read the script, it took her some time to come to terms with it. “It was definitely a challenge. I walked out my door, took my keys, forgot my phone and just kept walking.” But in the end, she accepted it. “I totally understand and respect why they did it. There’s a depressing reality of how it ended that actually feels based in truth, which no one wants for their favourite fantasy show. I’m not sure in what other direction she could have gone.” She now sees the extreme fan reaction as “the ultimate flattery – no matter what we did, we would have upset people because it was ending”.
She is even less fazed by the raft of one-star reviews for the likable if somewhat misguided Last Christmas. “Honestly, it boils down to – I shouldn’t be saying this, but fuck ’em. I’m not living and dying by what a reviewer I’ve never met thinks about a film or a TV show I was in.” She looks down, backtracking a little. “Of course it’s always heartbreaking when that happens, because find me an actor whose entire purpose in life isn’t to be liked.” Despite the critical panning, Last Christmas was a hit with audiences and is now a cult classic. “It’s kind of the ultimate ‘fuck you,’” she smiles. “Art is meant to divide – I’d much rather do something that people either loved or hated than were like, [Larry David voice] ‘Eh – sure, didn’t really hate it, didn’t really love it.’”
Next, she’ll be in sci-fi romcom The Pod Generation alongside Chiwetel Ejiofor (“bliss, start to finish – couldn’t be more excited”), in Terry Pratchett-inspired animation The Amazing Maurice, and Marvel TV show Secret Invasion (“It’s gonna be good! That’s pretty much all I’m allowed to say”); she is set to start filming McCarthy as the wife of the Republican senator, played by Michael Shannon. There are also some projects in development with her production company, Magical Thinking Pictures, including one that is “very close”.
Around us, the sounds of the theatre are burbling up as the rest of the cast and crew start to arrive: Jamie Lloyd, fellow Thrones alumna Indira Varma. It’s time to wrap up, so I ask Clarke a final question: what advice would she give herself at the start of her career?
She answers immediately. “The only advice I would have wanted to hear: ‘It’s all going to be all right.’”
And off she goes, to unwrap her baked goods. A small crowd starts to gather around her, inspecting the contents of the Tupperware and making appreciative noises. You get the impression that this – backstage at rehearsals, surrounded by her fellow cast members, picking up where they left off two years ago – is exactly where she wants to be.
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