'I was just an innocent kid... I had no idea what Game of Thrones would be for me' - Emilia Clarke on her life-changing role
When I meet bubbly, effervescent, happy-go-lucky Emilia Clarke, I have no reason to think there’s a secret she’s been hiding for the last eight years.
However, shortly after our chat, the London-born actress (32) writes an article for The New Yorker about two life-threatening brain aneurysms she has battled.
The first struck in 2011, shortly after she finished filming the first season of Game Of Thrones, the HBO phenomenon that has made her one of the world’s biggest TV stars. She was just 24 at the time.
In the piece, she describes going through two brain surgeries, her painful recovery and complications such as a condition called aphasia, which left her unable to speak properly.
Luckily, the star is now completely healed, and has thrown herself into developing a charity called SameYou, which aims to provide treatment for people recovering from brain injuries and stroke.
The fact she managed to keep her health struggles private is impressive when you consider the growing media attention she has received. When she was cast as young princess (now dragon queen) Daenerys – her breakthrough role – she was fresh out of drama school.
“I was just an innocent kid,” Clarke says of first being on the set of the medieval fantasy.
“I had no idea about the industry, I had no idea about myself, I had no idea about what the show was ever going to be, I had no idea about life, I had no idea about anything – and then this show happened.
“In those 10 years, the most defining parts of my life have happened within the realms of it. I’ve gone from being a kid to a fully fledged grown-up. So saying goodbye to the show is saying goodbye to that part of yourself, I think.”
It’s understandable, then, that recording her final scene as the Mother of Dragons was “deeply emotional”.
“Loads of tears,” the star adds emphatically.
Despite talking about crying, she’s still sporting one of her trademark wide-eyed grins.
She has a charming sense of humour, too. Discussing how she felt after her last day of filming, she jokes: “That was the moment I realised that alcohol can also be a depressant.
“I was kind of nursing a glass of wine going, ‘I don’t know why I’m not getting any happier from this!’.”
When it comes to what’s in store for the final season of the award-winning show, Clarke knows not to give anything away.
Because, as any fan knows, the new episodes have gone beyond the story told so far in the original novels by George RR Martin.
When we last saw Daenerys, determined as ever to take the Iron Throne, she had finally met Kit Harington’s Jon Snow.
The season had previously confirmed a long-suspected theory about Jon’s parentage that strengthens his claim to the Iron Throne – but also makes him and Daenerys nephew and aunt.
Unaware of this, the pair had sex in the final episode of season seven – although in Westeros, being aware of the incestuous connection might not have stopped them anyway.
“Dany and Jon Snow, it’s the most important relationship that either of them has,” says Clarke, who has also starred in films such as Me Before You and Solo: A Star Wars Story.
“I think it’s a really, really defining thing for them both.”
As for getting screen time with Kit? “He’s one of my best mates, so it’s weird,” she says.
“You put us in a room together and we just giggle. Just non-stop giggling. So there were times when we were like, ‘We’ll be grown up about this, and really serious’ and then we would do the scene and be like, ‘OK, now we can just...’” (at this point, she starts giggling again).
One reason why Daenerys has become such a beloved character is that she’s the epitome of a strong woman forging her own path, which feels particularly in tune with the emergence of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements.
“‘Strong female protagonist’ is a much more hot topic than it ever was before,” says Clarke.
“But for Daenerys, the thing that hopefully we’ll get to is she’s a really interesting character, regardless of what her gender is. She was a slave who was sold into slavery and is now a legit player for being the most powerful person in a show.”
It will definitely be difficult for her to say goodbye to the role, Clarke adds.
She flashes a tattoo on her right wrist featuring three flying dragons, which she got last year to honour her character.
How would she like Dany to be remembered by other people?
“Oh my goodness...” She pauses. “For giving it her best shot? I don’t know... She’s going to be ‘the one with the dragons’, but I would love for it to be ‘she’s the one who [went from] rags to riches in terms of what she, as a human being, was capable of achieving’.”
There are people the world over who worship Daenerys – you only need to look at social media on Halloween to see how many fancy dress choices she’s inspired.
That even includes pop superstar Madonna, who in 2014 dressed up in one of Clarke’s actual costumes.
She calls this fandom “deeply flattering and incredibly weird”, adding: “It’s just something you can’t comprehend.”
She doesn’t think she will ever get used to it, either.
“I’m an incredibly optimistic person but when it comes to my work, I’m very pessimistic. So it’s a fickle industry that I’m in, and as an actor you can be up one day and literally that afternoon not be.”
Another lesson she has learned as her career has gone on? Not to Google herself.
“As a young girl who did some brave things in the first season, what I read was not nice,” she says.
“So, I don’t read anymore, and it makes me much happier. I don’t need anything from it.”
Regardless of what she’s seen online, one thing’s for sure – there are plenty of people rooting for Clarke (and Daenerys).
The final series will begin on Monday at 2am and 9pm on Sky Atlantic