Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke thinks she has chemistry with the dragon she rides — even though in real life it’s a bright-green rig, a bit like a mechanical bull, that moves like the fictional, animated creature. Clarke explains their bond: “You get a romantic couple onscreen, and chances are they’ve had sex… Half of that reason is that as an actor, you’re convincing yourself you’re in love with that person.”
Or that creature. Clarke’s bond with her beasts has helped Thrones soar — and helped her transcend jitters on her first major acting job. “I’m 5-ft.-nothing, I’m a little girl,” she says. “I’ve got the face of a chubby six-year-old. You walk onto set and you’re like, ‘Hey guys, I hope you like me! How can I help? What can I do? How can I be helpful?'” Perched on the dragon and empowered to “go crazy,” she says, her insecurities fall away: “Hey, everybody! Now who’s shorty?!”
Clarke spoke to TIME in January for our cover story on Game of Thrones, whose seventh season premieres July 16. Here’s an edited transcript of that conversation.
You joined the Game of Thrones cast fresh out of drama school — this is one of your very first jobs. When you walked onto the set and saw the enormous apparatus in place, what went through your mind?
Fear! I was just petrified! I genuinely was so scared — I was so fresh out, a year and a bit, so I’d done a couple of little things, but this was the first proper thing that I’d ever done. I was just thinking at any moment they would fire me, and at any moment they’d be like, Just joking, take the wig off.
The entire first-season arc begins with you living in fear and ends with you striding out of the fire, reborn. Do you feel as though, similarly, you’ve come into your own as an actress?
Growing up on the show, playing Daenerys, there’s a number of times when the parallels between me and her have been sort of astonishing. Ultimately, Daenerys’s main arc is the arc of a girl to a woman. And then to a kind of woman who’s like, Wait a second! OK, I got here, I’m a big girl, but maybe I’m going to be a totally different person! Maybe I’m going to flip! Maybe I’m going to change my mind at the ripe old age of whatever. And that’s really exciting because her changes have come at a point where I feel comfortable enough to explore them as a human being. It’s lovely but I get first-day-of-school jitters on the first day back every year. Every year I’m like, I’ve forgotten how to be Daenerys, I never knew how to anyway. That last season was terrible; I was awful! I’ve got to be better! So that never goes away.
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Even inside this bubble, I think you might be aware of the ways in which Daenerys is read as a feminist icon. Do you see other political aspects to the show that have helped it succeed?
I think it’s twofold. There is a character who is front and center, a leader, or aspiring leader, with ample resources to take it where it needs to go. The fact that she has a pair of tits does not make any difference. Sometimes she needs to use them and sometimes she doesn’t. There’s that, but on a personal note, I spent my life with a very, very strong mum, working mum, feminist mum, wore the trousers, brought home the bacon. But I never heard the word “feminist.” Never was I told “It’s going to be tough out there because you’re a girl.” So it was never that I ever saw that there was any inequality between men and women. And it’s only as I’ve got older, being in the industry, that I say, “Huh! Why are you talking to me funny? Why are you treating me differently?” And that’s fueled Daenerys for me.
But the other thing… Politically, I’m an actor, I haven’t got a right to say anything. I’m not a politician, I’m a trained actor. But if you look at the state of the world, to me it seems like, it’s not so much that the world that we are in [in Westeros] reflects somehow a political aspect of the world that we are living in. But there are moments that we’ve been living through where people want escapism. They want to turn to something that they can be fully absorbed in and forget for a second that there’s anything more scary out there in our own real world.
Escapism is one of the classic virtues of entertainment, and to be able to go to Westeros—
—and see something where it’s on the cusp of believability with regards to the good guy not always winning, but he gets damn close. Human beings can do that. I know they can! It’s more engaging and engrossing to watch, because we’re not watching Disney. We’re watching something that is believable to be real. Real. Because bad guys do really well on Game of Thrones, and people die. And people do! So, I kind of think, that’s where the real world politics and Game of Thrones meet in a beautiful way.
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Early in Game of Thrones, you often appeared in a state of undress; now you no longer do. What went into that move, from your perspective?
You look back at a lot of actresses. Brilliant. Dames. They had stages in their career where they were asked as women to show their sexuality. Which was asked of me in season 1 — there ain’t no hiding from it. And that aspect of the show that I was presented with at that age was just an aspect of something that was really exciting and really wonderful, so I wasn’t going to say no because they were asking me to take my clothes off.
Because it was the first thing I’d ever done, and because it was successful — those two things, and I happened to be half-clothed, or whatever—it kind of followed me around a little bit. And you’re like, Hey! If I had had a career before now, doing anything else where there was a sex scene, this wouldn’t be the conversation we were having. I don’t have any qualms saying to anyone it was not the most enjoyable experience. How could it be? I don’t know how many actresses enjoy doing that part of it. And I don’t think that it was an active, ‘I’m never going to take my clothes off choice.’ It’s just a thing where, the roles that came up and the show itself has unfolded in a way where she no longer does that. Where you want to draw parallels as a character, with Daenerys’s strength in keeping her clothes, is kind of obvious.
She’s able, now, to use her wits—
—to keep them on!
…And rely on all her other strengths.
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Yeah, exactly. And I think it’s hugely important for the character thing to see that parallel. To see, oh no, she doesn’t have to do that anymore. As a woman, I don’t have to do that anymore. It’s not to say that I would have a role where I wouldn’t have sex, if it would need to be on camera to see passion, and love, and intensity, and all of those brilliant things, but if I were asked to play a porn star, I would probably say no.
It’s different when it’s part of the spectrum of human experience and emotion, versus just being the story.
Exactly, and I’ve said it a thousand times and I’ll say it again: People wouldn’t give two sh-ts about Daenerys if you didn’t see her suffer. We saw her suffer in season 1. Did I suffer a little bit from that? Of course I did, it’s my first job! [sarcastically] It’s my first job ever, and they told me to take my clothes off, and it’s like, oh, yeah, sure! Super happy! Okay, great! I didn’t turn around and say, I’m never going to do that again. You want me now, you can’t get rid of me, I’ll never do it — as you saw in season 5. I would take my clothes off again, because it’s important.
Seeing worlds coming together last season when you met Peter Dinklage’s character was so gratifying for viewers, and I imagine it must have been for you too — seeing your storyline finally entering the main story of the show.
Yes, hugely! I always say, they stick me in a box and they ship me out to sea! I don’t see anyone, which is important for the character. And I had to go do these things, these huge scenes, these epic portrayals of this character by myself, which fueled Daenerys wholeheartedly, because she’s like, I want to get home! I want to get where the people are, and all the cool stuff!
She wants to rule over all the people, too.
Exactly, she wants to get her power out. But that’s the magic of the show — they presented these characters and then ripped them all apart. It’s classic storytelling, but it’s done, here, in such a complex way that it’s so enticing. It’s an investment, so when the reunions happen, it’s like, Yeah! You guys have been so close, and now we finally did it.
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What have you taken from Daenerys’s ability to deliver these rousing, emotional speeches?
It’s kind of wonderful. It’s kind of dreamy. It’s weird. It’s one of those bizarre things, and I truly think it’s because of the show, that I’m more comfortable in a crowd of 1,000 people than I am in a room with ten. Round table scenes, I’m like, I’ve got to go tell people what to do, and there’s only ten of them! Everybody’s going to see the whites of my eyes!
As an actor, as myself, I can get nervous really easily, and feel like I shouldn’t be here. On the set, I still ask myself, You sure? You really sure about this? You’re not going to recast me? Because sometimes I feel like you might! Needing to draw in and summon every ounce of confidence I have to do it, get out there and be as truthful as you possibly can, it’s empowering for me. And in turn it feels her. Daenerys keeps asking me to be a stronger woman, and I have to keep rising to the occasion.
Do you have an easy time on the back of the dragon?
There are certain shots where you’re like, I’m hanging on for dear life, oh my goodness. But yes, yes. I definitely — it’s this really weird thing. Okay, so, famously — people know about this — you get a romantic couple onscreen, and chances are they’ve had sex. If they’re single, they will have, and sometimes when they’re not…
Actors are famous for—
—copulating with each other. So I’m not saying with the dragon, but there is this — half of that reason is that as an actor, you’re convincing yourself you’re in love with that person. And there’s a little bit of you, maybe, that is, or whatever it is, if you’re single and attracted to each other! But there’s something about this maternal connection I had with the dragons from day [one]. I really got into Daenerys’s head, and the dragons are on so many levels the only children she’ll ever know. She has a huge amount of love to give, and all her family’s gone. She’s alone. There is no one character that has ever connected with her in a way that has left her feeling secure.
Even Daario is more about fulfilling a need than any kind of intellectual match.
Exactly. And you meet Tyrion, Jorah keeps coming back, but they are not her match. And the dragons are. The dragons are hers. With that essence in mind, it’s so much more a metaphorical idea that there’s that hole in your heart that needs to be filled and they do it. So it’s just this knee-jerk reaction that I have with them, where they are… as they’ve got bigger, and as she’s riding them, they are a physical part of her. And that in itself is empowering as f–k. I’m 5-ft.-nothing, I’m a little girl. I’ve got the face of a chubby six-year-old. You walk onto set and you’re like, ‘Hey guys, I hope you like me! How can I help? What can I do? How can I be helpful?’ They’re like, ‘Emilia, climb those stairs, get on that huge thing, we’ll harness you in, and then you’ll go crazy.’ And you’re like, ‘Hey, everybody! Now who’s shorty?!’ Every chance she gets, she’s empowering to play.
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