For 25 minutes, the actor best known as ethereal blonde Daenerys Targaryen on HBO’s Game of Thrones has been chatting breezily over the phone from her hometown of London, but now she chooses her words carefully. Emilia Clarke pauses. “That’s a really hard question,” she says, gathering her thoughts.
The subject: what character she most identifies with from ‘90s sitcom Friends. “I love Rachel,” she says. “We all want to be Rachel. But there’s something about Monica that is so reassuringly neurotic.” The true identity of her Friends spirit animal has been a subject of much debate with her best friend, Lola Frears, the daughter of Florence Foster Jenkins’ director Stephen Frears. “I feel like we both want to be Rachel but are both a bit Monica,” Clarke admits.
As proudly educated as Clarke is in the preposterously detailed world of Westeros built by George R. R. Martin in his “A Song of Ice and Fire” novels and refined by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss on the HBO phenomenon, returning July 16, Clarke is at least as big of a television nerd for the millennial must-see TV staple Friends. She outed herself as a Friends superfan on Graham Norton’s U.K. talk show last year, where she appeared alongside Matt LeBlanc. “I have one slight request for you,” she said to him as the cameras rolled. “Would you be able to ask me how I’m doing?” As LeBlanc mouthed Joey Tribbiani’s signature “How you doin’?”, she broke into nervous giggles.
Yes, Clarke knows what it’s like to be that kind of a fan, which is probably a very good thing considering her filmography, which includes such obsessed-over roles as Sarah Connor in 2015’s Terminator Genisys, an as-yet-unnamed character in 2018’s Han Solo prequel, and, most famously, Khaleesi herself on Game of Thrones.
The 30-year-old grew up in Berkshire outside of London, her father a sound engineer for the theatre and her mother a vice-president of marketing. She won her role in Game of Thrones in 2010 after the pilot had already been shot with British actress Tamzin Merchant playing Daenerys. (In an inauspicious debut, the pilot episode would be 90% reshot). Her brief résumé at that point included a guest-role on British soap Doctors and the direct-to-DVD Jurassic Park rip-off Triassic Attack, which no one has seen, including, according to last report, Clarke herself.
She’s among the chosen few to have glimpsed the future of Westeros, having wrapped Thrones’ penultimate season in January, yet she’s as willing as the next fan to speculate over how Daenerys will weigh her own heart’s passion against the rigid call of royal duty. “I think that she has ultimately put aside her own need for a man,” she says. “She is so engaged and wrapped up in leading and being the queen and ruling and fulfilling her birth right that the idea of someone coming in and sharing that title is probably something she’s not comfortable with.”
Up until now, the exiled royal’s storyline has played out a continent away from her co-stars. When the actors are united for an awards show or press junket, she says the disparate cast members swap stories from their respective shoots, which are flung among such locations as Canada, Spain, Ireland, Iceland, Croatia, Morocco, and Malta. Things get competitive. She’ll brag, “What we’re doing is really fun.” Someone else will counter with, “What we’re doing is even better!” “We’re winning,” Clarke says. “In the fun stakes.”
Season seven sees a serious shakeup to Daenerys’ extended wanderings in the wilderness. The season six finale saw the Mother of Dragons leading a fleet of ships, accompanied by her dragon honour guard, to Westeros at last. Shooting with her fellow cast members, some of whom she’s known since season one yet has never filmed with, has presented its own challenges. “There was a lot of laughing,” she admits. “There was a lot of, ‘I can’t take you seriously.’”
It’s not hard to imagine Daenerys’ stone face crumbling opposite the brooding Jon Snow, especially as played by her longtime friend Kit Harington. The Internet is teeming with fan fiction with titles such as “Winter’s Bride” that imagines the characters’ wedding. No less a Game of Thrones fan than Margaret Atwood herself has said, “We will be very disappointed if Mother of Dragons does not marry Jon Snow.”
Dolce & Gabbana played off that chemistry in their upcoming campaign for their fragrance The One—Clarke was named the face of the women’s fragrance while Harington was named the face of the men’s in campaigns that debut this September. Clarke filmed the commercial in Naples last March, where she fell in love with Italy’s style personality. “There’s a confidence an Italian woman has that, as an English woman, I don’t see in my day-to-day life,” she says. “And I like it. It feels empowering.” Clarke’s own closet is stocked with such confidence-boosting pieces as a pair of snakeskin platform Marc Jacobs boots. “I put these shoes on and I was like: these are not my fuck-me boots, these are my fuck-you boots,” she says.
Working six-day weeks filming a Star Wars movie doesn’t leave her much room for personal style. “Within an hour I am in my costume,” she says. “But I really enjoy being able to put my personality on in the morning. To be able to express myself in what I’m wearing and walk into my job and go: this is Emilia. And then you can take it off and put the character on. When you’re done at the end of the day you put yourself back on and go home. Fashion and style for me is looking at your reflection and you are seeing you.”
She says the transformative power of fashion has often helped her channel a character, especially while wearing the Rapunzel-esque hair of Daenerys. Despite playing the fiercely righteous ruler for seven seasons, bleaching her natural brunette hair was never a consideration. “My hair could never ever get to what Daenerys’s hair is,” she says. “If you saw the wig, you could literally curl up with that thing. There is not a human being on the planet Earth who has that much hair. She has more hair on her head than Chewbacca.”
The wig is so transformative that she can often fly under the radar in public. (When she attended her first Screen Actors Guild awards in 2012, she smiled brightly, unflappable as a wall of photographers shouted, “Who are you?”). And yet Clarke says she has found serenity in the eye of the red-carpet storm. “A lot of the time I feel more comfortable in front of a lot of people than I do in front of six,” she says. “So the red-carpet stuff, I just get super zen. I decided to wear this dress, this is what my hair looks like, this is what my makeup looks like, this is who I am, this is what I’m doing, so, here we go! I’m just going to be super cool in how I feel. Because if I don’t I might cry.”
While Clarke herself might toddle between the girl-next-door glamour of a Rachel Green and the high-strung neurosis of a Monica, there’s no mistaking this stubborn commitment to confidence as a trait she shares with a certain Targaryen. When asked what resonates with her about the way in which Daenerys wields her power, she says, “The marriage between her feminine sensitivity and her genuine desire to help those less capable of helping themselves. She’s fighting for people that don’t have rights. She’s got advice from everybody, and she just listens quietly, makes her own mind up, and is comfortable to stand next to the decision that she made. That kind of ability to not apologize.” Spoken like a true queen.