Emmy Contender Emilia Clarke on Playing ‘Game of Thrones’ Heroine: ‘I Get All the Badass Stuff’ (Video)

“You don’t need to have dragons to be a badass in your day-to-day life,” the actress also tells TheWrap

A version of this story on Emilia Clarke first appeared in the print edition of TheWrap Magazine’s Comedy/Drama/Actors Emmy Issue.

Emilia Clarke doesn’t have much time to ponder what her life might have been like had she not gotten the role of Daenerys Targaryen on HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” “I think about a lot of what ifs,” the Emmy-nominated actress told TheWrap, “but I don’t think that!”

For Clarke, landing her breakout role so early in her career has been a fascinating journey. “There was a lot of bright-eyed, bushy-tailedness about the evolution of me within the character and me within the world of the industry,” she said. “I got to learn a lot very quickly, like Daenerys does. The thing about the kind of success the show has seen is that I am unrecognizable without the wig. I’ve been able to watch it from afar and kind of observe it, as opposed to being thrust in it and not being able to breathe. I’ve been lucky.”

Clarke plays the flaxen-haired Mother of Dragons on the hit series, which is now in its sixth season. Showrunners and the network have hinted the show is winding down, and will likely end after Season 8. The role has been a game-changer for the 29-year-old British actress, who landed two Primetime Emmy nominations and opportunities to star in movies big and small, from the 2015 reboot of “The Terminator,” in which she played Sarah Connor, to Thea Sharrock’s recent adaptation of the best-selling tearjerker novel “Me Before You.”

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Photographed by Corina Marie for TheWrap | Set Design by Andy Byers

How do you prepare to play Daenerys now, as opposed to when you started six seasons ago?

When I first started, I carried the first book around with me everywhere. I had my notes all in it, [it was] dog-eared and I carried all of my notebooks around. Then with each season it becomes more about what the script is saying, getting to know that person.

How do you deal with the concept that for a certain section of fans, you’ll always be this iconic character?

I love it! It’s a wonderful thing. I think of actors that I love and their iconic roles, and I can love and appreciate everything that they do, but there is still that one thing… I’m so lucky to be known for this. She’s got range and she’s got an arc, and she’s got so many wonderful qualities. It’s not a regular television show where it’s very much the same character coming back every year. This is different.

I’m also lucky because the wig changes everything about me. Put me in something else and it’s like, “Who’s that girl?”

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Photographed by Corina Marie for TheWrap | Set Design by Andy Byers

What did being an actor mean to you before it became your career?

I had no idea how much work goes into being an actor, as opposed to turning up on set and saying the lines. There’s a whole world of being an actor that is invisible to young actors coming up. I’m a fatalist. I take the highs and the lows as, “That’s today.” As long as you treat those two in a similar vein, you’re never going to get too low, you’re never going to get too high. So I try to stay in the middle. That balance is so important.

There’s a lot of pressure, as anyone has pressure in their life, but it’s a bit different. You’ve got more judgments, more opinions, when you’re in something successful and you’re on that pedestal. You’ve got to continue to be really strong and march to the beat of your own drum, and not look at yourself on the Internet or look at an article and go, “Ugh, I didn’t mean that!” or look at a piece of work you did and wonder why they used that take. You’ve just got to live your life and not live it as if it were too different from anyone else’s.

How do you do that?

You just try! [Laughs] You surround yourself with wicked people. Good friends, good family, good rep — good hair and makeup, even. Everyone you interact with, really, can perpetuate a problem or they can help you to be chill and be normal and just be like a regular normal person.

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Photographed by Corina Marie for TheWrap | Set Design by Andy Byers

What actors did you look up growing up?

Lucille Ball is one actress I’ve always looked up to. She’s just crazy, and uses as much of her face as possible. And then you’ve got good old Audrey [Hepburn]. That kind of grace really affected me at a young age. To see someone hold themself with such grace I just found magnetic.

It kind of changes all the time. It’s the smart ones — the smart actresses, the clever.

Whose careers do you hope to emulate?

It’s an amalgamation of lots of people’s careers. It’s like, “Oh, I want to be a comedian like Julia Louis-Dreyfus or Amy Poehler!” “No, I want to be a serious actress like Marion Cotillard!” Kate Winslet‘s career, I think, is phenomenal. The longevity of Meryl Streep, the class of Diane Keaton. Literally thousands of names in my head. There’s not one career I want. Because you can’t just copy someone, that’s a recipe for disappointment.

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Photographed by Corina Marie for TheWrap

What sort of lessons did you take from something like “Terminator: Genisys,” which maybe didn’t perform as well as people had hoped?

So many. I’m lucky that I’m in this brilliant “Game of Thrones” show, but it doesn’t exclude you from experiencing things that aren’t as wildly popular or successful. I think those experiences are just as important. And it’s less about how well it did, and it’s more about the experience that I take away from it.

I feel much happier about learning lessons from… I’m not going to call it a failure since it made like a bajillion dollars! We did OK! [Laughs] But I think that’s what you learn. You learn when things aren’t peaches and roses and everything isn’t beautiful all the time.

And I presume you probably also learned you can’t control the outcome of every situation.

Yeah, exactly. This is where having that balance is really important. If you’re like, “I’m amazing, this is awesome!,” believing the hype when you’re at that height just makes you think you have to believe everything when it’s not good. If you just take it down a notch and accept the good stuff when it happens, then you hopefully don’t crash on the floor when it doesn’t go so well.

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Photographed by Corina Marie for TheWrap | Set Design by Andy Byers

Because we’re funny! [Laughs] My girl Lola and I, we just crack each other up. She’s an incredible writer. We went to drama school together. It had to be a comedy. This is the most joyous, easiest thing I’ve ever done. We’re in the middle of it and it’s wonderful. We’ll see what happens. It’s just good to stoke as many fires as possible.

Was this borne out of not seeing enough roles for yourself out there?

Yes. Lola and I loved the same kind of stuff growing up. So we’re looking at the landscape today and we went, “Where is it? Where is that movie?” So it was like, “Let’s make it! Let’s just write it, let’s just do that.”

Why weren’t you liking the stuff that’s out there?

I still think there’s a disparity between roles for women and men. There’s a bunch of scripts I read and went, “You could just make that character a woman, and in making her a woman, you don’t even have to change anything else. You just write Sally instead of Simon, and boom! It’s the same.”

And I’m lucky, I get sent all the badass stuff because I get to play Daenerys. I get the cream of the crop in terms of strong female roles. But also a lot of comedies I loved were written by people who starred in them. If you read all the biographies of comedians, they’re coming up with their friends and they’re writing for each other and they grow together. It creates this gorgeous thing.

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Photographed by Corina Marie for TheWrap

Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Schumer are also very famously writing a script together. Why do you think this is a trend?

I think you get to a point where you read so many scripts and you’re like, “Hey, I’ve got a brain, and I’m reading these scripts, why can’t I give a shot?” I’m not saying it’s going to be ‘When Harry Met Sally’… but it’s giving it a shot and that’s the important thing. It’s just trying.

Do you have other aspirations? Do you want to direct?

I want to do a lot of things! I’d write before I would direct. I was in the process of optioning a book to produce. My mom is a badass businesswoman so I feel like I’m comfortable in this role. It’s about painting the landscape you want to see.

What’s your take on Jennifer Lawrence speaking out on the gender pay gap in Hollywood?

The more people who talk about that the better, I think. There was a while where I was like, “Well, we’re all up here in the viewing gallery with a very cushy point of view, when we should also be talking about the gender disparity for everybody in the Western world, talking about gender equality for businesspeople throughout — for everyone in their workplaces instead of just people in Hollywood.”

But then it occurred to me, if Hollywood shouts about it loud enough, then everyone’s going to hear. And that’s maybe going to empower some people reading the articles to go, “Wait a second, that’s kind of the same as me and that’s not right.” We should stop making this a conversation about men vs. women, and make it a conversation about people, about human beings.

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Photographed by Corina Marie for TheWrap | Set Design by Andy Byers

Do you feel a certain responsibility to take on some of these issues because of the position you’re in?

Yeah, but it’s less a responsibility and more that I am fortunate enough to have an opportunity to speak up about the things that upset me.

With “Game of Thrones” coming to an end, how are you processing it in terms of where your career goes from here?

I’m kind of excited. It’s not going to be nice when the show ends, obviously. It’s going to be huge, epic. But I’m excited. The landscape’s getting exciting and different and we have more time to do it.

What sort of legacy do you hope your character and the show leave?

Just a little bit of female empowerment. I just want the empowerment of people watching a character like this to light a spark in their brain, like, “No, you don’t need to have dragons to be a badass in your day-to-day life.” Who doesn’t love a hero? And there’s so many on the show. So I hope that’s what the show will leave.

See more of TheWrap Magazine’s Comedy/Drama/Actors Emmy Issue:

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