She is best known for playing the fearless Daenerys Targaryen, Mother of Dragons, in Game of Thrones. But Emilia Clarke says she is “petrified” ahead of her UK stage debut in Chekhov’s The Seagull.
“I’m profoundly aware of the fact that there will be people who love Game of Thrones and are seeing it for that,” she tells the BBC.
“It’s 10 times more frightening because there’ll be people wanting to go and say, ‘Well she can only act on camera, she clearly can’t act on stage,’ which is obviously the biggest fear.”
But the British actress also hopes that by appearing in a play written in 1895, about a group of lonely Russians living on an isolated country estate, she will encourage a different audience to go to the theatre.
“Hopefully they’ll come and go, ‘We just came to see the Mother of Dragons, oh how frustrating, she’s not on a dragon, this isn’t what I paid for.’ Spoiler: I’m not on a dragon at any point during this play,” she laughs.
“But hopefully what they get, as a kind of little extra, is that they get to enjoy this play that they might not have seen otherwise.”
Clarke plays Nina opposite co-star Tom Rhys Harries, who portrays Trigorin.
But there is another layer of anxiety. After a frantic decade in which Clarke became a global superstar, had two brain haemorrhages and lost her beloved father to cancer, finally appearing in the West End is daunting because “it’s something I’ve wanted for so long”.
“It’s frightening because it’s a dream of mine finally realised,” she says.
All the more so because the production was due to open in March 2020, but closed after just four preview performances when the pandemic shut theatres.
“There is no higher art than theatre,” says the 35-year-old. “I adore it. I absolutely love it. I feel happiest, safest, most at home.”
Which might seem odd for an actress who has appeared on stage professionally only once before, in Breakfast at Tiffany’s on Broadway in 2013. It did not go well, with Ben Brantley in The New York Times describing her performance as the glamorous Holly Golightly as “an under-age debutante trying very, very hard to pass for a sophisticated grown-up”.
Meanwhile, David Rooney in The Hollywood Reporter criticised the “miscasting” of Clarke, writing: “There’s neither softness nor fragility in her grating Holly.”
It was a “catastrophic failure”, Clarke cheerfully tells me.
“It was just not ready. Was I ready? No, I was definitely not ready. I was a baby. I was so young and so inexperienced.”
Clarke found fame on screen, cast in HBO’s fantasy drama Game of Thrones in 2010, when only two years out of drama school. The show quickly became notorious for its explicit sex and violence, and Clarke, who was 23 when she started filming, has spoken about crying before shooting certain “terrifying” nude scenes.
But when asked now if she feels exploited or angry looking back at what happened, she picks her words very carefully. “Regret isn’t something I do. It’s not something I like.
“I have since not done very much nudity. Read into that what you will.”
And just in case of any doubt for those going to see her on stage: “There’s no nudity in The Seagull. No, no, no.”
Clarke always wanted to be an actress. In The Seagull, Nina is a hopeless romantic who also dreams of being a famous actress. But amid a growing clamour for actors to have lived experience of the characters they are playing, are there any roles she would avoid for risk of causing offence?
“The trickiest thing is, as an actor, the whole point is that you get to try on different characters. Every actor wants to stay as far away from a pigeonholing career as they can.
“So to just say, ‘I’m only ever going to play aspiring actresses’, as an example, is probably a bad route for me to take and something that would end up being unfulfilling.”
Nonetheless, Clarke is savvy enough to know that “we live in a cancel culture” and “it’s an incredibly hot topic”.
She says: “If me being in something was preventing someone with a lived experience of being in something, I would 100% not do it.”
Her co-star in The Seagull, Daniel Monks, is disabled. A botched operation in his native Australia when he was 11 left him with a paralysed right arm and a partially paralysed right leg, “similar to a cerebral palsy leg”, he explains. He is an articulate advocate for disabled actors.
“It is important that only disabled actors play disabled roles in a similar way that I think it’s important that only trans actors play trans roles,” he says.
“Obviously in terms of the philosophy of acting, the ideal is that it’s pretend and everyone gets to play everyone. But in this industry and culturally, it’s been forever that straight, white, cis, able-bodied mostly men get to play everything. And then people who are part of minorities not only don’t get to play anything, they don’t even play themselves.
“I personally know how damaging it is to see lack of representation or inauthentic representation. It really shapes the way that you see your place in society.”
The girl with the dragon tattoos
Monks admits he’s never seen Game of Thrones, which suits Clarke just fine. But she will never escape the show. For one thing, Clarke has three small dragons tattooed on the inside of her right wrist.
And it will be hard to avoid the planned Game of Thrones prequel, House of the Dragon, which is set to premiere on HBO in August.
Clarke will be watching and is “fascinated” to see what it will be like, before reflecting: “It’s going to be weird as hell.
“I’m going to watch this as a fresh viewer because it’s [set] a be-jillion years before our show, so it’s going to feel different.”
And in response to a story in The Hollywood Reporter that Kit Harington will reprise his role as Jon Snow in a Game of Thrones sequel, Clarke says: “He has told me about it. And I know it exists. It’s happening.”
Then, perhaps realising she may have said more than she should have, she adds: “It’s been created by Kit as far as I can understand, so he’s in it from the ground up. So what you will be watching, hopefully, if it happens, is certified by Kit Harington.”
Which raises the question – would she ever consider appearing in a spin-off to Game of Thrones, or is she done with dragons?
“No, I think I’m done,” she says firmly and laughs. Emilia Clarke is ready to move on.
The Seagull is at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London from 29 June until 10 September 2022.