From dragon queen to Hollywood royal

By Emma John

Game of Thrones breakout star Emilia Clarke talks to Emma John about her role as Khaleesi, her rise to fame and her 'engagement' to James Franco.

June 2013: the internet announces the engagement of Emilia Clarke, 26, the actor known for her role in HBO fantasy epic Game of Thrones, to James Franco, film star, director, writer, thinker. Text messages fly in from Clarke's friends, some of whom she hasn't spoken to since she was about 4. "I had my aunt from America calling me up and being like" - Clarke slips into a brassy East Coast accent - 'Where's the ring?"'

She lets out a peal of laughter so gleeful you can almost hear the exclamation marks. She had met Franco only twice when the gossip sites, intoxicated by the sight of them visiting an art fair together in New York, announced their utterly nonexistent betrothal. "It's hilarious," says Clarke. "He is, of course, beautiful. But I feel there's only a handful of women who could form an engagement after two meetings, and I'm not one of them."

This is what happens when you are Hollywood's latest crush.

Clarke's Game of Thrones role as Khaleesi, the ivory-haired warrior queen, has transformed her, in an eyeblink, from drama-school graduate to red-carpet beauty and potential Mrs Franco.

In the two years since landing the part, Clarke has had an Emmy nomination and a lead role on Broadway; and she has travelled the world to shoot Game of Thrones (Croatia, Morocco, Iceland). She has also dated one of the wealthiest men in Hollywood (Seth MacFarlane).

Today in London, proving so engaging and confidential, it's easy to imagine that we've stopped for a quick refresher in the middle of a shopping trip. Brown of hair and a slight 1.6m, she's not at all as recognisable as her famously blond TV persona. Clarke's easy manner, too, would surprise her Thrones fans. Khaleesi - Daenerys Targaryen, Queen of the Andals and the Rhoynar and the First Men, Mother of Dragons - is not given to guffaws. In three seasons of HBO's epic, I'm not sure we've seen her so much as titter. Which is fair enough when you're commanding an army of freed slaves and rearing three adolescent dragons to burn fiery vengeance on your enemies. It's not a laugh-a-minute job.

If you haven't seen Game of Thrones, a quick word of explanation: Daenerys is one of the main contenders vying to rule the fictional kingdom of Westeros from the Iron Throne.

Her compassion and liberal values (well, liberal for Westeros - she'll still kill you if you stand in her way), not to mention her exceptional cheekbones, have made her one of the most beloved characters in the show. And if the success of the fantasy epic has defied, then eviscerated, all expectations, so has Clarke's own rise.

Her father, a theatre sound designer, had attempted to prepare his daughter for the life of an actor. "He told me: 'There's just one line you need to learn: Do you want fries with that?' He was trying his damnedest to be realistic, show me that it wasn't Disney."

Her game-for-anything attitude has served her well: not many actors take their first proper job on an (estimated) US$10 million TV pilot, with screen training that largely consisted of a Michael Caine video explaining how to hit your mark. When Clarke signed her five-year contract for Game of Thrones her entire acting experience comprised a walk-on part in Doctors and a made-for-TV monster movie called Triassic Attack.

Iain Glen, who plays Ser Jorah - Khaleesi's chief adviser - remembers Clarke's first day on set well. They were shooting a scene on horseback in front of 300 extras when Clarke lost control of her horse: "It went off with her into the high reeds and I think it slightly freaked her out!"

"You ask someone: 'Can you ride?' and as an actor, you're trained to say 'yes'," smiles Clarke.

"But it's one thing doing some riding on a Welsh holiday with your family ... Luckily Iain managed to calm me and the horse down at the same time."

Khaleesi's story - that of an innocent young princess, married forcibly into a brutal tribe of nomads, who grows into a fearsome leader - required Clarke, at 23, to do full nudity and rape scenes, not to mention an initiation ritual in which she ate a horse's heart (the shoot took all day, and she ate 25 of them -"They tasted like congealed jam, with a hint of bleach"). She has also, for four seasons, shot her scenes entirely separately from the rest of the cast and crew - because she spends most of her time on a different fictional continent. So in London pubs she's regularly bumping into fellow cast members she's never seen before.

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"It was a massive role for a young actor to take on," says Glen, "and I know the producers were nervous of the big arc that the character would have to take.

"Emilia herself would admit she worries about stuff, but it gives her focus and it's not a destructive worry. I just found her a delight, and eager to learn."

Both actors admit that the relationship between Khaleesi and her adjutant has had a parallel in Glen and Clarke's own friendship, and Clarke describes Glen as "my rock and my mentor".

"Well," he says, gruffly paternal, "if she ever did need me, she needs me a lot less now."

- Observer / TimeOut

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