There are few places in the world where those three short words, Game of Thrones, are not recognised instantly.
With close to 200 awards and a global audience of millions, Game of Thrones dominates television culture like no other programme has before.
Since its 2011 premiere, it has evolved into a worldwide phenomenon and spawned a devoted fan base and a culture of its own.
At the heart of the series, among the brawn and bravado of its many macho male characters, is Daenerys Targaryen, played by 29-year-old British actress Emilia Clarke. Game of Thrones is Clarke’s first TV role and it catapulted the theatre-school graduate and call-centre worker into the heart of Hollywood as one of the world’s most indemand female stars.
Affable, London-born Clarke, however, found it difficult to adapt to the role of superstar. Her shield? The huge white wig she wears as “Khaleesi” Daenerys, which masks her natural brunette hair.
“It couldn’t have worked out better,” she says of her early days acclimatising to celebrity status. “Everyone else off the show had people coming up to them all the time and I was always the girl they asked to take the photo. Each time it happened, I thanked my lucky stars for that wig!” The relative anonymity was bound to be short-lived, however.
As Game of Thrones continued to achieve huge acclaim with fans and critics, Clarke found herself thrust further into the limelight.
“It’s a little more difficult than it used to be,” she says.
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“Usually, everything will be fine and normal for an hour or so; I can hang out with my friends and no one will be paying any attention. Then, slowly, you realise people have started to watch you or the atmosphere has changed – that’s when you know you had better leave before the photographers start to arrive.
“I don’t mind, though,” Clarke clarifies. “It’s really gratifying to know you have a lot of fans who truly appreciate the show and the work you do. I’m very lucky.”
Clarke followed her breakthrough in Game of Thrones with a role in Terminator Genisys, playing a young Sarah Connor alongside the indomitable Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“It was very daunting in a way, but also very exciting,” she says of her chance to transfer from the world’s biggest TV show to the celebrated sci-fi film franchise. “Terminator is the kind of iconic story that everyone grows up watching and, ever since I was a little girl, I had dreamed of making films like this.”
While Terminator proved Clarke had what it takes to mix it with leading action stars – she describes the process of becoming Sarah Connor as “the most physical transformation I have ever done” – her latest cinematic outing has revealed another side of the actress.
Me Before You was released this month in the United States, to mixed reviews, and stars Clarke as Louisa, a caregiver to fellow Brit Sam Claflin’s William – a young, paralysed banker who is considering assisted suicide. The film was Clarke’s first attempt at a romantic movie, though the star insists Me Before You covers far more ground than other films of its ilk.
“It’s part weepie, part rom-com, which you don’t get very often – it’s normally one or the other,” she says. “It’s an emotional, romantic-comedy drama. It’s a bit of everything.
It’s such a touching, beautiful story and I knew I had to be part of it, no matter what.”
Clarke says the role gave her a chance to step away slightly from the seriousness of Daenerys and “to smile a bit”.
“It’s a love story with a lot of magic to it. I accepted the part because I have never read such a compelling story, but it was the chance to play someone much closer to my personality, someone much more awkward and insecure, rather than the strong, forceful women people had seen me play up until now,” she says.
“I liked how [Louisa] approaches life and how she is able to be herself. She’s the kind of girl who has a way of smiling that is very infectious, even though there is a lot of sadness and many touching aspects to her relationship with William. People might not realise it, but in Game of Thrones you never see Daenerys smile.”
Even though the heroic Sarah and kooky Louisa have allowed Clarke to spread her wings and demonstrate her range and ability, the actress is adamant she owes her new-found confidence mainly to her on-screen growth as Daenerys – a scared young girl who matures into a dragontaming queen.
“It took me time to prove myself in the role of Daenerys, because it wasn’t evident from my appearance or natural manner that I could be seen as this very determined young woman,” the 1.57-metre-tall actress says. “I matured a lot over the first few series of Game of Thrones and there was this parallel development between us. I would draw a lot of inspiration from Daenerys and try to be more fearless and confident in my own life.” Although the series has courted criticism for its frequent depictions of female nudity, Clarke, who was voted Esquire magazine’s “Sexiest Woman Alive” last year, dismisses the idea the show is in some way misogynistic as “nonsense”.
“The women in Thrones are living in a time when they make use of the means at their disposal,” she says. “They are able to take their femininity and draw strength and confidence from their sexuality. Strong women can have such a great impact, because they can combine the determination and boldness of a man with the heart and sensitivity of a woman. They don’t hide their feminine side; they embrace it and are empowered by it.”
This description is perhaps most pertinent for Clarke’s portrayal of Daenerys. While the first series of Game of Thrones saw her as a young girl in a man’s world, the Mother of Dragons has blossomed into a leader in her own right, and the latest, sixth series has given Clarke the chance to “show her new strength”.
“You see her reaching a point where she has to apply everything that she has learned over the years into dealing with things. No one is going to deter her from the path she wants to take,” she says. “I’m proud to be able to play a woman who is a fighter and a symbol of our strength. There are female characters on the show who are subservient to men and who are being manipulated and treated as sexual tools to men, but then there are also many women on Thrones who are just as powerful and manipulative as the men. At first, Daenerys was facing a submissive kind of life and it’s been so beautiful and wonderful to watch her evolve into who she is now.”
Given the huge global impact of the series, Clarke is hopeful her turn as Daenerys can inspire its legions of female fans.
“I was very shy and awkward as a teenager but I always had an inner sense of determination and ambition,” she says. “I aspire to playing strong women because that’s how women are in real life, even though that’s not always portrayed in film or on TV. Self-confidence and self-belief are very important issues for young women and I’m very proud that I’ve had the chance to play a woman who has transformed herself from a girl with low self-esteem into a much more powerful and confident young woman.”
Clarke’s next project represents another twist in her meandering career.
In the thriller Blood Mountain, which is based on a true story, she will portray an Appalachian woman who is courted and murdered by an undercover FBI agent (played by Jack Huston). It is an interesting prospect, and a chance for Clarke to add another string to her ever-expanding bow.
No matter how far her career advances, however, Clarke is most comfortable amid the fire and fervour of the Dothraki Sea.
“When I’m on set it’s very easy for me to feel that I’m part of that world,” she says. “You feel swept away by the scenery and landscape to such an extent that it doesn’t take much to get into character. I so look forward to coming back to Belfast [in Northern Ireland] for shooting each year because it’s become a second home to me.”
She laughs at mention of the show’s penchant for unexpectedly snuffing out its main characters, often as they reach the zenith of their popularity.
“You just never know who’s going to get killed off. It’s part of the intrigue and the mystique of the series. It surprises you and shows you what a dangerous world she lives in. You get caught up in the constant sense of menace and the kind of threatening environment that is constantly providing audiences with all sorts of shocks.”
Might the Mother of Dragons one day meet a grisly end? While Clarke admits anything is possible in the turbulent world of Game of Thrones, she is determined that if that were to happen, she would want to “see Daenerys go in a spectacular death scene”.
“She has to be incinerated by her dragons,” she declares. “It’s poetic – it would be a death truly fitting of her. Of course, I have no say in it all, but if they are going to kill her off, how cool would that scene look?”
The final episode of the sixth series of Game of Thrones will be shown on HBO on June 27, at 9am and 9pm. The complete series is available on demand.