‘I was hot-glue-gunning hair to my head’: Emma D’Arcy on their House of the Dragon audition

From viral cocktails to being scared to Google themself, the actor’s role as Rhaenyra Targaryen in the Game of Thrones prequel has made them huge. They talk violence, childbirth – and why those incest scenes are OK

Emma D’Arcy achieved a lot in 2022, but going viral was the least expected. “Negroni sbagliato – with prosecco in it,” D’Arcy, who uses they/them pronouns, coolly answered when asked by co-star Olivia Cooke what their drink of choice was. The bewitching video sent people wild and has since had more than 100m views on TikTok. “I’m thrilled that drink is finally getting the recognition it deserves,” they say in those now-famous velvety tones. “And my mum is thrilled about me becoming a meme! It’s very flattering.”

It happened while doing publicity for House of the Dragon – HBO’s highly anticipated prequel to Game of Thrones, based on George RR Martin’s book Fire and Blood. D’Arcy plays Rhaenyra Targaryen, who is named heir to the iron throne but is constantly challenged by those who do not believe a woman should sit upon it. As the death of King Viserys, her declining father (played by Paddy Considine) draws closer, the chambers and corridors of the Red Keep are thick with plotting and backstabbing – everything Game of Thrones fans had been missing since 2019.

The role of Rhaenyra required an actor who could handle a baptism of dragonfire. Enfield-born D’Arcy, 30, started out in theatre and set design, starring opposite Ben Whishaw in the 2017 production of Against at the Almeida theatre. They continued to act alongside big names in small TV parts, including Toni Collette in the BBC’s relationship drama Wanderlust, and Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in 2020 supernatural comedy Truth Seekers. It was at the onset of the pandemic that D’Arcy first auditioned for Rhaenyra. After making a few tapes with their partner, who they live with in their cosy London home with a playful cat, showrunners were instantly keen. But they had one more hurdle to jump.

D’Arcy as Princess Rhaenyra with her uncle, later husband, Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith).
D’Arcy as Princess Rhaenyra with her uncle, later husband, Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith). Photograph: Ollie Upton/AP

D’Arcy was asked if they had a Targaryen white wig to do the final audition tape with. “I had a bag of hair extensions from another job,” they say, today sporting a short pink crop. “For 24 hours my partner and I tried to hot-glue-gun hair to weird grips. We’d be like, ‘Yeah, we’ve nailed this!’ But I’d send a photo to Miguel Sapochnik [the show’s co-director] who would very politely tell us we had not nailed it.”

They managed to pull it off. When they were cast, D’Arcy had yet to watch a single episode of Game of Thrones. “I got to encounter the ‘drug’ of the show so close to shooting,” they say, recalling an intense binge-watch. “I could ride the wave of adrenaline of the old series into shooting a new one.” But it wasn’t their character’s descendant, Daenerys Targaryen, they enjoyed watching most: “I had a real soft spot for the Hound!”

When House of the Dragon aired in the summer, the global anticipation was enormous. D’Arcy endured an extra level of apprehension as they had to watch the reception of the first half of the series while “young” Rhaenyra was played by 22-year-old Milly Alcock. “It is a weird thing. We shared custody of this person,” they say. “As we got closer to episode six I was quite anxious; people had just lost actors they’d spent five hours with and connected to.”

After a mid-series time jump, D’Arcy’s first scene as Rhaenyra was extreme. She gives birth, immediately gets dressed and shuffles up to the queen’s rooms to show her the baby, all within about seven minutes. It’s one of a number of contentious childbirth scenes in the series – another saw Rhaenyra’s mother die after an emergency caesarean she didn’t consent to, and in a third, we saw Rhaenyra cradle her stillborn child after a bloody premature birth.

The Game of Thrones franchise has always faced criticism for its gratuitous violence against women. Another argument, however, is that this simply reflects the reality of women’s lives in a patriarchal world – so why ignore it? “It is a really natural process and one that has historically had an incredibly high mortality rate for women,” D’Arcy says on the traumatic births. “It is telling and interesting that that’s the thing we prefer not to see on screen. I guess the questions it poses to me are: what do we want to see? What are we comfortable with seeing female characters doing?”

D’Arcy in a scene in which their character, Rhaenyra, accompanied by husband Laenor Velaryon (John MacMillan) struggles to present her newborn baby to Alicent Hightower.
D’Arcy in a scene in which their character, Rhaenyra, accompanied by husband Laenor Velaryon (John MacMillan) struggles to present her newborn baby to Alicent Hightower. Photograph: HBO

This takes us on to another hotly debated issue in Westeros: the amount of incest, specifically the marriage between Rhaenyra and her older uncle Daemon (Matt Smith).

“I think he is a deeply problematic character,” says D’Arcy. “Getting to see Rhaenyra being groomed as a child by her uncle confirms it, and refuses to allow an audience to wholly ignore the problematic nature of their relationship.”

And yet, Daemon has somehow become the show’s lovable villain – Etsy is overflowing with T-shirts bearing slogans such as “mentally dating Daemon Targaryen”. Why? “Within cinema, there is a long history of creating love interests out of problematic – particularly male – characters,” says D’Arcy. “What’s interesting in House of the Dragon is that it utilises that same trope. You know, like audiences have responded to Matt playing Daemon as this ‘very sexy, masculine love interest’, but simultaneously, I hope that the show is continually acknowledging the problematic nature of it all.”

Amid such divisiveness, though, Rhaenyra’s friendship with Alicent Hightower (Cooke) is at the heart of the show – and the fact they were always destined to become enemies in order to survive a man’s world. “It serves the patriarchy to consolidate male power,” says D’Arcy. “So, where you have the possibility of two strong and potentially powerful women becoming allies, it is in the interest of the patriarchal structure to drive a wedge in and pitch women against each other.”

The GoT prequel was always going to ignite a thousand thinkpieces; that’s the nature of the beast. And, for many fans, reading hot takes is half the fun. It’s understandable, then, that D’Arcy has done very little Googling for the sake of their sanity: “I just have to keep a safe distance.”

Being catapulted into global stardom, they say, has forced them to “create some new tools for dealing with new aspects in your day-to-day reality”. They add: “I only realised very recently that at no point had I been able to take a long view at what was ahead, because it’s unimaginable until you’ve done it. It was a bit like playing Frogger – jumping as and when you’re required to.”

The second season – filming begins next spring – will pick up after that incredible finale, in which Rhaenyra looked as if she was about to unleash hell after discovering that her son had been gobbled up by the dragon of Alicent’s son Aemond. “She is trying to navigate her own Targaryenism,” says D’Arcy. “She has been trying to work out how best to mitigate that very volatile fire in her blood. But when Luke dies, the control required to dampen that inner fire suddenly runs out.”

Rhaenyra’s ultimate fate is already known by those who have read the book or listened closely to Joffrey Baratheon in Game of Thrones – including D’Arcy. “It’s a good old antihero storyline,” they say, not wanting to spoil anything for anyone. “What a privilege to follow that all the way to the end.”


Hollie Richardson

The GuardianTramp

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