The rise and rise of Game of Thrones star Emilia Clark

Emilia Clarke was just out of drama school when she was cast as Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones. Now she is the hottest young British actress since Carey Mulligan, says James Mottram

So Emilia Clarke is everywhere, it feels like. Last Saturday, outside the Stone Roses’ Finsbury Park gig, her beaming face was plastered to just about every lamp post on the Seven Sisters Road, advertising her new film Spike Island, a coming-of-age comedy set around the Roses’ infamous 1990 gig. A day later, if you turned on Sky Arts, there she was in her more familiar guise, with those unmistakable flowing blonde locks, proving critical to the season three finale of Game of Thrones.

In the US, they can’t get enough of her – a Broadway stint in a revival of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s this spring followed the news that she’d split from the Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane. More recently, it has been those internet-spread rumours that she and James Franco are engaged. But it is as Thrones’ Dothraki-speaking, dragon-raising heroine Daenerys Targaryen that has turned Clarke, 26, into Britain’s hottest young actress since Carey Mulligan gave us An Education.

In her green eyes, it has all been rather one-two-three. “I’m a classic girl,” she says, when we meet; Daenerys’ flaxen hair is nowhere to be seen, Clarke back to her usual brunette. “I came out of my mum’s stomach going ‘I want to be an actor!’ And then when I was 18, I went to drama school, and trained there for three years, and then a year out of that, I got Game of Thrones. And Spike Island is the first thing I’ve got since then.” She has, of course, left out one or two things – including a commercial for the Samaritans that held the camera on her tearful face for an eternity.

There was an episode of Doctors and a TV movie about dinosaurs called Triassic Attack as well, but these were swiftly forgotten when she replaced actress Tamzin Merchant, who played Daenerys in the pilot episode of Game of Thrones. Like her character, she has grown in strength across the three seasons, oozing confidence on screen and off. “It’s not just a fantasy show,” she asserts. “The characters themselves are so richly written, and complex as well. There’s a lot for people to get behind.”

There’s also been a “petrifying” amount of nudity – so much so that she is almost blasé about audiences ogling her during the bathtub scene she had to perform nightly as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. “They could go on YouTube and see Game of Thrones and it would be more than they’d ever see in the bath!” Still, you can understand the attraction to Spike Island – if nothing else, her modesty is preserved by a pair of dungarees. “Yeah,” she laughs, “basically imagine everything that is opposite to Game of Thrones.”

Directed by Mat Whitecross, who made 2010’s Ian Dury biopic Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, Spike Island rewinds the clock to a time when baggy was big and Manchester was buzzing, telling the fictional story of a group of kids – led by Elliot Tittensor’s delightfully named Tits – trying to get into the Roses’ seminal gig in Widnes, along with 27,000 other wide-eyed hopefuls. “It may not be the story of the Stone Roses’ lives and careers,” says Clarke, “but they are the reason why the film exists. It’s a love letter to them.”

Clarke’s character, Sally, even  seems to be named after the Roses’ song “Sally Cinnamon” (thankfully not after the more embittered “Elizabeth My Dear”). Embroiled in a “love triangle” between Tits and his friend Dodge, Clarke calls her “the lucky mascot” of the gang, recounting the scene where she casually suggests the boys – who have their own band, Shadowcaster – get their demo tape to Ian Brown and co. “Sally is secretly the brains behind it all,” she grins, noting “that’s the nice thing about the film – it’s got so much heart”.

It doesn’t seem to matter much that Clarke was just two when the band’s debut album was released. She’s thoroughly enamoured of the music, which, she says helped to get her through the cold night shoots the cast had to endure. “We were all there going, ‘How are we going to get through this?’ And then they’d whack on the Stone Roses, and genuinely – I’m not being funny, it’s so cheesy but so true – they’d come on and everyone was like ‘Ah, fuck it, we’re gonna have a mint time.’”

Right now, she’s sounding more Sally than Emilia, who was raised in Berkshire, educated at an Oxford boarding school and studied acting at London’s Drama Centre, whose previous alumni include Colin Firth and Paul Bettany. In truth, her accent is a little more home counties polished than Sally’s northern twang – but then, like she said, Clarke has been acting from day one. She was only three when she discovered it – after seeing a production of the musical Show Boat that her father, a theatre sound engineer, was working on.

By the time she was 11, she had twisted his arm to get her a try-out for a West End show. “I was convinced it was going to work out brilliantly, happy ever after. I turned up to this audition, not expecting to see 80 girls lined up outside!” As she heard renditions of the Cats staple “Memory” being hummed over and over, she had nothing prepared – and could only remember two songs, a folk ditty called “Donkey Riding” and the Spice Girls’ “If You Want To Be My Lover”. She gave them both. “I just remember looking to my dad and he just had his head in his hands. So I took some time out and rediscovered [acting] at 18.”

Still, landing Game of Thrones is a pretty mind-bending way of reintroducing yourself to the world of acting. “My life is pretty much unrecognisable to what it was before,” she says, with typical understatement. The next move is movies: Clarke has already completed Dom Hemingway, playing estranged daughter to Jude Law’s ex-con safecracker. And she’s due to shoot an adaptation of Andre Dubus III’s novel The Garden of Last Days, co-starring and directed by James Franco (hence those engagement rumours) in which she will play a stripper. To coin that old Roses’ B-side – she’s what the world is waiting for.

‘Spike Island’ opens on 21 June

*This article appears in tomorrow's print edition of Radar Magazine

 

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