The Saturday Interview

Emma D’Arcy: ‘I really like playing women and I’m really good at it’

The non-binary star of ‘House of the Dragon’ is about to make their debut as the adult Rhaenyra Targaryen. They talk to Annabel Nugent about why people should let them do their job, arriving as the audience grieves their predecessor, and that divisive sex scene

Saturday 24 September 2022 06:30 BST
<p>Emma D’Arcy makes their debut as Rhaenyra Targaryen in episode six of ‘House of the Dragon’ </p>

Emma D’Arcy makes their debut as Rhaenyra Targaryen in episode six of ‘House of the Dragon’

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It’s the calm before the storm for Emma D’Arcy. The House of the Dragon actor is caught in limbo. Trapped under a bell jar. “I’m in a holding pattern,” they offer. Any number of metaphors will do. D’Arcy currently holds a strange status of celebrity: they are the face of one of this year’s biggest releases – and yet their face has not actually appeared on screen. On buses and billboards, sure, but five episodes into a 10-episode season and their glacial eyes and regal nose are nowhere to be seen. On Monday, that will change. The actor is finally stepping into the role of Rhaenyra Targaryen, heir to the Iron Throne.

“I am just about ready to rip the plaster off... I think,” says D’Arcy, with some hesitance, over a video call. They have good reason to feel nervous. After all, this is the prequel to Game of Thrones we’re talking about. The lavish HBO spin-off series based on the fantasy novel Fire & Blood by the saga’s mastermind George RR Martin.

D’Arcy is not an unknown. They have trodden the boards in productions of The Crucible and Romeo and Juliet, were a ghost in Amazon’s Truth Seekers, and played Toni Collette’s daughter in the BBC One series Wanderlust. But D’Arcy has never starred in anything on this scale. The £18m-per-episode scale. Big breaks don’t get much bigger than this. At least they need not worry about Dragon being a success: the series is already attracting an average of 29 million viewers per episode. And with numbers steadily climbing each week, it’s likely their debut will be the most watched chapter yet. “Conflicted” is how D’Arcy is feeling about the next 24 hours.

The actor, who is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns, is under no illusion that their induction to the series will be a painless one. While it’s true that D’Arcy was cast first, it’s Australian actor Milly Alcock who has embodied Rhaenyra so far – and fans are already mourning the loss of her spiky performance as the adolescent princess. “It’s complicated, isn’t it?” D’Arcy shrugs. “It’s a difficult point at which to meet an audience. They only get me when they lose Milly, so they meet me in a place of grief, of losing someone they just spent five hours with.” They exhale a nervous chuckle. “I’m... I’m well aware of that.”

D’Arcy has one co-star who knows what it takes to fill big, fan-favourite shoes. “I had a nice chat with Matt [Smith, who plays Rhaenyra’s uncle and sometimes lover, Daemon] the other day, and he said it’s like the Doctor Who curse. You’ve got to regenerate. And yeah, unfortunately, Rhaenyra is going to completely change body and face in a couple of hours.”

But until then, the actor can milk these last few moments of quasi-anonymity. D’Arcy is 30, with an elfin smile, and a close crop of Targaryen-white hair gelled down into a reflective halo around their face. It’s easy to see how, in an alternative universe, D’Arcy – who can look both ethereal and natural at once – might have been cast in this year’s other fantasy tentpole, Amazon Video’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. Today, they’re wearing a red tracksuit zipped all the way to the neck. In their left hand is a plastic blue BIC lighter that they play with constantly.

“I probably decided to be an actor twice,” they recall. The first time was when they played Titania in a version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at school in Cheltenham. “I was this tiny 11-year-old full of adrenaline, running around the football pitch, just high on the drug of the thing.” The second time, when the decision really stuck, was after art school. “When I was there [at the Ruskin School of Art, part of Oxford University], I started making bits of theatre. Initially I was doing quite a lot of set design. And then some acting and set design, and then some directing, some acting, and some set design,” laughs D’Arcy, who still knows their way around a toolbelt.

It was the prospect of working alone in fine art that made them decide to pursue acting instead. “Realities are what we make them, but commonly, once you leave art school, you spend a lot of time in a studio on your own, and I could see how badly that would go for me. I found that in theatre, I could explore similar stuff, but that there would have to be other people around.”

Game of Thrones was notorious for its tight security, and House of the Dragon is no different. For example, D’Arcy was part of the group of actors to petition for paper scripts: “Initially that was a no, but you need the paper to write on and spill your tea on and live on!” Thankfully, the producers relented. Likewise, when D’Arcy auditioned for the part of Rhaenyra, they were asked to read fake scenes for an untitled fantasy project. “I’m pretty sure every other actor knew that it was for the Game of Thrones prequel, so the fact I didn’t really speaks to a naivety in me,” they smile. “One I’m hoping gets replaced by wisdom at any moment.”

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Emma D’Arcy as an adult Rhaenyra Targaryen in ‘House of the Dragon’

Three months of self-tapes later and D’Arcy was invited to audition in person for showrunners Miguel Sapochnik and Ryan Condal. “At the end, Miguel was like, ‘Ok cool, you did well. Go get drunk and we’ll be in touch soon.’” But after a fortnight of silence, D’Arcy got a message from their agent: it was looking like a no-go. They went to the countryside to regroup.

“The next morning, I’m alone in a field with some cows and I get the call. All I remember is Ryan telling me to buy some sunglasses, which to some extent is a real non sequitur! It felt completely unrelated, like, ‘You got the part. Also, have you remembered to buy some sunglasses?’” D’Arcy mimics, brow furrowed, chin cocked to one side. The implication, of course, was that a disguise would soon become necessary. Better throw in a baseball cap, too.

Sapochnik, who was behind some of Game of Thrones’s most lauded episodes, has since announced his exit from the series after just one season. On the subject of his departure, D’Arcy has only a few words to offer. “Uhhh, yeah,” they tread cautiously. “I had a conversation with some members of the team, and yeah, it’s a shame. It is what it is.”

D’Arcy was yet to watch Game of Thrones when they landed House of the Dragon – though they knew the gist of it: sex and violence. But they were assured that the spin-off would take a different, albeit equally bloody, route to more meaningful ends.

“By the time I received the offer for the role, I had seen a few full screenplays and so it wasn’t like starting a journey into the dark. I was keenly aware – because I had been made aware by Miguel and Ryan – from a very early stage that this was a story built around two female characters, and one that seeks to interrogate the violence inherent to the patriarchy from a female perspective, which to me felt like a very different entry point than Game of Thrones. Also, you know, I love talking about patriarchy, so I was like, ‘Great, I’ll do it!’” They grin from ear to ear.

I do know that something very electric and erotic can happen between people who share genetic material and don’t grow up together

As the eldest daughter of King Viserys (Paddy Considine) – and the first ever female heir to the Iron Throne – Rhaenyra is at the heart of Dragon’s political conflict. It is the affairs of her heart, though, that have so far yielded the most entertainment – and courted the most controversy. Rhaenyra’s dangerous liaison with her black-sheep uncle Daemon, for example, has divided viewers.

“I suppose I read the sexual tension on the page from quite early,” D’Arcy says. “This isn’t something I know a lot about, but I do know that something very electric and erotic can happen between people who share genetic material and don’t grow up together.” The fact that Daemon is a bad boy openly critical of her father certainly helps matters. “That’s always exciting and dangerous, especially when one is young,” laughs D’Arcy, adding: “He offers Rhaenyra new horizons, and I don’t know about you, but I find that a deeply attractive quality in a person.”

A controversial episode four made good on the tension broiling between Daemon and Rhaenyra. The relatives are seen getting hot and heavy in a sweaty pleasure-house – that is, until Daemon abruptly pulls up his pants and is gone as quickly as he came. Or not. Following the episode airing, viewers were divided on whether or not the pair did indeed have sex. On this debate, D’Arcy can shed some light: “My takeaway was that he couldn’t follow through. It’s very much open to interpretation, but I think impotence is a big theme with Daemon, so that’s my read on it.”

Matt Smith and Emma D’Arcy star as relatives-cum-lovers in ‘House of the Dragon’

But more important than the physicality of it is that in Daemon, Rhaenyra sees a life that she is forbidden. A life her gender precludes her from. It’s a plight that D’Arcy identified with immediately.

“It was exciting to see a young woman on the page who had such a keen awareness of how power structures were operating, and could see that someone, ie Daemon, was able to exist via a completely different set of rules than those afforded to her,” they say. “That desire to seek a kind of masculine freedom and take up space, in the way that she perceives men do, really spoke to me. I felt that as a kid.” They continue: “I had this sort of tangible awareness of what it might look like were I a boy. So, I think I had that same experience.”

With the release of House of the Dragon, in which D’Arcy plays a female character, the potential to be misgendered as an actor and as a person is huge. Was that a concern when accepting the part? “Look...” D’Arcy begins. “I really like playing women and I’m really good at it. My worst-case scenario is that suddenly people tell me what I can and can’t play. I have all the tools necessary to play women. I lived as one for a long time; people still think I am one. It’s like, ‘Let me do my job; I’m really good at it.’”

You see, what D’Arcy loves about acting is that it’s a transformative craft. “I want to live within other people and exorcise bits of myself,” they say, before taking a moment to think about it some more. With a big huff, they sum it up: “It’s complicated! In terms of queerness, the only good reason for being out as a non-binary person, publicly and professionally, is that I hope it will let younger people who may feel similar know that there is room in this industry for them. Because there was definitely a point where I thought, ‘Oh no, this is not going to work. I definitely need to have long hair and make-up to do this job.’ And that’s just not true.”

Back to those Daemon-Rhaenyra stans, though. The way D’Arcy sees it, it’s not so much the incest that’s the problem as the age gap. At the show’s start, Rhaenyra is 15 years old; Daemon is 31. “This is essentially a grooming scenario,” D’Arcy says bluntly. “The idea that a teenage girl is in any way able to consent to that sexual interaction is a mess. There is no way that power can be equally distributed in that relationship.” Appropriate or not, Team Daemon will continue to grow so long as the pair’s chemistry eclipses that between Rhaenyra and her other suitors.

D’Arcy is unsurprisingly, and potentially contractually, evasive when it comes to declaring their own allegiance. “I can’t give you that answer because I know what happens!” they smirk. “Best to leave that to the fan-fiction writers. I’ll be reading!”

‘Daemon offers Rhaenyra new horizons, and I don’t know about you, but I find that a deeply attractive quality in a person,’ says D’Arcy

In the three years since Game of Thrones concluded, a number of stars have drawn back the veil on what it was like to shoot its many, many sex scenes. A “frenzied mess” is how one actor put it. D’Arcy knew the parameters of their role before signing up to Dragon, and counts themselves lucky that there was an intimacy coordinator on set. “It ought to be a prerequisite at this point for onscreen intimacy,” they say. “I wanted to have a conversation early on that covered all areas of comfort with regards to touch, and it’s amazing because you can just be like ‘No! You can’t do any of these things!’”

They laugh at how easy it sounds. That’s how simple it can be if people are willing to listen. “That’s how you empower the performer. Statistically, it’s likely that female-bodied performers are more likely to have experienced sexual assault than their male counterparts, so when you create a process like that, you empower the broadly disempowered party. So it’s good!” Plus, D’Arcy adds, having a woman behind the lens makes a world of difference. “The gaze is different!” they urge.

D’Arcy’s ambitions for post-Dragon life are modest. “I’m not very good at visualising the future, but coming from a theatre background, I guess my hope is that since theatre often requires performers to bring audiences, as grim as that is, I suppose I hope that my increased visibility afforded by this show can help in putting work on stages,” they say. As if not wanting to jinx it, they follow up that aspiration with a laugh and a finger-wagging addendum: “But I don’t know! I don’t know! I’m not even in the show yet! So who knows?” Just as Rhaenyra’s future, both in love and on the throne, remains to be seen, D’Arcy’s coin is very much still in the air.

‘House of the Dragon’ continues in the UK on Sky Atlantic on Monday 26 September at 2am, before repeating at 9pm later that day. It is also available to watch on NOW

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