Years ago, when I was a grad student, I worked at an ice cream shop in Oxford called George & Davis'. Students from Teddies, one of the local private schools just up the road, used to come in all the time. One of them was Emilia Clarke.
She's twenty-eight now, one of the stars of Game of Thrones, the mother not just of dragons but of John Connor in the latest Terminator movie, and Esquire's Sexiest Woman Alive. It's Sunday lunchtime. I was supposed to be taking my kids to Legoland. But I'm not—I'm going to interview Emilia.
My taxi pulls up at a house in Hampstead, an inner London suburb. Academics and writers used to live there. Now only bankers and lawyers and movie stars can afford it – you hear a lot of American accents on the street. Emilia's house is part of a beautiful Georgian "terrace" (English for a section of row houses) with long front lawns, pretty pastel-colored stucco walls, big windows you can step out of. It's just across the road from Hampstead Heath: eight hundred acres of hills, hedgerows, and countryside in the middle of London.
The weather is classic English summer's day. It rained the night before, it will rain later that evening, but at lunchtime there's a kind of chilly truce and the overcast sky has a certain brightness to it. Emilia comes out of the house to meet me – the buzzer isn't working, and she shouts instructions apologetically from the doorstep as I fumble with the garden gate. She's wearing dark jeans and low cowboy boots and a cloud-soft and cloud-colored cashmere top.
"I'm sorry if I'm shouting," she tells me. "I was at a Metallica concert last night."
The members of Metallica turn out to be huge fans of Game of Thrones, so they comped some of the cast a few tickets. If you're Emilia Clarke, these kinds of things keep happening to you. Last month she toured the DMZ between North and South Korea with Arnold Schwarzenegger to promote Terminator Genisys (out on DVD in November). Next week she's accepting the Woman of the Year award from GQ. And today she has to hang out with a middle-aged, slightly etiolated Texan she's never met, who is supposed to take her to Crystal Palace to play something called Game of Phones – a Thrones-flavored quiz and treasure hunt put on by a social-networking company called Thinking Bob. It's aimed at people who want to make new friends in a strange new city.
So far as I can tell, Emilia doesn't really need more friends. There's also the worry that she might get mobbed, which is why she's going in disguise. I'm supposed to provide the disguise. It's possible that I'm supposed to be the protection, too.
In England what you do, when you're nervous about something, is you make a cup of tea. Emilia offers me a cup of tea.
Everything about her house suggests someone older than her years – it's a family home for a single young woman. There's a fancy upstairs sitting room, which is partly for show and a little sparsely furnished. There's a chesterfield under the window, there are books on the mantelpiece (including the latest Colm Tóibín novel), and a funny/pretty and probably expensive large vase decorating the hearthstone. The real life in these houses is downstairs, in the basement kitchen, where the servants used to operate, and that's where she takes me.
The kitchen looks cooked in. There's a big cast-iron oven where the chimney used to be and a cookbook lying on the counter, still sticky with ingredients. She makes her own granola, which sits half finished in a tall preserving jar.
It turns out she also has a lot of tea. She opens a cupboard, she pulls out a drawer, both of them overflowing with complicated varieties.
"How do you take it?" she says. "In my family we always argue about the order of pouring. I'm a milk-first kind of girl."
Emilia's father was a working-class kid from Wolverhampton, a depressed industrial city near Birmingham. He was desperate to do anything that would get him out of Wolverhampton and became a roadie, then began working as a sound designer for a number of big-budget musicals in London. Her mother went to secretarial college, and must have had drive by the bucketload, because she started her own business and ended up as a marketing VP. Whether they meant to or not, Emilia's parents were pulling their children up the class ladder of English life.
"They didn't want me to go to boarding school," Emilia says. "I wanted to. My brother was already going [he's two years older], and I fancied his friends."
"Did you end up going out with them?"
There's a kind of change of tone or pace that Emilia Clarke's very good at. She uses it in her acting, too, and can go from sentimental or angry to comic at the drop of a hat. It all shows up in her face if she wants it to – she's got great mobility of expression. Accents play a part in these shifts. Her own accent is a nicely plainspoken kind of "well-brought-up," but she dips into others, northern English or American for jokes or to make a point. She can do Wolverhampton, too, even though her father doesn't speak it anymore – he sounds like her, she says.
There are stories she's told about being taken to see Show Boat (her dad was in the crew) when she was three and falling in love with the theatre and deciding then and there that she would act. But she also liked attention, she says. She liked playing games. And she liked winning them.
"And your father was in the business?" But she shakes her head.
"He was crew, not cast; there's a big divide… He wanted me to be very realistic about the whole thing, about how nobody makes any money. The only line you'll ever need to learn, he told me, is Do you want fries with that?"
His realism turned out to be off the mark. Sometimes surrealism comes closer to the truth.
I brought along three disguises: a brown fedora I haven't worn since college; a glittery, vaguely ethnic shawl; and an Oklahoma City Thunder cap, bright blue, with the kind of brim that sticks up. (I live in London now, but I'm from Austin originally; Kevin Durant is the man.) She picks the cap and my wife's old sunglasses, tortoiseshell-rimmed and pointy at the edges. I don't know what she looks like. She looks great.
On the cab ride over, Emilia explains that she wasn't anyone's "favourite" at the Drama Centre, where she studied, but she worked hard—"I was a keen bean." After graduating, she did a couple of episodes of Doctors (a long-running British daytime soap) and starred in some movie for a sci-fi channel that she still hasn't seen. By this point she was living with friends and working three jobs, at a bar, at a call center, and—she didn't tell me the third one. But she did say that a friend of hers walked in once and saw her face, the face you make when you don't know people are watching. It had a scowl on it. She'd given herself a year to make it in acting and she hadn't.
"And then my agent calls me up and says, 'Did you ever go up for Game of Thrones?' " The original pilot for the show had already been shot but nobody was happy with it, so HBO was digging back into the casting pile to try and save it. This is where Emilia came in. "My agent told the casting director, 'I know that the breakdown for this character is tall and willowy and blonde. I know she's short and round and brown, but I'd like you to see her.' "
"I had two scenes which told me nothing and not very much time in which to read all those [George R. R. Martin] books," says Emilia. "So I did what every good actor does and Wikipedia'd the living crap out of it."
"Do you have a sense now of what they wanted?"
"Yeah … someone who could grow before your eyes in one season, who could gather strength and show vulnerability, they wanted the arc…"
And then the show itself took off – and Emilia had one of the few characters who couldn't be killed. She is the Mother of Dragons, after all.
She manages to bring together a number of opposites, to make them natural: sweetness and toughness, emotionalism with a kind of cold-blooded determination. Something in these contrasts explains her sex appeal, too. She can play queen and kid sister, dominatrix and pal.
Crystal Palace is not a palace, exactly, more of a quiet backstreet behind a London train station. There's a gaggle of slightly cold-looking people waiting at the entrance to a park when we arrive. Somebody holds a bouquet of flags on sticks. Coming closer, we can see the logo: GAME OF PHONES. Emilia puts on her disguise – the cap, the glasses, an American accent. We've decided to call her Lilly.
Everyone separates into teams. What follows turns out to be very silly, in an am-dram kind of way, and a surprising amount of fun. Someone dressed in shopping-bag "chain-mail" mesh, with a mask of some sort on his face, reads out in his best pantomime-villain voice from a screed that announces our quest: "The lands of the East are … ruled by Lord Anchovy, the famed Fishy King." We have to locate a ruined phone box to find the first clue – the name of some mythical animal, inscribed next to a phone number. We troop off dutifully, on a gray bank-holiday Sunday, through a mostly empty park in deep south London.
It slowly becomes clear that nobody on our team watches Game of Thrones. This doesn't stop them from being nice people. There's a marketing director for a Thames-river-cruise company. Maybe fifty years old, one of those men, I get the sense, who wears shorts and sandals on the weekend regardless of the weather. The other woman on our team is a vaudeville dancer, a Cambridge graduate who pays the bills by tutoring kids in everything under the sun – including beading.
And then there's Emilia Clarke, whose costume, as she herself has realized, isn't necessary. As Daenerys, with that magical blond wig and undercurrent of menace – the fun young queen who can also order you dead—Emilia is unmistakable. But here, out of wig, surrounded by middle-aged strangers, she's just a very attractive woman in an (extremely odd) crowd.
But she sticks to her disguise. Lilly's accent is perfect; she's a laid-back, friendly, slightly dead-inside Manhattanite. It's just not clear why she's wearing an Oklahoma City Thunder cap or tortoiseshell sunglasses on a rainy day. When Lilly, in her hard-soled cowboy boots, slips on the gritty path and comes up limping a little, I suddenly feel for her – because I know that the real Emilia has just recovered from a fractured hip (an injury incurred when she slipped and fell while out promoting Terminator). Part of me wants to call the whole thing off.
Except that Emilia (not Lilly) wants to win. She spots an old phone booth near the playground: an English classic, red as a post box, now (in this age of mobile phones) abandoned and graffitied and locked up. The vaudeville dancer tries to light up the dirty back wall by sticking her phone through a gap in the broken glass, but the clue inside refuses to reveal itself. Emilia has a go, too, with her phone. Unicorn! This is the password we must deliver to "Lord Anchovy" by "the great bell, a shrine to the God of drowned sorrows…"
I've got a theory that movie stars (some of them at least) make it big partly because they epitomize something. Tom Cruise is the classic poor American kid on the make. His shit-eating grin is both a seduction and a kind of fuck you – the guy who runs up a bar tab after the company softball championship that he never intends to pay.
Emilia has the very real charm of a certain type of English upbringing. "A pocket rocket," my friend calls her – small, sexy, lively, and lots of fun. But there's a whole set of virtues that goes with the fun. There's an attitude to life.
Everybody has to "muck in" – a phrase that means helping out and getting your hands dirty and smiling at the same time. But they also get "stuck in." Like if you're having a picnic on a summer's day, and the beach is more dirt than sand, and the dirt is mud because it's raining, and there's nowhere to sit apart from an outflow pipe, and everybody's cold, you open a bottle of bubbly and don't complain. And not just don't complain but actually have a good time, because you've got "a sense of humor."
Or if somebody drags you out to a treasure hunt in Crystal Palace, in a disguise you don't need, you stick with it and try to win. You don't take yourself too seriously – all of these are very likable qualities. Emilia has them in spades.
On the hunt for the Iron Phone, the marketing director starts to tell a story about Game of Thrones, something he read in the paper about a father who hears his daughter has just gotten a part on the show. He feels tremendously proud and excited until he sees the first few scripts and finds out what she has to do: full frontal nudity, lots of sex. Maybe even a rape scene.
"It's not porn, it's HBO," someone chips in.
I don't know what Emilia – Lilly – is thinking now. But I know the story, too. The early episodes were hard to film, she'd told me in the cab. There was a lot of nudity, a rape scene, she was twenty-three years old, exposing her body. Her character suffered and she suffered with her. "Once, I had to take a little time out. I said I needed a cup of tea, had a bit of a cry, and was ready for the next scene."
Now she waits a beat.
"That must be awkward," Lilly says.
She's funny. She mucks in.
When we leave, Emilia decides not to tell the rest of our team who she is – they wouldn't know her anyway, she says. And you get the sense that for now, she's just fine with that.
"I'm trying everything I can not to be freaky," she tells me later in a pub. By freaky she means letting the star treatment go to her head. She remembers the days at the call center. The warning of cooking fries from her father. Her life before she was supposed to be noticed.
Half pal, half dominatrix. Half kid sister, half sexy queen. The movie star who plays, in her real life, an anonymous, funny beauty. This is the gorgeous balance of Emilia Clarke.
Terminator: Genisys is out on Digital HD, 3D Blu-ray, Blu-ray and DVD now
This article was originally published on Esquire.com and can be found in the November 2015 issue of US Esquire