Warning: This article contains spoilers from House of the Dragon episodes 1-5.
Miguel Sapochnik, a showrunner on House of the Dragon with series co-creator Ryan Condal, welcomed his two leads, Emma D’Arcy and Olivia Cooke, at his London home for dinner about four months before rehearsals were set to start on the Game of Thrones prequel. It was the first time they were to meet in person, and Cooke was running late. The English actress of Bates Motel and Ready Player One was rushing back to the city from another job in the dead of the COVID-19 pandemic and briefly forgot herself.
“I completely forgot and just gave everyone a hug. I think everyone was like, ‘Whoa!’ I was like, ‘Oh no! I did get tested today,'” Cooke, 28, tells EW over Zoom in June from Albany, N.Y., where she was starting to shoot yet another film. “But it was so funny that we were just like, ‘Oh no, we can’t hug,’ even though I’m just meeting you for the first time and I’m in your house.”
The rest of the dinner was much more smooth. Nobody really talked shop, which surprised both actors, who were cast in the roles of Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen (D’Arcy) and Alicent Hightower (Cooke). They mostly discussed their families. Cooke remembers Sapochnik and Condal bringing up how both their kids were now relocated in London. D’Arcy, who uses they/them pronouns, doesn’t recall much, just specific emotions they felt at the time.
“You know those chance meetings where there’s a familiarity? For some unknown reason, I really felt that with Liv,” D’Arcy, 30, explains. “It was like we had the right language to speak to each other immediately, and that doesn’t always happen.” Cooke agrees, “We hit it off right away.” The other emotion was more of a sobering tonic. “It was the first moment where I was like, ‘Oh Christ, man. This might actually happen,'” D’Arcy says of the reality of the show setting in. “We all got our offers, having never met anyone in person because it was COVID, and protocol was so tight. I hadn’t met anyone new for about a year. It was a really, really surreal evening.”
This was the calm before their own storm of swords would begin on screen.
The first half of House of the Dragon‘s fledgling season has been setting the stage for the arrival of D’Arcy and Cooke. Milly Alcock, 22, and Emily Carey, 19, held down the fort, portraying Rhaenyra and Alicent in their younger years, starting with their early glow of friendship, riding through the moment Alicent marries the king and effectively becomes Rhaenyra’s step-mother, and culminating with another bloody Game of Thrones wedding feast that further hammers the wedge between these once close monarchs. When episode 6 arrives this Sunday on HBO, another time jump will take us to meet Rhaenyra and Alicent as adults — by way of D’Arcy and Cooke — getting us closer to the Dance of the Dragons, the civil war that’s about to erupt within the Targaryen empire over succession.
Neither D’Arcy nor Cooke discussed much of their roles with Alcock and Carey. They were discouraged by the showrunners from doing so. “I was shown almost like memories: scenes that Emily had done with [King Viserys actor] Paddy [Considine],” Cooke describes. “I had those memories locked in my brain for when I’m doing a scene that mirrors that relationship.” But ultimately, the adult versions of these characters have evolved quite a bit out of their teen years. Adds Cooke, “Ten years or 15 years on, whenever it is, I think it’s about this power in finding your womanhood.”
D’Arcy, who identifies as non-binary, becomes visibly more engaged when it comes to discussions of gender. “I’m interested in all gender questions,” they remark while on set of House of the Dragon at London’s Leavesden Studios in January. Months later, as they process the role of Rhaenyra from their living room during a conversation over Zoom, D’Arcy explains how they approached the character through that gendered lens.
“I think to say she’s gender-questioning would be too extreme because the language doesn’t exist,” D’Arcy notes of that time in Westeros history. “But I think she is someone who’s pushing at the edges of womanhood and has a really decisive, interrogative eye for how gender affects power, affects how one may occupy space, affects even the right to construct one’s life. Basically, the interaction or the continued consolidation of male power and patriarchy is probably what really excited me about the script when I first read it.”
D’Arcy’s first sequence as Rhaenyra in episode 6 (which HBO already released, in part) is an echo of the first episode. Years after the tragic events of her wedding to Laenor Velaryon (now played as an adult by actor John Macmillan), the princess lays in a child-bearing bed with her silver hair draped over her white gown. The similarity to her mother, the late Queen Aemma Targaryen (Sian Brooke), who died from a forced C-section procedure, is striking. The current queen, Alicent, has asked to see Rhaenyra’s newborn for reasons that will become clear, so the princess begins her labored march with her son up to the queen’s chambers.
“This character, as a result of patriarchal constraints, essentially doesn’t have power,” D’Arcy explains more generally of the role. “They have privilege, but they don’t have power. It’s one thing to put two female characters in the center of a series like this, but it’s another when they are positioned within a patriarchy. How do we pay attention to them at least seeking command of their own lives?”
Fundamentally, D’Arcy says it’s about “othering.” Rhaenyra is still her father’s chosen heir to ascend the Iron Throne upon his death, but years of behind-the-curtain comments about a woman taking power, coupled with attempts to stain the princess’ reputation, have blossomed into strife within the court. There are those, like Lord Corlys Velaryon (Steve Toussaint), who remember their pledges of fealty to Rhaenyra as the future queen. There are also those, like Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans), who would see a man, Aegon II Targaryen (played by Tom Glynn-Carney), Viserys’ first male child, wear the crown.
“We understand how othering works. We see it every day in 2022,” D’Arcy remarks. “Simultaneously, Miguel and Ryan and the rest of the team have created a program where you have someone who is fundamentally othered in a position of power, but you tell the story from their perspective. That feels really unusual to me. How do you convince an electorate that you’re not other? How do you do that when the whole system is built on the belief and the rule that you are not the same?”
Cooke has a similar sentiment. “Our bodies [as women] continue to be politicized,” she says. “It’s interesting playing a character that is in a medieval time and [seeing] how those things are still going on.”
At the same time, Rhaenyra is a Targaryen. You don’t want to wake the dragon. D’Arcy sees her as “humming with Targaryen fire,” which she would like, at times, to wield at certain members of the small council. It’s something she shares with Viserys, who the actor notes is similarly flawed.
“Both of them have a huge capacity for stubbornness,” D’Arcy elaborates. “They’re both terrible communicators. They both tend to recede when something is difficult or problematic, and they both do it at each other, whilst simultaneously there’s this deep love and desire for unification. So they spend a lot of time at an impasse. I really think some therapy would do worlds for their relationship because they have to verbalize, and yet neither will.”
Cooke remembers one direction Condal and Sapochnik gave her for the role of Queen Alicent: “She’s like a woman for Trump.”
“I just didn’t want to give them any more mental real estate than they already had,” the actress says of that particular family. “So I tried to find a different route into her, but I could see what they were saying with this complete indoctrination and denial of her own autonomy and rights. I just couldn’t be asked to go down that road.”
Cooke saw how Carey’s performance as the younger version of Alicent emphasized a girl sealed in King’s Landing with her father, who’s been molding his daughter into “this perfect vessel for his ascension to power.” Now that Alicent is older in episode 6, Cooke says viewers will see “how she’s been bittered and twisted over time.” She continues, “You’re seeing her struggle with her womanhood and the power that she does have to play that is completely separate from her husband or her father or even her children. And also just moralistically where she stands when she isn’t listening to her father anymore.”
Alicent may not be a Targaryen, as in she doesn’t technically have “the blood of the dragon.” But a fire remains brewing within her. Cooke believes it stems from the comparisons made between Alicent and Rhaenyra for so many years. A moment between the two in episode 4 is a poignant illustration. “How romantic it must be to get imprisoned in a castle and made to squeeze out heirs,” Rhaenyra remarks sarcastically to her friend, before quickly apologizing. “Alicent has been completely bred to breed, and to breed powerful men. That’s her only function in this life,” Cooke says. “She can tell herself that she’s going to sway and nurture and persuade in a very womanly, feminine way, but it’s all f—ing bull—-. Unless you’re fighting the men, you’ll never be heard. It’s learning to live within this straightjacket of oppression. How do I move inch by inch every single day to loosen the straps?”
Those straps are pretty loose by the time Cooke makes her debut as Alicent. As teased in a trailer with footage from House of the Dragon episode 6, the queen, as well as others, have begun to call into question the legitimacy of Rhaenyra’s children. “To have one child like that is a mistake. To have three is an insult,” Alicent tells Viserys, who responds, “The consequences of an allegation like the one you toy at would be dire.” It speaks to how Alicent, too, is a powder keg ready to explode.
“Rhaenyra can just get away with anything, and it’s so fine. The king turns a complete blind eye, whereas Alicent has always had to walk this tightrope for her whole entire life,” Cooke explains. “Just the injustice of it that she feels, until things happen and she realizes that none of it f—ing matters. She looks around her family, and they’re all f—ed up. She’s like, ‘I’ve been so perfect all my life. I haven’t taken a step wrong, and it doesn’t f—ing matter.’ I think what we see in her evolution is this complete existential crisis.”
It was important for Cooke to find that “humanitarian hook” with Alicent. The actress doesn’t want to justify some of the things she will do over the course of this series as she fights to put her son on the throne — even though she acknowledges Alicent’s own children “are all f—ing weird” and are essentially close enough in age to her that they’re almost like siblings. But Cooke wanted to understand why the queen does what she does.
“She does some f—ing despicable stuff,” she admits. “But then you’ve got to think, she’s trying to protect her son. She’s trying to uphold the patriarchy. She’s trying to uphold the legitimacy of the crown. All these things that she feels are so much bigger than she is. I think that’s why when she can’t control that, she turns to faith more as some sort of tangible element of control, because she doesn’t have any in her life whatsoever.”
It’s also about this gaping, festering wound left by Alicent’s falling out with Rhaenyra. It all comes back to these two women. Cooke muses over the idea of friendships lost. “I think it’s the first proper heartbreak, and the first only heartbreak that [Alicent’s] had, because it was such a pure love,” she says. “A lot of us have those first influential friendships that become severed at a certain point, and it’s just harrowing because there is a bit of you that breaks off. There’s so much that you don’t get closure over like you would with a romantic relationship. [Rhaenyra] was her only friend, and she’s so lonely. She’s got all these men around her that just want a piece of her, or want to use her in a specific way, but no one actually has her best interest. It’s just a really lonely existence.”
The same cannot be said for D’Arcy and Cooke. In the weeks that followed their first dinner together, the two actors would take long walks along Hampstead Heath, the massive park in London. There they would talk about everything, including how best to mentally safeguard themselves before stepping into such an internationally recognized series like Game of Thrones.
“I can’t be bothered with people being a bit nasty or saying stuff to me on the street,” Cooke notes. “I’m just too sensitive.”
“I think it helps that I really like her,” D’Arcy says of their costar. “There’s a ground there in that we are really good friends and I adore her.”
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