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If you happen to be worried about getting older, Olivia Cooke is an excellent friend to have. She’s repeating the pep talk that she recently gave to a friend who was “panicking” about ageing another year: “32 is the new 22 – it really is,” she declares over a mid-afternoon pot of English breakfast tea. And, at 31 myself, I’m glad to let her finish the thought. “You wouldn’t pay to go back to 22,” she continues, with feeling. “Well, I wouldn’t.”

Cooke herself is nearly three months away from turning 29. But more than racing towards milestones she says she and her friends are regressing. She’s just got back from a holiday in Sicily. Before that, Edinburgh for the Fringe festival. Before that, the desert. (“A few days to dry out,” she captioned the party pictures on Instagram. “Lol kidding.”) She seems reassured when I tell her my summer has been much the same. “We’re going out more, we’re drinking more,” she says. “It’s escapism, isn’t it? With everything going on in the world, the future feels so uncertain.”

Quarter-life crises are the lot of our millennial generation, but Cooke in particular could be on the cusp of major change. When we meet, she is just weeks out from the biggest and brightest spotlight of her career: a meaty part in Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon, one of the most hotly anticipated television series in history.

From episode six on, Cooke plays Alicent Hightower, the daughter of King Viserys I Targaryen’s righthand man and a keen political operator in her own right. Cooke landed the role in October 2020, after an exhaustive and highly secretive audition process over Zoom. Until then, she’d not even seen Game of Thrones, which she chalks up to a contrarian streak. “I resist things that are popular,” she says, “but to my own detriment, because it’s really fucking good.”

I’ve caught Cooke in the halcyon period (“luscious”, she calls it, her Mancunian vowels no less round for her years in North America) between finishing press and before the scrutiny turns on her.

‘I’m always trying to escape the last thing I’ve done’: Olivia Cooke wears blue leather dress and rollneck by Photograph: Simon Emmett/The Observer

During 10 years as an actor, Cooke has built a career of remarkable diversity and consistent quality, showing herself to be as capable in Spielberg-scale theatre-fillers (Ready Player One) as Sundance sleepers (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl). Often she’ll move from one genre to another – horror in The Quiet Ones, comedy in Thoroughbreds – and between big and small screens. She has the endurance for five seasons of Bates Motel, and the shine to carry a miniseries like ITV’s Vanity Fair. Sound of Metal, in which she starred alongside Oscar-nominated Riz Ahmed, showed off her powers of transformation, her performance as a wounded, intense metal singer singled out for praise.

Cooke learned to play guitar and metal-scream for that role – evidence, she says, that she’s “a bit of a masochist”. She goes on: “I feel like I’m always trying to escape the last thing I’ve done, and go for its antithesis. I get bored quite easily, and bored of myself… It’s just me trying to learn and be curious, but also pique my interest as much as anyone else’s.”

The upshot of this desire to subvert expectations is that Cooke’s career has not yet coalesced into celebrity. When House of the Dragon came her way in early 2020, Cooke had just settled into what she describes as a “sweet spot.” She’d returned to London after many years living in New York, fallen back in with her old friends, largely shaken off the anxieties and insecurities that had plagued her since her early 20s. The pause enforced by the pandemic was “a tonic”, she admits. “Being in London, I just felt like I’d come home.”

The Game of Thrones behemoth threatens to disturb this new-found peace, in being the focal point of “so many opinions”, says Cooke, humorously rolling her eyes. “When I was auditioning, I was definitely like: ‘I don’t know if this is what I want for my life.’ But then I got to see the first two scripts, and it was good.”

Alicent is an unabashed agent of the patriarchy, “an incubator who’s been indoctrinated to be fine with it, and to know her place within the court,” Cooke says. “But that’s not to say that she’s not got agency, or power and intelligence – it’s just a really interesting amalgamation.”

But the clincher was that Cooke would be able to stay put in London – House of the Dragon was shot on Warner Brothers’ brand-new digital production stage in Watford. “It felt really alluring, just being in one place for a year.” When, after three months, she learned that she’d landed the part, she says: “It felt amazing. But then also, obviously – oh my God.” Her brown eyes, already big, widen. “Is my life about to change in a really scary way? And: what have I done?”

House of the Dragon is set to be Cooke’s biggest-ever audience. The first episode reached more than 4m people, more than the 2011 premiere of Game of Thrones. It could make Cooke a star, I suggest. “Yeah, as I become a huge, massive celeb,” she scoffs. “As I become Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson…” She pauses. “I’ve worked for a decade and I’ve done what I thought – or what everyone told me – would be the thing, and still managed to live very anonymously.”

At least for now, Cooke escapes attention at places like this east London café not far from her home, where we’ve met on a muggy Friday afternoon. She is friendly and familiar, greeting me with a hug and full of apology for being a few minutes late and “slightly sweaty”. In fact she strikes me as effortlessly put together, wearing a loose vintage-looking shirt with jeans, drop pearl earrings and red patent boots: every bit the London cool girl.

‘I just feel so solid in who I am… Weirdly, the older I get, the younger I feel’: Olivia Cooke with Tom Bateman in Vanity Fair.
‘I just feel so solid in who I am… Weirdly, the older I get, the younger I feel’: Olivia Cooke with Tom Bateman in Vanity Fair. Photograph: TCD/Alamy

Her manner, though, seems essentially of the North: quick to laugh, self-effacing, with a strong caretaking instinct that shows itself when I ask that we move to a quieter table (and again when I confess to having had three coffees: “Oh, really? Do you want something to eat? No? You’re OK?”) Often, over the course of our 90 minutes, I have to steer Cooke off the subject of me and back on to her. “I love asking questions and finding out about people,” she says. “I could natter and natter for hours.”

It’s the focus on her that Cooke struggles with, even claiming to dissociate on red carpets. “I find it really zapping of my energy,” she says, apologetically. “I just hate the person I become on these things – so amped up with adrenaline, and so shouty. But then I also feel like I’m being so annoyingly self-deprecating, because I don’t want them to think like I’m full of myself… I feel like I’m just too aware of what’s going on and also trying to distance myself at it at the same time.”

In fact, she insists, her life has changed less than you might think of the journey from Manchester to Westeros. Cooke grew up in Oldham, Greater Manchester, the eldest daughter of a sales rep and a retired police officer. Her parents split when she was six years old and her sister Eleanor was six months, after which they lived with their mother. Her parents didn’t understand her early ambition to act, she says, but they were supportive. Now Cooke’s mum in particular gets a kick out of her daughter, the Hollywood actor. Cooke describes fondly the corkboard tallying her achievements and the helpful suggestions of A-listers she might like to date. “Just anyone who came up on the TV that she found remotely attractive: ‘What about ’im?’”

From the age of eight, Cooke attended the Oldham Theatre Workshop, a local drama programme with a proven record of nurturing talent, where she met many of the actors who form her close-knit London crew today. One, Sam Glen (ex-Coronation Street), helped her land an agent when she was 14. Not long afterwards – Cooke grimaces to remember – they were going out clubbing in Manchester, getting into 42’s and The Gay Village with fake IDs and “just causing havoc”.

What kind of havoc, I ask. Cooke is a bit shamefaced. “Drinking in the street, the park, the occasional police chase…”

When, at 18, she was offered a part in the 2012 BBC miniseries Blackout, alongside Christopher Eccleston, she dropped out of school before finishing her A-levels. “My mum was a bit worried… but I knew what I wanted, even then.” Bates Motel seemed to signal the big time, calling Cooke to Canada for five seasons from 2013 to 2017. She credits Oscar-nominated Vera Farmiga with impressing on her the value of preparation to allow for presence of mind on set. “She had the role in her bones,” Cooke says, with awe.

Still now, Cooke puts the hours into understanding her characters’ motivations, mastering their accents, liaising with wardrobe. (It was her idea to bleach her character’s eyebrows in Sound of Metal.) “Just to do all the work before is so freeing,” she says. But it also betrays a baseline anxiety about wanting to do good work – and some aspects of the industry, Cooke found she couldn’t prepare for.

“I’m so grateful for that job, but I had a really tough time on it,” she says. “The way the schedule worked, we all had different storylines, so a lot of my time was spent in this apartment in Vancouver, working once every two weeks.” It was as grim as it sounds, says Cooke; and, being below the legal drinking age, she struggled to meet people.

Hotly anticipated: Olivia Cooke in House of the Dragon.
Hotly anticipated: Olivia Cooke in House of the Dragon. Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy

She had always been inclined to melancholy: one of her earliest memories was being struck by another child’s claim to be feeling 100%. “I literally thought, as an eight-year-old: I don’t think I’ve ever been 100%.” Isolated and far from home, with the stakes for her career feeling sky-high, Cooke became depressed. “It was a big old lovely cocktail: being homesick and not knowing it, having not stopped since I was 18, being on my own for large swathes of time.”

Her response was to throw herself further into her work. In 2016, when she was 22, Cooke had what she terms a “full mental breakdown”. She winces at the recollection. “It was bad, bad. Awful, actually.” I express surprise – there’s no break in her filmography. “Oh, no, I was working all the way through,” she says, with a rueful laugh. “I was very good at hiding it.”

At the time, Cooke was shooting Ready Player One and also Thoroughbreds, welcome distractions from her own unhappiness (especially the latter, she jokes drily: she plays a sociopath with no emotions). “If anything, I was like, let me escape myself.”

She has never struggled to advocate for herself on set. “I’ve always been quite protective of myself and known my limits,” she says, “and known if someone was taking the piss. And no one else is going to say it, usually.” For other people, I point out, that would be a reason to keep schtum. “If it happens more than twice, then I speak up,” she says.

But if work was Cooke’s refuge it was no match for the outside world. As an outspoken leftist and feminist, she felt keenly the double shock of Brexit and Trump.

Cooke was living in New York at the time, having moved to be with then-boyfriend Christopher Abbott (Charlie from Girls), and remembers going to a protest outside Trump’s hotel. “So stupid,” she says, shaking her head, half-amused, half-vexed by her naivety. “I was like: ‘Wow, my rights aren’t a given, it’s 2016, and I’m still not seen as an equal… and I’m a white woman, so I’m still leaps and bounds ahead of others.’ It was just so, so bleak.”

Six years later, Cooke notes grimly, some of the horrors inflicted on women in House of the Dragon are far from fantastical in the US. “Children having children: I didn’t realise how topical it would become, with Roe v Wade.”

It’s hard to separate our generation’s mental health from our experience of politics, I suggest. “You still have to care,” Cooke says. “But there’s a strange numbness that comes with each political blow.”

‘I’ve always been quite protective of myself’: Olivia Cooke wears roll neck and dress by
‘I’ve always been quite protective of myself’: Olivia Cooke wears roll neck and dress by Photograph: Simon Emmett/The Observer

Cooke’s mental health got better with time – but it wasn’t until 2019 that she started to have consecutive days free from “the incessant, persistent, anxious thoughts”. Meanwhile, New York’s appeal started to fade. She missed British TV (The Vicar of Dibley is her comfort viewing), black humour and being around people who understood she wasn’t “Scottish, or neighbours with the Queen”.

When she and Abbott broke up just before the pandemic, it was “another reason to come home”, she says. “What was really healing was moving back to London.”

Many people are feeling bleak about broken Britain at the moment, I say. “Well, I think because I left America I was like: ‘This is glorious!’” Cooke points out, laughing.

Now the energy crisis and the cost of living has taken the sheen off life in the UK, she agrees. “I’m having conversations with my sister and my mum, and of course I will always help them out – but, yes, it is just fucking bleak. It’s awful.”

At the same time, Cooke’s past experience has taught her to seek out happiness, and even peace, wherever she can. More than the bandage-dresses and “paralytic” drinking of her early 20s, she says, she regrets taking herself so seriously. “I just had to grow up so quickly–: I was the only person taking care of me.” She sighs. “Now I wish that I could go back and just be like: God, relax.” Hence the regression this summer. “I feel like I’m reliving my early 20s.” Except this time, she adds, “I just feel so solid in who I am… Weirdly, the older I get, the younger I feel.”

Now Cooke has boundaries around work, and other ambitions. She would like to live in Europe, perhaps Amsterdam, “to broaden my horizons a little bit” – but her alternative path takes me by surprise. “More and more, I think I’ve wanted to have a family,” Cooke says slowly, as though only now admitting it to herself. “But that’s literally just been in the last couple of months… Just seeing how my sister is with her little boy, who is amazing, but also a savage – how she’s grown, and that love that she has.”

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I mention 25-year-old Euphoria actor Sydney Sweeney’s recent comment that she couldn’t afford to take time off to become a mother. “Oh, economically, I’ve never thought about it,” she says, self-mockingly. “I’m just like: ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to have someone who loves you?’ Right now, family is the goal, but I’m so contrary.”

She declines to say whether she’s currently in a relationship now (“because I’ve done that before, and then it breaks up”), but does admit to sliding into celebrities’ Instagram DMs during lockdown in 2020 – and getting no replies. I’m outraged on her behalf – then press for names.

“Absolutely not,” says Cooke, instantly. “Bless you for asking. If I was drunk, I would tell you. It’s embarrassing, pathetic really, that I thought I had a chance.”

But for the moment, Cooke says, she loves her life as it is: “I’m quite content, for the first time in years.”

It would be a shame if something were to change it dramatically, I say, meaningfully. Cooke groans. “I mean, who knows? You can’t really predict. But my life is really normal, and I just can’t see that changing.”

The café is closing around us and Cooke has a train to catch to Cardiff, for another no doubt boozy weekend with friends. She walks me to the pedestrian crossing, gives me another hug, then disappears down a side street – striding in her red boots, confident there’s no place like home.

House of the Dragon is on Mondays on Sky Atlantic and NOW

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