Olivia Cooke has been working as an actor for years, but her highest-profile job came in 2022 when she played Alicent Hightower on House of the Dragon, HBO’s Game of Thrones prequel series. Her Alicent is conniving and ambitious, but also tender and wounded. And a lot of that complexity comes from Cooke herself.
“Whatever layers I try to give the character in order to make a more nuanced performance—ultimately, it’s not going to please everyone,” Cooke said on the In The Envelope podcast for Backstage. “But that’s just what I have to do in order to give a decent, honest performance: I have to imbue it with just things that justify the characters, actions, and emotions. And those might not necessarily be in the original text—or even in the scripts.”
And make no mistake: Cooke and her costars are giving their alls for these roles. If you thought watching her and Emma D’Arcy (Rhaenyra Targaryen) go at it with a knife between them in “Driftmark” was intense to watch, it was that much worse to film. “By day five, Emma and I were setting up for a close shot of a knife and Emma’s eye, and we were just in hysterics,” she said. “We had lost the plot and just could not keep it together. We were so tired. We had nothing left. I was drinking so much water, because I couldn’t cry anymore. I was so dehydrated. It’s just madness, a lot of that. That was our first big emotional scene that lasted over a few days, and we were both like, ‘Oh, fuck, this job is going to require a lot of stamina.’”
Olivia Cooke doesn’t read Twitter chatter about House of the Dragon…anymore
So Cooke puts a lot of herself into this part. But there are other people offering advice, including tons of fans on Twitter. But their feedback can be unreliable at best, as Cooke learned when she took a peek at Twitter as the episodes started to air.
“It’s like your phone is screaming at you,” Cooke said. “There are a lot of opinions and a lot to take in. Realistically, it’s mostly positive. But there are these really gross and flamboyantly evil Tweets that do just reverberate around your mind…. It’s only then when you’re like: Oh, my God, maybe this anonymous person who sent this Tweet is right, not the person who spent two years thinking about the character.”
To look at that stuff, you’re inviting it in. So you must shut that door in order to do your job. And the people you need to invite in, when it comes to this character in this story, are George R.R. Martin, Ryan Condal and [writer] Sara Hess, and our amazing directors Clare Kilner and Geeta Vasant Patel. Those are the people you want to believe and trust, because you can’t really go along with Twitter fan fiction.
There are people on social media who have good ideas, but also a lot who are just venting, and as a third party I can imagine it being very hard to distinguish one from the other, or hard to find one in the midst of the other. At the end of the day, unplugging is probably the best option.
Olivia Cooke on what Alicent was feeling while facing down the dragon Meraxes
One of the most explosive moments of the season came when Rhaenys Targaryen mounted her dragon Meraxes and interrupted the coronation of Aegon II Targaryen, Alicent’s son. Alicent threw herself in front of the dragon…although on set, Olivia Cooke was facing down a whole lot of nothing.
“In reality, you’re being blown to bits by a big wind machine,” Cooke said. “There’s dust and dirt just kicking back up in your face. You’re looking at a tennis ball. So you really have to almost roll your eyes into the back of your imagination and go somewhere else.”
Thankfully, that physicality of trying to put myself between Aegon and Rhaenys helped. All Alicent can think about is: We’re dead, we’re dead, we’re dead. And maybe putting myself in front of my son will char him a bit less, but ultimately, we’re absolutely incinerated. And especially for them, who have grown up around dragons their whole lives, but as Hightowers, they can’t ride them—Alicent has always been a bit fearful of the dragons. To put yourself in front of the beast in order to protect your son is just another show of this stupid, undying love she has for this just absolute miscreant.
Expect new episodes of House of the Dragon to come along in 2024.