Ten episode dramas, usually sixty minutes in length, give their actors time to unfold the characters they’re portraying, plenty of time to become acquainted with the people they become when the wigs are on, the make-up is applied and the camera is rolling. Some series, however, move quickly and do not offer that luxury to every performer working on the show. The first season of House of the Dragon is this way, the first five episodes laying groundwork and history to be told in the last half of the season by older actors that play the older versions of these characters. Rhaenyra Targaryen, who is usurped from her birthright in the final episode of the first season, is one such character played by two talented performers that bring a full dimensionality to her.
House of the Dragon follows the goings-on of the Targaryen family before and after the death of the current king, Viserys, and the ongoing strife and conflict in the family that comes to a head upon his death. His daughter, Rhaenyra, is portrayed by Milly Alcock and Emma D’Arcy for the teenage and adult versions, respectively. While Alcock does fantastic work granting audiences into Rhaenyra’s inner machinations, D’Arcy ends the season and will (presumably) play Rhaenyra for the remainder of the series. D’Arcy comes in during the sixth episode, which follows a leap in time to the characters as they’ve grown old. D’Arcy seems to have pinpointed their thoughts on Rhaenyra; the performance is so precise that small moments on their face speak volumes about the eldest Targaryen daughter’s thoughts. As the first season of HBO’s drama ended, audiences were shown the cold rage that will now seep from Rhaenyra’s every pore after losing her child, leading into a second season that promises violence (and of course fire & blood).
I spoke to D’Arcy about their role in the series, what their greatest help in accessing the character is, the wigs on the series, and their thoughts on the ongoing discussion of gender-neutral performance categories at the Emmys.
Tyler Doster: How did it feel walking onto the set for the first time, halfway through the season, and taking over the reins of this character?
Emma D’Arcy: Yeah, good question. I mean, an unromantic answer starts with the fact that we obviously shot out of order, and so we actually started shooting with episode seven, which for me felt like a real gift because it allowed me and Liv [Cooke] a little bit of time on set together. Before the show became itself and ran one to 10… It was funny. It didn’t feel like we were taking on a baton so much as operating with a shadow self simultaneously, because normally me and Milly [Alcock] were working at the same time throughout the series, but we [would] never see each other or we’d pass in a car park. Yeah, I don’t know. It was nice. It was like living across time and you catch the back of a blonde wig and go, “that person’s very familiar.” I think in a show that speaks so much to personal history and to family and to the familial contexts that forge a person, it felt appropriate to encounter your younger self in a car park at 5:00 in the morning.
TD: How did you access Rhaenyra’s disposition? She can be so steely, but it’s so obvious she has a fierce love for the family and her loved ones.
ED: I found Rhaenyra’s journey into motherhood quite surprising. I think having feared that role so much because of the fate of her mother, because of this broad fear of incapacitation, of being displaced by the men around her. There’s this giant obstacle heading into motherhood. In fact, as a character who historically struggled to be at one with a court environment, she suddenly builds her own tribe and I actually think it does a huge amount to give her the confidence to take on her own name and stop fighting so hard with this innate fire, this Targaryen desire that’s kind of like an iron rod up her spine. Yeah. I feel like she gets birthed from the family that she creates.
TD: Is there a certain aspect of getting ready in your dressing room, the wig, the costume, or even specifically when she’s pregnant, having that [prosthetic] on; is there one certain thing that really thrusts you into getting prepared to be her that day?
ED: The wig does all the work. Wigs are amazing. They change everything about your behavior. They change how you are read and received by the world. The world outside the makeup trailer is a different one, and responds differently to the one that you left going in in the morning. It’s funny, the hair and makeup team are so extraordinary and Amanda Knight, who’s the makeup designer, says that she can watch the change. That it’s something in posture, something in my eye that changes at the end of that two hour process.
I find the area of hair and makeup and costuming so interesting. If you are wearing four skirts, you genuinely have less mobility than you do if you are wearing trousers. We talk about forms of systemic inequality. Well, there is a sort of inequality of mobility between male and female characters in this show. All of that stuff literally acts on your body, I think. Yeah, I was sort of basically pre-pregnant for 11 months, so I carried a baby to term and some. You also adopt all of this stuff. I got very used to a very different body shape I think. I felt less agile, which makes you feel more vulnerable to drastic change. You can’t respond as quickly physically, and I think that definitely does something psychological also.
TD: We spoke a little bit about the wigs, which are incredible on this show, so I have to ask: including your own, are there any wigs that really stick out to you that are your favorite that any character has worn on the show?
ED: Oh, interesting question. God, there’s a great one this year, but I won’t talk about it. I don’t really know where to start. I love Matt [Smith]’s because he is so radically altered, I guess a bit like I am. I feel like last season when we worked together a lot, we recognized each other less when we saw each other outside of work. It’s funny what happens. There’s a fractional loss because you become incredibly intimate with that blonde man and he isn’t, as it turns out. I am very fond of him. Ewan [Mitchell] is also amazing, who plays Aemond; between that and the eye patch, just like the most exquisite baddy I’ve ever seen (laughs). I just think he’s the most astonishing actor and it’s great hair.
TD: All of you have great hair on this show. It’s amazing.
ED: Honestly, the department is extraordinary and they’re handmade pieces. Yeah, it’s a wild skill.
TD: What interpersonal relationship dynamic that Rhaenyra has is most interesting with you when it comes to her family or Alicent Hightower? Which of those stands out to you in your process of getting into that character?
ED: I think the two key ones would be, or the two poles would be Alicent and Daemon. I think Daemon represents a lot of what Rhaenyra craves. It’s like boisterous access to this freedom. It’s like power and he commands respect. Then the other pole, I think Alicent was like the first home, I think again, in a court environment where Rhaenyra isn’t that naturally comfortable. I think Alicent was a sort of translator, a person by which Rhaenyra could sort of understand that environment and almost pass within the court. I think, ultimately, Rhaenyra has this need to be known that sits a sort of piece of slab marble in her abdomen and both Daemon and Alicent cared for that need in different ways at different points.
It’s funny, I feel like Rhaenyra is a character who really, really struggles as an autonomous agent. She actually requires at least one person to make an ultimate act of devotion in order for her to find confidence and independence. She’s ultimately stuck in a sort of longing between those poles.
TD: There’s so much we as the audience don’t see in these when we move forward through time. Do you and Olivia, and do you and Matt have discussions on the in-betweens of the history that the audience doesn’t see and the scripts don’t necessarily cover?
ED: Yeah. I think you have to, especially in the first season. We time-jumped so often that I think you have a major responsibility to fill in those gaps. Obviously in season one it was quite nice because there was a whole backstory that was literally written down for me, which was five whole episodes of it, baby! (laughs) I think that’s probably one of the most enjoyable acts of preparation as an actor is getting to chat to your colleagues and to figure it out. It gives you so much the play and it gives you so many given circumstances to draw on, I suppose.
TD: The series often discusses human connection to grief and Rhaenyra is someone who’s experienced so much of that. How do you work to translate her in the moment thoughts mixed with a lifetime of frustration that’s culminated in so much pain?
ED: I think the historic wound creates the mechanism by which everything is then received. For example, Rhaenyra doesn’t start out as the heir, so she’s this descented child like the royal family was never looking to her. As a child that gave her great freedom. Necessarily she built a personality as someone who never expected to be consequential. It all starts to fray at the point of receiving the heirdom because her understanding of herself, her identity is radically altered and down the line there’s an endless fragility then to that claim. Its ability to not exist feels so tangible I think. As a result, when she is in small ways disrespected the threat that she feels is vastly disproportionate because she knows what it is to go back to being the inconsequential child.
TD: The last moments of this season are so powerful, Rhaenyra finding out about the death of [her son] Luke. The connection you have with the camera is intense as she reaches this newfound level of rage. What was it like preparing for that scene and what was the set like that day?
ED: I was pretty nervous about that day because I suppose you’re acutely aware that you are being asked to deliver not just something on a character basis, but if I’m being real about it you’re also being asked to deliver an ending. I think I was definitely nervous, but actually, I’ve said before, the massive turning point of the morning for me when me and Matt and [director] Greg Yaitanes were talking about it was Matt’s idea to deliver the news to me as we walked away from the camera. As soon as he said that I could just see the scene.
Actually, I don’t think I’m an actor who can often picture what the monitor will see, I’m broadly able to work outside-in like that. I guess I just loved it, so I could so feel how painful it would be to be held in suspension as the news that we as an audience already know is delivered that it just clarified so much. Then I guess for the character, I was just aware that we’d seen this character wrung out multiple times, and especially in that episode, in episode 10 there’s not one mountain to climb. It’s a range. It’s a full mountain range of big tragic events.
I wanted to find a clever way of navigating that because you have to leave yourself somewhere to go and you also can’t exhaust an audience and keep asking them to respond to what you’re offering them. I guess the way I thought about it was [that] Rhaenyra, as you said, is well versed in grief. She has known loss in her life, and I think she might even consider herself an expert on that topic, knowing what it does to her body. What she doesn’t know is the new event at the end of 10 is what happens when you lose one of your children. I suppose my thinking was that what she discovers then is that it’s not only childbearing that risks the body, but that losing a grown child, losing a child in adolescence also ravishes the body, is another huge tearing and actually for her, a reeducation in grief.
TD: I think that translates in your performance. When you turn around it seems she stumbles. She almost doubles over. You can tell, even without seeing her face in that moment, you can feel the pain she’s going through.
ED: Thank you.
TD: Bella Ramsey has recently discussed their feelings about submitting themselves for the Emmys this year in gender-specific categories, while Yellowjackets actor Liv Hewson decided they were not going to submit at all because of the same. I just wanted to know if you have any thoughts about the ongoing discussion about gender-neutral categories at the Emmys?
ED: God, I find it very difficult because it’s such a divisive topic at the moment, and I just am a non-binary person who, at a certain point, has to cut out the noise and live. Yeah, I would say it’s quite a painful time to have this conversation – it doesn’t feel like there’s a lot of space for productive, generative engagement. Obviously, I would advocate for gender-neutral categories – the current award systems feel increasingly antiquated. The very fact that they are unable to adequately serve a growing number of actors indicates the need for reform. How you manage and instigate that reform, I realize, is a complex question.
TD: Understandably. What changed your life more last year? The premiere of House of the Dragon, or the meme of you saying your favorite drink?
ED: (laughs) Definitely the latter. What was great about becoming a meme was that my mom was thrilled.
ED: She was so excited. Yeah (laughs). The irony is probably that is the true answer: Negroni Sbagliato changed my life, man. Yeah. What a weird year.
TD: I’m sure that people were bombarding you with it all last year after it happened.
ED: It’s wild. I’m on menus now.
TD: You’re on menus?!
ED: Yeah. A friend of mine was in the States and they’re in a bar and on the menu was the D’Arcy, which is a Negroni Sbagliato.
TD: If you go there, do you know if you’ll get the drink for free?
ED: I have no idea. I don’t know where this is, but I’d hope so.
TD: An open investigation into where this bar is so that you can go and try this drink.
ED: Yeah, exactly.
TD: Well, thank you so much for your time today, Emma. I really appreciate it.
ED: No, no. Thank you, Tyler. It’s such a pleasure. So nice to speak to you.
Emma D’Arcy is Emmy-eligible in the category of Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for House of the Dragon.