Daenerys Targaryen star on powering through season 2 during a secret health struggle: "I had the Willy Wonka golden ticket. I wasn’t about to hand that in."

By James Hibberd
October 01, 2020 at 11:03 AM EDT
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Emilia Clarke wasn't feeling well.

It was September 2012. Game of Thrones was filming an intense season 2 scene in a sun-drenched quarry in Croatia. Clarke was in costume as Daenerys Targaryen, standing before the towering Gates of Qarth, demanding the city's leaders provide refuge to her and the tattered remains of her weary khalasar. "Turn us away and we will burn you first!" she warned.

As usual when playing the character, Clarke's long, dark hair was smushed into a bald cap glued onto her head, and then a tight blond wig was affixed on top of that. Standing in the intense heat, hour after hour, Clarke felt like her skull was baking. Later, the actress bowed out of a scheduled interview due to “heatstroke.” As Clarke cheerfully explained later that week, “Oh, the other day? I just had a bit of a ‘can’t cope with the heat’ moment. . . .”

Credit: Paul Schiraldi/HBO

Clarke wouldn’t reveal the deeper and far more serious reason for her exhaustion for another eight years. After filming Thrones season one, the acclaimed Thrones star had suffered a brain hemorrhage at a gym in London. “I immediately felt as though an elastic band were squeezing my brain,” Clarke wrote in The New Yorker. As she was rushed to the hospital, Clarke recalled lines of Daenerys Targaryen’s dialogue to try to calm herself. The actress underwent emergency surgery and for several days couldn’t even remember her own name, let alone speeches in Dothraki.

Somehow, just weeks later, Clarke returned to work on Thrones despite still having a second growth on her brain that a doctor said might— in theory, though it was unlikely—“pop at any time.”

Day after day on set, Clarke continued to deliver her usual ferocious performance as Daenerys Targaryen without giving any indication of her fatigue, fear, and pain. Only a few people who worked on the show had any idea what the actress was really going through.

In my upcoming book, Fire Cannot Kill a Dragon, Clarke and others recounted what it was like on the set after the actress experienced a traumatic injury that would have completely sidelined so many others.

EMILIA CLARKE (Daenerys Targaryen): It was crazy intense. We are in the desert in a quarry in like ninety-degree heat, and I had the consistent fear that I was going to have another brain hemorrhage. I spent a lot time just being like: “Am I gonna die? Is that gonna happen on set? Because that would be really inconvenient.” And with any kind of brain injury it leaves you with a fatigue that’s indescribable. I was trying so hard to keep it under wraps.

BRYAN COGMAN (co-executive producer): Only a very select few people knew about that. I was completely unaware. I heard a little bit that she had some problems between seasons, but nothing to that extent. And I had no clue while we were shooting.

ALAN TAYLOR (director): We were afraid for her. She’s so brave, because it never affected her commitment to the work.

EMILIA CLARKE: If I had called my doctor, he would have been like, “Dude, you just need to chill out.” But I still felt blind fear, and the fear was making me panic, and the panic was leading me to feel like I’m going to pass out in the desert. So they brought in an air-conditioned car for me—sorry, planet.

DAN WEISS (showrunner): It was terrifying because this amazing, sweet, wonderful human being came this close to not being around anymore— this person we loved so much after just one year. Obviously you need to make the show, but the important thing was making sure she was in a safe situation. You ask yourself: Is she as safe doing this show as if she was not doing it? If she was home sitting on her couch? She was so gung-ho, the main thing for us was making sure she wouldn’t put herself [in dangerous situations]. She would say: “Yeah, I just had brain surgery and if I need to gallop on a horse down a mountainside, I’ll do it.” You would have to tell her no because she would never say no.

EMILIA CLARKE: In all of my years on the show, I never put self-health first, which is probably why everyone else was worrying, as they could see that. They didn’t want to work me too hard. I was like: “Don’t think I’m a failure; don’t think I can’t do the job that I’ve been hired to do. Please don’t think I’m going to f--k up at any moment.” I had the Willy Wonka golden ticket. I wasn’t about to hand that in.

Fire Cannot Kill a Dragon – the complete uncensored story of making Thrones – is released Tuesday, Oct. 6 and available for preorder.

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