Olivia Cooke and Emma D’Arcy: ‘Dragon’ ladies disrupted by patriarchy
We’re starting to feel some withdrawal symptoms as the excitement for the last two episodes of “House of the Dragon” Season 1 intensifies. The 10-part pilot season largely owes its cohesive appeal to the scorching generational war at the center of its tale, but it’s the sort of success that is also clearly a triumph of clever casting choices.
Even Matt Smith (Daemon Targaryen) and Fabien Frankel (Ser Criston Cole) readily commended the production’s casting process and how it had helped turn the acclaimed series—which currently has an 87 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes—into a more relatable, believable and immersive experience for viewers.
Keeping the stakes as high as the Hand’s (Rhys Ifans) self-serving ambition is the love-hate relationship shared by Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen (Milly Alcock and Emma D’Arcy) and her best friend-turned-stepmother Alicent Hightower (Emily Carey and Olivia Cooke).
‘Greatest casting directors’
“Firstly, Nina Gold, who cast ‘Game of Thrones,’ is one of the greatest casting directors in the world. The eye that she has for it is pretty amazing,” noted Matt during our interview with him and Fabien. “Similarly, ‘House of the Dragon’ also has a wonderful casting director in Kate Rhodes James. I think this show has been cast beautifully.”
Chiming in, Fabien said, “I couldn’t agree more. The pairing of Emma Darcy and Millie Alcock as Rhaenyra is a stroke of genius. And the young cast members who are coming through, like Tom Glynn-Carney (King Aegon II) and Phia Saban (Queen Helaena), are exceptional actors. I think they’re going to be this generation’s stars.”
In a separate interview, Emma and Olivia acknowledged that an actor’s skill would be nothing without a good story or an intriguing conflict that sows seeds of intrigue and dissention.
“This story of strong women and friends who end up warring with each other is fundamentally the reason we’re here,” Emma said. “It was a great reason to return to Westeros. The show is built around the friendship shared by two incredibly smart women who are disrupted by patriarchy.
“In a patriarchy, the way that you continue to control women is to drive a wedge between them and pit them against each other. Over the course of the series, they try to find some sort of reunification in spite of the structure that’s trying to divide them.”
For Emma, who uses the pronouns they/them, Rhaenyra’s gender-related struggles were something she could readily relate to. Even as a nonbinary, there was something that instantly forged her connection with the embattled princess.
“Rhaenyra is a person who feels at odds with the way she is being read by the world,” mused Emma. “The power that is bestowed on her is also at odds with the agency that is afforded her—and that’s certainly as a result of gender. She’s hyper aware of the gender dynamics.
“Rhaenyra has this incredible similarity and familiarity with her uncle [Daemon]. They’re really similar people, yet the rules are applied completely and differently. As a result, she’s constantly trying to seize masculine privilege and a masculine freedom in any format that might be available, because she craves greater access. Yeah, I’m interested in those questions.”
The series tackles subject matter with universal appeal. On one hand, it seems like a classical Shakespearean drama, and on the other, it feels very modern… like birth and pregnancy, or misogyny in the world of power.
“As far as themes are concerned, I think one of the highlights is about female leadership… or lack of it,” Emma said. “One question that the show posits is, if you’re a woman looking to rule, how do you convince an electorate—or its male subjects—that you’re not [any different from them]? I feel like that would be an incredibly pertinent question. Another important issue would be that of a woman’s right to body autonomy—that’s 100 absolutely relevant!
Quickly interjecting, Olivia said, “Or about women being forced to breed at age 14—and it doesn’t matter if she dies! It’s just weird. When we embarked on this, we didn’t realize just how pertinent the show would be…”
Emma agreed, “It’s even more relevant now than it did when we first read the script.”
Our Q&A with Olivia and Emma:
Did you feel you had to be in sync with the portrayals of the actresses who play your characters’ younger counterparts, Emily Carey and Millie Alcock?
Olivia: No, it was actually quite lovely. You know, you think back to yourself at 14 and you know you were a completely different person. We both didn’t want to impose anything on to them. They’ve been cast for a reason… because they’re amazing actors. And they service the younger versions of these roles beautifully. Also, what do we know? They also had to go through a process. Emma: And it was really magical when we finally saw the first episode. It was a bit like watching home videos. You’re finally seeing them. And you feel deep familiarity with that person while also feeling distinctly different.
Did you feel particularly anxious in terms of viewers’ expectations, given the incredible success that “Game of Thrones” had enjoyed in previous years?
Olivia: Yeah, incredibly anxious…
Emma: And deeply insecure…
Olivia: It’s a funny one, isn’t it? Because we were doing this and exposing ourselves to opinions and to these questions, where we have to think more deeply about how we actually feel. I think we’re doing a very good job at avoiding that.
Emma: But we’re getting better at it. Who knows? All this worry might be for nothing.
The families in “House of the Dragon” and “Game of Thrones” are multigenerational. How much of that did you take in? Can you keep all of them straight in your head, or does it occasionally get confusing?
Olivia: There was a big scene where all of us were together towards the end of filming, and I literally turned around to Phia, who plays my daughter Helaena, and whispered to her, “Which of these children are mine (laughs)?”
Emma: Broadly, at least in Season 1, we start in a more focused way. The story is essentially between three families: The Hightowers, the Targaryens and the Velaryons. We sort of start in the Targaryen family home, which I think is a generous entry point. Maybe that’s a lesson learned from “Game of Thrones” in terms of how that helps actors [keep track of these things].
It certainly was helpful to me as an actor to get that generous introduction before we started moving away from that part of the story.
Emma, what was it like filming the dragon scenes?
Emma: I was actually quite late to the party for some reason. When I finally turned up for my buck work, I was in quite a bad mood (laughs). Nothing terrible, it was just one of those mornings. So, how it works is like, you’ve got this animatronic buck, which elevates me in the air. The director has a miniature version of the same thing and he can physically manipulate a flight path. Then, that movement is replicated on the full-sized buck. It’s unbelievable! Honestly, it was incredibly fun. Like, all the acting I really had to do was just manually wipe the grin off my face (laughs). Yeah, it was really just playful, imaginative work. Because you’re trying to perform that you’re the one guiding this thing. And when you get that, you feel effing fantastic. It makes you feel powerful.
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