‘We’re at war’: Eve Best trades royal dresses for battle gear

Olivia Cooke (left) as Alicent Hightower and Emma D’Arcy as Rhaenyra Targaryen —PHOTOS COURTESY OF HBO/ HBO GO

Olivia Cooke (left) as Alicent Hightower and Emma D’Arcy as Rhaenyra Targaryen —PHOTOS COURTESY OF HBO/ HBO GO

Princess Rhaenys Targaryen may not be the first character you think about when you discuss the gut-wrenching upheavals in HBO and HBO Go’s “House of the Dragon,” which launches its eagerly anticipated sophomore season today.

But the so-called Queen Who Never Was, played with as much soul-stirring grit and gravitas as endearing grace by British actress Eve Best (“The King’s Speech,” “Nurse Jackie,” “Hedda Gabler”), is certainly among the eagerly anticipated series’ most popular characters on fan faves’ lists and message boards—with good reason.

While she may appear appropriately stern or stoic as she navigates the treacherous world of Westeros, the 52-year-old Bafta-winning actress-director is endearingly more animated and obliging when she isn’t required to embody the pains and foibles of fire-breathing Meleys’ formidable “dragonrider.”In fact, we found it endearing to hear Eve getting excited—from what sounded alternately like spoken contralto to high-pitched alto—when we spoke to her in our recent one-on-one chat as we noted how the show’s episodes (we’ve seen four screeners, so far) have always played out like a Shakespearean play to us.

From its “good versus evil” premise arises intertwining tales of love, ambition, betrayal, unspeakable tragedy, the absence of poetic justice, collectively magnified by the grandeur of its supernatural elements and, as deftly demonstrated by the first episode, a deadly case of mistaken identity! What’s not to love?

“Exactly! I’m so glad you picked up on that,” the actress told us with a high pitch and a big smile. “There was one moment last season where Steve (Toussaint, who plays her husband Lord Corlys Velaryon) and I were doing a scene together. I think it was just after Viserys (Paddy Considine) arrived at Driftmark and we were doing this quite intense scene … and I felt I had a total flash of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth [confronting each other]. I just felt like we could have been doing that play! There was something very similar about its Shakespearean elements.”

For the uninitiated, the spinoff series takes viewers back to the saga of the Seven Kingdoms in Westeros, which took place 172 years before the birth of Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) in “Game of Thrones.”

At the heart of the Targaryens’ turbulent generational war is King Viserys (Paddy), who was chosen to succeed ailing King Jaehaerys (Michael Carter) over the Iron Throne’s rightful successor, Princess Rhaenys (Eve).Following the succession crisis brought about by the death of Viserys in the pilot season of “House of the Dragon,” the Seven Kingdoms are now torn between the Greens and the Blacks.

The Greens have consolidated their power through the coronation of Aegon II (Tom Glynn-Carney), firstborn of Queen Dowager Alicent Hightower (Olivia Cooke), at King’s Landing, while the Blacks have crowned Rhaenyra Targaryen (Emma D’Arcy), Viserys’ designated heir, at Dragonstone—with the impetuous and volatile Prince Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith) by the latter’s side.

Scene from “House of the Dragon”

Of course, in very popular or long-running series like “Game of Thrones” or “House of the Dragon,” there’s always the risk of seeing mere variations of the same elements in succeeding seasons.

Epic quality

When we asked Eve what she thought would set the second season apart from its predecessor, she said, “The scale is magnified this time around … it has that epic quality to it. Last season felt very domestic in terms of us being all together most of the time.

“We were pretty much in one place, so the focus was on the family unit. It was like an Italian Christmas Eve … a lot of it was about what went on within this extended family. There was infighting, but we were all together, so it felt much more contained.

“But this season, especially after I watched it last night, I just started to see the show’s amazing breadth and epic quality as people begin going to different places. Jace (Harry Collett) is off to Winterfell and you’re seeing all these different locations more and more, from King’s Landing to Dragonstone and beyond.

“So suddenly, everybody’s being split up. It’s that grand scale that I remember enjoying and appreciating so much about ‘Game of Thrones’ when I watched it … you see the landscape, the geography of everything being spread apart.”

Also this season, Eve said that viewers will be seeing the end of the Targaryen clan’s peaceful reign as we see widening cracks in the armor.

She explained, “There’s a lot more vulnerability [from the characters]. But something that really struck me was the fact that last season took place during a time of peace. I mean, we had a whole conversation at the beginning of last season saying that this society has known 70 years of peace. They’ve never experienced war [in their lifetime]. You see the characters interacting at the royal court, so I was always clad in dresses. Everything that was taking place was in the context of peace.

Best as Princess Rhaenys on her fire-breathing dragon Meleys’ back in the first season.

“But now, it’s like, ‘We’re at war!’ I spent the whole season pretty much in battle gear. It’s like a totally different side of Rhaenys. And I suddenly realized how much fun I was having as I began to discover more and more what my character is like when she actually has to roll up her sleeves. Her pretty dresses have come off!

“Now, Rhaenys is in full warrior mode. In fact, at the end of last season, I remember telling Ryan (Condal, ‘HOTD’ showrunner), ‘I want Rhaenys to be like a samurai next season.’ That’s how she feels now.”

Impending success

As we saw in Season 1, the beleaguered Targaryen heiress Rhaenyra has since made one crucial ally in Rhaenys, who was also passed over for the crown because of greed and gender.

When asked what her take was on women losing the Iron Throne to a man, she said, “Well, it’s annoying (laughs)! But at the same time, it’s not a surprise. If there was something I could have done differently, what I would do is educate all the women and get rid of the perception that only men can inherit the crown, so that women can be given a shot at this very cool job. I want that sort of education for everybody in Westeros.”

Fabien Frankel (left) as Ser Criston Cole and Ewan Mitchell as Prince Aemond

When we spoke to Eve and the other cast members about the Season 1 two years ago, we also discussed how the impending success of the series could impact their popularity and privacy. This time, we asked Eve if she ever gets affected by all the online noise surrounding the show? How does it feel to be famous now?

“That’s lovely to know, but I’m blissfully unaware of all that … because I’m not on social media,” she asserted, laughing. “But if people are loving it, that’s great. Perhaps that question would be more apt for actors like Matt (Smith).”

We also asked Eve how she sees herself in Princess Rhaenys, especially after inhabiting her illustrious Targaryen skin for two seasons already. What does she love about Rhaenys and Corlys?“I love them so much as characters!” she pointed out. “First of all, I love their relationship. As far as Corlys is concerned, I love his extraordinary strength and generosity and nobility and ferocity and sexiness and magnetism.

“As for Rhaenys, I love her grace and wisdom and power and wit! But I’m very envious of her in two aspects. One is her political acumen, her diplomatic skills and her savvy. I’m absolutely rubbish in that regard because I just wear my heart on my sleeve.

“Moreover, I’m not cool. Whereas Rhaenys is permanently cool! In fact, I remember last season, there was a stage direction that was in fact even in the script that said: ‘Rhannys, comma, permanently cool’ (laughs)! So I would love to have that [coolness] in my real life, you know?”

“House of the Dragon” debuts on HBO Go today. INQ