How Emilia Clarke Picked Herself Up From the Ashes and Reclaimed Her Life

The Game of Thrones star capped her time with the series with a big revelation and a fourth Emmy nomination

By Chris Harnick Sep 18, 2019 11:00 AMTags
Watch: Emilia Clarke: "Khaleesi, Mother of Dragons Saved My Life"

The ride Emilia Clarke has been on for the last 10 years while making Game of Thrones was quite wild, and we're not referring to the dragons she rode through the skies on as Daenerys Targaryen. Clarke, who is up for her fourth Emmy for playing the complicated character, capped the final season of Game of Thrones by revealing an extremely personal health battle and taking everything the show threw at her character in stride.

There's no secret the final season of Game of Thrones was divisive amongst fans, especially regarding the turn Clarke's character took throughout the six episodes. The character, who believed she was destined to rule Westeros no matter the cost, ended up as the Mad Queen, terrorizing and killing thousands of innocents in King's Landing. Her actions were dissected by fans and critics who decried the twist.

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Some fans even petitioned to have HBO redo the final season with new writers. That's not going to happen. And at the end of the day (or series) Dany met her maker at the hands of her once-trusted lover/nephew, Jon Snow (Kit Harington), and her body was carried off by her last remaining dragon. The ending didn't sit well with many viewers. And it left the Emmy nominee flabbergasted.

Helen Sloan/HBO

"What, what, what, WHAT!?" Clarke told EW about her thought process after reading the ending. "Because it comes out of f—king nowhere. I'm flabbergasted. Absolutely never saw that coming."

After she read her final scene, she got up and went outside. "I walked out of the house and took my keys and phone and walked back with blisters on my feet. I didn't come back for five hours," Clarke said. "I'm like, ‘How am I going to do this?'"

But she did it. And wrapping up Daenerys Targaryen was an emotional experience for her.

"I mean, as an actor, as a schmaltzy actor, I believe that every character that you play, they kind of stay in you a little bit, you keep them with you. But yeah, Khaleesi it's like another limb. She's just so much a part of who I am," Clarke told E! News at the final season premiere in New York City.

"The fans have, like, given me an identity that I didn't have," an emotional Clarke said in a farewell video posted by HBO.

In addition to jump-starting her career, Clarke credits the show with saving her life.

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The actress revealed she had two brain aneurysms during the course of the show. The first happened in 2011 shortly after she finished work on season one. Clarke revealed her health battle in an essay in The New Yorker where she detailed the experiences and revealed her work with a charity, SameYou, which she said, "aims to provide treatment for people recovering from brain injuries and stroke."

Clarke told E! News she hoped her story could do what the show and character did for her, save and help at least one person who was also dealing with a traumatic brain injury.

"It saved my life, literally. The entire show, the family that is a part of this show, and the show itself, saved me, and Khalessi, mother of dragons, saved my life for sure," she told E! News.

During an appearance on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Clarke told the talk show host that she ran the Dothraki lines in her head in an effort to keep her brain active during the hemorrhage. But after her two aneurysms, Clarke said she became "petrified most of the time." That changed eventually.

"But then at some point you start to realize how lucky you are…and the perspective that gives you is enormous, and then that is for the rest of your life, you're lucky, you don't know how lucky you are," she said.

When Game of Thrones started, Clarke had a smattering of credits, but nothing nearly as big as an HBO series. Back in 2011, Clarke recalled she was excited to kick off the publicity tour, but scared at the same time.

"The show's creators, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, have said that my character is a blend of Napoleon, Joan of Arc, and Lawrence of Arabia. And yet, in the weeks after we finished shooting the first season, despite all the looming excitement of a publicity campaign and the series premiere, I hardly felt like a conquering spirit. I was terrified," she wrote in The New Yorker. "Terrified of the attention, terrified of a business I barely understood, terrified of trying to make good on the faith that the creators of Thrones had put in me. I felt, in every way, exposed. In the very first episode, I appeared naked, and, from that first press junket onward, I always got the same question: some variation of, ‘You play such a strong woman, and yet you take off your clothes. Why?' In my head, I'd respond, ‘How many men do I need to kill to prove myself?'

It's a question that continued to haunt Clarke. During an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Clarke said she didn't want to do projects with sequels and her potential involvement in Fifty Shades of Grey came up.


"Well, Sam [Taylor-Johnson, the director] is a magician. I love her, and I thought her vision was beautiful," Clarke said about the film series. "But the last time that I was naked on camera on [Game of Thrones] was a long time ago, and yet it is the only question that I ever get asked because I am a woman. And it's annoying as hell and I'm sick and tired of it because I did it for the character — I didn't do it so some guy could check out my tits, for God's sake.

"So, that coming up, I was like, ‘I can't,'" she continued about Fifty Shades. "I did a minimal amount and I'm pigeonholed for life, so me saying yes to that, where the entire thing is about sensuality and sex and being naked and all of that stuff, I was just like, ‘No way am I going to voluntarily walk into that situation and then never be able to look someone in the eye and be like, 'No, you can't keep asking me this question.'"

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With Thrones—and nudity behind her—and her health battle out there, Clarke is moving on.

"I've been lying about [her brain injuries] for a number of years. Every time anyone was like, ‘Where do you get your strength?' I'm like, ‘Heavens, I have no idea.' But [my character] and I grew together and, it's corny as hell, but she saved my life. The main thing that happens after you've had a brain injury — paralysis and all of that aside — is that you have fatigue, which sounds like a fancy way of saying you're tired, but it's debilitating to the point of demoralizing," Clarke told THR. "And you can't look someone in the eye because it brings up shame. Most people don't have the mother of dragons' shoes to walk in to help them get out of it, and those are the people I speak to now. But for me, the show must go on, so you get back in those shoes and Khaleesi's killing all the masters, speaking to 300 people in a language that's not real and having sex with Kit Harington.

"It literally forced me awake again and to look someone in the eye because I had to. It's been an unbelievable blessing. And I'm so lucky to have my cognitive skills — there is a bit of my brain that's died and we don't know what it is, but it's probably my taste in men," she said with a laugh.

Watch E! News tonight at 7 p.m. for a recap of the biggest moments from the 2019 Emmy Awards!