After eight years of donning a platinum-blonde wig to play Khaleesi, Mother of Dragons, in Game of Thrones, Emilia Clarke finally decided to make the warrior queen's trademark hairstyle her own and bleached her brunette lock.
"It was like, 'Well, it's now or never.' So I did it and it's cut [hair and makeup] time in the morning, so my 3am [wake-up] turned into 3.30am. I was like, 'Why didn't I do this eight years ago?' " the throaty English actor chuckles down the line from LA.
"It's like you're continually wearing an accessory. You're like, 'I don't need to put jewellery on, I have bright blonde hair!' "
There is a downside to her dramatic look, though. "Now I get recognised everywhere which can be a leetle tricky," says Emilia, who is lively and chatty in conversation and prone to self-deprecation.
It's ironic that Emilia waited until the final series of GoT to dye her hair to match Khaleesi's. But it's also a fitting homage to the character that not only brought her global fame, but taught her early on what it truly means to be a strong woman. "Khaleesi allowed me to be one, she allowed me to be one in my career at a young age, which is kind of unheard of – or at least it was."
Now, deep into filming the last season of the show that consumed the best part of her 20s, the 31-year-old is contemplating her post-Khaleesi future. "Ending Game of Thrones is ending 10 years of my life and that has been 10 years of blockbusters.
"That's what Game of Thrones is, it's epic and it's huge. My plan after this is to downscale."
Yet Emilia has one more blockbuster up her sleeve – Solo, the latest instalment in the Star Wars franchise, directed by Ron Howard. Set prior to the events of the original Star Wars film, it tells the story of "galactic scoundrel" Han Solo's beginnings. And once again Emilia portrays a strong woman – albeit with her natural dark-coloured hair.
Emilia plays Qi'ra, Han's childhood comrade and rumoured love interest. In true Star Wars fashion, the actor can't divulge much about her character's storyline. "What I can say is, she's a badass – obviously! She's an enigma, she's mysterious. You know she cares for Han, you know they have a relationship, but more than that, you're kind of in the world of femme fatale."
Emilia was introduced to Star Wars as a child by her adored big brother Ben. "My brother was a massive Star Wars fan, so by default I was privy to it at a very early age. I grew up watching them because of him. It was a bit like, whatever he thinks goes."
Emilia Isabelle Euphemia Rose Clarke was raised in Oxfordshire; her father a theatre sound engineer and her mother a marketing manager. She recalls an idyllic childhood spent playing in the English countryside and making fairy dens. She was a happy-go-lucky child nicknamed "Milly" who loved to entertain her family. "You could tell I was going to be an actor, put it that way!"
Emilia idolised her brother – the two are still "super close" – and was always trying to emulate him. She begged her parents to send her to the same boarding school as Ben, St Edward's in Oxford, yet ended up not particularly enjoying the experience, feeling she was too arty and not posh enough for her peers.
Growing up around her father's workplace of the theatre instilled a love for acting from a very young age. "I thought, 'Well, that's obviously the most fun anyone can have ever, so I'm going to do that!' " she says. Yet when she told her dad her ambition he responded that there was only one line she needed to learn: "Do you want fries with that?"
Undaunted, Emilia applied to a bunch of drama schools upon graduating from high school, yet was rejected by all of them. So she went backpacking around south-east Asia and India (her grandmother is half-Indian), then reapplied, finally getting into the Drama Centre London (Colin Firth and Pierce Brosnan are alumni).
After acting school Emilia gave herself a year to break into the industry, and just as her self-imposed deadline was looming, she was asked to audition for the lead role of Daenerys Targaryen (aka Khaleesi) in the HBO television adaptation of George R. R. Martin's fantasy novels.
Since landing that breakthrough role at 23, Emilia has spent seven months of every year filming GoT, 18 hours a day. Playing one of the show's most popular characters, the world has seen her naked quite a bit, a plot device she's sick of being asked to justify. As she told Rolling Stone magazine, "It doesn't stop me from being a feminist."
Game of Thrones has brought Emilia critical acclaim (she's been nominated for three Emmys), significant wealth (she reportedly stands to earn as much as £2 million ($3.6 million) an episode for the last two series) and international stardom (GoT is broadcast in more than 170 countries).
"The scope of the change that happened to me because of the show was nothing that I was expecting and will leave its mark on me forever," she says. "It has given me confidence, it has given me bloody wide open doors that were never open before.
"I will be forever grateful."
Besides GoT, Emilia is best known for starring as Lou Clark in the film version of Jojo Moyes' bestseller Me Before You, and playing Sarah Connor in Terminator Genisys. She has also appeared in "a bunch of indies that no one's watched".
As she has matured as an actor she has learnt the value of professionalism. She has eschewed the advice of her father (who tragically passed away from cancer in 2016) for that of another actress who told her the most important line she could ever know in her career was "thank you – but no". (To date, she says, she hasn't had to use it that often.)
Most importantly though, Emilia reminds herself not to take the business too seriously. "There's a lot of money, there's a lot of ego, there's a lot of stuff flying around, and if you try and keep your cool in the heat of that, and realise what's going to help you and what's going to hinder you … then you shouldn't have too hard a time."
Emilia splits her time between her homes in Hampstead in north London and Venice Beach, California. As her 17 million Instagram followers know, she's besotted with her baby godson. But for the moment she's single.
"There ain't no rush," she says, deflecting questions about marriage and babies with a singsong tone. "I'm havin' fun, life is good, everything's chill. I'm a busy bee working my tushie off. Let's see what happens. Let's see what my 30s have to offer."
As the momentous GoT chapter draws to a close, a more confident and self-assured Emilia is preparing for the next phase of her life. "I have no idea what it's going to be like," she says. "Everybody's 20s are mental, and I think in your 30s you just stress a little bit less because it feels a bit more within your grasp."
This is probably why Emilia isn't the slightest bit intimidated joining the Star Wars franchise. "You're going into something that's going to take care of you because it's already taken care of everyone who's been a part of it, and it's already gone so well," she says. "It was more exciting because I didn't have the 'oh cool' fan-dom envy; it wasn't intimidating. Also I came from Game of Thrones, so I'm used to it – to a point!"
Whatever work Emilia chooses to do next, it has to have meaning in the age of #TimesUp and #MeToo – whether it's a screwball comedy or a film with a more pointed message. "I'm looking forward to the continuation of women demanding to be heard and demanding to be seen for what they are. That's really exciting and exhilarating."
She goes on to say: "I'm just looking to see what it is that makes me tick now, what it is that I relate to, what it is that gets me going now, in this climate. The questions I'm asking myself when I'm reading scripts are, 'Why is someone making this movie now, where's the relevance?' and that's going to be a narrative throughout the rest of my career choices."
Solo: A Star Wars Story opens in cinemas on Thursday.
Cosima Marriner is a Sun-Herald senior writer
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