Emma D’Arcy: “I don’t need a double order of Prosecco in my Negroni Sbagliato!”
These and other serious matters of state with House of the Dragon’s breakout star, in a deep-dive discussion as the HBO drama comes to a brilliant climax. Warning: here be spoilers.
Let battle commence.
With a clash of swords and a stealing of crowns, House of the Dragon has exploded to a close. After an inflight dragon duel, Vhagar chomping Arrax in two, adolescent princeling Lucerys plunged to his death while his one-eyed, Joker-smiled uncle Aemond looked on… just a little worried. He’s a bully, for sure. But did he mean to spark all-out Targaryen civil war?
After a necessarily slow-paced first half – those fictional medieval prequel worlds don’t build themselves – House of the Dragon massively found its feet in the second five episodes. HBO’s fantasy epic, in which the action began 172 years before the birth of Daenerys Targaryen, Game of Thrones’ Mother of Dragons, became a thrilling, increasingly intense, not to mention wonkily sexual, dance between different wings of House Targaryen.
This was an internecine succession drama more brutal than, well, Succession’s internecine drama. And at House of the Dragon’s head and heart were, contrary to earlier expectations, not the throne-hungry blokes played by “name” male actors Paddy Considine, Matt Smith and Rhys Ifans.
Take a richly deserved bow, the onscreen stars of the show: Olivia Cooke, playing Queen Alicent, and Emma D’Arcy, playing Princess Rhaenyra. And of course, they’re offscreen stars, too, after that Get To Know Me video of the two friends went viral this month. In their delicious description of “a Negroni… Sbagliato… with Prosecco in it”, D’Arcy made the best use of ellipses since Colleen Rooney’s first Wagatha Christie post.
Earlier this week, the morning after the drama’s final, 10th episode broadcast in the UK to near-universal acclaim, D’Arcy graciously Zoomed in from Dragonstone somewhere in England. On the agenda: horrific birth scenes, what it’s like to ride on dragonback and House of the Dragon’s incisive exploration of the sexual politics surrounding the Iron Throne.
First, though, cocktails!
“I just want to clarify one thing, right?” begins the 30-year-old Londoner, laughing and rocking a hairstyle the same colour (white-blonde) but a different shape (sharp crop) from their character. “Because this is so embarrassing. I know that Liv knows what a Negroni is, because we drink them together a lot. But when I said ‘Sbagliato’, just to mix it up, I could see from her face she didn’t know what the difference was. So I said ‘with Prosecco in it.’”
To be clear, D’Arcy knows that “Sbagliato” means “with Prosecco in it”. It’s a drink first experienced when a bartender in their local Sardinian restaurant refused their request for a Negroni with a bit of extra tonic “because I wanted it longer. And the guy said: ‘That’s a fucking horrible idea, and sort of blasphemous. But what you can have is Negroni Sbagliato.’
“So I’m just clearing that up for the record: I don’t need a double order of Prosecco in my Negroni Sbagliato!”
Glad we’ve cleared that up! Now then, to matters …Dragon. The brilliant, wordless closing scene in last night’s final episode was a close-up on Rhaenyra’s face. We’d already watched her endure a miscarriage. Now she’s just heard from Matt Smith’s Daemon (aka her uncle-husband) about the death of her son Lucerys. What does that expression on the princess’s face tell us?
When I saw episode 10 on the page I was very… intimidated is probably the word. Because it’s not like a mountain of an episode – it’s the Alps. It’s a rock[y], mountainous landscape. And there are multiple, huge, state-shaking events. Practically, I was very aware of needing to leave oneself somewhere to go, because Rhaenyra is a character who, throughout the series, is a repeat education in grief.
However, I think the point at which she loses her adolescent son is a re-education. It tells her that she knows nothing about how grief can ravage the body.
And maybe there’s something about the tearing, the brutality, that can be done to the body in labour – that can be done again if you lose a child, either in childhood or adolescence or adulthood. So I think [that moment] is a huge reframing for her. She tries to be committed to being level and diplomatic, and complex, when it comes to these questions of the political state. So I think [she] burns in that moment.
Do we also see in her face a hint of incoming rage, and therefore the engine for series two?
I totally think so. I have to say, just because I just think it’s [a mark] of genius: it was Matt Smith who suggested that Rhaenyra received the news on the walk away from camera. As soon as he said that when we were doing an onset rehearsal, I suddenly could see it.
But that really sincere attempt towards maturity, complexity and holding all of these moving parts together – her attempt to be the glue just falls away. There is nothing left to bridge those many factions anymore.
Rhaenyra has already shown remarkable, queenly restraint in the scene around the Painted Table. All the blokes, as usual, gabbling on about war, rattling their sabres. What were your instructions in the script as to how to play that particular scene?
The text does so much of the work insofar as the dynamics were very obvious: you have a load of men telling her what she should be doing. But the thing that I came in with was: what happens if you get made CEO tomorrow? You’re just pretending, aren’t you? Speaking for myself, I’ve envied other people’s ability to pretend better than me – [their ability] to cover their imposter syndrome better than I can.
How did it feel on-set, in the moment when the crown is placed on your head?
That was a pretty amazing day, actually, for multiple reasons. One, we were up a mountain in Portugal and so you’re in this regal landscape that brings so much drama in and of itself. Secondly, I think it’s very beautiful that it’s the crown of [her father] Viserys [Considine] that gets brought. She’s receiving an heirloom at the same time as receiving a station.
And thirdly, it’s Daemon being the one to place it [on her head]. He’s making the very symbolic gesture that possibly implies that this rivalry that has been intrinsic to their relationship from very early on, is maybe at an end. Maybe he says: it’s you.
I mean, in very messed up Targaryen families there are surrogate paternal figures left, right and centre. That can happen if you marry your uncle, FYI. But! Receiving your father’s crown from your uncle-husband is a clusterfuck of familial weight.
The horrendously gruelling birth scene Rhaenyra has to go through in last night’s episode – how was that day on-set for you?
It was quite gruelling, actually. Miscarriage is a really brutal process. You basically go through labour, and then afterwards no one wants to talk about it. And I think it’s a really lonely process.
And it was quite a lonely day. It’s funny – childbirth, being an act of community, is predicated on the child being alive. And if the child is not alive, then it’s really just you on your own. So yeah, it was gruelling, not least because the only way to do those things, and for them to not feel crass, is to give in to the train of the thing.
And giving yourself to anything is really scary, right? So [on-set] you’re doing this embarrassing thing, and it’s very vulnerable, and it’s very revealing. And only you are making any noise!
I was nervous about it, not least because I had done a[nother] birth scene in the series and wanted to make sure that I was able to articulate the difference between the two, and not bore an audience. But in the preparation, [co-showrunner] Miguel [Sapochnik] showed me the stillborn child.
It’s so beautiful, this prosthetic. It’s articulated so that the weight works, and the head and arms can loll. A bit like Matt with his suggestion of the walk away, it made everything click into place. As soon as I held it, I was like: “Oh, yeah, it’s just about the baby, isn’t it?”
In stark counterpoint: what are the mechanics of filming the dragonback scenes?
For clarity, I had one day doing dragon [riding] on House of the Dragon. By comparison to gruelling birth scenes, that was honestly like a day at the theme park! What they have is so funny, and so fun: this big animatronic buck, that’s on four pistons. So it can essentially move in any direction. And it is linked to an iPad, right? And the director can manipulate the iPad to plan the flight path, which is then replicated on the buck.
Isn’t that unbelievable? That’s exactly the sort of thing that shouldn’t work. Anyway. Really amazing piece of kit.
Then you get on it, you get a bit of time to practice, because obviously you’re supposed to be the one guiding the thing. And then they blast industrial leaf blowers at your face.
I don’t know if any of the other actors found this, but I found it to be a real leap of faith. Because I was on there, manually wiping the smile off my face, with no idea of whether what I was doing looked good. Like: do we buy this? l’m on a theme park ride; Lord knows if this will translate [on-screen].
With civil war looming, there will be a good bit more dragon riding for Rhaenyra in series two, though, right?
I think so, yeah. I probably need to get some practice hours in.
If I can take you back a bit… In terms of your decision making-process in taking this job, how important was knowing that House of the Dragon would have a predominantly female writing team, and that half of the episodes would be directed by women?
Really important. As important as the fact that it’s a show structured around two women, and looks to interrogate patriarchy via two female perspectives. I have to say that I think Clare Kilner [director of episodes four, five and nine] is unbelievable. I never personally worked with her, I’m literally just responding to watching her episodes.
Episode nine, oh, my word! I thought it was sublime. Starting pre-dawn, in the dark, it’s raining, the air is wet, and everyone smells of sleep, and they know this is going to be one of the biggest days of any of their lives – but it hasn’t started yet. That’s fucking genius.
And to be clear, this is an episode you’re not in, and weren’t on-set for.
[Shakes head] I’d read it, early, but I’d never seen it [until it broadcast]. For example: a dragon coming up through the floor! No idea! Oh, wow! I had chills over my whole body, in waves, for the hour.
It’s also great that House of the Dragon is, ultimately, constructed around Rhaenyra and Alicent. And yet neither you nor Olivia were massively well known before the show…
Yeah, but Liv is much more successful!
I’ll let you say that. Nonetheless, you weren’t “A‑listers”. So that’s even more powerful, the fact that the show foregrounds you as characters and actors.
It was so heartening. Liv is unbelievable, and has such an interesting position. She has been so successful, and is so brilliant, and is known – but has, I guess, played a very specific game with the work that she’s done. So she’s never been in a show that has a fandom around it, like House of the Dragon.
For me, I was told by Miguel and Ryan [Condal, co-showrunner], while I was still auditioning, that they wanted me to play the role. And they really backed me, early. They said: “We want it to be you. We need your help jumping through some hoops to get more people on board [with your casting]. But we want you.”
That happens very rarely, especially for me. I have this annoying gender identity and stuff! And I’m aware that I come with stuff. And I’m used to leaving those things at the door when I work, and that’s fine, and they’re just very separate. But this was one of the few times where I really felt that everything got invited. It wasn’t a problem.
I found it heartening, as a cis male observer, how your, as you put it, “annoying” gender identity has entirely been left at the door. It’s been wholly absent from the discourse around this show. How heartening has that been for you?
Deeply. Also amazing: HBO wrote to my agent and asked me what pronouns I preferred. I’d never been asked that question at work. And I ummed and ahhed about it. Because I was like, ah it’s a complicated… But then I was like OK: well, time to not live separate lives, maybe. So, great, OK, yeah: “They/them please!”
To quote a headline on one of our stories last week: why has Emma D’Arcy’s drink order sparked queer hysteria?
Ha ha! I think I’m the wrong person to ask! But my answer would be that it’s a really great tipple. And it’s finally getting the recognition that it deserves. Um, yeah, what a surreal chapter! Very flattering, obviously, and I’m very excited about the Campari that’s going to arrive at my door soon. Have you tried it?
Not had a chance yet, but I mean too, soon. What did you think of the special Google feature [two animated arms popping up, cocktails in hand] when someone Googles your name?
Yeah, that’s excellent. And what I would like to know is what else we can get to happen. What would you like?
Um, something political? If someone Googles “new Tory Prime Minister”, a middle finger comes up?
Yeah, that’s ideal, it’s perfect.
When do you start filming series two?
I don’t know. But I think, like, first half of the new year. I would imagine HBO wants it to be as soon as possible. But it will depend on scripts and pre-production.
Certainly in George R.R. Martin’s source history book, Fire & Blood, it’s the inflight dragon duel and death of your character’s son that lights the spark under the Targaryen conflagration. Is Warrior Queen Rhaenyra readying for her close up? And does that mean lots of fight training and stunt skills for you to learn?
I literally couldn’t possibly tell you! I really hope so. I wouldn’t mind leaving the birthing bed for a bit and donning a breastplate.
Good shout. What do you think a dragon smells like?
Earth. Or barbecue.
Nothing like Negroni?
Ha ha, no! That’s the better answer, but I’m not giving you it!
Final question: have you been in a bar and ordered “your” drink since it went viral?
Yes, but in secret. Because I’m too embarrassed! So, very surreptitiously. It’s a great drink, what am I supposed to do? I’ve become a cliché!
Well, I hope you’re booked for a global advertising campaign by Campari soon, for tonnes of dough. It’s the least you deserve.
As far as I’m concerned, I’ve already done the advertising campaign. I just want the money now!
House of the Dragon is available on NowTV. Negroni Sbagliato is available in all good cocktail bars