Ewan Mitchell on House of the Dragon’s Aemond Targaryen: “He’s a whole other monster”
The five best non-lead TV characters of 2022 #2: He’s got one eye, hates his family, has an appetite for revenge and rides the biggest dragon in Westeros. No pressure, then, for the actor playing him.
As Ewan Mitchell Zooms in from his home in Derbyshire, where the actor was born and raised, you’d be hard pressed to tell he played one of the most quietly villainous characters in one of 2022’s most popular TV shows. Bend the knee for Aemond Targaryen, House of the Dragon’s Joker-lipped, one-eyed cousin-killer.
“I’m just basking in the incredible response to the first season of the show,” the 25-year-old says, unassumingly sipping from a big red mug, scene-stealing fantasy bad-assery very much not pictured.
At its fiery heart HoD, HBO’s much-anticipated prequel to Game of Thrones, is the story of a power struggle between Rhaenyra Targaryen (Emma D’Arcy) and Alicent Hightower (Olivia Cooke) to determine who will inherit the Iron Throne, the mightiest seat in Westeros. But once Alicent marries Rhaenyra’s father, King Viserys Targaryen (Paddy Considine), the legitimacy of Rhaenyra’s own claim to power is challenged.
After having two sons with the King, it seems obvious to Alicent that their first born, Aegon, should be heir. But the son with the real kingly demeanour is Alicent’s youngest: Aemond. He’s played with glacial intensity by Mitchell, whose reservedness strikingly contrasts his character’s. Beyond attending the Nottingham Television Workshop in his teenage years, Mitchell hasn’t received any formal acting training, and no one in his family is “in the business”.
All of which makes his star turn in HoD even more remarkable. So how did he sharpen up those skills to create a stand-out character in a show with a teeming ensemble cast, not to mention 17 dragons?
“That’s a good question. I’m still trying to answer it,” he says, choosing his words very carefully. “Every job I do, I’m always trying to hone my craft and develop new skills to add to my arsenal. Every job I do is like an apprenticeship because I never went to drama school. I’m learning on my feet.”
In the show, 10-year-old Aemond loses half his sight in a fight with his cousin Lucerys. That’d be enough to make anyone want to give their adolescent rival the evil eye, right?
Years pass, but Aemond’s grudge burns hard and bright. His contempt for other members of his family simmers beneath the surface, threatening to bubble over at any perceived slight. Appearing halfway through the series as the adult version of his character didn’t make Mitchell’s turn any less memorable. With barely any lines, Aemond’s menacing, one-eyed stare and taut physicality do plenty of heavy lifting. His only ally? Vhagar, “the oldest, grumpiest, biggest dragon” in the Seven Kingdoms, as the actor puts it.
“That was one of the first things [showrunners] Ryan Condal and Miguel Sapochnik wanted to think about: the legend of The Cyclops in Greek mythology, and how he ultimately traded one of his eyes to Hades in order to see the day he would die,” Mitchell says, rubbing his freshly-buzzed scalp (wig-fittings are in full swing for the second season of HoD).
“What does that do to a person, to possess that extreme degree of self-certainty? To know the day you’re going to go down, and feel bulletproof to a point. I’m not saying Aemond is a seer, but he’s scary perceptive.”
If HoD season one made for a slow, steady and satisfying exercise in world-building, it also gave us one of the most spectacular TV villains in recent memory. And if that finale is anything to go by – spoiler alert: this Targaryen terror does a very bad thing – we’ll be getting plenty more of Aemond and his increasingly ominous character arc over the next few years.
In his first interview about the show, we get the lowdown from Ewan Mitchell on method acting, the magic of Westeros and how he became so bloody good at playing a one-eyed monster.
How did you get the part in House of the Dragon?
I auditioned like everyone else. Usually, I get really wired for auditions, but when I went down on the train for this one, I was in such a state of zen that I fell asleep, which I never do on public transport. I remember going into the audition not feeling like I wanted it or like I needed it, but like I wanted to own it. I walked into the room and made a conscious decision to walk as slow as possible, because I wanted everyone to see me – see me exist for that moment, and let the work speak for itself.
Who was the person that you were most excited to work with?
I was really excited to work with Amanda Knight, the hair and make-up artist, and the costume designer Jany Temime. Their work combined really encourages you to abandon who you are. I’d catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and only see Aemond Targaryen. I can’t be anything less than interesting without saying a word. The whole get-up: the long hair, the eye-patch, everything that means and represents, is a tragedy that Aemond wears as well as his Targaryen blacks. It’s one thing to become a dangerous and proficient swordsman, but to do it with one eye? He’s a whole other monster.
Who’s your favourite other character on the show?
Daemon [played by Matt Smith]. They’re similar in that Daemon is a prince who stands to inherit nothing. He recognises that what he wants in life, he’s going to have to go out there and get it for himself.
What was the funniest thing that happened on set?
I’m quite serious, probably way too much. I think method acting gets a bad rap nowadays, but if you consider it [in relation to] people’s time, it’s certainly not a bad thing. For Aemond, I definitely stayed in a state of character, because his temperature is so high and I’m quite calm and collected. So instead of fluctuating between the two, I’d find a middle ground that I could relax into between takes. For me, it made it that little bit more work efficient.
Which plot point did you enjoy the most?
I just enjoyed reading the script for the first time and meeting this neglected, friendless, bullied boy who really never found a place in the family. It’s almost like a Lynne Ramsay film in that he was never really there. Even in episodes six and seven, he’s almost a wraith-like presence, floating between his family members. It’s tradition in Targaryen culture to place a dragon egg in the cradle of a newborn, which establishes a bond between the rider and the mount. There’s this dynamic that as the person grows, so does the hatchling.
For whatever reason, Aemond was denied that; he was always on the back foot. He’s able to identify with this dragon Vhagar, the oldest, grumpiest, biggest dragon. She’s named after the old Valyrian God of War and she’s a hardened survivor of over 100 battles. She’s enormous but also the loneliest. She’s so big she can’t fit within the confines of any castle wall, like Aemond. He doesn’t fit it anywhere, and so he identifies with her.
That story of standing in the face of adversity, showing courage and resilience – that really inspired me as an actor. Not only does he find his voice, but he also makes a friend. A character like Aemond never really felt that unconditional love from his family, but he’s found it in this dragon. What does that do? It changes him.
Why do you think your show was such a hit this year?
It was filmed over a long period of time, when the whole world fell, basically. The last two-and-a-half years have been so disruptive to so many people’s lives. We’ve been plunged into the unknown. I think it’s brilliant that we were able to give the audience back a world that they do know: the world of Westeros. You know nothing ends in diplomacy. You can count on a Targaryen being a Targaryen, on a Baratheon being a Baratheon. I really think that familiarity gives the audience something to grasp onto and rely on in uncertain times.
How has the response changed your life, personally and professionally?
It’s been endearing to have people come up to you, be it positively or negatively. To know that you’ve elicited a reaction through your performance as a collective, to have made that impression, is brilliant.
What’s next for your character on the show?
So much of this season sees this family’s world balanced on a knife’s edge. All it’s going to take is a push from either side to draw blood. I guess Aemond is the guy who kickstarts the domino effect that’ll lead to the Dance of the Dragons. If season one was about seeing Aemond getting warmed up, season two is all-out war.
How are you going to celebrate your breakout year?
I was reading Matthew McConaughey’s book [unconventional memoir Greenlights], and he says something about being less impressed and more involved. I really want to see the work speak for itself. I want to get back into Westeros as soon as I can, and get back to work.
What’s next for you in 2023?
We’re going to be shooting for eight months next year. We’re in the preparation phase of that now, which is why I’ve got my hair buzzed off, for the wig fittings. I also shot a film last year called Saltburn, Emerald Fennell’s next feature. I’m excited to see that come out.
House of the Dragon is streaming on NOW and available to buy on DVD. Top tip: watch it with a Negroni… sbagliato… with prosecco in it.