LOS ANGELES — Emilia Clarke is no stranger to projects that attract passionate fans prone to fervent discussions of even the most minute details.
The actor’s portrayal of Daenerys Targaryen, the exiled princess turned fierce Mother of Dragons on HBO’s hit epic fantasy “Game of Thrones,” has been seared into our collective conscious. Over the course of its eight-season run, audiences dissected, debated and speculated about the Emmy Award-winning series’ storylines, characters, continuity, lighting, bloopers and more.
Her big-screen roles such as Qi’ra, Han’s enigmatic and deadly ex-friend in “ Solo: A Star Wars Story “ (2018), as well as an alternate timeline Sarah Connor in “ Terminator Genisys “ (2015) brought her into two of the most beloved franchises.
Now, as part of Marvel’s “Secret Invasion,” Clarke has joined one of the biggest cinematic universes, and it marks her first television role since wrapping production of “Game of Thrones” in 2018. Developed for television by Kyle Bradstreet, the extraterrestrial political spy thriller is currently in the midst of its six-episode run on Disney+.
Clarke is plenty animated while discussing the series late in the afternoon during a press day in June, but her exuberance as she details her love of theater and how it’s an actor’s medium is when she most resembles the Marvel die-hards explaining the supremacy of certain MCU installments and characters over others.
“Yeah I get nerdy excited about it,” says Clarke as she expounds on the magic that happens both on and behind the stage. “I’m a theater kid. I’m a theater nerd.” She describes it as her “happy place,” after having grown up around the stage. Her father, Peter Clarke, was a sound designer for theaters, and she traces her love of the magic of storytelling and acting all the way back to those childhood memories with him. In 2022, she made her West End debut in Jamie Lloyd’s production of Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” which was initially postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
So it’s no surprise — aside from the chance to tackle something more “grounded” and “gritty” within the Marvel sandbox — Clarke cites the opportunity to work alongside her “Secret Invasion” castmates as one of the project’s main appeals. They are acting powerhouses, with innumerable credits both on-screen and on the stage.
“The cast is ridiculous,” says Clarke. “ Olivia Colman, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Don Cheadle. I was like ‘where do I sign?’”
“Secret Invasion” involves a conspiracy by a faction of the Skrull — alien refugees that have been stranded on Earth since the events of 2019’s “ Captain Marvel “ — to supplant humans and take over the planet. After patiently waiting for 30 years for Nick Fury (Jackson) to make good on his promise to find the Skrull a new home, the shape-shifting aliens are ready to forcefully take matters into their own hands.
Unlike standard mainstream superhero fare that features a villain with clearly malevolent intentions, the show “asks the audience to make up their own minds,” says Clarke. “It’s presenting the audience with a moral quandary and a very timely question … about refugees and about whether violence and war has an understandable reason for being or whether it doesn’t.”
In “Secret Invasion,” Clarke plays G’iah, Talos’ (Mendelsohn) estranged daughter who was originally introduced in “ Captain Marvel “ as a child. She was raised on Earth in a household that believes in coexistence and peace with humans. But after becoming disillusioned with Fury and her father’s failure to secure the Skrull a new home, G’iah rebels.
“Her rebellion was much bigger than most teenagers’ rebellions,” says executive producer and director Ali Selim. Drawn to Gravik’s (Kingsley Ben-Adir) “more aggressive, direct, honest path to finding [the Skrull] a home,” G’iah chooses to join her father’s archenemy and she buys into “Gravik’s sense that his grievance can only be settled through violence.”
It’s only after learning that her mother was killed that she starts to question her allegiance.
“That causes her to return to her father’s side and, in the beginning, tentatively help him,” says Selim, who adds that part of G’iah’s journey is not just about figuring out her place as a warrior, but finding her way as one who is also ethical.
As much as Clarke, who notched four Emmy nominations for her portrayal of Daenerys, downplays her acting skills compared with “the enormity of the amount of talent on this show,” it’s clear that her colleagues hold her in the highest regard.
Mendelsohn, a self-described “Game of Thrones” fanatic who has watched the series “cover to cover” four times, says some of his greatest days on “Secret Invasion” were when he was working alongside Clarke.
“I think Emilia and I can see in each other enough to be able to relax and just not know together,” says Mendelsohn on exploring their on-screen dynamic. “We just kind of let ourselves venture into a bit of a magic zone. It felt like there was an intimacy that was just allowed to be and that was very good.”
Also memorable for him were the moments they shared off-screen.
“We’d sit on the bench and just talk about what it was like to grow up being actors because we both started quite young,” says Mendelsohn. “We were being nice to each other and that just felt really magical in its own way.”
Selim, who admits he is a bit of a Clarke “fanboy,” also loved seeing what she and Mendelsohn brought out in each other in their scenes together.
“Standing on set with her, I am amazed at her ability to access what I call a human truth and bring it out in dialogue, in eyebrow raises,” says Selim. “I can’t watch her without feeling like she could do anything.”
After struggling to really find G’iah on the page, Clarke and Selim collaborated on making the young Skrull warrior a fuller, stronger character.
“I think we really pulled out ‘the girl’ and made her into the hero,” says Selim. “I don’t know that I could have done that with any other actor.”
Clarke was just thrilled by everything she was “given to play with” G’iah, in exploring the characters’ relationships and journey. G’iah starts off on the opposite side of the Skrull uprising from her father, but it’s hinted that allegiances will shift over the course of the series.
The actor admitted she has sought solace in film and theater after her long tenure on “Game of Thrones,” a series that had a massive following and was her breakout role. Clarke teases that she has many more unannounced TV projects on the way. For now, she is slated to star in two films, the biopic “McCarthy” as Jean Kerr, the wife of Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and in “An Ideal Wife” as Constance Lloyd, the Irish author and activist who was married to poet and playwright Oscar Wilde.
“I needed different characters,” says Clarke. “I needed different experiences. I just want to try and do as many different things as possible.”
Her projects since the conclusion of “Game of Thrones” include “ The Pod Generation,” which premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival (her first), and she’s even made her debut as a comic book author with “ M.O.M.: Mother of Madness,” an unabashedly feminist miniseries she co-wrote with Marguerite Bennett that launched in 2021.
What Clarke is seeking now is more opportunities to learn.
“I just want to keep broadening and reaching for the things that I haven’t had a chance to do before,” says Clarke. “With each new experience [and] every year that passes, you have more to play with as an actor.”
Clarke says she is making more intentional choices about what she pursues, prioritizing opportunities to work with directors she admires. This thoughtful consideration comes through as she discusses the real-world parallels to the political themes in “Secret Invasion,” the disparagement of the word “feminist,” the potential and perils of social media, and even the misconception that acting in front of a green screen does not constitute “real” acting. (“The stigma is that people don’t do any acting in these shows and then you’re like ‘well, then why are they asking all these great actors to do it, and why are they saying yes?’”)
A recurring theme over the course of these varied topics is Clarke’s belief of the importance of being kind to one another. And her sincerity comes across in the energy she exudes.
“As long as you’re leading with kindness and compassion, you cannot go wrong,” says Clarke, emphasizing that “true compassion” is reflected in action.
It’s a kindness she’s even extending to her past self now that she’s had some space from her time on “Game of Thrones.” She says it’s an experience she is still processing, though it’s been several years, and she thinks of it regularly since it’s still a topic of conversation, especially in light of the launch of the spinoff series “ House of the Dragon.”
“There were times when I was really sad on that show, just simply because I was a young woman in her 20s,” says Clarke, who experienced two aneurysms as well as the loss of her father during the years she was on “Game of Thrones.” The show was also her first big job where she had to navigate the industry and sudden fame. “All of that happening while ‘Game of Thrones’ was happening, it sometimes could be very confusing.”
But as more time passes, Clarke says she is able to appreciate the remarkable experience for what it was.
Plus, “it’s not a shabby role to be associated with,” says Clarke. “Daenerys, I hope, is associated with a certain caliber of work, so lucky me that that’s the case. As long as people don’t ask me about nudity.”