Vanity Fair: The New Royal in Town: Emma D’Arcy Takes the Crown

House of the Dragon cast addition Emma D’Arcy talks about Milly Alcock, power, and how The Argonauts helped them find their vision for playing Rhaenyra.

Emma D’Arcy’s version of House of the Dragon protagonist Rhaenyra Targaryen is introduced during the agonizing delivery of her third child, her face contorting as she pushes and screams. To prepare, D’Arcy spent time digging into historical material about childbirth and its effect on women. But they kept coming back to a more modern text: The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson’s memoir mashed with queer, feminist theory. “What I read in that book in the context of the show was a person who was trying to come up with an ideology of motherhood, as a person who found heteronormative convention complicated or a bad fit,” D’Arcy explains over Zoom.

One doesn’t necessarily expect to jump from George R.R. Martin to Maggie Nelson—but D’Arcy, who steps into the role held for five episodes by Milly Alcock, brings a thoroughly unique perspective to the questions of gender in which the Game of Thrones prequel trades. The 30-year-old D’Arcy is a nonbinary person using they/them pronouns, playing a woman for whom power is both inherited and elusive. Rhaenyra has been appointed heir to her father, the king (Paddy Considine), but her ability to lead is doubted.

To D’Arcy, the binaries present in medieval fantasy aren’t all that different from the world in which we now live. “If she’s gender questioning in any way, it’s because she sees men occupy a space that isn’t afforded to her. And she craves the space, which makes her reflect on why she is not afforded the same things as, say, her uncle Daemon, to whom she feels incredibly similar and akin and sort of genetically familiar,” D’Arcy says. “And yet the rules are applied completely differently to two of them. I think, probably, I started in a very similar place when I was younger in terms of craving the right to occupy space in a way that I saw boys and men do.”

House of the Dragon has been quietly doling out time jumps throughout its record-breaking first five episodes—but the jump that opens the sixth is the biggest yet, taking Rhaenyra from newlywed to mother of three. And while D’Arcy’s appearance marks an exciting turn for the show, they admit they worry viewers will have already grown attached to Alcock’s interpretation of Rhaenyra.

I think now I have a weird guilt because I’m aware that in order to come into the show, Milly’s got to leave. And that that’s going to be a pain for a lot of people, me included, frankly.

They hope, however, that the brutal way in which their Rhaenyra debuts will alleviate some of the potential sorrow over Alcock’s departure. “We really don’t give the audience much time at all to sit with their grief,” they say. Moments after giving birth, a bleeding Rhaenyra marches through King’s Landing to present the baby to her former best friend and now queen and stepmother Alicent (Olivia Cooke), who is worried about her own line of succession.

D’Arcy and Alcock didn’t spend time coordinating their performances—they went for a drink outside the context of filming—but on seeing the first episode of House of the Dragon, D’Arcy was taken by how much they recognized Alcock’s Rhaenyra. “I’m feeling a bit like watching Targaryen home video or something,” they say. D’Arcy and Cooke, however, did spend time during rehearsal reading scenes between their characters’ younger selves that they would never film, “just to get a taste and a flavor of that more hopeful, more erotic, fizzier adolescent energy, and to know what’s lost.” Yes, D’Arcy did say erotic. “I think most of those early, intense, adolescent friendships have an erotic edge,” they explain. “Because it’s an age where we’re trying to work out who we are and what we want and who we want to fuck. Those are all intersecting questions.”

Rhaenyra’s sexual activity is a focal point of D’Arcy’s initial appearance, with King’s Landing all atwitter with the question of who fathered her children—none of whom seem to bear resemblance to her husband, Laenor Velaryon. (Laenor is gay, and he and Rhaenyra appear to have worked out an agreement.) “I’m still not sure that she has yet had the cognitive space to really understand her own desire,” D’Arcy says. “And, simultaneously, I think her instinct is for this incredibly enmeshed attachment to people, and she sort of locks on too much and falls apart.”

When filming House of the Dragon, D’Arcy, whose previous work includes the Simon Pegg and Nick Frost Prime Video comedy Truth Seekers, didn’t really feel the pressure of walking into a major franchise. Because of COVID, the set was very private. “After a while, it becomes a day job in a really lovely way,” they say. Now that the press cycle for the series is well underway, the magnitude of what they are a part of is hitting. Their first scene as Rhaenyra launches them into an already vibrant discourse about how the show documents the risks of childbirth, starting with Rhaenyra’s mother’s death during a rudimentary C-section.

For D’Arcy, that moment was “fundamental” to how the series functions. “I would love it if people were talking more about this, maybe. But I think it really strives to interrogate—I mean this in the more abstract use of the word—the violence that is inherent to patriarchy,” they say. “I think it’s really exciting. It’s a fantasy series that’s talking about patriarchy.”

As a shy child, D’Arcy gravitated toward acting to understand social structures and what it’s like to be other people. “I’m really interested in how power, for example, kind of warps reality, and I think it can be really useful to discover what it is to be in another position of status,” they say. House of the Dragon gives them the ideal opportunity for that kind of exploration. It’s just the attention part they have to get used to.

“I think I always found a lot of freedom getting to be other people,” they say. “I think a lot of actors would say that. That’s why the press bit is a nightmare. Because, you know, all these people have been running away from themselves. Don’t put them in front of a camera. It’s gonna be a disaster.”

Written by Esther Zuckerman
Published September 26, 2022