Emma D’Arcy was feeling like a bit of a cheat. It was July of 2022 at the world premiere of House of the Dragon in Los Angeles. Stylishly dressed in an oversized suit and drop earrings, D’Arcy worked the red carpet like an old pro but never felt completely at ease among the hundreds of eager fans who packed the Academy Museum theater. “It’s like finding yourself in someone else’s life,” recalls the actor, who plays Queen Rhaenyra Targaryen in the HBO drama that’s based on George R.R. Martin’s Fire & Blood. “It’s quite wild having never done that before, and certainly not on that scale, obviously, with one of the biggest shows in the world. And I am quite camera shy, which is obviously a disaster.”
But when the lights went down and the Game of Thrones theme music filled the theater, D’Arcy’s anxiety was replaced by an inescapable euphoria. “We were so thrilled because we heard initially how they were sort of holding their cards close to their chests about what the theme would be,” says the actor. “I sort of felt like, ‘come on, you cowards, use the music!’ Like, put your money where your mouth is. It’s embarrassing, but when I used to watch Game of Thrones when it was on TV, I got chills every time. I would never skip the titles, you know? They were so good. So good.”
Though it’s impossible to continue the Westeros franchise without featuring various towheads, dragons and that indelible title music, Martin and co-creator Ryan Condal weren’t looking to straight-up copy what David Benioff and D.B. Weiss achieved over eight, Emmy-winning seasons on Game of Thrones. Rather, their goal was to tell more of an intimate family story that takes place 172 years before the birth of Daenerys (played in Thrones by Emilia Clarke) by focusing on three main characters within the House Targaryen — the reluctant King Viserys (Paddy Considine), who ends up marrying Alicent (Olivia Cooke), the best friend of his daughter Rhaenyra whom he dubbed the heir apparent to the throne. Add in a reckless uncle named Daemon (Matt Smith) who falls hard for his brother’s dragon-riding daughter, and you’ve got a jam-packed first season full of treachery, incest and familial violence.
“The trick was really to show this generational conflict that began with Viserys’s generation,” said Condal at Deadline’s Contenders event. (Because of the WGA strike, Condal would not do interviews for this story). “Viserys and his hand Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) passed it down to their children, Rhaenyra and Alicent, who were young women and used as pawns in the game of thrones. And then as they grew up and became adults and had children of their own, and this bitter rivalry and grasp for power gets passed on to their children. So it’s a three-generational story and we needed to get through that in the course of one season.”
That meant beginning the prequel with two younger actresses playing Rhaenyra and Alicent — a risky proposition that meant switching out actresses Milly Alcock and Emily Carey for D’Arcy and Cooke halfway through the 10-episode season and possibly raising fan ire (which ended up happening since Alcock, in particular, was so well-liked).
“It’s rarely done,” admitted Cooke to Deadline in 2022. “I think while watching it, I felt more pressure than when I actually filmed it. It never felt like we were replacing the others. It just felt like the first five episodes were a sort of a time capsule.”
Fortunately, Cooke and D’Arcy never felt a need to constantly share notes with their younger counterparts to maintain some continuity in their roles. “There was no laying down of the law for Rhaenyra. I also didn’t feel like that was necessary,” D’Arcy says. “I think something that’s so nice about how the first series is constructed is that it does give sort of a tangible distance from one’s childhood. I definitely feel my childhood self to be quite separate from me and I can sort of see the edges of the person that I was as a child in a way that I’m not as good at seeing my edges now. I loved how that was literalized in the show. It was also just a huge honor because Millie is such a brilliant actor, and it was very lovely to come in after they’ve taken care so beautifully in the first five episodes. It was a very generous springboard for me and Olivia, I think.”