Emilia Clarke Revealed The Life-Threatening Battle She Faced While Making Game Of Thrones

Image: via IB Times

Emilia Clarke is known to most as Daenerys Targaryen – or Mother of Dragons – from the smash-hit show Game of Thrones. But while the actress’ character was fighting wars on-screen, she, too, was fighting a battle of her own off screen. Clarke faced a terrible, painful health problem, in fact – one that very easily could have killed her. But she survived, and now she’s telling the world the remarkable story.

Image: via IMDb

Clarke was almost unheard of before she landed her career-making role in Game of Thrones. Previously, the actress’ biggest parts had been in the U.K. soap opera Doctors and a 2010 Syfy television movie called Triassic Attack. And yet Clarke was clearly doing something right – so much so that Screen International named her a “U.K. Star of Tomorrow” in 2011. But no one could have predicted just how fitting said accolade would turn out to be.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

In an article written for The New Yorker, Clarke recalled her early drive to make a success of herself. “I grew up in Oxford and rarely gave a thought to my health. Nearly all I thought about was acting,” she explained. And her mom and dad threw themselves behind her education, too. “We weren’t wealthy, but my brother and I went to private schools. Our parents, who wanted everything for us, struggled to keep up with the fees.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: VALERY HACHE/AFP/Getty Images

“I have no clear memory of when I first decided to be an actor. I’m told I was around three or four,” Clarke went on. And the Brit’s early passion for her craft is perhaps down to her father, who was a sound designer. “When I went with my dad to theaters, I was entranced by backstage life: the gossip, the props, the costumes, all the urgent and whispered hubbub in the near darkness.”

Image: Stuart Wilson/Getty Images

What’s more, Clarke also recollected her first experience as an actress. “When I was five, I got the lead part in a play,” she wrote. “When it came time to take the stage and deliver my lines, though, I forgot everything. I just stood there, center stage, stock-still, taking it all in. In the front row, the teachers were trying to help by mouthing my lines.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Mike Windle/BAFTA LA/Getty Images for BAFTA LA

“But I just stood there, with no fear, very calm,” Clarke continued. “It’s a state of mind that has carried me throughout my career. These days, I can be on a red carpet with a thousand cameras clicking away, and I’m unfazed. Of course, put me at a dinner party with six people, and that’s another matter.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: via IMDb

Yet Clarke’s career almost didn’t take off at all. While filming Doctors and Triassic Attack, she was also working three other jobs, including answering phones at a call center. Clarke felt dissatisfied with what she was doing for money during this time and was wondering if she’d failed as an actress. In fact, she didn’t even bother to watch Triassic Attack when it came out.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Mark Davis/Getty Images for Tory Burch

However, Clarke at least had her health – perhaps the most important thing, as she would come to discover. “In those days, I thought of myself as healthy. Sometimes I got a little light-headed, because I often had low blood pressure and a low heart rate. Once in a while, I’d get dizzy and pass out,” Clarke noted ominously in her piece for The New Yorker.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Anthony Harvey/Getty Images

“When I was fourteen, I had a migraine that kept me in bed for a couple of days, and in drama school I’d collapse once in a while,” Clarke went on. “But it all seemed manageable – part of the stress of being an actor and of life in general. Now I think that I might have been experiencing warning signs of what was to come.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Larry Busacca/Getty Images

But regardless, Clarke’s big break arrived. “My agent calls me up and says, ‘Did you ever go up for Game of Thrones?’” Clarke told Esquire in 2015. The pilot episode had run into difficulties, you see, so HBO was recasting. “My agent told the casting director, ‘I know that the breakdown for this character is tall and willowy and blonde. I know she’s short and round and brown, but I’d like you to see her.’”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: via IMDb

How did Clarke prepare for the big audition? Well, she turned to Wikipedia, of course. There was simply no time, after all, to read the original novels by George R. R. Martin – all five of them, that is. And Clarke came away from the meeting concluding that the casting directors were after “someone who could grow before your eyes in one season, who could gather strength and show vulnerability,” according to Esquire.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Helen Sloan/HBO via IMDb

“I read for Game of Thrones in a tiny studio in Soho,” Clarke recalled in her New Yorker article. “Four days later, I got a call. Apparently, the audition hadn’t been a disaster. I was told to fly to Los Angeles in three weeks and read for [showrunners David] Benioff and [D.B.] Weiss and the network executives. I started working out intensely to prepare.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Helen Sloan/HBO via IMDb

However, Clarke seemingly had no idea how much of a chance she had at landing the role of Daenerys. “At the audition, I tried not to look when I spotted another actor – tall, blond, willowy, beautiful – walking by,” she wrote. “I read two scenes in a dark auditorium for an audience of producers and executives. When it was over, I blurted out, ‘Can I do anything else?’”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Helen Sloan/HBO via IMDb

And what happened next was slightly odd. “David Benioff said, ‘You can do a dance,’” Clarke recollected. “Never wanting to disappoint, I did the funky chicken and the robot. In retrospect, I could have ruined it all; I’m not the best dancer.” And yet perhaps it was this that set her apart from the other auditionees. “As I was leaving the auditorium, [the executives] ran after me and said, ‘Congratulations, Princess!’”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Helen Sloan/HBO via IMDb

Clarke was replacing The Tudors actress Tamzin Merchant, who had been cast as Daenerys for the pilot episode. And while the reason for Merchant’s departure has never been fully disclosed, it was certainly a fantastic stroke of luck for Clarke. Plus, some hardcore fans of the books hadn’t liked the Merchant casting and looked forward to seeing what newcomer Clarke would bring to the role.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Kevork Djansezian/BAFTA LA/Getty Images for BAFTA LA

Meanwhile, George R. R. Martin himself commented on the casting. “I haven’t had the chance to meet Emilia yet, but I’ve seen her auditions,” he wrote on his blog in May 2010. “She gave some kickass readings, winning out over some amazing competition from all around the world. She should make a great Dany.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: via Digital Spy

It goes without saying, of course, that Martin was correct. Clarke – then a relatively unknown actress – immediately won over critics and audiences alike, after all. And season one of Game of Thrones turned out to be a colossal success. This was reflected, for instance, in hits on IMDb – even though Clarke didn’t actually know what IMDb was at the time.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: via Time

Suddenly, everything about Clarke’s life had changed. “Never in a million years did I think I’d be doing something like this now, this early on – so fresh out of drama school,” she told TV website Hey U Guys in 2012. “Even having Game of Thrones, I never knew that it would be the success that it was and hopefully will continue to be.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: via Refinery29

But Game of Thrones only got bigger as time went on. In fact, the show became such a pop-culture mainstay that even Thrones-related baby names suddenly took off. In 2014, for instance, The Guardian reported that new parents were naming their daughters Khaleesi – after Daenerys’ fictional royal title in the drama.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: via Watchers on the Wall

And Clarke, too, went from success to success. The actress was nominated for an Emmy award no less than three times for playing Daenerys, for instance. Meanwhile, the Brit also became noted for her beauty. In 2014, for example, AskMen proclaimed Clarke as the most desirable woman on Earth, and the following year, Esquire announced her as the sexiest.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Melissa Sue Gordon via IMDb

With Game of Thrones going strong, Clarke began picking up more high-profile work. She was offered the female lead in Fifty Shades of Grey, for instance, but she declined the role. Then, in 2015, Clarke played Sarah Connor in the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Terminator Genisys. And although critics slated the film, the actress escaped largely unscathed.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: via IMDb

The year after, Clarke shared the big screen with Sam Claflin in the romantic drama Me Before You. And while the movie gained mixed reviews – with the more positive ones highlighting the chemistry between the two young leads – it grossed over $200 million. And after said commercial success, one of the few franchises that’s bigger than Game of Thrones came calling for Clarke: Star Wars.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: via Entertainment Weekly

Clarke was cast as the female lead Qi’ra in the Star Wars prequel Solo: A Star Wars Story. However, the film got off to a famously problematic start. Four months into the production, you see, the original co-directors quit and were replaced by Ron Howard – a man whom Clarke credits with saving the movie. “I’m not gonna lie, I struggled with Qi’ra quite a lot,” Clarke told Vanity Fair in 2018.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Jonathan Olley via IMDb

Howard, meanwhile, was also full of praise for Clarke. She has, he told Vanity Fair, “the kind of pragmatism and a can-do spirit that often come from people who have cut their teeth doing television.” And Clarke’s Game of Thrones co-star Kit Harington chimed in, too, saying, “I know some of how tough it was for her. But she’s pretty tough as well.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: LOIC VENANCE/AFP/Getty Images

Yet no one knew just how tough Clarke was until she revealed all in her New Yorker piece. You see, at the beginning of 2011, when the actress was fresh off the set of Game of Thrones’ first season, she had suffered a brain aneurysm. It was a nightmarish experience – and it would shape everything that Clarke did for the next few years.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Huffington Post

In her article, Clarke recalled the moment that the aneurysm had happened. “To relieve the stress, I worked out with a trainer,” she wrote. “On the morning of February 11, 2011, I was getting dressed in the locker room of a gym in Crouch End, North London, when I started to feel a bad headache coming on. I was so fatigued that I could barely put on my sneakers.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Michael Kovac/Getty Images for AFI

“Then, my trainer had me get into the plank position, and I immediately felt as though an elastic band [was] squeezing my brain,” Clarke recalled. “I tried to ignore the pain and push through it, but I just couldn’t. I told my trainer I had to take a break. Somehow, almost crawling, I made it to the locker room.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: MANHATTAN RESEARCH INC

In the locker room, it quickly became obvious that something was very wrong indeed. Clarke could sense, amid the pain, that her memory was going, for one thing. The actress tried to remember her lines from Game of Thrones, but the tactic didn’t work. People subsequently came to help, an ambulance was called and Clarke was rushed to hospital.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: PixelHeini/Pixabay

“From an ambulance, I was wheeled on a gurney into a corridor filled with the smell of disinfectant and the noises of people in distress,” Clarke remembered. “Because no one knew what was wrong with me, the doctors and nurses could not give me any drugs to ease the pain. Finally, I was sent for an M.R.I. – a brain scan.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images

“The diagnosis was quick and ominous: a subarachnoid hemorrhage (SAH), a life-threatening type of stroke, caused by bleeding into the space surrounding the brain. I’d had an aneurysm, an arterial rupture,” Clarke said in her article. “As I later learned, about a third of SAH patients die immediately or soon thereafter.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: David Mark/Pixabay

Yet Clarke hung on. Treatment was needed, however – and fast. And so, she was taken to the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in London, where for three hours doctors worked to repair what had gone wrong. They used endovascular coiling, which is a technique that doesn’t require opening up the skull. But that was just the beginning.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: via Collider

When Clarke woke, she said, “The pain was unbearable. I had no idea where I was.” Yet she had to hold on. “They moved me out of the I.C.U. after four days and told me that the great hurdle was to make it to the two-week mark. If I made it that long with minimal complications, my chances of a good recovery were high,” Clarke explained.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: via Inverse

However, the situation was bad. Even after Clarke got over the two-week hurdle, she couldn’t remember even the simplest details about her life. “I could see my life ahead, and it wasn’t worth living. I am an actor; I need to remember my lines. Now, I couldn’t recall my name,” she said. “My job – my entire dream of what my life would be – centered on language [and] on communication. Without that, I was lost.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Macall B. Polay/HBO via Bustle

Thankfully, though, Clarke’s memory began to return. And from her hospital bed she was able to gain more clarity of thought. “I was also aware that there were people in the beds around me who didn’t make it out of the I.C.U. I was continually reminded of just how fortunate I was,” she wrote. The actress was able to leave hospital after four weeks – and even return to Game of Thrones.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: via Winter Is Coming

However, Clarke’s fight wasn’t over yet. That’s because there was another, smaller aneurysm in her brain. Doctors told the star that there was a chance it could remain dormant – but there was also a chance that it wouldn’t. Clarke susbequently informed the Game of Thrones producers of what was happening and tried not to let her performance suffer as a result. But she was still, understandably, in a weakened state.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: skeeze/Pixabay

Then, in 2013, the second aneurism became too much to ignore. And when Clarke went in for a routine brain scan, she was told that she needed an operation. Unfortunately, though, something went wrong. “When they woke me, I was screaming in pain,” Clarke revealed. “The procedure had failed. I had a massive bleed, and the doctors made it plain that my chances of surviving were precarious if they didn’t operate again.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: via Bustle

The second attempt was successful, but it left Clarke in agony. “I looked as though I had been through a war more gruesome than any that Daenerys experienced,” she wrote. “And there was, above all, the constant worry about cognitive or sensory losses. Would it be concentration? Memory? Peripheral vision? Now, I tell people that what it robbed me of is good taste in men. But, of course, none of this seemed remotely funny at the time.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images

Yet slowly, Clarke started to recover. She still had terrible headaches, however – often at the worst possible times such as waiting to be interviewed at Comic-Con. “I figured, if I’m going to go, it might as well be on live television,” Clarke wryly noted. However, things were certainly looking up for the actress. “In the years since my second surgery I have healed beyond my most unreasonable hopes. I am now at 100 percent,” Clarke wrote.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images

Now, the actress is working for the charity SameYou, which helps people to get access to treatment after strokes and brain injuries. “I know that I am hardly unique – hardly alone,” Clarke noted. “Countless people have suffered far worse and with nothing like the care I was so lucky to receive.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Game of Thrones is coming to a close now, and Clarke is just grateful that she lived to experience it. “I’m so happy to be here to see the end of this story and the beginning of whatever comes next,” she revealed at the end of her New Yorker article. And in the meantime, Clarke is letting other people with brain injuries know that they’re not alone in the fight.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT