When you look at Game of Thrones star Emila Clarke — the strong and vibrant leading actress in the world’s most popular television series — it’s hard to imagine that she was battling for her life in the early seasons of the show. Daenerys Targaryen herself, the Mother of Dragons and Breaker of Chains, suffered from a brain aneurysm between season 1 and 2 of the show, and she’s just now opened up about the harrowing ordeal in an editorial for The New Yorker.
But first, Clarke goes back to the beginning and talks about talks about first learning she would be playing the role of Daenerys Targaryen, a part showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss described to her as “a blend of Napoleon, Joan of Arc, and Lawrence of Arabia.” (She famously did the funky chicken in her audition.) But after filming season 1, she didn’t feel like “a conquering spirit.”
"I was terrified. Terrified of the attention, terrified of a business I barely understood, terrified of trying to make good on the faith that the creators of “Thrones” had put in me. I felt, in every way, exposed. In the very first episode, I appeared naked, and, from that first press junket onward, I always got the same question: some variation of “You play such a strong woman, and yet you take off your clothes. Why?” In my head, I’d respond, “How many men do I need to kill to prove myself?”"
To destress, she started to hit the gym more often. “I was a television actor now, after all, and that is what television actors do. We work out.” Then, on February 11, 2011, just a couple of months before the first season of Game of Thrones aired on HBO, disaster struck.
She felt a headache coming on while she was getting dressed in the locker room, but decided to push through. “Then my trainer had me get into the plank position, and I immediately felt as though an elastic band were squeezing my brain. 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. I reached the toilet, sank to my knees, and proceeded to be violently, voluminously ill. Meanwhile, the pain—shooting, stabbing, constricting pain—was getting worse. At some level, I knew what was happening: my brain was damaged.”
As she was lying on the bathroom floor, a woman came to her aid and started to check on her.
"For a few moments, I tried to will away the pain and the nausea. I said to myself, “I will not be paralyzed.” I moved my fingers and toes to make sure that was true. To keep my memory alive, I tried to recall, among other things, some lines from “Game of Thrones.”"
One trip inside an MRI later, Clarke learned that she had a subarachnoid hemorrhage; a “life-threatening type of stroke, caused by bleeding into the space surrounding the brain.”
"As I later learned, about a third of SAH patients die immediately or soon thereafter. For the patients who do survive, urgent treatment is required to seal off the aneurysm, as there is a very high risk of a second, often fatal bleed. If I was to live and avoid terrible deficits, I would have to have urgent surgery. And, even then, there were no guarantees."
So at the age of 24, Clarke underwent surgery to repair the aneurysm. The surgeon didn’t crack open her skull for the first surgery, but instead “introduced a wire into one of the femoral arteries, in the groin; the wire made its way north, around the heart, and to the brain, where they sealed off the aneurysm.”
Just imagine for one second, if you’d started in on your dream career and suddenly found yourself in a fight for your life. The emotional toll alone must have been nigh-crippling.
Next came the recovery period. “One night…a nurse woke me and, as part of a series of cognitive exercises, she said, “What’s your name?” My full name is Emilia Isobel Euphemia Rose Clarke.” That is a fantastic name, but much to Clarke’s horror, she found she couldn’t remember it. “Instead, nonsense words tumbled out of my mouth and I went into a blind panic. I’d never experienced fear like that—a sense of doom closing in. 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.”
As she later learned, Clarke was suffering from a condition called aphasia, caused by the trauma to her brain. For a week, she kept muttering nonsense, and despite her mom on hand to reassure her that she was fine, this was an understandably terrifying period.
"I knew I was faltering. In my worst moments, I wanted to pull the plug. I asked the medical staff to let me die. My job—my entire dream of what my life would be—centered on language, on communication. Without that, I was lost."
We’re used to Clarke being fun and goofy in interviews, but this is brutal stuff. It’s one of the most open, honest and raw stories I can remember a major A-list actor telling about themselves, and I appreciate it on many levels.
Clarke spent about a month in the hospital before being released, not long before she was due back on the Game of Thrones set to film season 2. Before she left, though, she was told that she had a smaller aneurysm on the other side of her brain that could pop at any time…or remain dormant. She would have to keep an eye on her health, just in case. “There was still the pain to deal with, and morphine to keep it at bay. I told my bosses at ‘Thrones’ about my condition, but I didn’t want it to be a subject of public discussion and dissection. The show must go on!”
Frankly, it’s kind of hard to believe that Clarke managed to keep all of this under the radar back then, but then again, the show wasn’t as big as it would become. She was able to concentrate on the work, which was more than challenging enough:
"Even before we began filming Season 2, I was deeply unsure of myself. I was often so woozy, so weak, that I thought I was going to die. Staying at a hotel in London during a publicity tour, I vividly remember thinking, I can’t keep up or think or breathe, much less try to be charming. I sipped on morphine in between interviews. The pain was there, and the fatigue was like the worst exhaustion I’d ever experienced, multiplied by a million. And, let’s face it, I’m an actor. Vanity comes with the job. I spent way too much time thinking about how I looked. If all this weren’t enough, I seemed to whack my head every time I tried to get in a taxi."
After the first day of shooting for season 2, she nearly collapsed from exhaustion when she made it back to her hotel. Things weren’t going well, but like the pro she is, she tried to not let it show at work. “On the set, I didn’t miss a beat, but I struggled. Season 2 would be my worst. I didn’t know what Daenerys was doing. If I am truly being honest, every minute of every day I thought I was going to die.”
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Fast forward to after filming season 3, and Clarke is in New York getting a new MRI. The growth on the other side of her brain had doubled in size, and the doctors suggested immediate surgery. She was promised that it would be minimally invasive, but when she woke up afterwards, she quickly realized something was wrong.
"I was screaming in pain. 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."
This time, the surgeons had to remove pieces of her skull. “I emerged from the operation with a drain coming out of my head. Bits of my skull had been replaced by titanium. These days, you can’t see the scar that curves from my scalp to my ear, but I didn’t know at first that it wouldn’t be visible.”
Meanwhile, Game of Thrones was only growing in popularity, everyone was talking about the Red Wedding, and the season finale spotlighted Daenerys being celebrated as a liberator. And during all of that, no one knew Clarke was having major brain surgery in New York. Again, I am baffled and thankful Clarke was able to keep this a secret for so long and reveal it on her own time.
“I spent a month in the hospital again and, at certain points, I lost all hope,” she said. “I couldn’t look anyone in the eye. There was terrible anxiety, panic attacks. I was raised never to say, ‘It’s not fair’; I was taught to remember that there is always someone who is worse off than you. But, going through this experience for the second time, all hope receded.”
"I felt like a shell of myself. So much so that I now have a hard time remembering those dark days in much detail. My mind has blocked them out. But I do remember being convinced that I wasn’t going to live. And, what’s more, I was sure that the news of my illness would get out. And it did—for a fleeting moment. Six weeks after the surgery, the National Enquirer ran a short story. A reporter asked me about it and I denied it."
Mere weeks after getting out of the hospital from the second surgery, Clarke attended the San Diego Comic-Con with some of her Game of Thrones co-stars. “The fans at Comic-Con are hardcore; you don’t want to disappoint them. There were several thousand people in the audience, and, right before we went on to answer questions, I was hit by a horrific headache.”
"Back came that sickeningly familiar sense of fear. I thought, This is it. My time is up; I’ve cheated death twice and now he’s coming to claim me. As I stepped offstage, my publicist looked at me and asked what was wrong. I told her, but she said that a reporter from MTV was waiting for an interview. I figured, if I’m going to go, it might as well be on live television."
But Clarke survived her MTV interview and so much more. Now she’s living life to the fullest, which is why she wanted to share such a deeply personal story with the public, and reveal that she’s started a charity called SameYou. The charity “aims to provide treatment for people recovering from brain injuries and stroke.”
Now, as season 8 approaches, Emilia Clarke is thankful for making it this far, both on the show and in real life. “There is something gratifying, and beyond lucky, about coming to the end of ‘Thrones.’ I’m so happy to be here to see the end of this story and the beginning of whatever comes next.”