Why House of the Dragon cast Matt Smith as Daemon: “We needed somebody that wasn’t obvious”

House of the Dragon
House of the Dragon /

Like Game of Thrones before it, House of the Dragon has a lot of characters, many of them interrelated (sometimes way too closely). There’s Viserys, Daemon and Rhaenyra Targaryen. There’s Alicent and Otto Hightower. There’s Corlys and Rhaenys Velaryon. And those are the ones billed on top of the first episode. Down the line you add in Harwin and Larys Strong,  Borros Baratheon, and a whole new generation of Targaryens and Velaryons who need multiple actors to play them, since the show takes place over a period of decades and the characters grow up.

Casting this show is a doozy, but casting director Kate Rhodes James was up for it. “We had a big board and we had the family tree,” she told Indiewire. “I drew it and we would just have images of the sort of person we felt would be right in those roles — not literally who we wanted to cast, but just because we needed a visual aid all the time, because the names weren’t guiding us in the beginning.”

Slowly, the casting team got a sense of “who felt Targaryen, who felt Lannister, who felt Valyrian… [The challenge] was very much just remembering what the bloodline is and where it leads, because the fans are so forensic and so passionate, and quite rightly. Every move that we made was with them in mind. It kept us on our game.”

The difficulty of casting child actors on House of the Dragon

Casting the younger roles was particularly tricky, especially because James and her team had to match them with other actors would play older versions of the same characters. In the case of Rhaenyra Targaryen and Alicent Hightower, they cast the older actors — Emma D’Arcy and Olivia Cooke — first. But for some of the other characters, they started with the younger versions.

And keep in mind, James was casting during the heyday of the coronavirus pandemic, so it was hard to meet potential candidates in person; they did a lot of searching on Instagram before getting people into a room.

“It’s not just whether they suit the role. It’s also their temperament, what they’re like when their mother isn’t in the room, it’s all of these things,” James said. “I can see whether they listen, whether they keep eye contact. Obviously everyone was resistant to that because of COVID. But eventually we got it done.”

How House of the Dragon cast Matt Smith as Daemon Targaryen

James and her team were working off George R.R. Martin’s book Fire & Blood, which contains some very colorful characters, none more so than Daemon Targaryen, a complicated man who is a monster or a hero depending on who you ask…and what time of day you ask them. With Daemon, opinions are always changing.

The role eventually went to Doctor Who and The Crown veteran Matt Smith. “We needed somebody that wasn’t obvious,” James said.

James liked Smith because he wasn’t interested in pinning Daemon down as any one thing: good or bad, hero or villain. He had a kind of unpredictability that was compelling even when he was just leaning against a doorway. “It’s people who [when they] lean in, you lean back. If someone leans back, you go, oh. And that’s what Matt does beautifully,” James said.

There was some blowback when Smith was initially announced for the role of Daemon, but people have more than come around since, so kudos to James and her team. We’ll see more of Daemon when House of the Dragon returns for its second season sometime in 2024.

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