Actress Emilia Clarke has been a figure of power and self-possession as princess Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea in the HBO juggernaut fantasy series Game of Thrones.
The show reached an average 32.8 million viewers in its 2017 season, won 38 Emmys and gave Clarke the career of her “childhood dreams”.
But at the end of the show’s filming and before airing its eighth and last season, the 32-year-old actress has revealed she “nearly lost her mind”, suffering two life-threatening brain aneurysms and two surgeries.
“I’ve never told this story publicly, but now it’s time,” Clarke wrote in a first-person account.
At one point Clarke said she could barely remember her own name, let alone her lines as Daenerys Targaryen, the ‘Mother of Dragons’, when experiencing aphasia, a condition from her brain trauma.
In the magazine article, Clarke details the exact moment something far more sinister than a “bad headache” rendered her unconscious, and vomiting in the toilet stall of a gym in Crouch End, North London.
She had just finished filming the first season of Game of Thrones and while on her toes and forearms in ‘plank position’, she described the moment she felt as though an “elastic band” was squeezing her brain.
“I said to myself, ‘I will not be paralysed’,” she wrote in The New Yorker.
“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.”
Later an MRI, or brain scan, revealed Clarke, then 24, had experienced a subarachnoid haemorrhage, a life-threatening type of stroke, caused by bleeding in the space surrounding the brain.
“I was in the middle of my very busy life – I had no time for brain surgery. But, finally, I settled down and signed,” Clarke said of choosing to undergo surgery.
“For the next three hours, surgeons went about repairing my brain. This would not be my last surgery, and it would not be the worst.”
The second life-threatening scare came in 2013, after Clarke had finished filming the third season of Game of Thrones.
During one of her regular brain scans, doctors realised a growth in the side of her brain had doubled in size and warned her chances of surviving were slim if they didn’t operate again.
“I spent a month in the hospital again and, at certain points, I lost all hope. I couldn’t look anyone in the eye. There was terrible, anxiety, and panic attacks.”
Suffering from serious stress
The HBO show’s creators David Benioff and D.B Weiss, cast Clarke as a conquering spirit, based off a blend of heroic figures, including Napoleon, Joan of Arc and Lawrence of Arabia.
“Emilia was the only person we saw – and we saw hundreds – who could carry the full range that Daenerys required,” the pair explained to Vanity Fair.
Clarke said she tried to make good on the creators’ faith in her, but felt “exposed”, “terrified of the attention” and stressed, with almost no professional experience behind her.
In the first episode of the fantasy series, she appeared naked and got the same question, or comment, during press conferences: “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?’ ” Clarke said.
Life before Game of Thrones
Clarke, who has five names, Emilia Isobel Euphemia Rose Clarke, grew up in Oxford and said she “rarely gave a thought” to her health.
Her mother was, and still is, a businesswoman and vice-president of marketing for a global management consultancy, but it was her father, a sound engineer, who exposed her to the world of theatre through his work in live productions.
Clarke said she was “hardly a prodigy” and forgot all of her lines when given the lead part in school play when she five years old.
“I just stood there centre stage, shock-still, taking it all in. In the front row, the teachers were trying to help by mouthing my line. But I just stood there, with not fear, very calm,” Clarke wrote.
“It’s a state of mind that has carried me throughout my career. These days, I can be a red carpet with a thousand cameras clicking away and I’m unfazed.”
However, she held a different sentiment, when her health was concerned, once denying a National Enquirer story about her surgery.
“But now, after keeping quiet all these years, I’m telling you the truth in full,” she wrote.