In the midst of Game of Thrones, the star behind Daenerys suffered two life-threatening aneurysms: “If I am truly being honest, every minute of every day I thought I was going to die.”
here’s a growing trend among some of the most powerful women in entertainment. Rather than following the traditional celebrity-interview path, stars like Taylor Swift and Beyoncé are increasingly deciding to tell their stories on their own terms and in their own words. So it seems fitting that Emilia Clarke the star of one of the world’s biggest TV shows—should do the same in the weeks leading up to the final season of Game of Thrones.
In a personal essay for The New Yorker, the notoriously private Clarke—who has kept mum about her relationships, and largely spends her time out of the limelight with her non-famous childhood friends—took the occasion of this ending to open up about a dire medical emergency that nearly killed her, just as the biggest opportunity of her life was getting started.
In her essay, Clarke sets the stage for the subarachnoid hemorrhage (SAH)—“a life-threatening type of stroke” that caused her to collapse between Seasons 1 and 2 of Game of Thrones—by talking about the stress and strain she felt vaulting from being an unknown to having the spotlight put on her: “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.” The nudity required of Clarke in the first few seasons of the show left her feeling especially vulnerable: “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?’” she writes.
Indeed, with few exceptions, you’d be hard pressed to find a profile of Clarke that doesn’t mention her on-screen nudity. Clarke writes that she hit the gym between the first season and the second, and there, she says, is where she first collapsed from an aneurysm which caused bleeding in “the space surrounding the brain.” Though she was rushed to the hospital, Clarke discovered she would have to have immediate surgery. Clarke describes a period of “drugged wooziness, shooting pain, and persistent nightmares,” all of which she kept hidden from the world at the tender age of 24.
Anyone who follows Clarke on social media will know that a cause near and dear to her heart is the U.K.’s National Health Service. Clarke has said in the past that her father’s painful battle with cancer—which took his life in 2016—was the inspiration behind her passionate charity work. But, now, it’s clear that her own time in and out of hospitals, and multiple surgeries, give her another reason to fight for the well-being of the men and women who care for the sick and injured. “That’s the shit that gets me going personally,” she told Vanity Fair in 2018.
What’s also clear is that Clarke approached the second season of Game of Throneswith even more pressure on her shoulders. Her plotline that year—which sees Daenerys Targaryen stranded in Qarth and stripped of her precious dragons—is often viewed as a weak point of the show’s eight-season run. But any examination of Clarke’s performance in that season must now be viewed through the lens of knowing that she went back to work mere weeks after losing the ability to communicate.
“My full name is Emilia Isobel Euphemia Rose Clark,” she writes in her essay. “But now I 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 . . . In my worst moments, I wanted to pull the plug.”
Though Clarke made a solid recovery and informed her HBO bosses on the show what had happened to her, she calls the second season a struggle: “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.” Clarke did all that, received heavy criticism for Season 2, and never once spoke out about her physical and mental struggles—an act that might have silenced her critics. In fact, she says she lied to reporters when a story about her health challenges leaked to The National Enquirer. She writes: “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.”
Clarke underwent another surgery in 2013 after she filmed Season 3 of Thrones, and performed in Breakfast at Tiffany’s on Broadway. This procedure was far worse than the last, and the stalwart Clarke describes waking up “screaming in pain.” The doctors went in again, this time through her skull. In recovery a second time, Clarke says: “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.”
From there on out, Clarke’s arc on Thrones became more deterministic, with Daenerys’s will to not only survive, but thrive, culminating in a famous Season 5 speech: “I’m not going to stop the wheel. I’m going to break the wheel.” Clarke has continued to defy expectations since then, moving from the fringes of the show to the beating heart at its center—and has created an iconic character with an unbeatable will who will endure long after the show is over. That she did it all while secretly fighting for her own life only adds to the legend of both the actress and the dragon-riding role she made her own.