House of the Dragon: Matt Smith on Playing George R.R. Martin’s Most Misunderstood Character

Actors Matt Smith and Fabien Frankel love exploring ambiguities in House of the Dragon that author George R.R. Martin only hinted at.

Matt Smith and Emma D'Arcy in House of the Dragon
Photo: HBO

When we sit down with House of the Dragon stars Matt Smith and Fabien Frankel on a sunny afternoon in Hollywood, the two actors are more than a little amused. It might have something to do with how we describe the pair’s characters in the upcoming Game of Thrones spinoff: the Bad Boys of King’s Landing.

“Maybe we should start a band,” Smith muses while they consider the implications of the moniker. And yet, it’s not an inaccurate way to consider the characters they play or how author George R.R. Martin has presented them in Westerosi history. Fire & Blood, the fictional Targaryen history text on which House of the Dragon is based, intentionally offers conflicting information about Smith’s Prince Daemon Targaryen and Frankel’s Dornish Ser Criston Cole.

When House of the Dragon begins, Daemon is the heir apparent to his older brother King Viserys I (Paddy Considine), with the prince being his oldest living male relative—in the premiere, Viserys has “only” a daughter, Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock). Meanwhile Frankel’s Ser Criston is a bit of a showboat; a roguish knight with something to prove at a great tourney in Daemon’s honor.

On the page, both have been construed as heroes and villains, with Daemon known to often strut around King’s Landing with his loyal City Watch Cops like something akin to a rock star with an entourage. In response, his detractors call him “Lord Flea Bottom.” Yet it should be noted that Fire & Blood is intentionally written to confound the reader, with the text being one maester’s fairly biased account of historical events that happened a century before his birth, and for which he bases his information on other primary (and even more unreliable) historical sources. In other words, there’s a lot of wiggle room and mystery about these blokes.

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“I think it’s a very freeing thing,” Smith says. “It’s a wonderfully liberating aspect of the books, and something they’ve employed [so we can] give our own spin on these characters. The barebones are there, but they’re ambiguous; there’s nothing black and white about them, which I think is wonderful, and a sort of testament to George, really. “

Frankel agrees when he adds, “There are very few goodies and baddies in real life, people are human beings. And I think these two are not exempt from that. So it was very fun for Matt and I to try and bring humanity and our own kind of individual takes of what are already well-written and beloved characters in the books.”

Take Prince Daemon for example. When House of the Dragon starts, voices around the aging king, including Ser Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans), the Hand of the King, attempt to distance the monarch from his younger brother, painting Daemon as an ambitious, callow libertine. And there is an element of that to Smith’s performance. But unlike Hightower’s assessment, or perhaps even that of many Fire & Blood readers, there’s a wounded quality here as well. 

“I think everything is about his brother,” Smith says of the platinum-haired prince. “He’s deeply wounded, I think that’s where it all comes from. Otherwise, I think you’d get tired of him just being vain and pernicious, you know what I mean? Don’t get me wrong, there is a touch of that in there, but I think everything is a result of his sort of attitude toward his brother on some level.”

It is perhaps for that reason Smith was always the first choice to play Daemon in House of the Dragon co-showrunner Ryan Condal’s mind. When we spoke with Condal several months ago for Den of Geek magazine, the series’ head writer said Smith was who he instantly thought of for this character, even suggesting there are shades in Daemon of one of Smith’s other most beloved roles, that of Prince Philip, the Queen Consort of Elizabeth II. When we run by Smith that contrast, he initially dismisses it out of hand given his performance of Philip on The Crown was rooted in historical fact instead of high fantasy. But upon closer inspection, he does concede some parallels.

“Daemon is an extremely violent or crazed dragon rider,” Smith begins, “and Prince Philip is the Queen’s Consort, or was the Queen’s Consort, God rest his soul.” The actor pauses. “But they’re both second in command on some level, and they’re both sort of looking up at the throne instead of sitting on it. I suppose there are some correlations. But I was keen to avoid them, really. Prince Philip is his own man.”

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On House of the Dragon, Daemon and Criston meet each other on the literal field of battle—at least insofar as a jousting tournament can be called a battle. The sequence, which is set in a location far more splendid than the jousting scenes from Game of Thrones, also establishes both characters as ferocious with a sword.

“It was great for us,” says Frankel, “because it was our first scene together, and it was just incredibly enjoyable to see what these two men are like. Because you do all your own work at home and you get to come opposite someone—and I remember Matt did it differently in three or four different ways, and it was new for me because I come from theater where things tend to be done one way, and it’s the same thing every night. Matt was changing it every time, which was creating a feeling in me. I remember feeling angry at one point, and kind of attracted to Daemon at another point, so it was really nice.”

When we ask which is the better horse rider though, the Bad Boys of King’s Landing simultaneously begin to demure.

“I think we’re both evenly bad, to be honest with you,” Smith laughs. “But we did manage to pull it off.”

Audiences can judge for themselves when House of the Dragon premieres on Sunday, Aug. 21.