How House of the Dragon Empowers its Women Behind the Scenes
Unlike Game of Thrones, House of the Dragon empowers its young actors by actively creating a safe environment behind the scenes.
Although the bar set by Game of Thrones was incredibly low to begin with, House of the Dragon somehow barely manages to do better than its predecessor week to week in regards to how its female characters are treated on screen. Between the gruesome death of Aemma Arryn (Sian Brooke) in the series premiere, the willingness of the Velaryons to marry their twelve year old daughter Laena (Nova Fouellis-Mosé) off to the King for political power, and Daemon Targaryen’s (Matt Smith) creepy and predatory behavior toward his niece Rhaenyra (Milly Alcock), House of the Dragon still finds ways to undercut showrunner Miguel Sapochnik’s claims that the series is a more feminist take on Westeros.
Where House of the Dragon does better than Game of Thrones, however, is in creating a safer environment for its actors so that they feel secure and empowered behind the scenes. In a fairly recent interview with The Sunday Times, Game of Thrones actor Sean Bean complained about the addition of intimacy coordinators to film and television sets claiming that they “spoil the spontaneity” of shooting an intimate scene and that “bringing [sex and intimacy] right down to a technical exercise” ruins the authenticity of the moment.
Based on interviews with several other Game of Thrones actors, it would actually seem as though an intimacy coordinator would have been a much-needed addition to the set. In an interview with The Guardian, Gemma Whelan, who played Yara Greyjoy in GOT, discussed how chaotic filming sex scenes for the series was. While the actors would often take the initiative to check-in with each other between takes, their directions were pretty much just “When we shout action, go for it!” With an intimacy coordinator, however, intimate scenes are choreographed ahead of time, just as one might plan ahead for an action sequence, so that consent and boundaries can be established before shooting even begins.
While Whelan doesn’t explicitly talk about an experience where she felt totally unsafe, Tamzin Merchant and Emilia Clarke have both talked about feeling pressured as young actors to do intimate scenes outside of their comfort zone. Merchant was cast as Daenerys Targaryen for the Game of Thrones pilot before the role eventually went to Clarke, and spoke to Entertainment Weekly about her brief experience on the show. Merchant tried to back out of some intimate scenes she wasn’t comfortable with while signing her contract, but found herself “talked back into it by some persuasive people.” She describes the filming experience as being “naked and afraid in Morocco.”
In a different interview, Clarke similarly talks about feeling pressured to do scenes she wasn’t entirely comfortable with in the early days of the series, saying “I was so desperate to be the most professional actor I could be that I’d be like, ‘Yeah, sure,’ for anything they threw at me. I’ll just cry about it in the bathroom later, whatever, you won’t know.” Thankfully, HBO has since instituted a requirement for intimacy coordinators to be present for any intimate scenes, but it’s hard to go back and watch Game of Thrones knowing that women weren’t treated much better behind the scenes.
In this regard, House of the Dragon is already off to a much better start. Emily Carey, who plays the young Alicent Hightower and uses she/they pronouns, recently told Newsweek how grateful they are for the intimacy coordinator the series has on set. Carey was only 17 when cast in this role, so they were (rightfully) scared about how to approach the more intimate scenes they have with King Viserys actor Paddy Considine, who was 47 at the time. They started watching Game of Thrones to prepare, but seeing how violent many of the sex scenes in that show are only made them more nervous.
However, thanks to the intimacy coordinator and episode 4 director Clare Kilner, Carey ultimately felt safe and secure performing these intimate scenes. They never felt “shunned” or “awkward” for asking questions or voicing concerns during rehearsal or filming, and they praise how “empowering” being on this set felt for them. Knowing that Carey didn’t feel unsafe or patronized while filming, gives a new perspective to their performance as Alicent. Even though Alicent is very much a victim of the patriarchy and her social station, the female perspective that Kilner gives to episode 4 gives us more of an opportunity to identify with Alicent rather than just be spectators of her awful circumstances.
When she’s essentially forced into bed with Viserys, instead of featuring gratuitous nudity or focusing on the act of sex itself, we spend more time on Alicent’s face and her emotions in this moment. Because the scene is choreographed ahead of time by the intimacy coordinator and the director, Carey is able to focus more on what Alicent is feeling in this moment rather than where her hands should go or what she should be doing with her body – and that comes through in her performance.
Rhaenyra also goes through her own form of abuse in episode 4 when her uncle Daemon takes her to a pleasure den to do what he wants with her. In approaching this scene, Kilner tells HBO’s House of the Dragon: Inside the Episode how important it was for her to shoot this scene, and Rhaenyra’s subsequent hookup with Ser Criston Cole (Fabien Frankel), from the “right point of view” and not from the male-centric perspective we typically see on screen. In both the brothel and Rhaenyra’s bedroom, it was important to Kilner that we see both men and women experiencing pleasure on screen. Even though Daemon does force Rhaenyra into this situation, we also see something awaken in her that leads to her more empowering experience with Ser Cole later that night.
In all of these scenarios, actors Emily Carey and Milly Alcock are more protected behind the scenes than the characters they portray on screen. Between Kilner and the intimacy coordinator, Carey and Alcock have better support than their fellow Game of Thrones actors on set, and that’s an important step in the right direction for this franchise. Protecting young actors and helping them feel safe will give room for better performances more than any “spontaneity” will.
As much as I wish for the land of Westeros to be more dragons and less misogyny on screen, House of the Dragon deserves credit for actively working to make sure that the behind the scenes horror stories from Game of Thrones don’t happen on their set and that the actors feel empowered to do their jobs well.