In the George R.R. Martin novel A Storm of Swords—the third installment of the A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series that brought us the 59-time Emmy Award–winning series Game of Thrones—it is said that when a Targaryen is born, the gods flip a coin. One side brings greatness, and one side brings madness. We know how things ended for Daenerys Targaryen, but what about Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen before her? “Greatness,” Milly Alcock responds with a cheeky smile during our Zoom call. It’s hard to say whether the actress is leading me astray with this answer. After all, HBO Max has been keeping much of its new series House of the Dragon tightly under wraps. But either way, she has me on the edge of my seat.
Set 200 years before the events of Game of Thrones, House of the Dragon centers on a particularly turbulent period of the House Targaryen’s reign. Vying for their rightful place on the iron throne are Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen, the would-be first queen regnant of Westeros, and her ruthless uncle, Prince Daemon Targaryen. It’s Succession, but with dragons and bloody battles. The show opens up with our first look at young Rhaenyra, a skilled dragon rider who is more interested in her father’s political affairs than getting married and bearing children. She is regal yet fierce. Alcock, who is sporting a dirty-blonde chop and thick brunette brows on the day of our call, is almost unrecognizable as the platinum-haired princess. It’s the Australian native’s U.S. debut and a striking one at that. Having only appeared in Australian television, the 22-year-old is landing in Hollywood in a big way, holding her own opposite the likes of Matt Smith in one of the summer’s most anticipated shows.
So on the precipice of her breakout moment, I caught up with Alcock to talk about her journey from “dish bitch” to small-screen star, the acting master class that was working on House of the Dragon, and that stunning L.A. premiere look.
The House of the Dragon series was announced in 2019, and you were cast the next summer. Can you take me back to when you first heard about the project and tell me about the audition process?
Well, I hadn’t auditioned in like a year because of COVID and everything. I was living at home in my family attic, and me and my friends at the time, to get through COVID, were throwing live music gigs and live art-gallery events. We would ticket them and would get all of our friends who are painters and artists [to participate]. We would curate and display the work and get the space ready, and then we’d get our friends who are musicians to play, and we’d sell booze and everything in different warehouses. I used to work at the warehouse at this restaurant, and I was washing dishes there. I was a dish bitch at the time. So that was my life. It was very different.
And then I got sent an audition for an unknown HBO project. I went to shoot it with a friend of mine, and he was like, “This scene is from Game of Thrones,” and I was like, “I haven’t seen Game of Thrones.” Well, I hadn’t at that time. I have now. He was like, “This is from Game of Thrones. This is the scene with Arya Stark. This is the needle scene.” So I watched it and was like, “Okay, cool” and sent the tape through and very quickly got a callback. I remember my agent, who was recording me for my callback. After we shot it, he looked me dead in the eye and said, “I feel like I’m just watching history being made.” And I was like, “Don’t say that!” It was just very surreal and crazy and exciting.
Let’s talk about Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen. Once you were able to dive into the actual script and that character a bit more, what really appealed to you about her?
I really liked her resilience and her sense of self. She’s very assured in who she is and what she stands for. And I really adore her morals.
What was your reaction to seeing the series poster with you as Rhaenyra standing in front of the dragon for the first time?
I remember thinking, “Oh my god, I look so tired” because it was an actual still from on set. We didn’t do a separate shoot for it. And I remember Miguel showed it to me privately, and I just looked at him and was like, “What? Where is everyone else?” And he was like, “It’s you.” And I was like, “Why? Why is it just me?” And he was like, “Because you are Rhaenyra!” But I haven’t seen any real-life [billboards]. People have been sending me billboards and stuff, but I haven’t seen any, and I really want to.
This series is set 200 years before the events of Game of Thrones, but there are sure to be some comparisons of Princess Rhaenyra to Queen Daenerys Targaryen. In what ways would you say the two are similar? And how are they different?
Their position. The way that they position themselves and navigate themselves throughout the world is very similar. But they are different fundamentally because of how they were brought up. Daenerys wasn’t brought up with the assumption of power and the perception of privilege and royalty, whereas Rhaenyra was, so that’s how they differ.
You and Emma D’Arcy both play Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen at different points in her life. Did the two of you work together on any specific mannerisms that are unique to Rhaenyra?
There was no process. We didn’t do that at all, which was really scary for me and Emily [Carey, who plays the younger version of Alicent Hightower]. I asked, “So when am I going to meet Emma?” And Miguel was like, “Ah,” and I was like, “This would have happened. If you wanted it to happen, it would have happened.” I just put my faith and trust in Miguel’s hands that he had chosen the right actor to play the part, and I think Emma’s done a fantastic job. I mean, I haven’t seen any of their work or their episodes. I haven’t even read them. I wasn’t allowed to read them, so I’m excited to see how they make Rhaenyra their own.
What about your own process in terms of getting into the mindset of Rhaenyra and building out this character?
It was a lot of different things. I always make a playlist when I’m studying or researching any character, so I listened to a lot of classical music. I read the books. … Well, I read the bit I’m in. I didn’t read the whole book because it’s a big book. And then obviously, I watched the show. I made spreadsheets and graphs trying to break down what everything meant within the world and how I could contextualize it within the world that we live in. Then, lots of pacing around and talking to myself in my bedroom and, ultimately, trying not to butcher the accent because I’m not British. But as soon as you step onto the set, you are literally in the world, and the costumes change your physicality immensely, and it’s like, “There she is,” especially the wig as well.
How was that transformation for you, working with the glam teams and wardrobe?
It was really exciting. It felt like I didn’t have to act. I just got to be in the space and be truthful within the scene, and it would all come together and contextualize itself within the world. But the wigs, the process of getting the wig made, I had two fittings. They wrap your head in cellophane. But as soon as I put that wig on for the first time, I was like, “Ah, there she is.” And I had many, many fittings with Jany, who is our lovely costume designer, and she is so meticulous and careful. Yeah, she is a pro.
Do you have a favorite look from this season?
It’s the first thing we see her in. The first scene, the first episode. You see her get off that dragon, and when I think of her, that’s the outfit. I think it encompasses the way she wishes she could behave with Westeros as opposed to the other gowns. They are beautiful, though.
In regards to her hair, will we see some intricate braids on Rhaenyra as we did with Daenerys?
Rhaenyra isn’t really into the way she presents herself in that sense. And I think it’s her inherent rebellion to who she is expected to be and how she’s expected to behave. So she’s quite simplistic with her hair—to say, “I’m not going to play into your game. Dolling me up and being someone you can balk at, I don’t want to be a part of it.”
What were you most excited to see come to life on-screen while watching the first episode?
Honestly, everybody’s acting. I cannot stop gushing about this cast. I have fallen in love with all of them. They are all such lovely people and so talented and such great mentors for me—not only for how to be a better actor [and] how to perform better but also how to behave on set and the etiquette and how to treat people and knowing when to step up and when to be quiet and just being respectful of everybody’s work. It’s like school camp. You spend so much time with all of these people. We spent a year shooting this show with all of these people, and you get to share that with everyone.
Speaking of the incredible performances, I want to talk about working with Matt Smith, who plays your on-screen uncle, Daemon Targaryen. He causes trouble for the throne, but you can see Rhaenyra has a soft spot for him in her younger years.
Very early on in the rehearsal process, I remember me and Matt sat down with Miguel, and we wanted to grasp what their relationship was like prior to this. I think they see a likeness within each other. They recognize each other’s perspectives on the crown and on the world itself, and they both have a similar attitude toward it. But … who they are—who they are fundamentally as people but also how they are perceived by the world around them—dictates the way they can navigate throughout that. So when they are put in the same world, we can see a different side of Daemon and a different side of Rhaenyra because they have a mutual understanding of what it means to be a royal, and they can strip back all of the formalities of it.
There’s also the interesting dynamic between Rhaenyra and Alicent Hightower, who was her closest friend and confidant as a young girl but later ends up getting in her way of the throne. Can you tell me about working with Emily Carey and building that foundation for those paths to eventually diverge?
I adore Em, and I feel very protective of her and like her big sister. So there wasn’t a lot to perform because we created that bond within itself. Because of the nature of how we shot the show, I was with Emily a lot of the time and then with a lot of the older actors. So we were the only two young women on set going through this major shift and change—not only in our professional lives but within our personal lives. Emily was 18 at the time that we shot this, and I cannot imagine. I was 20, so I was only two years older, but 18 to 20, you are a different person at that point. So I felt an obligation to make sure she was okay. The scenes where we weren’t the best of friends were difficult because I don’t like being angry at her in real life, and I didn’t want to pretend.
The GOT fan base is huge. Has anything surprised you in the process of working on this project?
It’s all been a surprise because it’s all a completely new experience for me. I’ve only ever done Australian television, which is so different to anything the House of the Dragon was in my experience making it. So this whole experience has been a completely new opportunity to learn everything, like everything. I didn’t have an expectation of what it was going to be like.
Can we talk about the dress you wore to the L.A. premiere? Stunning!
I work with a beautiful stylist called Holly White, and we tried on a bunch of different looks. We had three fittings, and I was trying on everything for press and all the premieres, and we couldn’t figure out what to wear for L.A. Nothing felt quite right. I was going to wear this other piece that was a shirt that was strappy and these trousers, and then it was our last fitting, and Holly was like, “I found the dress.” She pulled that dress out, and we both gasped. I put it on, and it fit like a glove. None of that was altered. And we were like, “Oh my god, this is phenomenal.” It’s also archive McQueen, which is to die for. So it was a last-minute heavenly surprise basically.
Now that you are breaking into the U.S. in a big way with House of the Dragon, what do you hope to achieve next in your career?
This is the exciting thing. Now, I have options. I’ve never had options before. I would love to do an independent film or a play. I really want to do a play. I’ve never done one before, so I think that would be a really exciting challenge and a completely different way of working because the play lives and dies in the moment it’s shown as opposed to being this huge machine. So I definitely want to do something a little more intimate.
Catch Milly Alcock in House of the Dragon, now streaming on HBO Max.
Stylist: Holly White
Hairstylist: Ben Talbott
Makeup Artist: Sara Hill