In a revealing essay in The New Yorker, Emilia Clarke shares her personal story in battling against two life-threatening brain aneurysms after filming the first season of the HBO juggernaut series Game of Thrones. She begins the piece by saying “Just when all my childhood dreams seemed to have come true, I nearly lost my mind and then my life. I’ve never told this story publicly, but now it’s time.”
In the piece, Clarke explains how the character of Daenerys Targaryen was first described to her, and the audition process that saw her do an impromptu robot dance. It was all enough to impress showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss that they immediately offered her the part.
Clarke then goes on to describe the harrowing experience of suffering her first aneurysm, believing she was dying (and easily could have been — “As I later learned, about a third of SAH [subarachnoid hemorrhage] patients die immediately or soon thereafter. For the patients who do survive, urgent treatment is required to seal off the aneurysm, as there is a very high risk of a second, often fatal bleed. If I was to live and avoid terrible deficits, I would have to have urgent surgery. And, even then, there were no guarantees.”) All of this pain and uncertainty came just after filming on the series, which was stressful on its own. As she describes (talking also about her lack of professional acting experience at the time):
Despite all the looming excitement of a publicity campaign and the series première, I hardly felt like a conquering spirit. 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. I felt, in every way, exposed. 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?”
After the brain surgery that saved her life, Clarke went back to work, but she had told the producers it was contingent on her health:
Even before we began filming Season 2, I was deeply unsure of myself. I was often so woozy, so weak, that I thought I was going to die. Staying at a hotel in London during a publicity tour, I vividly remember thinking, I can’t keep up or think or breathe, much less try to be charming. I sipped on morphine in between interviews. The pain was there, and the fatigue was like the worst exhaustion I’d ever experienced, multiplied by a million. And, let’s face it, I’m an actor. Vanity comes with the job. I spent way too much time thinking about how I looked. If all this weren’t enough, I seemed to whack my head every time I tried to get in a taxi.
A second aneurysm later showed up on a scan, which necessitated another surgery, one that was supposedly simpler than the first. “No problem. Except there was. When they woke me, I was screaming in pain. The procedure had failed. I had a massive bleed and the doctors made it plain that my chances of surviving were precarious if they didn’t operate again. This time they needed to access my brain in the old-fashioned way—through my skull.”
Clarke goes on to detail her recovery and the uncertainty that continued to plague her regarding her health, but which she kept under wraps so tightly that only one outlet ever asked her about it — and she of course denied it happening. As she explains, “But now, after keeping quiet all these years, I’m telling you the truth in full. Please believe me: I know that I am hardly unique, hardly alone. Countless people have suffered far worse, and with nothing like the care I was so lucky to receive.”
As part of that, Clarke is raising awareness for a charity, she helped develop SameYou, which “aims to provide treatment for people recovering from brain injuries and stroke. I feel endless gratitude—to my mum and brother, to my doctors and nurses, to my friends. Every day, I miss my father, who died of cancer in 2016, and I can never thank him enough for holding my hand to the very end.”