SPOILER ALERT: This interview contains spoilers through Episode 5 of ‘House of the Dragon,’ which aired on HBO on Sept. 18 and is streaming on HBO Max.
Emily Carey isn’t here for any Alicent Hightower slander. The 19-year-old “House of the Dragon” star knows her character may not immediately win hearts — the idea of your best friend marrying your father is a tough pill to swallow, after all.
But Carey insists there’s much beneath the surface for the young queen, who they believe deserves more sympathy.
“Marrying Viserys is also a choice. But it was never her choice to make. The choice was made by the men around her. The amount of misogyny that Rhaenyra faces, Alicent gets just as much,” the actor tells Variety ahead of the series’ fifth episode.
“I read the books. In the future, she does make some questionable choices — let’s put it that way,” she acknowledges with a laugh. “But that’s not the adolescent that I play. I’m playing her in the beginning of her life. The ‘villain origin story,’ in quotation marks, because I personally don’t believe the Alicent that I play is a villain.”
They add, “What’s so heartbreaking about this whole situation is these two young women, neither of them are in control at any time. Their lives are basically being dictated by their fathers.”
Fans have taken note of the powerful bond between Rhaenyra (played in the first five episodes by Milly Alcock) and Alicent, stirring up online discussion that they could be more than just friends.
“I mean, we kind of started that discourse,” Carey says. “We were in the rehearsal room…I believe it’s Episode 4. I was sat on the bench. It’s not necessarily something we’ve talked about yet. We were doing that scene, and Milly and I looked at each other like, ‘It kind of felt like we were about to kiss? That was really weird!’ And so we talked about it.”
Carey doesn’t feel the need to put a label on the relationship, leaving it up to viewer interpretation: “We didn’t intend to play it. We weren’t ‘making them gay’ or ‘queerbaiting,’ or anything like that. It’s just, if you want to read into it and see it like that, do it. If you want to see them as more than friends, do it. If you don’t, then don’t.”
“Being a queer woman myself, it was something that I was conscious of. But I wasn’t consciously putting it out there,” Carey adds. “They’re 14-year-old girls, they don’t know the difference between platonic and romantic. They don’t even know what the words mean, let alone what the feelings mean.”
But in Carey’s final episode as Alicent, the royal reckons with a devastating deception from her once-close friend Rhaenyra — one that saw her father stripped of his title.
Carey recalls that her scene with Ser Criston (Fabien Frankel), in which Alicent discovers that he was intimate with Rhaenyra, as one of her favorite sequences to shoot. “She goes through so many emotions in one go — a concoction-cocktail of all of these feelings.”
She eagerly breaks down the complex sentiments at play: “First of all, there’s the betrayal of, ‘You lied to me.’ Then the betrayal of, ‘I swear this upon the memory of my mother,’ which is what you see in Episode 2 with their shared trauma. It’s something that they bond over. Alicent took Rhaenyra to the Sept and showed this emotional vulnerability, and let her see this part of her that she doesn’t really show to anyone.”
They continued, “And then it’s the betrayal of, ‘Hold on. You slept with him, and I’m in love with him, and you know this. That’s not fair.’ Alicent is all about duty, through and through. It’s always duty versus heart with her… I’m glad that I got to show how she became this angry woman. And I think that scene is such a turning point.”
After uncovering the truth, Alicent makes a grand entrance during Rhaenyra and Laenor Velaryon’s wedding feast. When Carey first read the script, she assumed the dramatic moment wasn’t meant for her.
“I remember going back to our script supervisor and being like, ‘OK, so which are my bits? Because surely that’s not all me? Especially that last bit, that’s not me. That’s, like, a woman. That’s not me.”
Carey felt the pressure of all eyes being on her: “Oh god, I have to do my big walk down here,” she recalls thinking. “I’m salt gonna trip in front of everyone.”
Ultimately, she used those nerves to inform her performance: “This is kind of the last big hurrah that I have in this show. The pressure that I felt within me, I channeled into Alicent.”
After that last hurrah, Carey bid farewell to Alicent, passing the role on to Olivia Cooke, who will portray the queen after the show’s 10-year time jump, beginning in the sixth episode.
While the adult Alicent is certainly informed by her past, Carey says Cooke’s interpretation is all her own — in fact, the actors didn’t work together on the character at all.
“We didn’t even meet for a very long time,” Carey recalls. “So much happens within that 10-year gap…we’re going from practically children into fully-fledged women. There’s a whole load of growing up to do in that mix, so it’s kind of like we’re playing completely different people.”
Carey is no stranger to portraying the young version of iconic heroines, previously stepping into the shoes of Wonder Woman and Lara Croft. But “House of the Dragon” gave them more opportunity to craft a character than ever before.
“It’s very strange, having this much this much freedom and this much ownership of a role, and then not even being able to read the rest of the scripts, because it was so top secret,” Carey says of the “bittersweet” transition, adding that she can’t wait to enjoy the show purely as a fan.
“I am incredibly excited to see Olivia and Emma [D’Arcy, who plays the adult Rhaenyra] do their thing. They are both the loveliest people ever, and I’ve admired Olivia’s work for years and years. So to be able to hand off a role to her of all people fills me with so much joy and pride,” they say.
“I just can’t wait to see the episodes and actually watch the show with the viewer, and not be cringing at myself. I can actually take it in from an audience’s perspective, which is quite nice.”