When House of the Dragon producers first began to contemplate casting an actor to play the pivotal role of Daemon Targaryen — a mercurial and enigmatic prince — one name kept popping up.
“We were like: ‘Matt Smith would be interesting,’” recalls Miguel Sapochnik, who is showrunner on HBO’s Game of Thrones prequel series along with Ryan Condal. “Then it was like, ‘We should come up with some names — Matt Smith would be interesting.’ Then later it was, ‘Well, we should probably go to Matt Smith at this point.’”
Adds Condal: “I was a big fan of The Crown, and the performance Matt pu t on in those two seasons told me everything you needed to know about the actor — he can disappear into those roles. Oddly, Prince Philip shares some crossover traits with Daemon.”
Critics and fans have singled out Smith’s performance as one of the strongest draws of the new series, which debuted to a record 10 million viewers Sunday. Yet the 39-year-old British actor wasn’t immediately sold on joining the show when he was first approached. Below, Smith discusses the role during a chat with The Hollywood Reporter by phone from London for our recent deep-dive cover story about the new series.
So what was your reaction when you were first approached about this role?
I was in a car park and my agent said, “There’s this part in this new show that is a prequel to Game of Thrones.” And I was like, “Ohhh. I don’t know. It’s a tough one, isn’t it? It’s a tough one to follow. Haven’t we seen this before?” But then [the offer] sort of didn’t go away. Then it came up again, and then I went in for a screen test and then that was that.
What convinced you to get on board?
I became aware that Paddy Considine was doing the show as well. He’d already been offered the role of King Viserys, and I was such a huge admirer of Paddy’s and I’d always wanted to work with him. So that was a real draw.
And then there are so many elements to Daemon. I love the relationship with his brother. He’s a brilliant character because you never quite know what he’s thinking. I liked the ambiguity of that. There’s a ruthlessness in his personality that I thought was really interesting to see characters who behave that badly. But in many ways, he comes from what he thinks is quite a genuine place.
When your casting was first announced, it was a bit controversial among fans because I think they associate you so strongly with your previous work. Did you hear about that reaction and did it make you want to prove yourself even more?
That’s one’s job as an actor, isn’t it? You sort of have to disappear and you can’t really listen to outside noise. I learned that with Doctor Who. It was such an adverse reaction when I first got that part, and you just have to shut it out and focus on the work. I always knew I could add something to it. It won’t be to everyone’s pace, I’m sure. But I certainly feel that I’ve made a connection with Daemon and with the other actors as well. I think we’ve got a wonderful cast.
Did you talk to any of the actors from the original series before signing on?
I had a brief conversation with [Daenerys Targaryen actor Emilia Clarke]. She was very generous. But this was before my screen test. So no, it was all a fresh experience.
We’d heard so much about the Targaryens on Game of Thrones and, of course, had Emilia giving her performance. Did that enter your head at all? Your character is fun because he’s what you think of when you think of an old-school Targaryen prince — a fearless and brutal rock star type, sort of like what like [Daenerys’ brother] wanted to be.
I said this to [the producers] at the start that I don’t just wanna make it this one thing. On the page, Daemon could really be one thing. I was always interested in trying to subvert it a little into something else. I think there’s a sort of strange, sensitive nature to Daemon and quite a genuine loyalty to him and humanistic qualities that you can peel away and see.
What was the biggest challenge along the way?
There’s a lot of stunts involved, and that was challenging over quite a long period. It’s a big 10-month shoot. So physically, it was really draining. But there are those big scenes where you sit around the table that are quite challenging because there’s so many characters to cover and it takes days and you’ve got to remain sharp and focused.
I remember Natalie Dormer on the first series saying the same thing: It’s the show’s big group scenes — such as Tyrion’s trial — where producers need to get so much coverage and you have to stand there in character and be attentive day after day that can be some of the hardest scenes even though it looks the easiest to viewers.
Exactly. And it’s “cry me a river” and “a small price to pay” and all that, but it is something that becomes quite challenging.
You mentioned your stunts; you also got injured on the set, which I heard made things rather tough for you when filming after that.
That was doing a stunt in a helmet. Hit the disc in my neck in Portugal. It’s fucking pain in the neck — literally, metaphorically and physically.
Are you recovered now?
I’m actually waiting to go into the physio right now after this to do some work on it. But, you know, it’s all part of the process, on some level.
The producers talked about how much you got into character when on set for the day, with Ryan noting, “If you get to know Matt, I’d suggest you do it when he’s out of costume because there’s something that happens when he puts on that wig.” Did you take this to the point of method acting? Or should it not be confused with that?
Well, I had wonderful moments of real focus and engagement with [Rhaenyra Targaryen actor] Emma D’Arcy and with Paddy where we would just totally be locked into one another’s energies for the day. We could still have a little laugh or whatever, but when the camera was rolling, the focus was on. Yeah, it felt very real. I wouldn’t call it “method” — that’s such a hard thing to do over the course of 10 months. But that process does bleed in and out if the other actor is up to it.
How’s Daemon’s relationship with his dragon?
Oh God, really interesting. There’s a kind of weird symbiosis, like with an avatar. Caraxes is really grumpy. There’s a similar cantankerous nature to both of us.
Which meant you had to spend a fair amount of time on the dragon rig. What was that like?
There was wind and rain and it feels giant motorbike. It was fun. You’re quite high up. It’s not a bad day at the office.
Now that everything is wrapped and coming out in a few months, is the reputation of Thrones as this huge Emmy-winning series still a concern at all?
No. I mean, of course, we’re all aware of the sort of cultural footprint and the phenomenon that was Thrones. It was its own thing and it was in its own time and it was brilliant and it will be impossible to replicate or re-create that time. All we can do is focus on the show that we are trying to make, and while it belongs in the same world, hopefully, it will evolve and become its own thing. This focuses on a tighter group of people, and Thrones was immediately much broader in story terms. This feels like more of a family drama. It’s never gonna re-create the levels of success that Thrones had because it can’t — it was a totally original moment. But we’ve tried to create something that feels entertaining in a similar way, but will hopefully take on a different identity.
Interview edited for length and clarity.