‘House of the Dragon’ stars break down gut-wrenching Season 2 premiere ending

Nathalie Tomada - The Philippine Star
�House of the Dragon� stars break down gut-wrenching Season 2 premiere ending
Olivia Cooke on her character, Queen Dowager Alicent Hightower: ‘She’s trying not to be rageful (and) to seek vengeance. Phia Saban on being Queen Helaena Targaryen: ‘The strength that she finds isn’t what we see conventionally as strength.’
STAR / File

British stars Olivia Cooke and Phia Saban play the mother-and-daughter queens Alicent Hightower and Helaena Targaryen in HBO’s “Game of Thrones” prequel “House of the Dragon.”

Their relationship will be put to the test after the heartbreakingly shocking “Blood and Cheese” scene in the pilot episode last Monday (Manila time, via HBO GO and HBO Asia) titled A Son for a Son.

“House of the Dragon” adapts events from George R.R. Martin’s book “Fire & Blood,” centering on the Targaryen civil war known as “The Dance of the Dragons.” Some major spoilers here: To recall, Season 1 climaxes with Alicent’s son Aemond Targaryen’s dragon accidentally killing his cousin Lucerys, triggering his mother, Rhaenyra Targaryen, to call for revenge in Season 2. Daemon, the latter’s uncle-husband, orchestrates an assassination attempt on Aemond. “Blood,” the hired assassin, enlists “Cheese,” a rat catcher, to aid in the plot. Unable to find Aemond, they target the children of Queen Helaena, who is forced to make a harrowing decision that leads to the tragic murder of the heir to the throne.

Alicent, daughter of Otto Hightower (played by Rhys Ifans), was Rhaenyra’s childhood best friend and became the widow of King Viserys of House Targaryen. She has three children with Viserys, including Aegon II, whom Alicent supported in usurping the throne after Viserys’ death.

The queen flees with her other child to her mother Alicent’s bedroom to inform the queen dowager of her grandson’s death, only to discover her mother in a tryst with Ser Criston Cole.

Following the events of the pilot episode, the trailer for Episode 2 on Monday suggests “pain for each and every loss” and a “war is coming that neither of us may win,” to borrow the words of Alicent and Rhaenyra.

We haven’t read the source material, which fans said had a more gruesome and gut-wrenching depiction of this scene. But nevertheless, the TV version didn’t spare the audience from the sequence’s heartbreak and horror by way of sound effects.

Heleana is Alicent and Viserys’s only daughter. She is married to her brother, Aegon II, and is the queen of Westeros.
HBO Asia

Reflecting on how she tackled such a scene, Phia told the international press, including The STAR, during a virtual interview: “I think that it’s the highest stakes imaginable. And it’s nowhere close to any experience I have and God willing will ever have in my life. And I think that in that situation, therefore, all you can do is just try and live in the reality of the exact moment. Not zoom out, like, okay, get ready to play the worst thing ever. (That’s) so not helpful.

“You kind of just have to be like, ‘What do I feel right now? I am, you know, I’m here. I’m being held at knifepoint. I’m being told that if I don’t tell the truth right now, not only me, but my whole universe, my children are going to be killed. What do I do?

“I think it’s one of those moments where, you know, you hear their stories of like, a mother lifts a car off her child because she finds the strength. I think that what’s really interesting about Helaena is that the strength that she finds isn’t maybe the strength that what we see conventionally as strength? But she is very clear in that moment. She’s like, I have to do what I have to do.

“I think it would have been torturous for me to like, play beyond that. Because I think that would have been too, sort of, I guess, like nebulous. So yeah, I just tried to keep it simple, basically,” Phia further said.

When asked where this first episode ending will take and affect their characters, with a “blame game” anticipated, Olivia shared: “I think it’s something that begins to crush, and then the only way out is to use it as a bit of an engine. Alicent will try to do the most logical thing possible, which is to save herself and Helaena.”

Added Phia, “I think it’s a situation where sometimes, all they have is each other. So, in a sense, they’ve been pushed to a place where they don’t have an option to not be there for each other. They just have to work out how it’s going to work now that everything’s gone terribly wrong.”

They also indicated that it’s easier to access emotions when playing characters they’ve known for several years.

Olivia said, “I don’t know, it feels quite… I mean, the stakes are also high. And so I mean, truly, it just comes from the prism of truth for Alicent. And it feels instinctually obvious to feel so strongly about all these situations…

“It’s just, she’s trying not to cry. She’s always trying not to cry. She’s trying not to have an outburst. She’s trying not to be rageful, also like to seek vengeance. It’s all just so restricted. She’s just trying to basically like dumping — dumping all these all these feelings down and I don’t know, I find it weirdly just like, it’s quite an easy environment to feel.”

“And I think that helps with just the fact that we’ve played these characters for nearly four years,” she added.

Meanwhile, amid the show’s dark, complicated and heavy themes, the two stars who are reportedly close off screen described the “House of the Dragon” set as a place of learning at the same time, it’s like being with friends.

“This sounds so cheesy, but I genuinely learned from the way you work — about just like how you are on a set,” Phia addressed Olivia.

She continued, “How well you sort of are, like, so warm and having fun with everyone. But you also don’t…. it’s never at the sacrifice of your work. And I feel like that is really useful to me. I can struggle with the blurring of the lines (between work and hanging out with my friends).”

This also meant better work for them, said Phia.

Olivia readily agreed, also pointing out it’s the kind of environment where “we feel more relaxed, freer and feel like you trust the people that you’re with.”

The STAR also asked the two how life and career have been since acting in a successful production with a built-in fan base and is part of the “Game of Thrones” universe.

Olivia, who previously earned notice in projects like the psychological horror “Bates Motel” or the period drama “Vanity Fair,” said, “You know what? It’s actually been less scary than I thought it was gonna be. It’s sort of like there’s more, you know, energy and eyes, and it gets a bit voyeuristic around the time of the launch. But then, like, anything that ebbs and flows, doesn’t it?

“So when you’re not on the telly, I think people’s memories are quite fickle, and you are sort of like old news, your old news, which is wonderful, and you get to live a somewhat anonymous life again.

“Especially when I’m not friggin’ ginger (her hair color on show), yeah! And people have generally been quite lovely.”

Added Phia, “I think in the UK as well, there’s a different culture around like seeing famous people.”

“They’d rather die,” joked Olivia.

Said the relative newcomer Phia (who previously starred in the medieval drama “The Last Kingdom”), “Yeah, they’re like, I haven’t seen it, by the way, and I don’t care about you. I mean, there are people who simply wouldn’t recognize me outside of my work, not even the cast sometimes. With Olivia, I’ve noticed and with other people, they’ll be like, ‘Oh, by the way, my mate says you’re in like ‘Game of Thrones,’ but I’ve never seen it. And I don’t like it.’ ‘Oh, nice to meet you, too.’

Quipped Olivia, “(And you go) yeah, cool. One interaction. And have a nice day. Thank you.”

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