SPOILER ALERT: This interview contains spoilers from the Oct. 23 Season 1 finale of “House of the Dragon,” now streaming on HBO Max.
Unlike most “House of the Dragon” viewers on Sunday night, Olivia Cooke, who plays Alicent Hightower, wasn’t watching the finale — because she wasn’t in it. Instead, she and co-star Emma D’Arcy, who plays Rhaenyra Targaryen, were getting ready to have a watch party at her home Monday evening to see the culmination of the season of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” spinoff.
“Emma and some pals are coming around to mine,” she told Variety Monday. “I’m just going to order some pizzas, and we’re gonna have some Champagne and celebrate the end.”
Despite not appearing in the Season 1 finale, Alicent’s presence was felt far off in Dragonstone, as Rhaenyra and her allies were mobilizing for the impending war. In the penultimate episode, Alicent helped usher in her son Aegon (Tom Glynn-Carney) to the Iron Throne, despite the late King Viserys (Paddy Considine) planning for his daughter Rhaenyra to succeed him. Aegon’s claim to the throne was aided by Alicent misunderstanding Viserys’ dying words — or did she misinterpret him purpose?
In the finale, Alicent didn’t appear in person, but her father Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) sailed to Dragonstone to meet with Rhaenyra and invoked her childhood relationship with Alicent during a tense negotiation. When asking Rhaenyra to surrender, Otto gave her a page from Alicent’s history book that as a child in the series premiere Rhaenyra had ripped out. The moment seemed to give Rhaenyra pause as she considered Otto’s proposal, but by the end of the episode, it was clear that she’s ready to go to war with King’s Landing. During a dragon battle above Storm’s End, Alicent’s son Aemond Targaryen (Ewan Mitchell) killed her son Lucerys “Luke” Velaryon (Elliot Grihault), and the episode ends on a furious shot of Rhaenyra’s face.
In an interview with Variety, Cooke discusses Alicent’s Season 2 future, her strained relationships with Otto Hightower and Criston Cole, the comparisons between her and Cersei Lannister — and that revolting foot fetish scene with Larys Strong.
How are you feeling now that the season is over?
I must say, having never been through anything like this before, 10 weeks of anxiety is just not fun. Now I’ve gone through it, and know what to expect next time it comes out. I think I’m just going to move somewhere really remote and just not engage. It’s so hard to disassociate and detach yourself from the real-world reaction to something that you worked on for 10 months and means so much to so many people, and to us. It’s just a really bizarre thing. It’s so noisy, isn’t it?
What made you the most anxious over the past 10 weeks?
The time-jump and the mid-season reveal of Emma’s and my iterations of Alicent and Rhaenyra after five weeks of an audience cementing a relationship with Emily Carey and Milly Alcock. That was really hard because you just don’t know which way it’s going to go. Maybe I’ll just have the tools to deal with it all a bit better.
In the finale, was Otto bringing Rhaenyra the ripped-out book page an act of peace, or manipulation from Alicent?
I don’t think it was a manipulation at all. I really think she is trying to do whatever she can to smooth over the craters that are about to ensue. She wants as little bloodshed as possible. I do think that’s an olive branch, not manipulation whatsoever. But it’s misplaced, and it’s implemented by panic rather than straightforward thinking. I don’t think she would realize how much of an insult that would be.
What does it mean that she’s held onto that memento from their childhood for so long?
Alicent has very little to hold onto to remind herself of when she was a little girl, without too many pressures and all the duties she has. I can imagine Alicent being someone who has a little box where she can find comfort in little treasures of when she used to have a little bit more autonomy than she does now.
During the scene with Viserys in Episode 8, is Alicent actually misinterpreting his final words about Aegon, or was there a willful misunderstanding?
I think both of those answers can exist in the same breath. Underneath the layers, there is probably a willful ignorance and a willfulness for her son, the actual Targaryen heir, to be on the throne. But also she’s just tenuously made amends with Rhaenyra. The relief in saying to Rhaenyra, “You will make a fine queen,” has done a lot in shedding boatloads of bitterness from the past and all the hang-ups about the legitimacy of her children’s lineage. But she has to honor her husband’s dying wish, doesn’t she? And that’s what she hears. If she does waver over the course of the episode, when she’s telling people what she heard her husband say, she can’t admit that, otherwise her legitimacy would be questioned.
Does Alicent see a path to the Iron Throne for herself?
It feels like fairy tales, because how would Alicent ascend the Iron Throne? She has all these men in her life continuing to try and put her in her place, even though she has a keen political interest and knowledge. She doesn’t rule in Viserys’ absence, and she’s not trying to rule with an iron fist. In her mind, she’s trying to be as pragmatic, methodical and stringent as possible. For her to be on the Iron Throne would be near impossible, if people are questioning Rhaenyra how they didn’t let Rhaenys, who was the better option to Viserys, on the Iron Throne. They’re not going to let a Hightower. So it feels like myth and legend.
What is her ultimate goal?
I played Alicent as wishing it could be someone else other than her son on the Iron Throne. She doesn’t think Aegon is suitable whatsoever. She loves him, but she is simultaneously disgusted in him as a person, and does not think he holds the fundamental qualities to be a king at all. She probably thinks Aemond is more suited, but then again he’s a psychopath. And Helaena is in her own world, and so I don’t know if she thinks any of her children should be on the Iron Throne. I don’t think the possibility of her being on the Iron Throne has really entered her mind. In Episode 8, with the speeches at the end of the dinner where everyone is unified in Viserys’ imminent death, I think she really does believe that Rhaenyra would be a worthy queen.
How hard was it keeping track of all the children and characters? Did you ever get confused on who was who?
Not with my children. With Rhaenyra’s children, I was like, “Which one is this one, now?” There was one moment in Episode 8, I was watching and took a picture and sent it to Emma being like, “Who’s that?” It’s just this little kid holding her hand that I never saw. I was like, “Oh, that’s the person that you gave birth to in Episode 6, right?” I just completely forgot, because I never met them. I do get confused and everyone follows the same names. Everyone’s called Aegon or Rhaenys or Rhaenyra.
I know my brood, and that’s all that matters.
In Episode 9, there’s the scene where Larys Strong reveals to Alicent that her handmaiden Talia is a spy. But in order to get information from him, Alicent shows him her feet and he masturbates in front of her. Who had the real power in that scene, Alicent or Larys?
She knows what Larys can do, how powerful he is and how he won’t stop shy of killing his entire family in order to progress in this court. The dynamic shifts slightly all the time over the scene. He probably holds more weight. It’s difficult, because she has no choice but to go along with a lot of the things that he does. She needs the information. Ultimately, she knows how she’s going to get it. If she doesn’t have the information, it could result in her death or in her usurpation or in her children’s death. I don’t think any of this is taken lightly. It’s just an absolute necessity, unfortunately. I don’t think there’s any manipulation going on. It’s just she needs the information, and this is how she gets it.
It’s disgusting, it’s demeaning, it’s assault. But she’s not really left with any choices. She’s surrounded herself with psychopaths and murderers. There’s no one else to turn to. Maybe she thought she could turn to Talia, but she’s turned out to be a spy.
That episode has murders and dragons, but that was the most shocking part.
It is wild, because there are beheadings, people getting their cocks cut off, graphic violence and brothel scenes, but getting my feet out and him wanking off, that’s the most shocking. It’s funny, isn’t it? I knew on the day, I didn’t want this to be gratuitous at all because I know my feet will end up on various sites. It’s wild how you can’t predict which scenes people have the biggest reactions to, and unfortunately it was that one.
Is Alicent just using Criston Cole’s hatred for Rhaenyra as a means for her own plans, or do they have a real kinship?
I think there’s a kinship that is established initially from them both being hurt by Rhaenyra’s actions. That has grown into a really fucked bond, where she’s immensely appreciative of his loyalty and in turn he will do whatever for Alicent, because she saved his life and gave him another chance. It’s difficult because I don’t think it’s love, but it’s an appreciation for what he will do for her — and he’ll be completely undoubting when she requests something of him. She doesn’t have anyone like that in the castle. But I don’t think she was aware of the extremes that his loyalty will go to, when he kills Lyman Beesbury right in front of her.
She’s just surrounded by these fucking psychopath men. It’s claustrophobic and terrifying trying to live within that intense paranoia and fear for your life all the time. It’s sort of what’s propelling her to make these decisions. It’s a weird dynamic, Alicent and Criston Cole’s relationship, and I think there’s simmering undertones of something. He’s casting a light onto her, he’s a virile man, and that’s the only version she has ever had in her life. She’s probably very confused where their relationship stands. I think there’s something weird burgeoning with them that you see in Episode 9. I think that is an appreciation of his duty and his loyalty, but also it’s a fear of him as well.
Where does Alicent and Otto’s relationship go in Season 2 from here?
She is no longer the little girl that he can just pimp out. She is a worthy confidant, and an equal in this game of thrones. She’s become incredibly formidable. He is incredibly proud at what he thinks he’s created and molded because, of course, these narcissistic fathers have to take all the credit. He wouldn’t be too stupid to undermine the power that she can possess and the lengths she’d go to protect her children. Similarly, I think there is a wariness. Even though she knows her father loves her, I don’t think he would spare her if it came down to a choice between him or Alicent, and she knows that.
People have been drawing a lot of similarities between Cersei Lannister and Alicent. How do you view the two characters and their place in the world?
They’ll always be compared. In online discourse, it tends to be more black and white of who’s the hero and the villain. I do think they’re really different, though, and I limited the amount of wine that I drank in scenes because I didn’t want the comparison to be too transparent. What Lena Headey did with Cersei was so brilliant. She was one of my favorite characters, because even though she’s so reviled, she’s motivated by the enduring love for her children. In those parameters, they both will do anything for their children. But I think Alicent is run on anxiety and self-doubt a lot more, and I don’t think Cersei has that at all. She completely believes in every blow she strikes. I don’t think Alicent has that at all. She’s been so beaten by the patriarchal system she’s in, by her children, by trying to endlessly make things right and to walk such a narrow, straight line. She’s put herself under such immense pressure. You can see Alicent fraying at the seams the whole time, whereas Cersei is so strong and formidable all the way through.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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