LOS ANGELES — The secret about overnight success in Hollywood is that it never actually happens that way.
To the casual observer, Emilia Clarke might look like one of the lucky ones: The young British actress was seemingly plucked out of the ether to star as Daenerys Targaryen on HBO’s wildly popular “Game of Thrones.” Just a few years later, she was chosen to make the leap to a summer blockbuster as Sarah Connor, one of action’s most iconic heroines, in “Terminator Genisys,” out Wednesday.
The ebullient Clarke, who nearly jumped out of her seat to answer questions in a recent interview, is the first to stress that she’s lucky to have reached these heights by age 28. But her path to playing some of the big and small screen’s most powerful women wasn’t exactly laid out before her.
Though Clarke is not from a royal Hollywood bloodline, she likes to say that she “grew up backstage” at the theaters of London, where her father was a sound designer. Clarke has also said she wanted to act since she was 3 years old, although that makes her laugh now.
“It was one of the first interviews I’d ever done and it was like, pick a number, any number, and I was like, ‘Let’s go with 3. Sure. Why not?’ Basically I just wanted to say from very young. I just can’t even think of a time in my life where I didn’t want to be an actor,” she said.
After hearing her prattle on for years about acting ambitions, her parents trotted her out to look at a drama school when she was 11. Clarke was terrified.
She saw the other kids in the school, hyper serious and driven, and decided she wanted to stay with her regular studies, work hard and get good grades, “just in case.”
If she still wanted to be a part of that world when she turned 18, she would go to drama school.
It turns out, she did. After a couple of “terrible tries,” she got on a waiting list at the Drama School of London. When someone dropped out, she got in. But even upon graduation, there were only waitressing and other non-acting jobs available — things she swears she was “really, genuinely awful at.”
After scoring a few minor television roles the year after graduating, Clarke got “Game of Thrones” in 2010 and instantly became a fan favorite as the Mother of Dragons. She’s now one of only a handful of original cast members whose characters are still alive on the show.
Then in late 2013, Alan Taylor, who had directed Clarke in “Game of Thrones,” cast her as Sarah in “Genisys,” the fifth film in the James Cameron-created series.
She could barely wait to get started, and dragged co-star Jai Courtney to some acting classes far before production began so that they could begin to workshop their characters. On set, when she wasn’t working to keep up with her burly male co-stars, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, she was in weapons training, stunt training, or just working out.
“There’s such authority in this young woman coupled with this tremendous vulnerability,” said Taylor. “You look at those eyes and you kind of want to take care of her at the same time that she’s barking orders at you and scaring you.”
This Sarah Connor is a different take on the character Linda Hamilton originated 31 years ago. She’s a warrior from the start, living out a predetermined destiny to give birth to the leader of an eventual revolution. But she’s dismayed by the lack of choices in her life — which is not dissimilar to Clarke’s “Game of Thrones” queen, or even her own experiences.
Clarke has seen how the trajectory of fame can easily get out of hand. While there are wonderful plusses, she said, there are also the day-to-day realities and pressures and “the fact that the choices that you make may reverberate with a 13-year-old girl reading a magazine about your life.”
It also helps when you can exist somewhat under the radar in your daily life. Without her long, blonde “Game of Thrones” wig, Clarke gets to have it both ways.
“I’ve been incredibly lucky in that I’m unrecognizable without my wig,” said the actress, who lives in London. “People don’t clock me at all. On one level on a day-to-day basis it’s brilliant because I live a ridiculously boring, normal life when I’m not filming.”
Up next, Clarke is about to start work on an adaptation of JoJo Moyes’ book “Me Before You” and will be back for a sixth season of “Thrones” in no time.
As for what the future holds, Clarke says she just wants to do “a little bit of everything.”
“I feel confident that I can try lots of different things. An independent drama, a romantic comedy, Pixar animation,” she said. “Maybe even a female James Bond! Just throwing it out there.”