Christmas socks usually come out once a year but The Big Issue has dug to the bottom of its laundry basket in honour of Emilia Clarke.
“Amazing!” she squeals as she glances at my ankles. “They look fabulous.”
They are. The red and white striped pair look like they’d be worn by the most dapper of elves in Santa’s workshop. It’s an elf, of sorts, that Clarke plays in Last Christmas. Kate has stalled at a crossroads in life, increasingly isolated from friends and family. Working at a Christmas shop in Covent Garden – fancy dress compulsory – she herself has been drained of the true spirit of the season.
The last time we saw Clarke on screen, power-crazed Daenerys, Queen of the Dragons, was raining terror upon King’s Landing in the devastating finale of Game of Thrones. Today, in a London hotel suite, Clarke is as bright as a bauble, enthused and energised, curled up on a couch not wearing any socks at all.
Last Christmas is a million leagues away from Game of Thrones but Kate still has a battle to fight, even if the demons she is wrestling are of a less literal kind.
“She’s a lady on the run,” Clarke says. “She’s on the run from her childhood and she’s also on the run from her adulthood. That in-between state is one that I absolutely related to.”
Estranged from her Eastern Bloc-born parents, Kate has no permanent home and sofa-surfs between exasperated friends, sometimes sleeping in the back of the Christmas shop.
“I’ve got a lot of friends who are in the same boat,” Clarke says. “Forever they are roaming and there’s something profoundly unsettling about that. I’ve got one particular friend who is continually on the move. He’s looking for a place to call his own and he doesn’t have the means to do it.
“There’s flat-sharing and all of these things but it’s harder and harder for people to find somewhere to live. I’m seeing more homeless people now than I have ever seen in my entire life. There’s more people living at home with mum and dad – if they decided they didn’t want to do that or they’re not fortunate to have a mum and dad, you’re homeless.”
Clarke remembers how support from her own parents was a lifesaver when she moved from the family home in Oxfordshire to London for drama school.
“That was back in the day when renting a room in London was not £800 a month, with a student loan it was bearable. I worked three jobs to pay the rent then would still call up my parents and say, ‘I just was wondering… could I have…?’ And they have already given me everything their entire life. Definitely the first thing I did when I got money was give it back to them.” Kate’s mother Adelia, played by Emma Thompson (who also wrote the film), brought her children to the UK to give them a better life. Does a film about a migrant family seem significant at this moment?
“Hugely,” Clarke says. “When you’re a kid you don’t think for a second what your parents must have gone through, but the fear in which Kate lives day to day: you feel like you’re getting yourself settled, then Brexit happens and you start to see what you feared was always the case – you’re not wanted in this place that you sacrificed everything to get to. That’s incredibly relevant for now. Hate crimes are on the up, and it’s a sorry, sad state of affairs. I feel very privileged to tell a little bit of that story.”
Clarke returns to the sense of home meaning more than simply a roof and four walls, whether you are a young person trying to get on a property ladder, migrant or homeless.
“How can you ever be expected to get yourself together when you don’t have a room to call your own? Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own – that’s the first rule of feminism!
“When you have a home you feel safer. When you have a space that is yours you feel protected. It’s really basic, really literal – it’s your space. You’re able to be yourself. How can you begin to get any self-worth if you don’t have a room you can fart in?”
Indeed. Last Christmas, as Clarke admits, is “100 million per cent” a glossy version of the current housing and identity crisis we’re wallowing in but that doesn’t make what it has to say about these things invalid. Beneath the shiny surface, the film tackles mental health, family breakdown and immigration – among the many reasons beyond the financial that lead someone to social exclusion and homelessness.
At the heart of Kate’s crisis is a health condition that almost killed her. She may be physically healed but scars run deep. Clarke can relate.
After completing filming on the first season of Game of Thrones in 2011, one morning Clarke felt like “an elastic band was squeezing my brain” and was immediately rushed to hospital. A subarachnoid haemorrhage led to brain surgery, and in intensive care Clarke couldn’t remember her own name for a week.
Another aneurysm had been found in a different part of her brain, one that could “pop” at any time. Two years later it had doubled in size and another operation was planned. The relatively straightforward procedure went wrong. Clarke was in hospital for over a month and it felt like her world was ending. While the success of Game of Thrones was turning her into a superstar, Clarke was living the darkest days of her life.
What was it that got her through?
“Bloodymindedness, for want of a better phrase,” Clarke says. “Yeah. The fundamental things driving Kate as a character were things I related to. They come from a place of fear, what if this goes wrong again?
“That’s what happens when you become incredibly ill, you don’t think, ‘Oh I’m going to jump out of a plane, meet giraffes and marry my one true love.’ Doesn’t happen. You think ‘OH MY GOD I’M GOING TO DIE!’ – all the time. And that is not a very healthy place to be making choices from.
“What got me through that time was saying to people that I loved and knew me very well, ‘I need help.’ Also, rather unhealthily, I just worked a lot, sort of ignored it ever happened at all because I was trying to prove to everyone I wasn’t going to mess up.
“As a young woman in the industry you already get spoken to in a particular way: ‘Are you alright, dear?’ People calling me dear… oh my god. Anyway, I kept the fact I had this illness secret because I was fucking sick of the kid gloves. Don’t treat me like I can’t do this, I absolutely can. And that’s what kept me going.”
In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.
It also led Clarke to set up a charity, SameYou, which focuses on brain injury aftercare. “People have completely ignored recovery,” she explains. “Brain injuries, including mental health, are invisible so people can hide from themselves and others.”
She adds that recovery is about stopping to take time for a little self-care, the kind of reflection that most of us only bother to do – if at all – at Christmas.
“You’re forced to be more introspective because you’re with the people who’ve known you your whole life. Christmas largely is being around family. Or it’s the time people feel the most vulnerable because their parents aren’t there anymore.”
Clarke gleefully tells The Big Issue about her Best. Christmas. Ever. On Christmas Day 2015, flush with good fortune, she sprung her present on her family – the next day they’d all be flying to Lapland.
“No one was expecting it. I waited until everyone was drunk before I gave them the present.”
The fundamental things driving Kate as a character were things I related to. They come from a place of fear, what if this goes wrong again?
Did you see Santa?
“No, we did the reindeer sleigh stuff and got really into our snowmobiling. Me and my brother would go out cross-country skiing in the pitch black and it was magic. It was amazing. It was beautiful. It really was the greatest holiday I’ve had, ever.”
It was her father’s last Christmas. He had been diagnosed with cancer, and Clarke realises that the real gift wasn’t the trip but the chance for everyone to spend time together as a family.
So apart from wearing Christmas socks off-season, how can we stay true to the spirit of Christmas all year round?
“I sound bloody Clinton Card but it really begins with you giving yourself a day, an hour, a minute to think about yourself and stop. Breathe. That’s where it begins. I don’t know if I’m unique in thinking this but it’s when you stop and give yourself perspective in life, you start to see other people’s perspectives. As soon as you let that in you see what you feel is right, what you feel is wrong.”
Last Christmas is in cinemas now