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Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke: 'Surviving brain injuries gave me a fire to keep going'

Around 1.3 million people in the UK are living with the effects of a long-term brain injury but there is a lack of awareness around them. Emilia Clarke aims to change that

Emilia Clarke by ©Louise Haywood-Schiefer

Emilia Clarke asked doctors to let her die when she had her first brain injury. 

She thought she would never work again. She had aphasia which affected her speech, and if she could not speak, she could not act. If she could not act, she could not live. 

“I didn’t see any point in carrying on,” the actor admits. It was the beginning of 2011 and Clarke had just finished filming the first season of Game of Thrones, the epic fantasy series which catapulted her to fame in her 20s for her starring role as Daenerys Targaryen, Mother of Dragons. 

It was the first of two brain aneurysms which almost killed her and changed her life. 

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We meet in her small London office with its big wide windows and light pouring into the room. Clarke has deep eye contact beneath those beautifully expressive eyebrows, and an enormous smile. 

Beyond Game of Thrones, she has starred in films including Me Before You, Last Christmas and Solo: A Star Wars Story and had stints on stage. From an outsider’s view, she is living her dream and seems to adore life and the people around her. 

So how does it make her feel that she wanted to give it all up? 

“I get it. That was what it felt like at the time. I think if someone said to me today that I won’t be able to communicate, I would probably say the same thing. I can feel empathy for how I felt in that moment.” 

Her mother Jenny, sitting beside her and quietly listening to what must be painful words from her daughter, points out that many people have wonderful lives after losing their ability to communicate through a brain injury. Clarke agrees passionately. 

Emilia Clarke with her mum, Jenny, who co-founded the charity SameYou

“My entire job is reflecting life and humanity. In that moment, I felt that if I couldn’t do that one thing that I can do, I couldn’t see a way through it. 

“If that had happened, I would have overcome it and something transformative would have happened. But I’m not going to sit here and say for one minute that the first time someone hears that, they aren’t going to think: ‘What’s the point?’” 

But there is a point. There is life beyond brain injury. There is hope. 

Emilia Clarke and her mother founded their charity SameYou in 2019 to develop better mental health recovery after brain injuries and advocate for change. They are now partnering with Big Issue Recruit to support survivors and their loved ones into work with the help of BIR specialist job coaches. 

“Having a chronic condition that diminishes your confidence in this one thing you feel is your reason to live is so debilitating and so lonely,” Clarke, 37, recalls. 

“One of the biggest things I felt with a brain injury was profoundly alone. That is what we’re trying to overcome.” 

Around 1.3 million people in the UK are living with the effects of a long-term brain injury but there is a lack of awareness around it, which means employers often fail to provide enough support.  

New polling conducted by Big Issue Group and SameYou shows that over a third of survivors felt they returned to work too soon after a brain injury, and nearly as many felt pressure from their employer to do so. 

Both of Clarke’s brain haemorrhages occurred between filming seasons. After the first, she was back at work within weeks, with press interviews scheduled and a return to the Game of Thrones set. Only a handful of her HBO colleagues had been told in the immediate aftermath. 

“The first fear we had was: ‘Oh my god, am I going to get fired?’ The biggest problem with brain injury in my opinion is the stigma that surrounds it. People don’t want to talk about it. They don’t want to look at it. They get very uncomfortable.” 

Clarke put pressure on herself to carry out the hours in her contract, but what was worse was feeling that others were treating her as though she could not work because she was fragile.  

Playing the Mother of Dragons was a saviour for Clarke. 

Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen in Game of Thrones. Image: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

“It was a place to put all of my emotions, thoughts, fears, love, happiness and joy,” she recalls. “I put all of it into the work. I had a reason to recover, and I think that is so fundamental. It gave me a reason to want to get better and to want to try and live a life that I am proud of.  

“But I felt a huge amount of survivor’s guilt. People around me were saying it’s incredible I survived, and that makes you go: ‘Fuck, I better do something with it.’ There was a fire to keep going.” 

It was years before Clarke stopped being scared that she was going to die every day. She didn’t get a sense of carpe diem and was instead filled with anxiety that it was going to happen again. Then it did.  

The second brain injury (in 2013) was worse. She had a bigger bleed and needed open brain surgery. Parts of her skull were replaced with titanium and she had a drain coming out of her head.  

“I thought I had used up all my strength to overcome the first one and it was harder to feel hopeful,” she says.  

She had a wound from her scalp to the bottom of her ear, and she was unable to wash her hair. Clarke worried constantly about hitting her head and whether it was raining or too sunny – gentle prods reminding her she was ill.  

They fix your brain but no one fixes your mind

Emilia Clarke

Walking downstairs was a challenge. She couldn’t read or watch television. She tried swimming and two strokes was too much. The first time she managed to swim a width of a small pool, she knew that she was doing better. 

Clarke believes that when you go into a hospital for a brain injury “they fix your brain, but no one fixes your mind”. There is little support through the recovery process because medical services do not have the capacity or funding for it.  

“They are hard pushed to even save people,” Clarke says. She spent a lot of time feeling sad and anxious, which heightened the tiredness. It was fortunate that her character Daenerys was becoming more stoic, and she leant into that. Her pain became art. 

Clarke went to Comic Con in San Diego quicker than she would have liked and, in front of thousands of people and cameras, she believed she was dying of another brain haemorrhage. But she did an interview with MTV anyway, thinking: “Well, if I’m going to die, I better die on live TV.” 

Clarke had such moments for years. She warned hair and makeup teams that she might panic that she was dying even if she was perfectly fine. Few people knew until she published an article in The New Yorker in 2019, alongside the launch of her charity.  

Emilia Clarke by ©Louise Haywood-Schiefer

In the long term, Clarke says she feels healthy. She jokes that the brain injury only robbed her of good taste in men and her sense of direction. 

“The truth of it is terrifying,” she says. “I’ll never know what’s no longer there, but I think what has happened is that my brain has grown since both brain injuries.  

“I feel very proud of my brain now in a way that I wasn’t before. I was never clever. I was the actor. I was the one asking for paints or to watch a movie. As I’ve got older, especially because of the brain injuries, I want to prove people wrong.” 

The only time Clarke tears up is when talking about her dad, who she lost to cancer in 2016 and who supported her right to the end. She hopes he would be proud of her now. 

“As someone who has lived through the death of my dad and being at his bedside, being a patient is easy. Being the carer is hard. That is what I feel true heartbreak over, what I put my family through.” 

Emilia Clarke’s mum is as devoted to work as her daughter. Jenny grew up in poverty and worked from 16 until she eventually became vice-president for marketing at a global management consultancy firm. As a woman, she worked harder than anyone else because she feared that it could be taken away at any moment. 

Clarke still calls her mum if she needs advice on what to wear on a date and laughs most freely when they recall anecdotes together. She knows telling her story comes at a “cost”, but she persists as she knows that her words carry weight. Her charity is driven by her star power and her family history. 

Doctors also discovered two brain aneurysms in Jenny and she had to have preventative surgery. Women in their family, they explain, are susceptible. 

“You don’t realise that what you’re going through isn’t just you,” Clarke says. “You feel like you’re the broken one. You’re the one who messed up, and no one’s gonna help you and, my god, why couldn’t you do better?  

“You hear someone speak about things that are relatable and it suddenly makes you realise you’re allowed to ask for help. You are allowed to want to be better.” 

Clarke is still throwing herself into work as much as ever (though responds with a laugh and “no, no, no” when asked if she can tell us what she is working on next). But we do know that she will continue her commitment to her charity work at SameYou.  

Does Emilia Clarke really believe she is the same since the brain injuries? She breaks out into a big, wide smile and says simply: “Better.” 

“Every momentous experience brings more empathy for people and the thing I care about most is people. The bigger your empathy, the bigger you are, the more aware you are, and the more your eyes are wide open. That is something every part of life has given me but, specifically this, it has given me a superpower. I would not change it for the world.” 

Partners for change

Emilia Clarke’s charity SameYou is partnering with Big Issue Group to support brain injury survivors and their loved ones back to work

Big Issue Recruit will introduce specialist job coaches to support individuals on a one-to-one basis during their search for employment and beyond. The organisations call on employers to better meet the needs of people returning to work after a brain injury.

Paul Cheal, chief executive of Big Issue Group, said: “There is a clear need to create more support and pathways for those returning to work after experiencing a brain injury. We are pleased to extend the work of Big Issue Recruit to a wider group of people who face barriers to work – brain injury survivors and carers of people who have experienced a brain injury. These are often a forgotten group of people in society.”

Polling shows that survivors feel a range of pressures holding them back from returning to work, including financial pressures. As Big Issue has reported, benefits are too low for people to afford essentials and disability benefits are difficult to access, heightening stress for brain injury survivors.

It follows the government’s recent proposals to drive people with long-term health conditions into work through increasingly punitive methods. Big Issue and SameYou want to see a more supportive approach.

Cheal added: “Our ambition is not only to highlight the challenges brain injury survivors encounter in returning to work, but also to bolster the support we offer candidates by adding a job coach to the Big Issue Recruit team to specialise in this area of need.” 

If you would like to sign up to use the service as a candidate, or to learn how your business can support people with barriers to employment into work, visit our website, email jobs@bigissue.com or call 0207 526 3200

Find out more about SameYou, including how to help and get help.

Call Mind’s free support line 9am to 6pm, Monday to Friday (except bank holidays), on 0300 102 1234, email info@mind.org.uk or visit the website for resources and advice if you are struggling with your mental health

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? Get in touch and tell us moreBig Issue exists to give homeless and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy of the magazine or get the app from the App Store or Google Play.


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