fire and blood

The Casting Challenge Behind House of the Dragon’s 10-Year Time Jump

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by HBO Max

Imagine you’re responsible for the prequel to Game of Thrones, the biggest show in HBO history. Imagine leaping forward ten years with a sprawling new cast of characters right in the middle of your first season. Imagine this requires recasting the two main characters, whose original versions will contribute to making the show the blockbuster hit of the year. Congratulations: You’ve just become any casting director’s biggest nightmare — or greatest challenge.

This is the task that greeted House of the Dragon co-showrunners Ryan Condal and Miguel Sapochnik and casting director Kate Rhodes James when they agreed to shepherd author George R.R. Martin’s pseudo-historical tome Fire & Blood to the small/streaming screen. As of the most recent episode, we’ve seen the result: Original Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen and Queen Alicent Hightower actors Milly Alcock and Emily Carey have passed the baton to their older successors, Emma D’Arcy and Olivia Cooke, with a slew of recast actors and a new generation of children following in their wake.

According to Condal, there was no other way to properly adapt Martin’s tale. “We always knew it was necessary to move the story forward in the first season’s story line,” the show’s co-creator and co-showrunner wrote in an email to Vulture. “This is ultimately a generational conflict, so we had to cover a large swath of years in order to properly set the pieces on the board.”

Including both younger and older versions of key characters was a necessary part of this plan. “We did not want the younger generation to feel like prologue or flashback characters,” Condal continues. “We wanted to give them time onscreen for the audience to get to know them and to, hopefully, empathize with their situations.”

Why set the time jump at the midway point of season one? “Half the season felt like the correct amount of time to cover the required story beats to properly set up the conflict that Alicent and Rhaenyra have as adults,” Condal says.

After Condal and Sapochnik decided to split the season and feature two versions of the core duo, the mission to pull it off fell to James, a veteran casting director who worked with Ridley Scott on prestige TV genre fare like Raised by Wolves and the first season of The Terror, as well as The Last Duel and House of Gucci. She likened her process to preparing for battle: “We literally cleared our wall and put up the family trees, and we’d have pictures of how they’d look at a particular age, images from the internet or whatever. I’d have that with me all the time — on my computer, on my phone — because it was so complex.”

Two shows were on James’s mind — one obvious, one less so. “I was very nervous because Game of Thrones had decimated the British acting community,” she says of Dragon’s direct antecedent. “Just about everyone had been in it. I was like, ‘Who’s left?’” She also cites Netflix’s twisty German sci-fi thriller series Dark, which often cast its core characters in triplicate as they aged. “That was staggeringly well cast. I never doubted for a moment that those were younger versions of the same characters.” Dark, she says, was “the benchmark of excellence” for the “same role across multiple time periods” technique.

Offered the job on House of the Dragon before she knew how many life stages and child actors the casting would require, James began with the older performers. “We cast the elder generation, Emma D’Arcy and Olivia Cooke, first,” Condal notes. “The challenge was in finding two young actors who not only had an ability that measured up to Olivia and Emma’s considerable talents, but who also looked like them.”

“You cast Emma, who is in my mind one of the most extraordinary actors of their generation; that was a slow process, as you can imagine,” James elaborates. “Once you get them cast, you say, ‘Can you send me pictures of Emma when they were younger?’ That informs and steers you.” Fortunately, James had a young actor in mind. “I’d already seen Milly in Upright, and I met her when she was in London when she was about 18,” James continues. “The luck is that when you cast Emma, I suddenly went, ‘Oh my God, Milly is a doppelgänger.’”

Similar synchronicity took place with the casting of Alicent, though other factors were at play. “We were blessed that Emily has an almost identical profile and demeanor” to Cooke, James says. “There was a bit of worry at one point because Emily had to have a scene where she’s in bed with Paddy, who’s 47, and she’s 18. She had just turned 16, I think, when we cast her; I thought, Oh God, should we be casting so young? And we said, ‘Yes, because that’s the point. That is the cruelty of the story: These two really charming best friends are royally fucked over by their fathers and everyone around them.’”

In fact, Dragon’s time-lapsed, multigenerational plotting required a coterie of young actors, including an entire generation of children descended from Rhaenyra, Alicent, and Daemon Targaryen. “Searching for children, you start from scratch,” James says. “Yes, there are a lot of children that can act, but children change monthly. A child you see when they’re 12 can be completely different by the time they’re 13.”

The process was complicated, as so many things have been, by COVID. “We weren’t allowed to go to schools, we weren’t allowed to get into the room with anybody. Then there were logistical problems with shooting the pilot first, so I get a call two weeks before Christmas saying we’re going to bring episode seven into the first slot, which was all the kids; we would start filming in March. Suddenly we had hardly any time to collate our children.”

To pull it off, James enlisted casting assistant Kat Edwards to focus on finding child actors for the next generation of Targaryens and Velaryons. “We would both sit there and look at the profiles of the younger versions to make sure they reflected [the older versions],” James said, referencing the recasting to come when Rhaenyra, Alicent, and Daemon’s children age up later this season. “That meant good little actors were being rejected, because ultimately, would you believe that was the younger version?”

“We had to be strict about it. We only ever brought in maybe two or three versions after doing meticulous research; it was a laborious experience, because the children were coming in with their parents, they all had to be tested and put in a hotel to wait for the tests to come through before they even got into the room.”

Far less complicated — though just as crucial to the story — was the work that went into casting the members of House Velaryon, the powerful family of Valyrian nobles who, in the world of the show, are portrayed as Black. Once again, this directive came from the writers, who James says wanted to put a specific mystery to bed: whether or not Rhaenyra’s husband, the gay knight Ser Laenor Velaryon, was in fact the biological father of her children.

“Are we going to make it obvious that these are not his children, or are we going to let the audience work it out? Everyone thought, ‘Look, this isn’t a whodunnit. It’s clear. We’re not going to hang around going are they, aren’t they? They’re not! So let’s diversify and carry on.’”

Update: this article originally stated production began with episode six when it was actually episode seven. It has been corrected.

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