Emilia Clarke might have been the lead in one of the most popular TV series of all time—heard of Game of Thrones?—but really, she’s just like us. When asked what her favorite Christmas movie is, the answer comes swiftly. “I mean, it’s got to be Love Actually, hasn’t it?” Clarke says over the phone. Obviously, she gets verklempt about the exact same plot line you do: “Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman—it’s just the most beautiful, poignant bit of acting you’ve seen in a rom-com, with Joni Mitchell, and she’s in that room, and it’s just so heartbreaking, because you want her to just break down and scream or say something to him, and she just doesn’t. She stands there and just takes a moment and breathes and then goes down and ushers the children out the door.”
Which means working with Thompson on Last Christmas, which the Love Actually star cowrote and produced, was a bona fide gift for Clarke. Clarke plays Kate, the epitome of the selfish sister, daughter, and friend, whose every poor decision feels like a strike to the heart—until she meets the mysterious Tom (played by Henry Golding), whose effortless goodness and fantasy-level quirks (the fellow dances around lamp posts, if you can believe it) challenge her self-absorption. Clarke spoke to Vogue about the movie’s huge twist (but don’t worry, no spoilers), the wildest gift she’s ever given, and Emma Thompson’s absolutely perfect advice.
As Kate herself confesses, she’s a mess. Were there any moments when you wanted to say to her, “Hey, what are you doing?”
Yeah, definitely. There were plenty of those moments, but in playing her, I understood all of the reasons why she was that way. And when you get to the heart of—for want of a better word—of Kate’s impetus for the messiness, you start to see why she’s refusing to take care of herself. She doesn’t have any time or energy to take care of anyone else, or to accept the help that’s being so readily offered to her. So yeah, there were plenty of moments where you’re like, “Come on girl, you can do it. But it’s her only option at that time.”
Well, she also turns down a date with Henry Golding. Not realistic.
I know. Well, he was just too sweet for her. She likes a bad boy, or someone who’s not as emotionally available as Henry in this movie.
Were there any fun moments from set with Henry?
We were both born and raised in England, same time, same part, and there was a huge amount of pop culture stuff that we could bond over quite quickly. Our music taste is exactly the same, so when we were trying to keep warm on set—which was nigh on impossible in, like, minus two degrees on Regent Street at four in the morning—we would keep each other’s energy up by singing a lot of garage to each other, dancing to keep warm.
Was there a particular song?
There’s this song called “With a Little Bit of Luck.” [Sings] “With a little bit of luck, we can make it through the night.” We’d just sing that at the top of our lungs in the middle of Brixton at 4 a.m., it was pretty good.
The movie gives Kate a lot of space to grow. And along the way, there are a few different skills that you have to engage with as an actress, including singing. What was that like?
I love singing and I always have done. I’m kind of at my happiest when I am singing, so that was just wonderful to be able to do that. It’s something that I take quite seriously, though, so I got incredibly nervous and didn’t want to mess it up at all. But then, in the doing of it, there was just pure joy.
And ice skating.
I’m absolutely terrible. Don’t put me on sheets of metal on a slippery surface! How do people do it? Henry was amazing at it and just showed me up something proper. It was the scariest day on set. I was like, I’m going to kill myself. I’m 100% going to break some part of my body in trying to get this incredibly romantic ice skating scene done.
One of the really lovely things about the movie is you get to see a London Christmas. What are your favorite London Christmas memories?
London’s been where I’ve lived for the majority of my life, and it is just obscene how beautiful London looks at Christmas time. I mean, they go mad for the fairy lights and for all of it, and you duck into a pub and get some mulled wine and get really merry and start running around the streets of London. There are many Christmas memories I have of being—largely drunk—in the London streets around Christmas time and causing havoc.
Confess: When did you twig about what the ending would be?
When I read it in the script, but only then. I didn’t twig it before. I had no idea.
How did you react?
It’s just profoundly heartbreaking, isn’t it? You know, it’s being pegged as a rom-com, but essentially it's a rom-com for the self. Kate really had to be shown the way to be kind to herself, because that’s the only way that we can have the space and the time and the energy to love anyone else. And I loved that message for a young girl.
There’s this one line in the movie, which Henry’s character, Tom says: “Being a human being is hard.”
Yeah, I think about that quite a lot.
That resonated with you?
Yeah. And that's Emma’s voice entirely. It is hard. Getting that is the first opportunity we have to show ourselves kindness, and to show others kindness as well, because other people don’t know your life history—they don‘t know where you’re coming from, they don’t know the multitude of things that lead to actions you might take or bad moods that you might have, or slip-ups, and vice versa. If you have an opportunity to take a second and realize that, it just gives you the freedom and the license to show kindness and empathy, because no one has it easy. Everybody’s complicated, and everybody has a complicated history and a complicated story to tell.
I have to ask about Kate’s elf costume, which is her uniform at the Christmas store. Does it make you feel different when you’re wearing it?
Definitely. In the beginning, I thought it was bloody hilarious. I sent pictures to all of my friends and family being like, “Oy oy, look at me!” But genuinely by the end, I was like, I can’t. I can’t put that thing on anymore. People look at you and they can’t help but laugh.
Are you a big gift-giver?
Absolutely. It’s one of my favorite things to do in the world, to find the perfect gift for someone.
What’s the furthest you've ever gone?
My two best mates married each other and I got them a golf buggy, and I turned it into a pub. So I’ve got a beer keg in the back and I made all of these beer posters and put Champagne holders in it. The golf buggy had an emblem on the front, and I’d named the pub after them. I got all of this strobe lighting to go on the top.
If you had to get Daenerys—R.I.P.—a Christmas gift, what would it be?
Um, I would probably get, you know...a fire extinguisher for the kitchen? [Laughs] Fire blanket?
Emma Thompson plays Kate’s mother, and you have several wonderful scenes together. What was it like working with her on this movie?
It was extraordinary. I’ve admired and loved Emma from afar for my entire life, and getting to play her daughter and to now be her friend is just the most miraculous Christmas gift I could ever ask for. She became a mentor of mine and I’m incredibly grateful that she’s in my life.
Did she give you any advice?
Consistently. I called on her quite a lot for advice, both life and otherwise. But one of my favorite Emma things that I like to think of quite a lot is, she just looked at me one day and went, “Darling, just do what brings you joy. Do whatever it is that brings you joy.” And I think about that quite a lot.
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Originally Appeared on Vogue