Eve Best: ‘They told me my House of the Dragon character was a dragon rider – I was in!’

Sun 14 Aug 2022 09.30 BST by Michael Hogan

Eve Best: ‘I was always afraid people were intimidated by my height.’ Photograph: Rachell Smith

Actor Eve Best, 51, grew up in west London and started performing aged nine. She studied English at Oxford University and trained at Rada. In 2006 she won an Olivier award for best actress for the title role in Hedda Gabler, and is a two-time Tony nominee. She played Wallis Simpson in The King’s Speech, while her TV roles include The Shadow Line, Nurse Jackie, Life in Squares and The Honourable Woman. She is Princess Rhaenys Velaryon in House of the Dragon, the new Game of Thrones prequel series.

Were you a Game of Thrones fan before getting the gig?
No, I was a complete Game of Thrones virgin. I knew it was a big deal but was unprepared for the sheer, gobsmacking scale of it. Walking on to the set was like walking into New York but instead of towering skyscrapers, it’s Dragonstone. The crew was nearly 4,000 people, which was jaw-dropping. I’ve caught up since.

How did you land the role?
Everything was very secretive. To audition, we were initially sent a scene from the original Game of Thrones with the names changed. We weren’t even told the title of the new show. When eventually I was sent a real script, I loved the writing. Ryan [Condal] and Miguel [Sapochnik, co-showrunners] hooked me in immediately with the driving theme of the series. There is a line my character says early on: “Men would sooner put the realm to the torch than see a woman ascend to the Iron Throne.” Lose the word “Iron” from that sentence and it feels all too relevant. To top it all off, they told me my character was a dragon rider. I was in!

Beneath the fantasy trappings, is it essentially about a family at war?
Even though they’re a fantasy royal family and clearly a crazy bunch of people, these shows are endlessly fascinating. They basically show us our own political systems and our own family lives. I remember working on Pinter’s The Homecoming on Broadway and he described family life as “internecine warfare”. That feels about right.

With all the backstabbing and rivalries, Westeros feels a little like Westminster…
It is rather depressingly resonant – not just with British politics but with what’s going on all over the world. All kinds of outmoded, corrupt, toxic systems are unravelling, imploding and being dismantled. That feels like Westeros territory.

Did you get to wield any weapons?
Not this season but just wait. One day, the props department gave Steve [Toussaint, who plays her husband Corlys] this massive double-sided machete, with an axe head on one side and a sword for chopping off people’s heads on the other. Steve was beside himself, like a kid in a sweet shop. I was intensely jealous and said I wanted a whip. Slightly as a joke but why is it the man who’s handed all this fabulous weaponry? Literally the next day, I was presented with this beautiful red leather whip and sent off to have whip lessons, which was cool.

How was the dragon-riding?
Someone described it as like a bucking bronco meets a wild rollercoaster. I can’t bear fairground rides, so it was slightly filling me with dread. But it was amazing. You climb up a huge ladder on to this extraordinary machine, then get strapped in. It moves and makes alarming noises, while a wind machine blasts you. I was bruised to hell the next day.

Is it true that Paddy Considine, who plays King Viserys Targaryen, got possessive about his Iron Throne?
Yes, he didn’t want anybody else to sit on it. I never quite knew to what extent he was joking. Rightfully it should have been my throne. I had to settle for sitting on a replica one at Comic Con instead.

You move between stage and screen freely. Do you have a preference?
I love both. I’ve done more stage than screen, mainly because the parts I’ve been offered on stage have been significantly more interesting. Films have the potential to be incredibly interesting too though. I always feel like if I’m a bit scared, then I should definitely do it.

Post #MeToo, is Hollywood changing?
Not fast enough. Quite frankly, it feels like change needs to be instantaneous because we’ve all got a much bigger priority, which is whether the Earth is going to be around. The Covid crisis was a wonderful example of how unbelievably efficient and adaptable human beings can be when we set our minds to it. Let’s just do that for other issues and stop all the fuss.

Is the variety of roles available for older women improving?
Again, the speed of change needs to be snappier. I’m longing to see more women of around my age taking leads in romances, adventures or dramas in which they’re not being mothers, sidekicks or detectives. Sexy, interesting women who are over 40 – there are a lot of us out there and I’d like to see much more of us on screen.

You live in Italy now. How did you end up there?
I bought a wreck of a little old farmhouse seven years ago but was hardly ever there because I was away working all the time. Then when the Brexit vote came through, it felt important to move into this house while I was still European. So I packed everything up in the UK and drove an old banger to Italy with all the belongings I could fit in the back. It’s a very basic house in a remote rural area. I’m growing produce and making my own olive oil. It’s hard work but a huge source of joy and peace. I wear overalls all day, my hands are dirty and I’m pretty feral, but a simpler way of life suits me for now.

You work with the Wildlife Trust. What motivated that?
I love the work they do. The Radnorshire Wildlife Trust is reviving the old rhôs pasture [a species-rich habitat] at our family’s sheep farm in mid-Wales. I help whenever I’m there, planting trees. I’m trying to do the same on a small scale in Italy. Sometimes I feel like I’m running an organic restaurant for the local wild boar and deer!

You’re 5ft 10in. How has your height affected your career?
Not quite, I’m 5ft 9-and-a-half, but that’s an interesting question. I certainly always felt like a tall girl. Because I was always afraid people were intimidated by my height, I ended up subconsciously apologising for myself. You worry about being somehow too much or not feminine. But the dichotomy is there’s also a certain vulnerability that accompanies being taller. A sort of interesting gentleness can come through in my characters.

You played Wallis Simpson in The King’s Speech. Are there other real-life figures you’d like to portray?
Those Victorian explorers like Gertrude Bell, who I deeply admire. Or the amazing Rachel Carson, the marine biologist who was so key to the conservation movement.

What makes you happy when you’re not working?
The land is like a full-time job. It’s non-stop, like dealing with a school of small children and I’m the only teacher. But I swim in natural water when I can and find that very healing.

What type of role would you like to tackle next?
The perfect antidote to Westeros would be a romantic comedy, which I’ve never really done. The closest I’ve got was Much Ado About Nothing. I’d love to do a smart romcom, Tracy and Hepburn-style. Or a Bond villain. Or Bond? Come on.

House of the Dragon is on Sky Atlantic and NOW from 22 August

The Guardian