Pressure Emilia Clarke faced in ‘Game of Thrones’ nude scenes common for young actresses

Martha Ross
The Mercury News

When Emilia Clarke was cast as Daenerys Targaryen in “Game of Thrones” in 2010, she only had a few stage and TV roles on her resume. Just starting out in the business, she didn’t want her HBO bosses to think she wasn’t up for the various demands of a challenging TV series, which, for her, included doing nude scenes.

“I came fresh from drama school, and I was like, ‘Approach this like a job,’” she said on Dax Shepard’s “Armchair Expert” podcast, People reported. “If it’s in the script, it’s clearly needed . … and I’m going to make sense of it, and this is my job, and that’s what I’m going to do, and everything is going to be cool.’”

Emilia Clarke in a scene from the final episode of "Game of Thrones."

But Clarke, 33, also told Shepard that it initially made her uncomfortable to strip down on a set in front of the crew and other cast members.

“I have never been on a film set like this before,” Clarke said. “I’ve been on a film set twice before then, and now I’m on a film set completely naked and I don’t know what to do and I don’t know what’s expected of me.”

But such experiences have long been a common situation for young actresses, usually at the start of their careers, the Washington Post reported in 2017. The women may face the sort of peer pressure Clarke described – the idea that they aren’t fulfilling the creative demands of the story unless they get naked. But the Washington Post also reported that actresses regularly contend with other subtle forms of coercion or, worse, threats and verbal abuse at the ends of directors and producers.

Salma Hayek described in 2017 how disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein threatened to shut down production on the 2002 film “Frida” if she didn’t appear fully nude in a sex scene with another woman. Sarah Jessica Parker and Debra Messing also have gone public to share stories about similar experiences involving other powerful men.

The burden of screen nudity also falls more heavily on women than on men. In the top-grossing films of 2016, 25.6% of speaking or named female characters were shown “heavily exposed,” partially nude or nude as compared with 9.2% of men, according to research done by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative.

Actress Ciera Payton recounted to the Washington Post how she faced an incredulous Steven Seagal when she raised concerns about doing a nude scene with another woman for his 2007 film “Flight of Fury.” Payton, then 18, had just arrived on the set in Romania for her first acting job when she learned about the nude scene.

Payton told the Post that Seagal was “kind of sitting there” after she said she didn’t feel comfortable. She said, “He’s trying to think of what to say, and he goes, ‘You won’t even show your tits?’”

Seagal then gathered a group of other men involved in the production to talk to Payton, the Washington Post said. One tried to shame her by saying, “You know, we stuck our neck out to hire you for this.” Payton eventually was allowed to wear a negligee for her scene with a female co-star, but she said the scene, choreographed by those men, still went “far beyond her comfort zone.” She said, “It was creepy.”

Performers get some protection from SAG-AFTRA, the union that represents film and television actors, the Washington Post reported. The union includes a nudity clause in its collective bargaining agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. Under the clause, producers must let performers know about any expected nude scenes or sex scenes before their audition. They also must obtain separate written consent from the actor for such scenes and enforce a closed set when filming the scenes.

But once filming starts, producers and director don’t always abide by the rules, and an actor sometimes is asked to do something beyond what they originally agreed to, entertainment law attorney Loan Dang told the Post.

“The actor gets pressured into doing something they don’t feel comfortable with,” Dang added to the Post. “Everyone says, “You’re holding stuff up, can you make a decision?” You’re with these people on-set, you work with them, so then you think, ‘Oh God, how do I say no?’”

Clarke said on the podcast that she came to rely on support from co-star Jason Momoa, who played her husband Khal Drogo in the first season of “Game of Thrones.” She said Momoa encouraged her to speak up if she felt the scenes were gratuitous or outside her comfort zone.

“It was definitely hard, which is why the scenes when I got to do them with Jason were wonderful,” Clarke recalled. “Because he was like, ‘No, sweetie, this isn’t okay.’ And I was like ‘Oh.’”

Clarke also told a familiar story about how, as her fame began to rise with the show’s growing global popularity, she could better call the shots on if and how how she filmed nude scenes. As Entertainment Weekly reported, Clarke did no nude scenes between seasons 3 and 5. When she finally did nudity for season 6, she was able to demand that her scene be filmed on a very closed set.

“Taking off my clothes is not the easiest thing, but with the magic of the effects, I don’t have to do a season 1 and go on a cliff and do it,” she told Entertainment Weekly, referring to a clifftop sex scene between her and Momoa in the first episode of Season 1. “I’m in control of it.”

In 2015, Clarke also took to Instagram to deny a Daily Mail report that suggested she couldn’t stand doing nude scenes at all and would do no more in the future. Clarke said she’s fine with doing nudity if it “forwards a story or is shot in a way that adds insight into characters.”

“Sometimes explicit scenes are required and make sense for the characters/story, as they do in Westeros,” Clarke continued. “If it’s gratuitous for gratuitous sake, then I will discuss with a director on how to make it more subtle. In either case, like a good Mother of Dragons, I’m always in control.”