Part of the fun of George RR Martin’s Fantastic World of Westeros is that it’s exactly as sprawling and byzantine as our past, but retains all the petty gossip, bone-headed idiocy, and wild sexual escapades that are lost in the sheen of Great History of the World. man – and adds dragons for good measure.
But that doesn’t make for an easy show to put together, especially with pandemic restrictions still in place. “House of the Dragon” casting director Kate Rhodes James and her team have only had a limited time to delve into the (literal) volumes of lore about a War of the Roses-style civil war between the Targaryen ruling family and hope, in the endless forest of Zoom auditions, they would catch at least one white deer.
“We had a big table and we had the family tree. I drew it and we’d just have images of the kind of person we thought would be right in those roles – not literally who we wanted to cast, but just because we always needed a visual aid, because names weren’t a guide to us at first.” , James told IndieWire.“You had Laena (Nova Foueillis-Mosé) and Laenor (John Macmillan), Rhaenys (Eve Best), Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy), Aemond (Ewan Mitchell), Aegon (Tom Glynn-Carney) It was a constant thing and we weren’t allowed, obviously, to tell anyone who the characters were. So we had to give them codes.”
The visual cues on the family trees acted almost like a mood board, which created a sense for the casting team of which character inhabited which noble families dynamic. And slowly, the casting team began to get a sense of “who heard Targaryen, who heard Lannister, who heard Valyrian,” James said. “(The challenge) was just remembering what bloodline is and where it leads, why the fans are so forensic and so passionate, and rightly so. Every move we made was with them in mind. It kept us on our game.
But finding the way the right actors would come together was liberating in other ways, especially for the Targaryens. The royal house that can ride dragons is already equipped with a kind of washed-blonde-white hair (this is certainly an enhancement of the Habsburg chin) which visually makes them look related. “When you have blonde hair, it’s something that can bring (a family) together very quickly. You can identify that he’s from that family and it makes sense,” James said.
It’s really a judgment call, according to James, to build a cast that visually connects with each other for a series that takes place over multiple time periods. Emma D’Arcy and Olivia Cooke, who play the arguably older but decidedly more powerful versions of rival queens Rhaenyra and Allicent, were cast ahead of their younger counterparts, Milly Alcock and Emily Carey. “So obviously they were guiding us as to where we were going to go,” James said.
But some of the children’s roles were cast before their adult counterparts, which required James and his team to broaden their intuition about who the right person was. “It was very, very complicated,” James said. “But that’s what we do as casting directors. This is just one stage of the casting and I think because (normally nobody) sees the effort and the work that goes into it, when they see the effort, everyone is very excited. They say, “Oh my God, that’s amazing.” It’s because you can see what I’ve done. But we thought a lot about every other character (besides the kids).”
Much of this effort, especially for the children of the “House of the Dragon” cast, has been on Instagram, if only because the British population is smaller than that of the United States. “If you were to do research in America, you have to set aside six months to do it, if not more. I think when they were filming “Stranger Things,” I’m sure Carmen (Cuba, casting director of that show) said she was invested a lot of time into that research. You have to do it,” James said. “We’re not a big country like America, so (with agencies and theater groups) it’s pretty efficient how quickly you get through these things.”
Targeting Instagram in the UK resulted in hundreds of self-tapes, which James and his team narrowed down as quickly as possible in their casting window, which, as the production schedule moved, was sometimes sunny eight weeks. But even so, James and her team tried their best to get into a room, safely, with the audition finalists.
“It’s not just about fitting into the role. It’s also their temperament, how they are when their mother isn’t in the room, it’s all of these things. I can see if they’re listening, if they’re making eye contact. Obviously everyone was resistant to this due to COVID. But in the end we did it,” said James.
The hardest part of the process, however, hasn’t necessarily been the logistical challenges. It was the job that can make or break a series: Finding someone to bring an iconic character to life, and in “House of the Dragon,” it was iconoclast dragon collector Daemon Targaryen (Matt Smith). “Everyone has an image in their head that they struggle to articulate (of Daemon),” James said. “I need to know what’s in his heart.”
Key to the show’s version of Daemon, according to James, is the rejection he experiences in life; everything he does is a reaction to it, however wriggling and mercurial those reactions may be. “That’s what’s so brilliant about investing in younger versions of Rhaenyra and Allicent, because (the series shows) what adults do to children, how they destroyed them, what their own parents did,” she said James. “We needed someone who wasn’t obvious.”
James found that Smith not only wasn’t obvious or the kind of actor who emphasizes clear performance for a character’s ultimate goodness or badness, but he had a kind of unpredictability that draws people in and always creates a reaction, even if you’re just leaning against a door. “It’s people who (when they) lean back, you lean back. If anyone leans back, go, OH. And that’s what Matt does beautifully,” said James.