House of the Dragon’s Tom Glynn-Carney: ‘Game of Thrones was a little too close to oversexualising women’

Tom Glynn-Carney has been praised both for his stage and screen work  (Netflix)
Tom Glynn-Carney has been praised both for his stage and screen work (Netflix)

Aegon II Targaryen is not a villain, or so says the man who plays him on House of the Dragon. For all his scheming and bludgeoning, the newly anointed Lord of the Seven Kingdoms isn’t evil. “I don’t think he is,” insists Tom Glynn-Carney. “He’s a product of his history. He’s complex and multidimensional and riddled with insecurity. He’s an empath!”

The 29-year-old from Salford, who has won plaudits for his work on both stage and screen in films such as Dunkirk and shows like SAS Rogue Heroes, has a soft spot for the character, whom he portrays in House of the Dragon, the prequel series to HBO’s megahit Game of Thrones. To call the show’s return to screen highly anticipated would be a gross understatement. Its first ever episode drew in nearly 10 million viewers in 2022, making it the most-watched series premiere in HBO history; chances are season two will top it.

Based on George RR Martin’s 2018 novel Fire & Blood and set two centuries before Emilia Clarke’s Daenerys was born, the sprawling epic chronicles a turbulent time in the Targaryen family tree, when the ambiguous half-muttered last words of a dying monarch (played by Paddy Considine) lead to the violently contested accession of a king whose place on the Iron Throne grows more precarious by the minute. As the reluctant boy-king Aegon, Glynn-Carney finds himself at the heart of the conflict – and in the firing line of fervid fans more than happy to let actors know when they’re not up to scratch.

Glynn-Carney tries not to pay attention to the noise. “If I did, I’d freak myself out and never step foot back on set,” he laughs. But if he were to tune in, he’d be pleased at what he hears, with early reviews singling Glynn-Carney out as a highlight.

Glynn-Carney steals scenes as King Aegon II Targaryen in  ‘House of the Dragon’ (HBO)
Glynn-Carney steals scenes as King Aegon II Targaryen in ‘House of the Dragon’ (HBO)

He is memorable as Aegon, staking his claim to the role with a gobstopper of a performance that comprises layers of teenage petulance, privileged entitlement, bone-deep insecurity, and yes, empathy. Any notion that his take on Aegon would be Joffrey 2.0 (a facsimile of Jack Gleeson’s magnificently sadistic king from Game of Thrones) dissipates quickly.

For what it’s worth, Glynn-Carney sees Aegon and Joffrey as opposites. “I can understand why people have made those comparisons, but I always thought of them as being very different. Joffrey is cold and calculated, while Aegon is frantic, and when he feels, he feels so deeply – which is as dangerous as someone who doesn’t feel at all,” he says, sounding a little protective of his much-maligned character. “He doesn’t have anywhere to put that, which I guess sometimes manifests in violence.”

Glynn-Carney is almost unrecognisable today in the plush hotel suite. Not least because those signature Targaryen silver locks are nowhere to be seen. “Season one, I dyed my hair white under the wig so that I could get used to it,” he says. For season two, he just shaved it off. His hair has since grown back; a crop of dirty blonde peeks out from beneath a herringbone flat cap.

He can recall the first time he saw himself in costume: the scraggly wig, of course, but also the royal tunic, and the Targaryen seal on his chest. Did he feel powerful? “The opposite, actually,” he says. “It felt very exposing. In contrast to Ewan [Mitchell], who plays Aemond, who told me he felt strong and regal. Meanwhile, I felt naked, which was interesting given the trajectory of their characters.” What exactly that trajectory entails, he isn’t at liberty to say (and, having seen four episodes, neither am I).

Aegon II Targaryen’s seat on the Iron Throne grows more precarious by the second (HBO)
Aegon II Targaryen’s seat on the Iron Throne grows more precarious by the second (HBO)

The Thrones legacy casts a long shadow, but House of the Dragon is a beast of its own. For one thing, it has pared back the carnage (a little). One particularly grim scene at the end of episode one is mercifully depicted off camera, showing an uncharacteristic restraint. “That will split the audience,” says Glynn-Carney. “Some people turn on a show like this because they want that blood and gore, that shock factor, but I think what our imaginations can do is often way more shocking.”

Similarly, they’ve cooled it on the sex scenes and nudity. “I presumed that they would,” says Glynn-Carney. “That they would take a different approach, because it did feel like maybe Game of Thrones was too close to oversexualising women, and that wouldn’t be cool if they did that this time. I thought they were suitably delicate and took a better, more sustainable angle.”

Glynn-Carney was driving on the motorway when he got the call from his agent telling him he’d landed the part. At the time, he hadn’t even known what he was auditioning for, asked only to film a self-tape for an “undisclosed” project. Surely, though, he would’ve had some inkling? Scripts about dragons and ascensions aren’t exactly a dime a dozen. “All I could say was that it felt classical in its language, a hybrid between contemporary and Shakespeare – and that’s my bread and butter,” says Glynn-Carney, who starred opposite his idol Mark Rylance in Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman in 2017, and Amy Adams in The Glass Menagerie four years later. In 2018, he won the Evening Standard Emerging Talent Award.

When Christopher Nolan gave the script to Michael Caine for ‘Dunkirk’, he even sat with him while he read it and then took it from him – clearly didn’t trust him!

When he got the role, “I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone,” he says, “but I may have accidentally let it slip to Alfie [Allen, who played Theon Greyjoy in Thrones] because I knew I could trust him, and we were on set together [for SAS Rogue Heroes]. He told me ‘Enjoy it, lap it up. It’s a world that is massive, bigger than any TV show you’ll probably ever do, but just enjoy it and trust your instincts.’”

As it turns out, Glynn-Carney was apparently the only person alive who hadn’t seen Game of Thrones. “I blasted through eight seasons in about three weeks,” he says. “And what did he think of the much-despised, critically maligned ending? He cracks a knowing smile. “Look, whatever I say, I’ll get in trouble here. It felt to me that it was a poisoned chalice for any writer to be able to please everybody. I thought they did a great job, personally.”

Scripts for House of the Dragon are hot property, top secret documents sent over on encrypted links. (Glynn-Carney is the exception to the rule; “I’m quite dyslexic so I have mine on yellow paper. I can’t read off a screen that well.”) Cast and crew are sworn to secrecy “on pain of death”, he jokes. “You feel the red laser on your back the whole time. You know there’s cameras in here?” There may not be cameras, but there are two publicists huddled nearby ready to swoop should he let anything slip.

They needn’t worry. Glynn-Carney knows when to keep shtum. His first major role was in 2017’s Dunkirk, after all. Christopher Nolan is nothing if not tight-lipped about his films. Scripts are famously hand-delivered to homes, printed in red to prevent photocopies. “Really dark red that’s tough to read,” says Glynn-Carney. “When he gave the script to Michael Caine for Dunkirk, he even sat with him while he read it and then took it from him.” He throws his head back and laughs. “Clearly didn’t trust him!”

Glynn-Carney and Cillian Murphy in Christopher Nolan’s wartime  epic ‘Dunkirk’ (2017) (Warner Bros)
Glynn-Carney and Cillian Murphy in Christopher Nolan’s wartime epic ‘Dunkirk’ (2017) (Warner Bros)

I wonder what it’s like on the set of House of the Dragon. It’s easy to imagine camera assistants dodging Matt Smith stalking around as Prince Daemon, or Emma D’Arcy maintaining Rhaenrya’s wide-eyed grief-stricken state in between takes. Or perhaps Aegon’s insolence spilling out from behind the camera.

“Everyone has their own way of going about it,” he says. “For me, it always depends on what the day needs. If the day needs me to stay in the zone, I’ll stay in the zone. If there is some opportunity for levity and joy, I’ll sniff it out. And everyone, cast and crew, is very patient with whatever anyone needs.” Glynn-Carney recalls a couple of days when it had been the case. “There’s a little person in my head, going ‘I hope I don’t look a dick,’ but it’s just my way of doing it – though not always!”

Beyond slipping on a bald cap, Glynn-Carney taps into Aegon’s mindset using music. So, what does Aegon Targaryen, the Second of His Name, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms, Protector of the Realm, listen to in his downtime? “Bit of Eminem,” says Glynn-Carney. “Some Stiff Little Fingers, Sex Pistols, Rolling Stones. A lot of rousing classical. Anything with angst and a guttural punch to it.” Season two’s playlist has a lot of Jeff Buckley. “Read into that how you will,” Glynn-Carney smirks. (He was, up until recently, part of a band; “There’s not enough hours in the day to do both.”)

House of the Dragon is without a doubt Glynn-Carney’s biggest role to date. And baptisms of fire don’t burn much hotter than this. But for now, he is enjoying a peaceful existence back up north in the countryside, where his only neighbours are sheep. For the most part, he can get around undetected. “If I have any amount of facial hair, I do get away with it, but as soon as I shave...” He drifts off, widening his eyes. I tell him that chances are, next time we speak, he’ll have a full-grown beard. He laughs: “And face tattoos!”

‘House of the Dragon’ season two launches on Sky and NOW on Monday 17 June