Olivia Cooke knows that some “House of the Dragon” viewers see her character, Alicent Hightower, as the bad guy. But as an actor committed to crafting layered performances, she just can’t agree with that opinion. Here, Cooke discusses the empathy she feels for her character on the “Game of Thrones” prequel; the role that cemented her love of acting; and her on-again, off-again relationship (mostly off) with Instagram.
Do you remember the casting director who gave you your first big break?
Yes, it was Beverley Keogh in Manchester, on a BBC drama called “Blackout.” I played Christopher Eccleston’s daughter when I was 18.
Of all the roles you’ve played, which one shaped you the most as an actor?
That is so hard. Maybe Amanda in “Thoroughbreds,” directed by Cory Finley, just because I was able to stretch a muscle that I’ve never been able to stretch before and play a proper character. It made me really cement the love that I have for acting even more. It was just a really wild take that, at 22, he trusted me to run with. I loved it so much. It was so fun playing a person that has no feelings but has to pretend they’re feeling all the time.
What’s one mistake you’ve made in your career that you’ll never make again?
Oh, probably getting [on] Instagram. But then I got [on] it again. I hate it, and I hate myself when I have to do stuff on it and feed the beast.
What do the best directors you’ve worked with have in common?
They make you feel like you came up with the best ideas when, really, they came up with the best ideas—so you feel great doing everything. But really, they’re just incredibly humble and generous. They’re incredible at reading people, as well. They have the wherewithal to let you run through all your ideas, and then they go, “Yeah, great, great, great.” Because sometimes, all an actor wants to do is go, “OK, I’ve been thinking about this all night; here’s X, Y, and Z of why I think this is going to happen.” And maybe it doesn’t pertain to the scene that you’re doing, exactly. But they will make you think that you’re able to incorporate that in what they want you to do. Sometimes, it doesn’t necessarily get in, but you feel emboldened and confident anyway.
Have you ever been surprised by how the audience perceived one of your characters?
With “House of the Dragon,” I think people have really set [Alicent] up to be the villain. I just don’t think she is at all. Number one, I think it’d be incredibly shortsighted to play any character like a villain. But there’s so much empathy that I have for her. She’s incredibly antagonistic at times, but I just don’t see her as that black-and-white villain that I think a lot of people see her as.
This story originally appeared in the Jan. 19 issue of Backstage Magazine.