Throughout its eight-season run, there’s no denying what Game of Thrones became: a cultural phenomenon and global juggernaut with an instantly recognizable cast. Based on George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels, nobody could have predicted the insane success of the show, which set a « world record for global demand » (via Deadline), and took home an astonishing 354 awards during its total run.
Of course, being on the air for nearly a decade, many of the stars grew up on camera. « A lot of my memories of growing up on the show are centered around being quite nervous and stressed, » admitted Maisie Williams, who played Arya Stark, to the New York Post. « I took everything very, very seriously … I was pretending to have my s**t together, and I was like 14 years old. Who needs to do that then? » Sophie Turner, who played Sansa Stark, on the other hand, shared a heartwarming photo on Instagram for the series finale, writing, « Sansa, Thank you for teaching me resilience, bravery and what true strength really is … I fell in love with you at 13 and now 10 years on … at 23 I leave you behind, but I will never leave behind what you’ve taught me. » We’re not crying, you’re crying.
Winter may have come and gone for these Game of Thrones superstars, but let’s take a closer look at what they were like as spring chickens.
Emilia Clarke, the goofy conqueror
Emilia Clarke played the fierce Daenerys Targaryen on Game of Thrones, a fan-fave until the final season, where she became the Mad Queen and subsequently betrayed all those who supported her. In real life, however? The British starlet is actually super light-hearted. « She’s goofy, » Dan Weiss and David Benioff, co-creators of the series, confirmed to Vanity Fair. « We have tried to let some of Emilia’s humor and light seep into Daenerys whenever possible. Who says conquerors can’t be funny? »
It looks like Clarke has been goofy since she was a kid, like the childhood snap above that sees the star with underwear on her head. Per Vanity Fair, the actress grew up in the rustic countryside « an hour outside of London. » Her father, a theatrical sound engineer, made sure to drive home the concept of a good education. « Your bookshelf should be bigger than your TV, » Clarke recalled he used to say. « My mum, my brother, my dad, and I would sit around a table, and my happiest place was just discussing stuff. I really value intelligence. I’m one of the very fortunate few people who really likes their family. I just like hanging out with them. »
Going to upper-class boarding schools in Oxford because her parents saved up, the actress recalls she never « really fit in, » causing her to channel her energy into performing. As she told The New Yorker, becoming an actress was a « childhood dream. »
Maisie Williams ditched the classroom to be an on-screen assassin
Fans of Arya Stark actually got to see a lot of the childhood of the actress who portrayed her, because Maisie Williams was cast in the role at the tender age of 12.
According to The Guardian, the star grew up in England with three siblings. Her mother, who worked in university administration, divorced Williams’ father and remarried. Speaking to the Evening Standard, the pint-sized starlet explained she lived a « fairly ordinary middle-class life » without « bags of money to go around. » Because of that, her family couldn’t afford pricey drama lessons. « I always wanted to make people laugh, » she mused, adding, « When I was little … I had no reservations. »
After she got spotted by an agent dancing at a local talent show in Paris, she auditioned for the role of Arya Stark, landing her first significant acting gig. According to the Daily Mail, leaving school at age 14 to work on the show was a hard decision to make by Williams’ parents, but ultimately, they don’t regret it. « Maisie was given a lot of opportunities that we didn’t feel we could turn down to concentrate on education, » her mom, Hilary, dished to the mag. « I know a lot of people wouldn’t agree with that, but that’s what we decided to do. » Needless to say, we’re sure Arya Stark’s massive fanbase is just as happy her parents decided to let her follow her dreams.
Jason Momoa always had a little bit of Khal Drogo in him
While most Game of Thrones stars instantly benefitted after their time on the show, Jason Momoa, who played the fearless Khal Drogo, had some difficulty landing work. « I mean, where do you put Drogo, » he said to Esquire. « No one even knew I spoke English. » He certainly does speak English, however — considering he grew up in small-town America.
An upbringing totally different than what you would expect from a Dothraki leader, Momoa grew up between his mother’s native Iowa and Hawaii, where his father is from. « I was born in Hawaii. I’m basically from Waianae, Nanakuli, » the actor revealed to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, adding, « I would spend my summers there. » As he went on to explain of life in Iowa, « I love the Midwest, and it’s the same people (as in Hawaii) — people who don’t want to leave their land, who are very content where they’re at … I can understand what it’s like to be from two different worlds. »
In a Carhartt Handmade Films series, Momoa explained that his mother « introduced » him to two of his livelong passions: skateboarding and rock climbing. « I wanted to see the world climbing, » Momoa said, adding, « I craved the road and the wild. I wanted to get out — explore it all. » Whether he’s trekking the globe in real life, or planning to cross oceans as Khal Drogo to conquer them, Momoa seems to have become a king in both domains.
Sophie Turner turned to acting because of her love of pasta
Sophie Turner had quite an artistic upbringing, growing up in a village in Warwickshire, England. « I have two older brothers who are highly academic, and I’m not at all, » the actress mused to Harper’s Bazaar. « My best friend and I used to put on plays every time we hung out. »
According to The Telegraph, the starlet started acting when she was three, going to drama class. « My childhood was pretty fun. We had pigsties, barns, and a paddock, and used to muck around in the mud » — a far cry from Sansa Stark’s noble upbringing in Winterfell. Turner also had a passion for ballet, but she ultimately had to decide to pursue dance or acting. « I think it was a good decision, » she told Harper’s Bazaar. « I’m a bit too tall and I like pasta too much, so I am not sure I would have gone all the way to prima ballerina. »
It turns out, her drama teacher was the one who heard about the role of Sansa, suggesting Turner audition for it. « I had been for other auditions before and didn’t get them, » she told The Telegraph, adding, « This was the first audition that I didn’t really try very hard for. » As fans would come to see, the effortlessness of obtaining this audition was not mirrored in Sansa’s harsh times in Westeros.
Alfie Allen had a cheeky moment with Princess Diana
If you’re thinking Alfie Allen’s childhood photo suggests he was a smug troublemaker, you’re absolutely correct. As the Evening Standard claimed (and Allen didn’t dispute), the future actor was actually « expelled from every school [he] went to! »
Allen came from a high-profile family, raised by actor Keith Allen and his film producer wife, Alison Owen. As for his sister? You may recognize the name Lily Allen, the British singer with her hit song « Alfie » — about her little brother. As the actor mused to The Guardian, « Yeah, I definitely feel like I had a different upbringing to a lot of other people. » Per Radio Times, the actor was exposed to the limelight early on, visiting his father on set, which would eventually ignite his love for acting.
While he wasn’t on set, the wee rascal still caused a fuss wherever he went — as revealed by Lily in her memoir, My Thoughts Exactly. During the premiere of a film their mother produced, the Allen got to meet Princess Diana of Wales, who immediately expressed concern for Alfie upon seeing him crying. As Lily wrote, « ‘Are you ok?’ [the princess] asked him. ‘No,’ he replied. ‘I’ve got my willy caught in my zip.' » Mortifyingly enough, his Game of Thrones character, Theon Greyjoy, would suffer a similar, albeit very adult version of this little embarrassment.
Nathalie Emmanuel’s relaxing summers helped balance out her insecurities
Nathalie Emmanuel, the actress who played Missandei, had a bit of a tough time growing up without on-screen role models. Opening up to Hunger magazine (via Evening Standard), the actress revealed, « Not seeing anyone on television that looked like me or that I could identify with was really hard, and that can affect someone’s self-esteem hugely. »
It wasn’t all rough, however, as the starlet was raised by her mother, Deb, in Southend, England. Lovingly referring to her as a « living legend, » Emmanuel told Harper’s Bazaar that since her mom couldn’t pay for childcare, she would drag her daughter to her own job, which consisted of caring for adults with special needs. Emmanuel cites those formative times as having a significant impact on her early life. « A lot of the activities were child-friendly, like pottery and gardening and horse-riding … Those were my summers, really. »
Having the determination to make a difference on TV screens, Emmanuel’s role of Missandei brought diversity to the cast of Game of Thrones — something that the show is notoriously slammed for. « This is a conversation going forward about when you’re casting shows like this, that you are inclusive in your casting, » the actress explained to Entertainment Weekly. « I knew what it meant that [Missandei] was there … because when I was growing up, I didn’t see people like me. »
Carice van Houten’s father was always critical of her acting
Carice van Houten’s ability to play the stoic role of Melisandre in Game of Thrones may have come from her childhood — thanks to her father. Per The Scotsman, van Houten was « born in 1976 in Leiderdorp in the Western Netherlands. » Her mother was on the board of a Dutch educational TV board while her father was « a writer, broadcaster and silent film connoisseur. »
Growing up in a creative household, the budding starlet came to appreciate films without dialogue — something that would later help her to gravitate to the role of the quiet Red Priestess years later. As van Houten explained to the outlet, « I mean I never wanted to be famous, it was just about acting, and I turned out to be successful at it, but that was a sort of side-effect. It was never my goal to be on f***ing red carpets. »
As it turns out, her father was her harshest, yet most loving critic, too, until he passed in 2016. « My father was really quite critical because he was a film journalist and a silent cinema expert so he was the real artist, it felt to me. So I had to be really good for him to acknowledge and he would always say ‘Yeah, well it’s s**t, you’re too good for the films you’re in,’ so… Because he knew what real art was. »
Peter Dinklage’s family ‘creatively’ helped him out with his condition
Peter Dinklage was born in 1970. He grew up in Brookside, New Jersey, according to The New York Times. His father sold insurance and his mother taught music, both good jobs that afforded them a luxury at the time — a black-and-white TV set. The actor recalled how he discovered the device in the house when he heard « odd sounds coming from his parents’ bedroom and opened the door to find them watching » it. They’d hidden it in their closet.
Besides the bizarre television blunder, Dinklage is proud to say his family never made him feel different about his dwarfism. « I was fortunate enough, » he explained to the The New York Times, « to have an upbringing that made me more accepting of who I am. »
However, in an interview with The Sun, Dinklage’s mother did detail a grueling experience with the doctors when her son was younger. « They used to stretch out his little arms and legs like a Stretch Armstrong doll … There was no internet then, so we didn’t know much about the condition. » Yikes. Learning from their mishaps, the whole family got « creative » to help Dinklage out, « such as letting him climb up on to the kitchen counter to reach boxes of cereal with a pair of kitchen tongs. » Aww!
Lena Headey knew how to be as threatening as Cersei
Lena Headey played the cutthroat Cersei Lannister on Game of Thrones, and although her character can be downright evil, Headey definitely isn’t menacing — unless she has to be. Per Men’s Health, the actress was born in Bermuda, moving with her parents to Somerset, England when she was five years old. At 11, when her family moved to a « blue-collar » area in Yorkshire, Headey’s mother forced her to take pronunciation classes so she could « speak like a lady. » Of course, this resulted in bullying from her peers. « I remember asking this boy where the playing field was, and he was like, ‘Where are you from?’ Then he literally smashed me on the head with his cricket bat because I was different, » Headey explained to the mag, before cheekily adding, « Or maybe he just wanted to kiss me. »
Headey started fighting back after a certain amount of time, especially when the bullies started picking on her younger brother, Tim. « He stood out in school because he played the violin and painted his nails and his friends wore Lycra T-shirts. He got picked on, and I was like, ‘Don’t touch my brother.’ I’m small but quite tough. When incensed, I can swing a punch. »
Even at the end of it all, Headey is still proud of her upbringing. Speaking to the The New York Times, the actress exclaimed, « I’m a Yorkshire lass in my soul and in my heart. »
Writing in a diary helped out this stoic GoT character
A Bristol-raised lad, Jacob Anderson was raised in a split household, as his parents divorced when he was only 18 months old. As the actor revealed to The Guardian, « Mum and I have always been close. Her adoptive parents died when she was 18 and she doesn’t have any other kids, so I’m her only family. » Reflecting on his father, he then added, « Dad and I are very similar. He’s loyal, with a quirky sense of humor, but he’s no pushover. I’ve inherited my love of music from him. »
Growing up, Anderson shared some personality traits with his Game of Thrones character, Grey Worm, who didn’t speak much during the show’s run. « I was a very anxious kid, » Anderson told The Guardian. « I was bullied at primary school and responded by making myself as anonymous as possible at secondary school. Lessons didn’t interest me and I used my exercise books as diaries. »
It’s during that time that the actor-turned musician was writing song lyrics — something he does to this day while he goes by his stage name, Raleigh Ritchie. « When I feel s**t, I need to write a song, because I can’t really tell people why I feel s**t … I can explain it if I put it down, » he told Interview Magazine. « That’s what I did as a kid; I used to write in books. »
The Spice Girls fueled this actor’s career
John Bradley West played the adorably awkward Samwell Tarly on Game of Thrones, but his real-life demeanor is much more confident — and even was so a child. Born in Manchester, England, the actor always knew he wanted to be a performer. « I used to disappear for a while, when there was family around, and I used to cobble together a costume from various different things I could find, » West told the Game of Thrones fansite, Winter Is Coming. « My mum’s coat, my dad’s work boots, just get myself some props… none of it was safe, I’d grab it and, completely unannounced, I’d walk in and start doing a little scene. »
While everyone must have been collectively swooning, West reflects on these early childhood performances, noting, « There was something about just being able to connect with people. And I felt connected with [performing] before I really knew what was going on … It was a way to find attention, like many do amongst other brothers and sisters. »
Hilariously enough, West had even further motivation to pursue his acting career. Speaking to comedian Josh Gondelman during an episode of Wiki What, the actor revealed, « Genuinely I said to myself when I was about eight years old, ‘I have to get famous in order to meet Geri Halliwell.' » Considering Ginger Spice retweeted the episode herself (then deleted the tweet), we bet West is over-the-moon for (kind of) achieving his goal.