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Game of Thrones' original Daenerys actress on what it was like shooting the unused HBO pilot

The show's original Daenerys Targaryen looks back on what she learned from the pilot.

By Matthew Jackson
Tamzin Merchant GETTY

It's no secret to devoted Game of Thrones fans that the hit HBO series made it to our screen thanks, in no small part, to a massive second chance. The show's original pilot famously did not work for either creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss or for HBO executives, and rather than scrapping the epic series altogether, the network rolled the dice on its fledgling showrunners and paid for some massive reshoots. 

That gamble paid off, but not everyone from the original pilot made it into the megahit Game of Thrones would later become. Along the way, Benioff and Weiss recast two key roles. Jennifer Ehle, who originally played Catelyn Stark, backed out of the series because she didn't like the commitment of moving to Northern Ireland for the duration of the show, which led to Michelle Fairley taking the role. Then there's Tamzin Merchant, who played Daenerys Targaryen in the original pilot before producers decided they needed someone else, and recast the role with a then-unknown Emilia Clarke.

Clearly, Thrones producers saw something that wasn't working from their end on a character who would ultimately turn out to be among the most vital in the entire series, but how did that all look from Merchant's side of things? More than a decade after producing the pilot, the actress has finally looked back on what it was like in a new interview with Entertainment Weekly

According to Merchant, who was just coming off a role on Showtime's hit The Tudors at the time of the Thrones pilot, the role and the series weren't necessarily a dream job for her from the beginning, and that feeling carried over into her time on set. 

"Shooting that pilot was a really great lesson," Merchant said. "It was an affirmation about listening to my instincts and following them, because I tried to back out of that situation and, during the contract process, I did back out. I was talked back into it by some persuasive people. Then I found myself naked and afraid in Morocco and riding a horse that was clearly much more excited to be there than I was."

Merchant's comment about the horse refers to a story from James Hibberd's oral history, Fire Cannot Kill a Dragon, in which various people who were on set during the original shoot for Dany's wedding night with Khal Drogo recounted a horse getting an erection as it watched the original sex scene. That scene, which creator George R.R. Martin has described as more of a "seduction" and more true to the book than what ultimately ended up in the pilot, was a key moment that helped Merchant understand that her heart was not in the making of the series. 

"It was a lesson that if my guts are telling me a story isn't something I'm excited to tell, then I shouldn't try to be excited just because other people are telling me that I should be excited," she said. "I didn't have any training as an actor, I only have my instincts. And what excites me and what drives me is a compelling story and a compelling character. So for me, Game of Thrones was never that. I think it's a testament to Emilia Clarke for making that role iconic — she was obviously excited to tell that story, and she was epic and excellent. But for me, it wasn't in my heart to tell it."

Though she ultimately lost out on a role in what became the biggest TV series in the world, and later had the strange experience of riding buses adorned with ads featuring the character she almost played, Merchant doesn't seem to carry any regret over not being able to see the series through. She's since gone on to work on a number of other projects, including Amazon's fantasy series Carnival Row, and has even become a genre author thanks her to fantasy novel The Hatmakers. In the end, she compared losing out on Game of Thrones to the fairy tale "The Red Shoes," the story of a girl swept away in a golden carriage when all she really wants is the pair of red dancing shoes that she made herself. 

"And for me, I think if I had to get in that golden carriage — if I hadn't been released from my contract — I think it would have taken me to a place far from the creative person that I am today," she said. "Also, if I was very rich and famous, I wouldn't have time to do all the things that my soul needs to do. Expressing myself creatively is a need that's more important than any amount of riches that I could have gained from that part. If I did I think I'd just distract myself – but that's just me, not anybody else; I think Emilia Clarke is amazing. I just wouldn't be the creator that I am today [like with the book]. I'm profoundly grateful to have claimed my own path to be carving it for myself."

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