Filming Bates Motel Took A Mental Toll On House Of The Dragon's Olivia Cooke

TRIGGER WARNING: This post contains subject matter related to mental health and suicide. If you or a loved one is in crisis, please reach out to National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK or the Crisis Text Line (Text TALK to 741741) to talk to someone who can help.

As far as I'm concerned, the Olivia Cooke Emmy campaign began the day she took over the role of Alicent Hightower in "House of the Dragon." Much like "The Crown," the Thrones prequel series is taking a generational approach to its storytelling, swapping out its performers when a massive time skips calls for aging the characters up. While it was a shame to see Emily Carey go, Cooke has more than stepped up to the plate, just in time to play a character that's spiraling into darkness. The latest episode of the series gave Cooke some real time to shine: watching Alicent charge at children with a knife probably shouldn't be fun but Cooke's performance made it one hell of a Sunday night watch.

While this marks one of the actresses' highest profile roles yet, there's a good chance you've also seen Cooke shine elsewhere (hopefully with fewer knives involved). Not too long ago, she was at the center of Steven Spielberg's "Ready Player One," before later starring in the Oscar contender "Sound of Metal." Other roles include "Ouija," "Me Earl ad the Dying Girl," "Thoroughbreds" and the one that stands starkest in my mind, "Bates Motel."

Adjusting to life at the Bates Motel

The A&E original series "Bates Motel" takes its name and characters from Alfred Hitchcock's classic 1960 thriller "Psycho," but focuses on the life of a young Norman Bates and his complicated relationship with his mother, Norma (Vera Farmiga). The series acted as a sort of prequel to the film, though changed details about the setting and story as it progressed through a five-season arc. Changes included inventing characters like Cooke's Emma Decody, a teenage "old soul" with cystic fibrosis who becomes a friend and occasional love interest for the budding serial killer.

Cooke was a striking presence in the series, which marked a turning point in her career as a young actress. Just a year after landing the role, she would begin starring in movies. But in a recent profile piece for The Guardian, Cooke revealed that it was also one of the toughest times in her life. 

"I'm so grateful for that job, but I had a really tough time on it. The way the schedule worked, we all had different storylines, so a lot of my time was spent in this apartment in Vancouver, working once every two weeks."

A number of unfortunate factors added up to an "awful" mental health experience. Cooke was 20 when she began working on the series and was far from home, having just moved to the Unites States from the United Kingdom. Not only was she settling into a new country, but grappling with the stakes of her career. It didn't help that the schedule kept her working so infrequently, and being under the legal drinking age in America meant there were fewer chances and places to socialize and meet people during all of that downtime.

"It was a big old lovely cocktail: being homesick and not knowing it, having not stopped since I was 18, being on my own for large swathes of time."

There's no place like home

Cooke's response was to throw herself further into her work but that approach only made matters worse. She told The Guardian that in 2016, when she was 22, she had a "full mental breakdown." And still, despite all that she was going through, Cooke never hit pause. "I was working all the way through," Cooke said. Mental health is often an invisible battle and she describes herself as "Very good at hiding it." At the time, Cooke was shooting "Ready Player One" and "Thoroughbreds," two projects that served as welcome distractions from reality. On the subject of playing a full-blow sociopath in the latter, she joked, "If anything, I was like, let me escape myself."

Thankfully, the toll of life, anxiety and her career slowly eased. Cooke's mental health got better with time, but it wasn't until 2019 that she started to feel free of "the incessant, persistent, anxious thoughts." She attributes moving back to London as a key part of her healing process: "Being in London, I just felt like I'd come home." Another key factor came in the form of the pandemic, which enforced a pause in her career that she called "a tonic." 

In fact, Cooke has just settled into a "sweet spot" when "House of the Dragon" came her way. During the audition process, she has some reservations about the role: particularly in the wake of the "Game of Thrones" finale controversy, entering the behemoth of Westeros after having just found peace was an understandably daunting prospect. But after reading the scripts, Cooke didn't hesitate to move forward. Alicent was too good a character to turn down. Best of all, since the series is largely shot on Warner Brothers' new digital production stage in Watford England, she didn't have to leave home again.