Riding Dragons In House Of The Dragon Is 'Incredibly Mundane'

As its name suggests, the "Game of Thrones" spin-off series "House of the Dragon" will have a helluva a lot of dragons, with at least 17 gracing the screen in the show's first season. These dragons (or at least some of them) belong to members of House Targaryen, the uniquely dysfunctional family that rules Westeros and is pretty comfortable with incest. Each family member has their own special dragon they bond with right when the dragon baby hatches.

For the actors who play Targaryens in "House of the Dragon," that dragon bond meant they spent a lot of time on set "riding" their dragons. However, riding a fire-breathing creature the size of a 747 isn't as glamorous as one might think. I had the chance to talk with "House of the Dragon" stars Matt Smith (Daemon Targaryen), Milly Alcock (young Rhaenyra Targaryen), and Emmy D'Arcy (older Rhaenyra Targaryen) during a series of in-person roundtable discussions for the show, and they revealed what it was like behind-the-scenes to bring the mythical animals to life and, for Smith, what it was like to see his darling dragon on screen for the first time. 

'Wow, that's a big f*cking dragon'

When Smith first saw his dragon, Caraxes, on screen in all its CGI glory, he was suitably impressed. "I thought it looked cool," he shared. "I thought, 'Wow, that's a big f**king dragon.'"

According to Smith, Daemon and Caraxes are two peas in a pod and have a "weird symbiosis" between them. "They're grumpy, belligerent, sort of cross loners," he said. "And I think, in many ways, his dragon's one of the only people that truly understands him. I think that's why he gets on with him so, like people do with dogs sometimes ... there's a weird, almost like an avatar-ness, to them both."

Creating the scenes where the real-life actors rode those big f***ing dragons, however, did require very long hours on set straddled to what D'Arcy described as a "bucking bronco" hoisted 10 feet up into the air. While Smith said the experience was cool, he did concede that after riding the buck for 10+ hours while they incessantly pommelled him with wind and rain made him eager for that day to end. 

Alcock agreed with Smith's assessment of the long dragon-riding production days, and described the experience as "incredibly mundane."

"I mean, it's fun," she conceded. "But I go to work because I want to work with great actors, and I want to work opposite great actors. When you're alone on a sound stage for 12 hours, and you're on day three, you're like, 'Oh, please. Give me something else to do.' But the novelty of it is something that I will hold dearly to my heart forever."

'Suddenly I was on a fairground ride'

D'Arcy was the most positive about their dragon-riding experience. "It was great," they said. "Very fun, very playful — it was lovely to try and imaginatively animate an inanimate object."

What D'Arcy found most amazing about the experience was the sophistication of the technology controlling the mechanics behind the creature's stand-in, which they described in detail: 

"I think when they were doing 'Game of Thrones,' it was all manual. So you had this buck which was then operated by people, and now you have the animatronic, and then you have something that looks a bit like an iPad, which is connected to a miniature version. And the director can manipulate that to program a flight path, which is then replicated on the full size buck. It's unbelievable ... and that was all forgotten when I got on it, because suddenly I was on a fairground ride."

D'Arcy did practice their dragon-riding skills beforehand, as much as one can. "I ride this huge dragon called Syrax, and I'd never ridden a horse before," they shared. "You get a bit of time to practice, which allows you to anticipate movement it's going to make, [because] ultimately you need to be the one instigating that motion."

You can see Smith, Alcock, and D'Arcy's dragon-riding skills in action when "The House of the Dragon" premieres on HBO and HBO Max on Sunday, August 21.