Nothing is more enjoyable to the quiet Manchester actress than a conversation at her neighborhood café. Despite her recent role in the Game of Thrones prequel, her mother is adamant on getting her paired with a Hollywood A-lister.
Olivia Cooke is a great companion to have if you’re concerned about growing older. Over a midafternoon pot of English morning tea, she reiterates the motivational speech she just delivered to a friend who was “panicking” over aging by one year: “32 is the new 22 – it really is.” As a thirty-one-year-old myself, I’m happy to let her complete the idea. You wouldn’t pay to go back to the year 22,” she says emphatically. “Well, I wouldn’t.”
Cooke’s own birthday is in little over three months. She claims that she and her peers are regressing rather than sprinting to reach milestones. She just returned from a vacation in Sicily. Edinburgh for the Fringe festival came first. The desert before that. She posted images of the party on Instagram with the remark, “A few days to dry out. Lol kidding.” When I tell her that my summer has been very much the same, she appears relieved. She claims, “We’re drinking more and going out more.” Yes, it’s escape, isn’t it? The world seems like it has so much going on, and the future seems so unpredictable.
I detest the shouty, energized person I become into when I walk the red carpet.
Our millennial age is plagued with quarter-life crises, but Cooke in particular may be about to undergo a significant transition. When we first meet, she has only been out of the limelight for a few weeks due to the most anticipated television show in history, House of the Dragon, the prequel to Game of Thrones, where she has a major role.
Cooke portrays Alicent Hightower in episode six forward. She is a skilled political operative and the daughter of King Viserys I Targaryen’s righthand man. Cooke was cast in the role in October 2020 after a drawn-out and very exclusive Zoom audition procedure. She credits her contrarian tendency for the fact that, up until then, she had never even watched Game of Thrones. She claims, “To my own detriment, because it’s really fucking good, I resist things that are popular.”
I’ve managed to catch Cooke in her prime between wrapping up publicity and before the spotlight focuses on her (“luscious,” she calls it, her Mancunian vowels no less round for her years in North America).
Cooke, who has been acting for ten years, has established a career that is both remarkably diverse and consistently high-caliber. She has proven herself in both Spielberg-scale theater-fillers, like Ready Player One, and Sundance sleepers, like Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. She often switches between large and small screens as well as genres, e.g., humor in Thoroughbreds and horror in The Quiet Ones. She have the stamina to go through five seasons of Bates Motel and the glimmer to support an ITV drama like Vanity Fair. She demonstrated her ability to change when starring with Oscar-nominee Riz Ahmed in Sound of Metal, where her portrayal of a broken, passionate metal singer was praised.
Cooke claims to be “a bit of a masochist” since she picked up the guitar and metal-screamed for the part. She continues, “It seems like I’m always attempting to turn away from my most recent action and pursue its opposite. It’s just me trying to learn and be interested, but also stimulate my curiosity as much as anybody else’s. I become bored very quickly, and also bored with myself.
As a result of this attempt to defy expectations, Cooke’s career hasn’t yet reached the level of fame. Cooke had returned to London after many years of living in New York, fallen back in with her old friends, and had largely shaken off the anxieties and insecurities that had plagued her since her early 20s when House of the Dragon came her way in early 2020. Cooke describes this period of time as her “sweet spot.” She acknowledges that the pandemic’s forced stop was “a tonic.” “I just felt like I’d come home” when in London.
With its central position among “so many opinions,” the Game of Thrones colossus poses a danger to the recently established tranquility, as Cooke quips while rolling her eyes. “I wasn’t sure if this was what I wanted to do with my life when I was auditioning, but after seeing the first two scripts, it was good.”
Cooke characterizes Alicent as an openly supportive agent of patriarchy, calling her “an incubator who’s been indoctrinated to be fine with it, and to know her place within the court.” “Yet it doesn’t mean that she lacks agency, strength, or intelligence—it’s just an incredibly intriguing combination.”
Cooke would be able to remain in London, however, since House of the Dragon was filmed on Warner Brothers’ state-of-the-art digital production stage in Watford. This was the decisive factor. “Being in one location for a year felt really alluring,” she adds. “It felt amazing” when she found out she had gotten the role, three months later. However, it’s also evident—oh my God—her large brown eyes enlarge. Is there going to be a major, terrifying shift in my life? What have I done, too?”
Cooke’s biggest-ever crowd is expected to see House of the Dragon. More people watched the first episode than the Game of Thrones debut in 2011—more than 4 million individuals. I think it may make Cooke a celebrity. She laughs, “Yeah, as I become a huge, massive celeb.” She stops and says, “As I become Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson…” “I’ve worked for ten years, done what I believed would be the right thing, or what everyone told me to do, and I’ve managed to live a very anonymous life.”
Cooke, for the time being at least, avoids notice by hanging around in locations like this east London café near her house, where we met on a steamy Friday afternoon. She embraces me and apologizes profusely for being a few minutes late and for being “slightly sweaty.” She is a kind and well-known person. She really seems quite put together to me; she’s wearing jeans, a loose, vintage-looking top, drop pearl earrings, and red patent boots—she’s the epitome of the London stylish girl.
However, her demeanor seems to be typified by the North: she is quick to laugh, humble, and has a strong caring instinct that comes through when I ask to move to a quieter table (and again when I admit to having had three coffees: “Oh, really? Do you want something to eat? No? You’re OK?”). Throughout our ninety minutes together, I have to repeatedly redirect Cooke’s attention away from me and back toward her. “I enjoy learning about people and posing questions,” she adds. “I could talk for hours on end.”
Cooke even claims to disassociate on red carpets, indicating that she issues with the attention focused on her. She apologizes, “I find it really zapping of my energy.” “I absolutely detest the person I turn into when I’m doing these things; I become so shouty and adrenaline-pumped. However, I also feel as if I’m being too self-deprecating because I don’t want people to think I’m arrogant. I feel as like I’m trying to separate myself from what’s happening while still being very conscious of it.
As she says, the voyage from Manchester to Westeros hasn’t altered all that much in her life. Cooke, the oldest child of a sales representative and a former police officer, was raised in Oldham, Greater Manchester. When she was six years old and her sister Eleanor was six months old, their parents divorced, and they moved in with their mother. She claims that while her parents were encouraging, they didn’t grasp her early desire to perform. Cooke’s mother, in particular, finds the Hollywood actress her daughter to be quite endearing. Cooke talks nostalgically of the corkboard listing her accomplishments and the helpful recommendations of A-listers she might date. “Just anyone she saw on TV and thought even somewhat attractive: ‘What about ‘im?'”
Cooke began attending the Oldham Theatre Workshop at the age of eight, a neighborhood theater school that has a track record of developing talent. It was there that she first got to know a large number of the performers who now make up her close-knit London cast. When she was fourteen, one, Sam Glen (ex-Coronation Street), assisted her in finding an agency. They were going out partying in Manchester shortly after, entering 42’s and The Gay Village with fictitious IDs and “just causing havoc” (cue Cooke grimaces).
I question, what type of havoc? In a way, Cooke feels embarrassed. “Drinking in public, in parks, during police pursuits…
She left school before completing her A-levels at the age of eighteen after receiving an opportunity to star with Christopher Eccleston in the 2012 BBC miniseries Blackout. “Even though my mother was a little concerned, I knew what I wanted,” Cooke said after Bates Motel seemed to be signaling the big time by inviting him to Canada for five seasons between 2013 and 2017. She attributes her appreciation of preparation for enabling presence of mind on set to Oscar-nominated Vera Farmiga. Cooke remarks, “She had the role in her bones.” He seems amazed.
Cooke still spends a lot of time learning the accents of her characters, comprehending their motives, and coordinating with the outfit. In Sound of Metal, she came up with the idea to bleach her character’s eyebrows. “Just to do all the work before is so freeing,” she explains. However, it also reveals a fundamental fear about trying to produce quality work, as well as other parts of the field Cooke discovered she was ill-prepared for.
“I had a really hard time on that job, but I’m so grateful for it,” she adds. Cooke claims that her experience was as depressing as it sounds, and that she found it difficult to socialize since she was underage. “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.”
She had always been a bit of a sap; one of her first recollections was being taken aback by a fellow child’s declaration that she felt perfectly fine. As an eight-year-old, Cooke felt, “I literally think I’ve never been 100%.” Alone, distant from home, and feeling as if her career was on the line, Cooke fell into depression. “It was a big, lovely cocktail: being on my own for extended periods of time, not realizing that I was homesick, and having not stopped since I was 18.”
She responded by devoting herself even more to her task. At the age of 22, Cooke had a “full mental breakdown” in 2016. The memory makes her cringe. It was very, really awful. Horrible, really. I’m surprised that her filmography doesn’t stop. “Oh, no, I was working through it all,” she laughs regretfully. “I was excellent at concealing it.”
Cooke was filming Thoroughbreds and Ready Player One at the time, which served as nice diversion from her personal misery (particularly the latter, she quips glumly, as she plays an emotionless psychopath). “If anything, I thought, let me get away from myself.”
On set, she has never had trouble standing up for herself. She claims, “I’ve always known my limits, been pretty protective of myself, and could tell when someone was pissing in the bathroom.” And, typically, nobody else would say it. I point out that for other individuals, it would be a good argument to maintain the status quo. “I speak up if it occurs more than twice,” she declares.
If Cooke’s job served as his haven, it was no match for the outside world. Being a vocal feminist and lefty, she was deeply affected by both Brexit and Trump’s shocks.
Cooke, who had come to New York to live with her then-boyfriend Christopher Abbott (Charlie from Girls), recollects attending a demonstration outside of Trump’s hotel around that time. She shakes her head, half amused, partly irritated at her own naivete. “So stupid,” she murmurs. It was just so, so depressing. “I was like, ‘Wow, my rights aren’t a given, it’s 2016 and I’m still not seen as an equal… and I’m a white woman, so I’m still leaps and bounds ahead of others.'”
Cooke observes somberly that, six years later, some of the atrocities committed against women in House of the Dragon are anything but fanciful in the US. “I didn’t realize how topical children having children would become with Roe v Wade.”
I contend that it’s difficult to disentangle the mental health of our age from its political experiences. Cooke replies, “You still have to give a damn.” “But every political setback is accompanied by a peculiar numbness.”
Cooke’s mental health improved with time, but she didn’t begin to experience “the incessant, persistent, anxious thoughts” on a daily basis until 2019. In the meanwhile, New York’s allure began to wane. She missed dark humor, being among people who recognized she wasn’t “Scottish, or neighbours with the Queen,” and British TV (The Vicar of Dibley is her comfort watching).
She claims that her breakup with Abbott right before the pandemic was “another reason to come home.” “Relocating back to London was what was really healing.”
I say that a lot of people are depressed about the state of shattered Britain right now. “Well, I believe that’s why I thought this was amazing when I left America.Cooke laughs and points out.
She acknowledges that the energy crisis and rising living expenses have now dulled the glamour of British life. “I’m speaking with my mother and sister, and I will always support them, but it is really depressing,” the speaker said. It’s terrible.
Cooke has learned from her prior experiences to look for pleasure and even serenity wherever she can. She admits that more than the bandage costumes and “paralytic” drinking of her early 20s, she regrets overestimating her own importance. She sighs, “I just had to grow up so quickly—I was the only one taking care of me.” “Now, I wish I could just go back and be like, God, relax,” which explains this summer’s relapse. She continues, “I just feel so solid in who I am… Weirdly, the older I get, the younger I feel. It feels like I’m reliving my early 20s.”
Cooke now has limitations when it comes to his career and other goals. She says she wants to “broaden my horizons a little bit” by moving to Europe, maybe to Amsterdam, but her other plan surprises me. Cooke answers slowly, as if she’s only now coming to terms with her want to have a family: “More and more, I think I’ve wanted to have a family.” “However, that has only happened in the last few months. It’s amazing to see how my sister has grown and how much love she has for her little boy, who is both amazing and savage.”
“What about ‘im?” her mother asks, pointing out A-listers she may want to date.”
I bring up the recent statement made by Sydney Sweeney, a 25-year-old actress from Euphoria, stating that she couldn’t afford to take time off to have a mother. She mocks herself, “Oh, economically, I’ve never thought about it.” “I simply think that having someone who loves you would be good.Family is the priority right now, but I’m totally the opposite.”
She says she’s not in a relationship right now “because I’ve done that before, and it ends up,” but she does acknowledge that in 2020, when the platform was under lockdown, she sent private messages to famous people on Instagram but received no response. I’m furious for her sake, then want to identify names.
“Without a doubt not,” responds Cooke right away. I appreciate you asking. I would tell you if I was intoxicated. It’s pitiful and shameful that I believed I had a chance.
Cooke claims that she is happy with her life right now, saying, “For the first time in years, I’m quite content.”
It would be unfortunate if anything were to profoundly and drastically alter it. Cooke moans. Who knows, really? Really, you can’t anticipate. But I simply don’t see my life changing since it’s so routine right now.
The café is about to close, and Cooke has to get a train to Cardiff for what will undoubtedly be another wild weekend spent with pals. Walking me to the pedestrian crossing, she gives me another embrace and goes off down a side street, certain that there is no place like home as she strides in her red boots.