Being Aegon Targaryen
If viewers of Game of Thrones learned anything from eight seasons of HBO’s most popular series, it is this: don’t get too attached. At any given moment, a fan favorite might be decapitated (see: Ned Stark), poisoned at his own wedding (see: Joffrey Boratheon), eaten by a pack of dogs (see: Ramsay Bolton) or stabbed to death by a lover/nephew (see: Daenerys Targaryen). Similarly, on HBO’s GoT prequel, House of the Dragon, actors have been suddenly vanishing from the show, never to return. But this time around, the disappearances often occur not because the characters meet an untimely death, but because they lived.
Nearly 200 years before Danearys swooped in on her dragon and laid siege to King’s Landing, her forebears were similarly engaged in battles over succession, tending to their dragons, slicing each other up with swords forged of Valyrian steel, and marrying their siblings. This is the period that House of the Dragon deals with, specifically the nearly 30-year reign of King Viserys Targaryen (Paddy Considine), Lord of the Seven Kingdoms and Protector of the Realm, and its immediate aftermath. Owing to the scope of the show, which will reach its Season One conclusion on Oct. 23, we see various characters who were introduced as children replaced by older actors in the same role. The new incarnations of these characters have made for some of HOTD’s biggest and most delightful reveals.
None of those was more anticipated than seeing the flaxen-haired British actor Tom Glynn-Carney as adult Aegon Targaryen, the first-born son of King Viserys and his second wife, Queen Alicent Hightower (Olivia Cooke). Glynn-Carney, 27, found out that he got the role in April 2021, but was forbidden by the producers not only from discussing his character, but mentioning his involvement in the show at all. The actor, who got his big break in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, has been attached to productions where a certain level of discretion was required, but “this was different–a complete sort of secrecy,” he told Esquire during a Zoom interview from his home in London. So successful were HBO’s efforts to keep his participation under wraps that his credit on the show remained absent from IMDb until a couple of weeks ago. “I felt like MI6 were watching,” he says.
That’s because if you hail from Westeros and happen to be named Aegon, it’s a good indicator that you’re kind of a big deal. Fans of the George R.R. Martin fantasy novels from which GoT and HOTD are adapted, will recall that Aegon Targaryen I (aka Aegon the Conqueror) was the first Lord of the Seven Kingdoms and O.G. of the Targaryen dynasty. Aegon Targaryen was also the real name of iconic GoT character Jon Snow, who will be the subject of one of several GoT spinoffs currently in development at HBO. On HOTD, ever since little Aegon II was first seen toddling around in Episode Three–at a celebratory hunt to mark his second birthday–it was clear that he’s the one to watch, a ticking time bomb who would, with each passing year, threaten his half-sister, Princess Rhaenyra (Emma D’Arcy), from ascending to the throne. This, despite the fact that Viserys named Rhaenyra, not him, to be his heir. There’s another problem, too: Aegon’s a total mess–not exactly king material, to put it charitably.
On HOTD, Glynn-Carney delivers a high-wire-act type of performance that makes audiences hate Aegon one minute, and feel sorry for him the next.
“He's been thrust into this position of power,” Glynn-Carney says of his character. “And as much as he doesn't want it, he loves the life that it allows him to have. He can drink as much wine as he wants, have sex with as many women as he wants, take as many drugs as he wants. He gets to really make the most of his privilege.” Executive producer Jocelyn Diaz described Aegon to Glynn-Carney as “bad choices, all the time,” he recalls.
But at Aegon’s core he is a broken child, using booze and sex to numb his emotional pain. “What Aegon wants more than anything is to be told by his dad ‘I have faith in your capabilities as a young man. I see you bringing prosperity to King’s Landing.’ But he hasn’t said any of those things. His dad has completely ignored him, in fact, throughout his entire youth,” says Glynn-Carney. We can see this in his big, brooding eyes, as Glynn-Carney delivers a high-wire-act type of performance that makes audiences hate Aegon one minute, and feel sorry for him the next. While some have noted Aegon’s similarities to other traumatized GoT characters like Tyrion Lannister (the hedonism) and Joffrey Baratheon (the hedonism, the hair, the inheritance), Aegon’s closest analogue on HBO is really Roman Roy, the bad boy with a heart of gold on Succession.
The show’s similarities to HBO’s other hit dynasty drama don’t end there. Where GoT chronicled far-flung warring factions, HOTD, like Succession, is laser-focused on a single powerful family–the Targaryens–and its struggle to maintain control over its empire. “It’s Succession with swords and dragons,” says Glynn-Carney. “And that’s the biggest compliment I can give because I am obsessed with that show.” Before Glynn-Carney auditioned for the role of Aegon, he never saw a single episode of GoT. “I said [to creator Ryan Condal and director Miguel Sapochnick], ‘I’ve got a heinous confession to make. I haven’t seen a thing of [GoT] and I don't know what the hell it is,’” he recalls. (Lucky for us, they didn’t mind.)
Aegon, AKA, a Mess.
HOTD has exceeded all expectations, becoming HBO’s biggest premiere to date, averaging nearly 30 million viewers per episode across platforms in the U.S. The plot, in contrast to GoT, is refreshingly less reliant on supernatural elements like White Walkers and “warging”–the process by which one can enter the minds of animals–and more concerned with the mysteries of human motivation, which may be drawing in new viewers. Like Succession, HOTD is at its best during extended scenes featuring the whole family, like Viserys’s “last supper” in Episode Eight or Lady Laena’s funeral in Episode Seven, following her dragon-assisted suicide. There’s still watch-through-your-fingers violence and, of course, wild sex scenes that viewers have come to expect from anything involving the Targaryens. But there’s also a notable shift in scope on HOTD–examining a single family over a long stretch of time versus hopping between kingdoms over a shorter period–which has had the effect of allowing audiences to get to know characters over the course of their entire lives. At least, that’s how it feels.
Which brings us back to Aegon Targaryen, played first by an uncredited toddler and then, starting in Episode Six, as a teen by Ty Tennant, the son of Scottish actor David Tennant. Glynn-Carney and the younger Tennant had actually worked together once before: In a mind-bending twist, Tennant played a younger version of Glynn-Carney’s character in the 2019 film Tolkien, a biopic of author J.R.R. Tolkien, who happens to be one of Martin’s biggest influences. (They were cast as Tolkien’s best friend, Christopher Wiseman, in the film.) But over the course of shooting HOTD, Glynn-Carney and Tennant never saw each other on set. Before filming began, Glynn-Carney asked the show’s creators if he could watch the unedited dailies from Tennant’s scenes, “just so I could see his idiosyncrasies, how he moves, what he’s doing with his face,” he says. “I had an idea what I was going to do with Aegon, where I was going to take him and what would get him ticking but Ty had already crafted something great out of out of him. He served the ball for me to whack.”
Tennant’s Aegon, a bratty malcontent with flowing wavy locks, won raves from fans on social media. “I'm on board with older actors for all the roles... except Ty Tennant. Don't take him away from us, please!,” one fan wrote on Twitter. “You will be missed, you messy bitch,” wrote another. Tennant also was responsible for some of the show’s funniest moments. Throughout Episodes Six and Seven, we see Tennant’s Aegon masturbating out a window (the very same window from which his descendent, King Tommen Boratheon, will leap to his death in GoT Season Six), tormenting his dragonless brother Aemond with a pig and spreading all-too-real gossip that his cousins, the children of Princess Rhaenyra, are bastards. What will become of such a child?
In Episode Eight, we find out. There’s Glynn-Carney as grown-up Aegon in all his glory, naked, hungover and passed out in bed. He’s woken up by his mother, Queen Alicent, who rips off the blankets and slaps him in the face for raping the help and disgracing his wife, who also happens to be his sister. “I didn’t ask for any of this,” Aegon tells his mother, played by Olivia Cooke, who at 28 is only one year older than Glynn-Carney in real life. Even in Westeros, this is a bit of a stretch.
Aegon may have mixed feelings about the Throne, but once it’s his, he has no plans to let go.
“We had a laugh about it,” says Glynn-Carney, who met Cooke through her boyfriend, the Welch actor Jacob Ifan. While Glynn-Carney and Ifan were shooting another show prior to HOTD, Cooke called them both on FaceTime. “She was like, ‘So, you’re playing my son?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, pretty much!’”
It’s not until the penultimate episode of the series, streaming now, that we get to see Aegon reluctantly fulfill his destiny–a destiny that is the result of a miscommunication between a dying king and his wife. Which isn't to say Aegon was prepared for the moment. Instead, when his time arrives, the young royal has gone on a bender and run off. That’s because–spoiler alert–he knows he’s about to be crowned and is struggling with his own feelings of inadequacy. “I have no wish to rule, no taste for duty,” he tells his brother Aemond, whose remaining eye is firmly fixed on the Iron Throne. Watching the episode, I was impressed by Glynn-Carney’s ability to, almost without words, convey the fear and ambivalence of Aegon, up until the moment he is fitted with the crown of his namesake, Aegon the Conqueror. At that point–in the grand tradition of unqualified white men everywhere–he fully embraces his unearned power. (This is before something happens to disrupt the proceedings, terrifying everybody involved, but I won’t spoil that for people who haven’t watched yet.)
After keeping silent about his role for all this time, Glynn-Carney is looking forward to audiences finally seeing his big moment. “I’ll be here, just hibernating in a hole,” he says. Is he ready for the onslaught of the HOTD fandom? “Look, it's something that I don't think about very much because, if I do, I'll freak out…but I'm just really happy that people are engaged with and emotionally invested in this story. That’s the biggest compliment to any artist or creative, people wanting to know what’s happening next, being devastated about a decision that’s been made by a character. People care! And you know, if it means that I get a little bit more bothered than I have been in the past, so be it.”
Shooting on Season Two, which was greenlit right after the premiere aired, begins in a few months. The stage has been set for the Dance of the Dragons, the civil war that burns the Targaryen dynasty to the ground. Given that these events only last a couple of years, according to the Martin mythology, we can expect fewer time jumps, which will come as a relief for those of us who have gotten comfortable with the current cast. We will also meet some new dragons and witness more decapitations: Condal, the show’s co-creator said at Comic-Con last summer that he has a “severed-head budget” for Season Two, which probably won’t be out until 2024. Until then, fans can catch Glynn-Carney in SAS: Rogue Heroes, a WWII drama premiering on BBC One in the UK at the end of the month, and on Epix in the U.S. in November.
From: Esquire US