Emilia Clarke on the Importance of Female Mentors in the Film Industry: “Lord Knows I Would Have Loved One”

Since 2015, Chanel and Tribeca Enterprises (founded by Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal) have selected young, female and/or nonbinary filmmakers to participate in their joint mentorship fund competition Through Her Lens. The candidates, a group of about 10, get paired up with mentors—experts in script-to-screen development, casting, music composition, costume design, producing, and directing—and because Chanel is involved, the group is always top-notch, made up of the discerning sorts of figures you might expect to see sitting front row. They include Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Diane Kruger, Julianne Moore, Katie Holmes, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathryn Bigelow; while the likes of A.V. Rockwell, Nikyatu Jusu, and Hannah Peterson have competed, going on to screen their work at Sundance, the Toronto International Film Festival, and the BlackStar Film Festival.

In years past, Through Her Lens has kicked off with a luncheon, usually at De Niro’s Locanda Verde in New York, that unfolds like a parade of Chanel-clad film-industry talents. In the three days that follow, participants get one-on-one mentoring sessions and master classes dedicated to the development of short film projects. The program culminates with a lucky three being awarded grant money to help realize their films. This year, there will be no tweedy lunch or face-to-face mentorship sessions, but Chanel and Tribeca Enterprises are committed to continuing the program 2020 style: virtually.

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Dressed in Chanel, Emilia Clarke takes a selfie for the occasion.Photo: Courtesy of Emilia Clarke

Ahead of this year’s lineup, we caught up with Emilia Clarke, who will serve as mentor alongside Glenn Close, Niki Caro, Lucy Boynton, and Uzo Aduba. Calling her involvement “an absolute no-brainer,” the former Game of Thrones star rang from London, and her firecracker enthusiasm could be felt through the transatlantic call. She’s been at home for much of 2020, which has allowed her the time to develop projects for her own production company and to work with her charity, Same You, dedicated to brain injury recovery. Through Her Lens is just another chance for Clarke to give back. Below, she stresses the value of mentorship, the need to know your references, and the glorious benefits of binge-watching cinema.

How did you first hear about Through Her Lens?

I got a call from my rep telling me about Through Her Lens. As soon as I heard about it, I was like, “Damn straight. I am so in!” I did a judging panel for the BFI last year and it was so fulfilling and amazing. I really passionately care about new voices being heard, especially when those voices are female, so this was an absolute no-brainer. It’s kind of funny because you’re sort of like, well, what can I bring to the table? What experiences can I share that might be beneficial to someone coming into the industry? Because Lord knows I would have loved [a mentor] for myself! I think that when you’re a female in this industry, you do have a slightly singular experience. And I think that it’s becoming increasingly valuable for us women to talk to each other.

What experiences and advice will you share with your mentees?

An understanding of what I’ve learned and what to expect; what you can push back on and what the environment you are being sent into is like. Because everybody starts with, largely speaking, a wide-eyed, optimistic gaze, and I think that the best way to have your stories told and heard is by understanding the environment you’re walking into. And now, as a producer as well, I see a whole other side of things, which is teaching me a lot as an actor and will definitely be valuable to a young filmmaker or a new voice.

You mentioned you wished you had more of a mentor. Could you expand on that?

I picked people up as I went along because, from the beginning, I didn’t really have a mentor. I’ve sort of gone through every job like, “Okay, they’re my mentor on this one.” And as I’ve had more experiences, I’ve met more people, and a few of those people, in the most beautiful way, have become people that I now lean on in a way that I never thought I would. And they come from different places as well. You’d think an actor needs an actor, a director needs a director, a writer needs a writer—not at all. One of my work gurus, [whom] I tend to ask, “What do you think?” on almost everything, is a writer. You never know where the help is going to come from. You never know what’s going to resonate with you or with someone else. Having as many experiences as you can with as many people as you can is only going to put you in an even better place to really understand what your voice is.

What’s been the most valuable piece of advice given to you?

As an actor, the main question is: Do I take this job? Is this something that’s going to be worthwhile for me? There are three things you’ve got to consider. You’ve got the people, you’ve got the script, and then you’ve got the money—which is a valuable thing! If you’ve got all three, you’ve got a sure thing. If you’ve got two out of three, blindly speaking, you should do it.

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Something else someone said to me is to consider if the project is meaningful. It sounds cerebral and lofty in a way, but actually it’s really helpful—if the project is something that I’m truly interested in, that can keep my attention for the duration of it. The thing about making a movie or a TV show is that it only takes three hours to read the script, but it’s going to take two years of your life. You’ve got the bit before, you’ve got the filming of it, you’ve got when it comes out and you’re going to have people talking to you about it, and then you’ve got to see it on TV! They really are an investment of your time, and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to value my time a lot more.

Would you encourage others to focus more on the meaningfulness of a potential project?

That’s the thing that lasts; that’s the thing that you still have when you stand next to a project that maybe you’re not proud of. If there’s that thing that you found to be truly meaningful, you can live with that. You can survive off of that because that’s what being a creative person means. You get that one seed and that grows into something that you create and it blossoms into something that can last. I say to my agent quite a lot, “If you’ve got a young actor coming on, a young female who’s new to the game, give them my number!” I just know that I would have really appreciated that myself.

Could you identify anyone you’ve reached out to?

I had a lovely lunch with Daisy Edgar-Jones the other day, through a friend, another wonderful friend, who was like, “This kid’s new in the game! Let’s bring her in!” I’m also a fan of her work. She was absolutely remarkable in Normal People. We had the loveliest chat; it was a very mutually beneficial conversation because I got to say what my experiences had been and she got to say what her experiences had been. And it was so joyful to see the differences—that things had changed. We also spoke about things like press stuff that no one teaches you. If you land a job like that and then suddenly you’re in the most talked-about TV show, there’s going to be lots of people whose job it is to ask questions for a living asking you questions. You can feel quite alone in that space when you’re an actor, when you’re new. You’re hired for a job and then you’re doing press on someone else’s life work—you’re the one answering these questions, you’re the one who is on the front of the magazine promoting it. It can be a very scary and confusing time. But she does not seem confused at all; the girl is slaying it! She didn’t need to chat with me at all, but any connection that you have with another woman in your industry is always a beneficial conversation.

How else have you been spending your time these days?

A lot of work for the charity that I started, Same You. That’s been really amazing and fulfilling. We created an online rehabilitation center and it’s going to be something that’s going to help so many people forever. We needed the restrictions that we were given because of COVID to create that and to fast-track it.

I’m producing a lot, so there’s been a lot of development work. I’ve kind of had, for the first time in my life, an office job; except the office is my house and the lunch break consists of my kitchen.

There’s been a lot of playing with my dog and reading all the books and watching all the movies, because that’s the other thing—that’s one other bit of advice that I give to anyone starting out in the industry. You want to be in film and TV? Watch everything—the good, the bad, and the ugly. See it all because the only way that you can describe work is by referencing other work, really. When you’re in the room with people and they’re telling you about this idea that they’ve got, you have to start referencing things—directors and writers and actors and movies and scenes and all of these things. If you don’t have that language, if you don’t have that dictionary at your fingertips, I think it can become quite frustrating. But more than that, you get to know what you like if you have a full arsenal of your craft at your fingertips. And so, every year, I watch a hundred new movies. I’m making my way through my list now.

Can you share some of your 100 films?

I watched the most amazing film called Luce; Julius Onah is the director and it’s just amazing. So good. What else? I’m going to get out my notes…I had never seen I Am Love. Oh, my God, that’s the greatest movie I’ve ever seen. I watched A Few Good Men for the first time—absolutely brilliant. Then I watched not once, but twice, Everything Is Copy, which is the Nora Ephron documentary—ridiculously remarkable. I watched Babyteeth most recently. Oh, my God, I wept and wept and wept. That was completely glorious. I mean, the joy of Apple TV, right? I started being like, “I’m gonna watch all the old classics” and then was like, “Or I’m going to watch a great movie that has just come out.”

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