Geek Girl’s Emily Carey: ‘Teenage girls are very insecure people’

‘Doing this show was weirdly healing’  (VRC studios)
‘Doing this show was weirdly healing’ (VRC studios)

Emily Carey, the star of Netflix’s new teen drama Geek Girl, knows how it feels to stick out as a kid. Aged nine, she made her West End debut as a baby ogre, covered in green prosthetics, in Shrek the Musical, and spent much of her childhood playing other “younger versions” of various characters, in Wonder Woman, Tomb Raider and House of the Dragon.

Her life was completely different to those of her classmates – and, teenage girls being teenage girls, they didn’t let her forget it. Playing Harriet Manners in Geek Girl, then – a 16-year-old for whom school bullying only gets worse when she’s scouted by a modelling agency on a field trip – was second nature. “It felt weirdly healing for my inner child,” Carey says, “because I went through a similar thing, and struggled to fit in in school.” And, she admits with a smile, “I’m a self-proclaimed geek.”

Geek Girl sees Netflix following another hit recipe: like Heartstopper, based on the graphic novels of Alice Oseman, it’s an adaptation of a popular YA book. It shares the same sparkly, butterflies-in-your-tummy energy, too. Based on the bestselling British novel series by Holly Smale, the show centres around Harriet, a girl who has spent her whole life trying to be invisible, only to suddenly find herself strutting catwalks. The modelling world comes as a shock to the teenager, who has grown up being called “Spanners” by her bullies, sounds as if she’s swallowed an encyclopedia, and swaps out swear-words for phrases like “sugar cookies!”. In her first lead screen role, Carey plays the teen with a charming awkwardness, all gangly limbs and wide-eyed curiosity.

Carey had been a devoted fan of the books as a child (they gave her “huge comfort growing up”), but still felt she was an unlikely choice for the part. “When the open call came out, they were looking for something very specific that I wasn’t – a natural redhead and someone very tall because, of course, Harriet’s a model,” says the 21-year-old. “I remember looking at it and feeling a little bit deflated.” Carey appears on my screen from her flat in Camden, looking worlds away from Harriet with a curly brunette wolf-cut, red lipstick and an oversized black suit jacket. It’s hard to spot the geek in there.

But the producers clearly saw something in Carey. Perhaps it helped that, like Harriet, she’d lived a dual existence. Carey started working much younger – in a pantomime aged six – then came Shrek the Musical, followed by a recurring role in the BBC soap Casualty and a part as Mary Conan Doyle in the ITV drama Houdini & Doyle. As a teenager, instead of perfecting her model’s walk, Carey was on the set of blockbusters channelling heroines like Lara Croft. It was an absolute riot, until she walked back through the school gates.

Author Smale – who based Harriet on herself – has talked about feeling “like a lamb in the corner of a room full of tigers” at school. It’s a sentiment that Carey can “100 per cent relate to”. “Teenage girls, they’re just very insecure people,” she says. “Everyone’s struggling at that age, and we tend to take it out on each other. I had a lot of people taunt or critique my acting performances, which is such a strange thing to try to comprehend and then combat at 12 years old. To be teased for something that’s supposed to be so celebrated, it didn’t make sense. I couldn’t really understand why I didn’t fit in, or why they didn’t get it.”

Despite the unkindness, Carey had become a dab hand at taking on the early years of lead characters, and at 17 she was cast as the young Alicent Hightower in Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon. She was expecting the usual – to spend a day or two filming her scenes. That was not to be the case. Carey ended up in five episodes of the HBO epic, portraying the teenage Alicent as she navigates friendship, palace politics, and later pregnancy. Olivia Cooke then took over the part for Alicent’s villain era. “I did not realise how big the role was going to be until I was on set,” Carey says, with an incredulous shake of the head. “I was like, ‘Whoa, OK, this is the next year of my life. This is crazy.’ And it was terrifying – and I’m so glad that I had Milly [Alcock] as my rock throughout.”

Carey as Harriet Manners – a 16-year-old who is bullied after she is scouted by a modelling agency on a field trip – with Zac Looker in ‘Geek Girl' (Netflix)
Carey as Harriet Manners – a 16-year-old who is bullied after she is scouted by a modelling agency on a field trip – with Zac Looker in ‘Geek Girl' (Netflix)

Alcock played Rhaenyra Targaryen, Alicent’s childhood best friend in the show – that is, until Alicent married the princess’s dad. Always a vibe kill. In interviews around season one’s launch, Carey and Alcock spoke about the “romantic subtext” between Alicent and Rhaenyra, with Carey saying that in rehearsals it felt like they were “going to kiss”. These quotes sent fans wild. And not always in a positive way. “As a queer person, I received a huge amount of borderline homophobic hate on the internet,” says Carey.

“I had a lot of comments that I’d forced my lesbianism on these characters, which is just absurd, in my opinion. All we said was that if you wanted to see this potential spark between them, you could. I mean, it wasn’t something we were ever consciously playing. It wasn’t something where we thought, ‘Hey, let’s throw this in. This will be fun.’ It was just something that we spoke about, as we felt this sort of palpable tension between the two characters.”

She sighs. “Alicent and Rhaenyra are 14, they’re in this world that, by the way, isn’t even real, it is all very made-up… and they don’t know what this means. A lot of the characters struggle to contend with the idea of love because, especially Alicent, she’s married someone who she’s not necessarily in love with but she holds some love for him, and I think the word ‘love’ is very subjective within the world of the show.”

The trolling, she says, was “a lot to take on”. “I’m learning to only take on board what is going to benefit me in some way. I love hearing from the fans of the show, and hearing people’s opinions on the characters. But it taught me a lot, and while I’m very appreciative of the fans, and as much as I love them, I think I’ve stopped listening now.”

Carey says she ‘received a huge amount of borderline homophobic hate on the internet’ after playing a young Alicent Hightower in ‘Game of Thrones’ prequel 'House of the Dragon’ (HBO)
Carey says she ‘received a huge amount of borderline homophobic hate on the internet’ after playing a young Alicent Hightower in ‘Game of Thrones’ prequel 'House of the Dragon’ (HBO)

Carey has been forced to grow up fast in the industry. But she feels she was always meant to work within it. She was raised by a single mum who was a performer on cruise ships and worked the London theatre circuit – “singer, dancer, actor – triple threat”. Her grandparents also worked in theatre – her granny as a West End wardrobe mistress and her grandpa as a drummer – with even their parents working in showbusiness. “My great-granny was Sir Laurence Olivier’s secretary for a bit,” she says, slightly out of breath as she reels through the list. “Oh, and my aunt is a first assistant director, and my uncle was in the original cast of Cats.”

Her family didn’t put any pressure on her, though. “People assume that I was pushed into it slightly, which is not the case at all,” she says. “I was 100 per cent supported as a kid, and my mum saw how much I wanted this, but if anything, she was sceptical at first.”

With her family history, it’s unsurprising that Carey feels performing is in her blood. When she was very little, she saw a stage production of Peter Pan. “I remember seeing them flying across the stage, and thinking it was the most incredible thing I’d ever seen. I just wanted to play Wendy Darling, that’s all I wanted to do,” she says, laughing. And one of her earliest memories is pairing socks with her granny backstage at their local theatre, when she was just three years old. “I was just waiting for it to be my turn on stage,” she says. “I never really asked – it was always just what I was going to do.”

‘Geek Girl’ is out now on Netflix