Recall the prophecy of Mirri Maz Duur (Mia Soteriou), the enslaved Lhazareen witch who delivered an ominous promise to Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) many moons ago:
“When the sun rises in the west and sets in the east; when the seas go dry and mountains blow in the wind like leaves; when your womb quickens again, and you bear a living child; then he will return, and not before.”
The “he” in question, of course, is Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa), the singular barbarian who only lasted for one season on Game of Thrones, but left an indelible impact on both the show’s characters and the culture surrounding the HBO series. With few exceptions — and yes, there are a few — those who die do not return to the realm of the living, a reality that only makes Mirri Maz Duur’s prophecy to Dany all the further out of reach.
But even if Drogo never returns (at least not outside of the occasional apparition; see his role in the season two finale’s House of the Undying sequence), his spirit lingers on, and so do his people. The Dothraki, one of the most iconic aspects of the first season of Thrones, and one of the most readily identifiable elements in Daenerys Targaryen’s story, are poised for a comeback in season six, thanks to where Dany left off.
In season five’s final episodes, Dany fled her besieged kingdom of Meereen, riding on her dragon Drogon to parts unknown. Finally, it was revealed that Dany was once again in Dothraki territory, surrounded by hundreds if not thousands of warriors on horseback, her future uncertain; she claims Khaleesi as one of her titles, but will these new riders recognize her fluency with their culture?
It’s a question no one knows the answer to, save for George R.R. Martin and the cast and crew of Thrones. The HBO series has reached Dany’s current place in the books, leaving all fans without any true north for her storyline. For her part, Clarke entered the season without any expectations about Dany’s future with the Dothraki, even without the books to guide her.
“I didn’t have anything in mind, because you can never be safe,” she tells The Hollywood Reporter. “You just never know. Maybe I said the wrong thing to [showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss], and then suddenly, I’m out on my own.”
What is known, however, is the identity of one of Dany’s new scene partners: New Zealand actor Joseph Naufahu, a retired professional athlete who now steps onto an entirely different field in Game of Thrones.
“There’s another Khal up in here,” Clarke says enthusiastically about Naufahu’s arrival. He plays Moro, a Dothraki warrior who appears briefly in the first book in Martin’s series and is later mentioned in the fourth novel, but is otherwise a completely unknown entity.
“He’s Dothraki, so he’s a bit of a brute,” Naufahu says about what to expect from the character. “But he’s also quite loyal. He follows traditions very strictly. He’s loyal to the living, and he’s loyal to the dead as well. He’s not as much of a chauvinist as some of the other Dothraki.”
(And yes, Naufahu confirmed, that loyalty “to the dead” should have viewers thinking about Drogo: “There’s a connection there.”)
For Naufahu, accessing Moro’s battle-hungry attitude was as simple as physically transforming into the character, with numerous Dothraki tattoos, hair and makeup applied.
“That’s the fun part about becoming a character, assuming the whole package,” says the actor. “My hair was down to my butt, and that’s because [Moro] has never been beat. That’s the thing about the Dothraki: They all want to give it a go against each other.”
Naufahu knows a thing or two about that roughhousing spirit, as a former professional rugby player in New Zealand. He understands that warrior language. What he did not know, entering season six, was how to speak the Dothraki’s literal language.
“The biggest part was learning the language. That was tough, man,” he says. “There’s no rules. There were no language rules you can fall back on while filming. You have to remember the sounds. Not only do you have to learn your own [lines], you have to learn the other people’s as well. Otherwise, you’re just standing there waiting for a reaction. That was the toughest part. I can ride horses; that’s all good. I can grow a beard. They can put tattoos on me. In terms of prep, it was just the language. “
He’s not alone; even Clarke, whose character is infamously referred to as the Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea (among other titles), had trouble relearning the Dothraki dialect.
“It had been a second,” she says with a laugh. “I had to practice to get all of that back again.”
Even if she wasn’t so confident in her ability to reclaim her Dothraki roots, Clarke helped Naufahu master the language. “She’s such a cool person,” he says. “We had a lot of good laughs on and off set.”
However, as Naufahu recalls, their first interaction on set was no laughing matter. “I remember being on set for the first time, sitting with my two wives and bloodriders. I kind of had to pinch myself, … the Khaleesi was coming up to me!” As a character, however, Khal Moro has no such nerves.
“There’s some respect there,” Naufahu says, “and some animal instinct, as well.”
But Khal Moro would be wise to tame those instincts. Many men have underestimated Daenerys Targaryen in the past, and few of them are still alive. Even though she travels forth into uncharted territory in season six, her ability to reclaim supremacy within this new Dothraki circle as tenuous as her grasp on the language, Clarke knows better than anyone that her character can bear the flames of adversity.
“I’m a Khaleesi,” she says. “They can try to step up to this, but they will fail.”
Game of Thrones returns on April 24. Keep up with all of THR‘s coverage here.