Nathalie Emmanuel Is On Fire
NYLON's September 2019 cover star is Nathalie Emmanuel. You may know her as Missandei from 'Game of Thrones,' or as Maya from 'Four Weddings and a Funeral,' or as Deet in 'The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance.' But get to know this brilliant fire-starter even better in the most revealing profile of her yet.
Seven years ago, Nathalie Emmanuel got a phone call from her agent telling her she'd been cast on Game of Thrones. Her response was a very chill: "Oh, cool."
At the time, Emmanuel was working a retail job, and contemplating going back to school, because, she told me, "I had a lot of bills to pay, and I just wasn't making ends meet." But she was still going out for auditions, and so when her agent called to let her know she'd booked one of them, Emmanuel assumed it was for a commercial, and was, you know, happy, if not exactly ecstatic.
She said, "I was only really doing [the commercial] because I had no money at the time. I was like, 'Yeah, sure. I'll take 300 quid for a day's work,' whatever it was… it wasn't going to change my life or anything—if anything else, I was probably just going to cover some of the things I owed."
But, of course, in the kind of twist that feels made for TV, Emmanuel's agent wasn't calling to say that she'd booked some forgettable ad spot, but rather a key role in the biggest cultural phenomenon of the last decade: Game of Thrones.
"I literally screamed and dropped all of my shopping," Emmanuel told me, laughing at the memory. "I broke a jam jar, and it was all just very dramatic."
And although she didn't yet know that her character, Missandei—an enslaved woman-turned-top advisor to Daenerys Targaryen—would become a beloved series regular, whose death in the final season would spark not only the fiery onscreen vengeance of the Dragon Queen, but also the outraged online howls of millions of Missandei-fans, Emmanuel did know that something major in her life had changed.
"It was such a turning point for me because it gave me that fire in my belly again," Emmanuel said. "It gave me that encouragement. Like, Yes, you can do this, see? This really great show wants you. That did something."
Emmanuel is from a small town in the southeast of England called Southend-on-Sea, where the claim to fame, she told me, is having "the longest pleasure pier in the world." Growing up, Emmanuel said, "I was such a shy kid," then paused, reconsidering, "I mean, listen, I'm a Pisces, so I'm sort of a contradiction all the time. Around certain people—like my family and my really close friends—I'm much more extroverted and kind of crazy. But my general energy can be a little shy and a little reserved. I have had to work quite hard to have the confidence to carry myself through the world."
“I'm a Pisces, so I'm sort of a contradiction all the time.”
While many other actors strain credibility when they profess to have been shy as children, Emmanuel is easy to believe. And this is not because she is in any way awkward in person—on the contrary, she moves with a grace and precision befitting a dancer, and speaks in measured, flowing sentences, often punctuated with a quick wit. Instead, it is possible to believe that Emmanuel was reserved as a child, and sometimes still is as an adult, because it's easy to see how that quality has served as protection, an armor of sorts, as she sets about doing all that she is capable of in the face of nonbelievers.
And yet, it's hard to think about anyone underestimating Emmanuel, not least because she achieved success at a very young age: She was just 10 years old when she was cast as young Nala in the London production of The Lion King. But, an actor's life consists of proving themselves over and over—winning the next role, even as you've still got the lines from the last one engraved in your mind. And for Emmanuel, especially coming from a place where nobody else had visions of stardom, this meant constantly having to fight off the skepticism of those around her. She said, "I was used to people doubting me… people didn't really take it seriously as a career."
Sometimes, too, those projected fears formed ominous shapes within her own mind. "I doubted myself," Emmanuel told me. "But I think it's all a part of being an actor. You have to, in some way, think about the fact that you might not work for a while, and so what are you going to do? How are you going to utilize the experience you do have, and make other things happen for you?"
For Emmanuel, even as her career is now thriving, with a starring turn in this summer's Hulu limited series Four Weddings and a Funeral, and a leading part in Netflix's just-released The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, being more in control of her life's trajectory than she was pre-life-changing-Game-of-Thrones-phone-call is key. "That's what I'm trying to do now, producing and writing and trying to use my other interests and talents, so it doesn't just solely depend on acting," she said, continuing, "I mean, I love acting. But, there's so many other aspects of this industry that I really would love to get involved in."
“I’m a storyteller. That’s what I love to do.”
And, working behind the scenes will also afford Emmanuel the opportunity to make the kind of changes within the industry that she knows are long overdue. "I'm a storyteller," she said. "That's what I love doing. And I really would love to create opportunities and platforms for people who have felt how I have felt—and sometimes continue to feel—about not having a voice, not having a microphone or a seat at the table."
While on Game of Thrones, Emmanuel found herself in the midst of a vigorous cultural discourse, not only about the series' lack of diversity but also about the treatment visited upon the show's characters of color. It was a complicated position for her to be in; Emmanuel said that when she first started on the show, she "was just grateful to be working," and so when she started to question the overwhelming whiteness of the cast, she "was like, Okay, how do I make this okay for me in my own head?" Looking back at it now, Emmanuel told me, "It was really naive and, I guess, pretty self-involved in a way. But, I think as I got older, I realized that there were so many opportunities to have done better in that respect."
This isn't to say that Emmanuel is solely critical of either herself or that experience. Instead, she said, "I understood that it was important that I was there and that Jacob [Anderson, who played Grey Worm] was there. It's always been important whenever I'm in anything—mostly because of the reaction I've had from people who watch the shows I've done." Emmanuel said how powerful it was to have "other Black women and other Black people coming up to me and being like, 'We're rooting for you. We're so proud of you.'"
If anything, though, that just emphasized for Emmanuel how special her position was, and how important it is to make sure that it doesn't feel so special, so rare, for there to be many people of color in prestigious shows: "I'm just trying to work and survive, but I always knew that there were very few parts [for actors of color]. And if you got one, it was a big deal, because there was usually just one part for you or for people like you."
This, then, is why Emmanuel wants to work behind-the-scenes, to make sure that progress becomes a reality, and doesn't remain a dream. She told me, "The reaction to Missandei's death was amplified because there was only one woman of color on the show. I think that, hopefully, sparked a really important conversation. Hopefully, people can learn from it going forward."
And there is actual cause for hope; Emmanuel revealed, "I've already seen the casting for the [Game of Thrones] prequel that has been commissioned, and it seems like it's already been noted. People are trying to do better, and I think that's all we can hope for."
There are other signs that Hollywood is taking note of the importance of inclusivity. In Four Weddings and a Funeral, Emmanuel leads a cast that is representative of the diversity of its London setting: "You can't set a show that's in London and not cast that way. You just can't do it. It's 100 percent a decision not to cast that way, in my opinion."
“The more voices in the room, the better for me.”
The real hope, of course, is that there will be more and more shows in which casts are comprised of a diversity of actors, so that even the burden of discussing representation is more spread out. Emmanuel said, "I'll be honest, sometimes it can be really frustrating [to have to talk about it]. I'm like, Oh, I wish I could just sit here and talk about my character and her story, and that's it." She continued, "I welcome the responsibility, but I am also aware that I could never be fully speaking for everybody. So, the more voices in the room, the better for me."
The better for everyone, really, because, as Mindy Kaling, who cast Emmanuel in Four Weddings said to me about Emmanuel, "Nathalie is one of the most caring and empathetic people I know. Even though she's beautiful and glamorous, she is the first person to look out for the comfort of others." And looking out for others is part of why Emmanuel is so eager to increase representation within her industry, difficult though that task may be.
Because, though Emmanuel eloquently explained the difficulties inherent to navigating a career opportunity for which she was thankful—"Game of Thrones gave me back my career; I was not working, I was really miserable; it challenged me as an actress in ways that have really helped me grow… but I have to stay true to myself and talk about these things, because that's what I want to change as somebody who's privileged enough to be in the position I am"—this task isn't just up to her, or the still scant handful of other actors who are asked to speak about it.
And yet, when she did speak about these things, Emmanuel dropped all hints of her reserved nature; the stillness vanished and was replaced with the fervor of a crashing wave. It was evocative of the way the preternaturally calm Missandei abandoned all her outward tranquility, and summoned up a fiery intensity when her death drew near, all manifested in a single, growled-out command: "Dracarys."
When I asked Emmanuel what it was like to utter that iconic line, her last as the character who she'd inhabited for most of her 20s, she told me, "It was painful, but I made a decision when I read that script—I mean, I cried reading the script. It was important [to me] that there was a ferocity about her in her final moments. I was like, She's got to leave the show as a badass."
That same ferocity feels evident in everything Emmanuel is doing now, from the breadth of her current projects—beyond Four Weddings and The Dark Crystal, she's also in the next The Fast and Furious film—to continuing to tell more heretofore untold stories in the future, and playing more characters who, she said, "are multifaceted, but also have such a journey of growth." There's little doubt that she can pull off any character that comes her way. As Kaling told me about casting Emmanuel in Four Weddings: "Nathalie's character, Maya, makes huge mistakes and does some things that could be seen as unlikeable. Nathalie has this rare quality where you are always on her side, always empathizing with her, no matter what."
“I really would love to create opportunities and platforms for people who have felt how I have felt about not having… a seat at the table.”
And, Emmanuel said, reflecting on her recent roles, "I think I've had the joy of playing women who just have to find themselves. I think that's something we can all relate to, especially as women, where we might feel that we're put in a box and told what we should be or should do or how we should dress or look or express ourselves or whatever." She clarified, "They make mistakes—like some really big, messy mistakes—but essentially they learn from them and move forward with life in a much more positive way."
And so, about making really big, messy mistakes, I had to ask: "So, do you think that it was justified for Daenerys to burn down all of King's Landing?"
Emmanuel laughed, and said, "I definitely don't think that." She paused, and said, perfectly composed once again, "I think Missandei was sitting up in heaven—if you believe in heaven, or in another reincarnated life—being like, 'Girl, no. Chill out. What are you doing?'"
- PHOTOGRAPHER: SAVANNA RUEDY
- PHOTO ASSISTANT: AUDREY MELTON
- SET DESIGN: CHELSEA FINKEL
- LINE PRODUCER: ALEXANDRA HSIE
- DIRECTOR OF VIDEO: CHARLOTTE PRAGER
- VIDEOGRAPHER + VIDEO EDITOR: DANI OKON
- STYLIST: JAHULIE ELIZALDE
- HAIR STYLIST: NAI'VASHA JOHNSON
- MAKEUP ARTIST: QUINN MURPHY
- NAILS: LEANNE WOODLEY
- STYLIST ASSISTANT: KINGSLEY OSUJI
- PRODUCTION ASSISTANT: ELIZA JOUIN